To understand Jeremiah we must first understand the culture within which he worked, and this is not as easy as it seems. A superficial reading of the prophet’s words will lead to the conclusion that the Jews were self-acknowledged Baal worshippers when, in fact, they did not see themselves in this light at all. In a key verse early in the book, Jeremiah poses the rhetorical query, “How cans’t thou say, ‘I am not polluted, I have not gone after Baalim?’” In this single line, the precise nature of Jeremiah’s impossible task confronts us: the people that Jeremiah called to repentance believed with utter certitude that they were right with God; in fact, they were worshipping Baal, but as they saw it, they were still worshipping the true God and nothing Jeremiah said could change their minds—nothing.
As the text repeatedly shows, Jeremiah lived within a culture of secure religious perceptions. When Jeremiah charged his countrymen with Baal worship, nobody would credit a word he said. After all, nothing Jeremiah preached squared with the religion they had been taught by their trusted pastors. Moreover, Jeremiah was just one prophet among many, and the other prophets all told the people that they had absolutely no reason to fear God’s judgment. As Jeremiah declares it, “They [the pastors]… have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying ‘Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (8. 11). How could Jeremiah compete, given that both the prevailing culture and all of the other religious leaders opposed his message? He could not succeed; he could only predict their doom and offer the glorious alternative of a true commandment keeping life with God (which they believed they already possessed). Jeremiah would not see many converts in his lifetime.
Yet, the false prophets were not blatant Baal worshippers either: as the text shows, they still ‘handled the law’ and boasted, “We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us…” (8.8). These same religious leaders also sanctioned the gruesome and cruel practice of child-sacrifice: “to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came into my heart” (7.31). While we mutter our incredulity (‘how could they be so stupid?’) it behooves us to consider that we, too, live in an age of secure religious perceptions; an age of enlightened theories, intellectual pride, political dogma, and mass conformities which, frankly, none of us Christians would even think to question (openly) if we even knew how. To be sure, Christians of both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ trumpet their respective party lines with the selfish ardor of those seeking to join their own preferred ‘inner circle’ (to quote C.S. Lewis); but how many of us would bear for even a second the prospect of being patronized, dismissed as intellectually lightweight, mocked and ignored by everyone who matters?
As children of the post-modern whimper: we live too much in the belief that culture determines everything. We congratulate ourselves for lacking the hubris to take any true risk; instead, we bow to the larger forces that, conveniently, ensure that we will get to maintain our ‘personal peace and affluence’ (to quote Francis Schaeffer). To be sure, culture shapes us; it can even blind us or, alternatively, help lead us to God; but it can never; no, it can never save us. To live in this secular Christian age requires that we learn to not put all of our faith in the respective groups that meet our subjective needs. Instead, like Jeremiah, we must cling to those parts of the Bible (especially!) that reject even our most enlightened cultural values and submit even when the Bible strikes us as downright unchristian, or ‘liberal’ or ‘intolerant’. To do otherwise is to risk burning our children before demons in the very name of God.
The Christian ‘suspension of disbelief’ (to slightly quote Coleridge) involves imagining a time in the future very different from our own. A time of judgment and doom; a time of God’s wrath poured out upon sinners without mercy; a time without the bogeyman of cultural politics when the only Truth is Divine ‘Fire’ (yes, literal ‘fire’); a time without competing hermeneutics; convictions; or subjective opinions. This time will come. It is called the ‘Day of Doom’.
The day after Jeremiah was freed from the stocks, he cried out, “O Lord… thou art stronger than I am, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me” (20.7). He bewails his inhuman isolation; freely admitting that he is not up to God’s standard when it comes to being hated. Yet, despite his resolution to never speak in God’s name again, Jeremiah feels that same inexorable ‘fire’ of Divine Love/Wrath: “But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire… and I could not stay” (20.9). There are two fires in the Bible: one is the burning testimony of the Law of Love (the 10 commandments), the other the cleansing fire that forever destroys sin and sinners. They are one and the same and neither of them can be stopped.