Today’s Passages: Jeremiah 17:19-27, Lamentations 2:5-7
This past weekend, while my dad was back in town, he told me about the Greek city of Salonika. More commonly known as Thessaloniki, Salonika today is home to around 4,500 Jews, some 1.5% of its total population. But before the German invasion of Greece in 1941, Salonika boasted population of 55,200 Jews, a two-thirds majority of its total citizens (“Traces of History: The Jewish Community in Salonika,” Yad Vashem). Remarkably, the Jews of Salonika were so committed to keeping Sabbath that on Saturdays, port activity came to a virtual standstill. As most of the dock workers were Sabbath-keeping Jews, any ship that pulled into port on Saturday would be hard-pressed to find anyone to unload its cargo, no matter how much profit stood to be gained. Clearly, the Jews of Salonika considered freight handling and transport to be work. Perhaps they had in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah, who lived around the turn of the 6th century BC, had a message from God for the rulers of Judah. It’s a common misconception that in order to be a prophet, one has to predict the future. In fact, a prophet is simply an individual who brings a message from God to the people. And in today’s first passage, the message that God entrusts to Jeremiah for the rulers of Judah is this: “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers” (Jeremiah 17:21-22). Like the Salonikans, God himself considers transporting a load to be work, whether through the city gates or into your own home. If you’re carrying goods, you’re not really resting–and remember that the Sabbath applies to your work animals too.
According to God’s message here, the fate of the city depended on diligent Sabbath-keeping. If the people keep the Sabbath, God promises an unending torrent of kings and princes coming through Jerusalem’s gates, “bringing burnt offerings, sacrifices, grain offerings and incense, and bringing sacrifices of thanksgiving to the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:26). On the other hand, God has the consequences for failure to keep the Sabbath: “I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched” (Jeremiah 17:27). We already knew that not working on the Sabbath was serious business, but now we also know that carrying sufficiently heavy stuff constitutes work.
Tradition holds that Jeremiah also wrote the book of Lamentations, about Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. And as Jeremiah laments the fall of his city, one might imagine his cry echoed by the post-WWII Jewish remnant of Salonika:
The Lord has become like an enemy.
He has swallowed up Israel;
He has swallowed up all its palaces,
He has destroyed its strongholds
And multiplied in the daughter of Judah
Mourning and moaning. (Lamentations 2:5)
Jeremiah sees God as the agent of Jerusalem’s destruction, similar to what we’ve seen in the Psalms. He continues: “The Lord has caused to be forgotten the appointed feast and sabbath in Zion” (Lamentations 2:6). We might bristle at the apparent injustice of God ordaining the success of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege on Jerusalem, and moreover, we might protest that God appears to be compelling sin in his people by taking away their memory of Sabbath-keeping. But on the other hand, we might also consider Jerusalem’s destruction to be God’s fair punishment for Judah’s sins, including the rulers’ Sabbath-neglecting workaholism from Jeremiah 17. As a consequence of their habitual violation of God’s law, perhaps God has used Babylon to deal a devastating blow to their national identity as God’s people.
But I speculate. The point is: Jeremiah is not afraid to use language that, at the very least, might be read as a charge against God, and even if we have grounds to argue against that interpretation, we still have to contend with it.
We’re in complicated territory today, fam. I long for the days when I could read some six-verse praise psalm and spit up a blurb of simple spiritual insight. But alas, those days are far away now, and will they ever return?