Work-related Themes in the Book of Jeremiah

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The book of Jeremiah is not organized as a treatise on work. Because of this, work-related topics appear at scattered places in the book, sometimes separated by many chapters, other times overlapping within a single chapter or passage. We will take these topics and passages, as much as possible, in the order they appear in Jeremiah.

We have seen that Jeremiah’s overwhelming concern is whether people are acting in faithfulness to God. As we read, we can ask ourselves whether we see our work as being a significant area where God wants us to be faithful to him. If it is, then we can expect to experience God’s presence in our work. Therefore, our faithfulness to God and God’s presence in our work are linked themes to which we will frequently return.

Quoted in Parker Society Vol. 42, (Cambridge University Press, 1841), 102.

See Theology of Work Key Topic #2, “Calling,” at www.theologyofwork.org.

Some theologians refer to God’s people as “tenants” in the land. See for example, Daniel I. Block, The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 109-110. However, tenancy is not the same as stewardship, which is the clearer implication of Genesis 1:28.

Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), entry 907.

Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy NIBC (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1996).

We must be very careful not to take the short step of inferring an absolute cause-and-effect relationship between our sin and God’s punishment in all situations of deprivation. Are the poor deprived because they are evil? Jeremiah would say that the poor are deprived because evil people oppress them.

See, e.g., Jer 2:30-32, 3:25; 7:21-24; 11:7-8; 22:21.                                                                                                                       

Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 72-73.

The Steering Committee of the Theology of Work Project was not of one mind about using the term “common good” to describe Jeremiah’s insistence that work and products of work should benefit people in society generally (or at least certain people in society) rather than only the workers or those holding power.

The majority favored using the term “common good” to describe Jeremiah’s point because its plain-English meaning seems to describe the situation accurately and succinctly. Moreover, the term is used in major English translations of the Bible, such as the NIV, NASB, RSV and NRSV; for example, in Nehemiah 2:18 and 1 Corinthians 12:7.

The minority did not favor using the term because it does not appear in any English translation of Jeremiah, nor is there any Hebrew term in Jeremiah that roughly corresponds to it. If the majority is correct that it describes Jeremiah’s point, it must be said the Jeremiah himself doesn’t describe it that way himself. Moreover, the term has acquired a specialized meaning in certain schools of philosophy, theology and politics that goes far beyond any plain-English meaning that might pertain in Jeremiah. Using the term can give the erroneous impression that such philosophical-theological-political schools of thought are taught, per se, by Jeremiah.

In accordance with the majority opinion, we have used the term in this article. However, we do not mean to take a particular political position or to read post-Jeremiah philosophy or theology into the text of Jeremiah. Rather, we use it simply to refer to Jeremiah’s proclamation that God intends each person’s work to contribute not only toward meeting their own needs, but toward meeting the needs of others as well.

In contrast to some of the other prophets (e.g., Ezekiel 45:9-12), Jeremiah does not suggest that merchants he came in contact with were using unjust weights and measures, which would have broken the Law as found in Leviticus 19:36.

Quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 26.

E.g., Jer. 2:8; 4:22; 5:4-5; 8:7, 9; 3:6; 22:16. “When Jeremiah talks…about the knowledge of Yahweh, he is talking about compliance with covenantal stipulations,” in Jack R. Lundbom, “Jeremiah, Book of,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 718b. See Herbert B. Huffmon, “The Treaty Background of Yada’,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 181 (1966), 31-37.

E.g., Jer. 7:23-28; 11:7-8; 32:23; 40:3; 43:3, 7; 44:23.

Thomas Aquinas noted: “Now the extrinsic principle inclining to evil is the devil….But the extrinsic principle moving to good is God, who both instructs us by means of His law, and assists us by His grace….Now the first principle in practical matters…is the last end: and the last end of human life is bliss or happiness….Consequently the law must regard principally the relationship to happiness” (Summa Theologica Ia IIae, q.90, pro. and a.2.co.

Note that this often-quoted verse is about a people in exile because of their sin; the future and hope promised will not come until the seventy years of exile have purged the survivors of the sin that took them there. It is only at the end of the seventy years that the people will be ready to seek God: “When you search for  me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord...and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (29:13-14).

Even today many Christians cannot imagine that God is both near and far. As finite human beings limited to time and space, we think of God in terms of distance from us. It is difficult for many to believe that God is really near.

The prophet attacked “the false pen of the scribes” (Jer. 8:8), the greed and deceit, saying “‘peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:10-11). He noted that Judah’s gods were as many as Judah’s towns (Jer. 11:13). In 20:3-6, he prophesied the Babylonian exile after being beaten and put in stocks in Jerusalem; chapter 21 is a clear prophecy of coming destruction with one last chance to do justice and deliver the oppressed (Jer. 21:12). In chapter 25, the refrain is that “the work of their hands” is evil, and God will use evil people [Babylon] as a sword against evil people throughout the earth (showing the destruction of all evil nations). All the while Jeremiah begged people not to listen to lying prophecies (Jer. 27), Hananiah predicted that Babylon would return the exiles and all the loot within two years.

The naming here (“virgin Israel”) is a statement of renewal. Contrast it with Jer. 2:23-25, 33; 3:1-5, etc.

Or Jer. 32:15: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (cp. Jer. 32:43-44, 33:12).

This oracle is tied to the cultic celebration and worship of God (Jer. 31:6), which at this point in the book is a vital issue because the people had been thrust out of the house of God and failed in their worship (cf. Jer. 11:15). For the false approach to worship, see esp. Jer. 7:1-15.  Jeremiah 31:4-6 is not intended as a catalog of good kinds of work, but it is worth noting that music-making and dancing are affirmed and honored.

Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah, Old Testament Library (London: SCM Press, 1986), 590.

“Ebed-melech is a rare man of character in a book filled with evil people and evil behavior. It is ironic that the one man whom we are told trusted God is not an Israelite, but an Ethiopian.” Tom Parker, “Ebed-Melech as Exemplar,” in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, ed. John Goldingay (NY/London: T&T Clark, 2007), 258.