“The theological lie: that punishment is the satisfaction of justice.” George MacDonald
The common framework of judgement is that punishment is retribution. What does this mean? It means that a moral code has been broken, and that there needs to be punishment or suffering for breaking that moral code. The logic of this moral code is cause and effect: “You hit me, I will hit you. You hit me first, without just cause, so you are wrong and need to be hit by me.” In a sense, the moral code is the highest order: the judge is subservient to that moral code. As we say, ‘Nobody is above the law’.
If we apply this model to God, He becomes very intimidating, since his ability to ‘hit back’ is immense. The punitive model of God is indeed threatening and fearful. And let’s be honest, at face value lots of Scripture appears to support this “angry God” picture. The more pertinent point is what lies behind the ‘anger. Is it the anger of an uncompromising schoolteacher, who brooks no deviation from the school’s rules? Is it the anger of a tough parent (father) who will not tolerate any cheekiness from his children or any misdemeanour?
Jeremiah’s message is pertinent to these questions because he goes behind the judgment and gives us the ‘psychology’ of the LORD’S judgments. We go into the person of the Divine to find what motivates His disappointment with Israel. The tone of chapter 2 and 3 is notable for what I can only call its poignancy and sadness. God seems hurt and indeed vulnerable. ‘What wrong did your fathers find in me?’ \
The passage proceeds by a series of analogies for God’s situation – punctuated by plaintive rhetorical questions. It does not proceed by a list of transgressions or commandments that they have broken. In other words, the model is NOT the model of the stern schoolmaster who is powerful and intolerant, and it is not the model of that schoolmaster appealing to an abstract set of immutable rules. On the contrary it is a model of a situation and person.
The passage begins by putting God in the vulnerable position of someone who has been scrutinised and then spurned. God asks, ‘What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me?’ (Jer 2:5) This is the language of weakness – of vulnerability. It is the voice someone who has not only been spurned, but someone who could not stop it happening, and is utterly confused by the rejection. The emotion of confusion gives way to a special kind of hurt – ingratitude. Ingratitude is the neglect of a gift offered at some cost. It is one of the most poignant and cutting forms of rejection. So, the LORD is bewildered and muses, “I brought you into a plentiful land, to enjoy its fruits and its good things…” (Jer 2:7)
These are emotions we can identify with in our experience. They are the model of someone who is the victim not someone who is the omnipotent.
In what ways is God ‘vulnerable’? If He is omnipotent, then how can He be ‘weak’? A potentate is strong because their will is incontrovertible. It is like a steamroller than can flatten out any obstacle by its superior power. The question is, ‘Is this the kind of power that God is interested in?’ God as steam roller?
The language of Jeremiah helps us with this question. The predominant analogy that Jeremiah chooses to characterise the situation is not that of a potentate who is angry but rather of a lover who has been betrayed. The imagery is sensual and begins in verse 20: “Yet on every high hill … you bowed down like a whore.” By verse 24, the sensuality has become bestial and unrestrained – “Look at your way in the valley: know what you have done – a restless young camel running here and there, a wild donkey used to the wilderness in her heat sniffing the wind.”
In this analogy, God positions Himself as a lover or bridegroom or husband, and Israel as the wife, betrothed or beloved. All the variations on this theme play the same tune: God as the lover cannot command the affections of his beloved, but he deeply desires them. Verse 30 -32 are memorable for their plaintive helplessness and sense of betrayal. “Have I been a wilderness to Israel … Why then do my people say. ‘We are free, we will come no more to you?’ Can a virgin forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me days without number.”
He does not pursue a functional relationship nor is his aggrievement that of a dishonoured husband whose pride has been hurt and needs avenging. In some societies, the husband controls the woman, and any infidelity is an affront to the husband’s honour. But this is not the disposition being invoked here. The disposition of the lover/God is consistently portrayed as one of desire and hurt feelings. But he cannot command the love he wants. And the love he wants is clearly a reciprocal love. In all the analogies, He is the one who has initiated the relationship, who has condescended to fall in love with one beneath his status. All he wants in return is a loyal relationship and love. He does not want to be one among many. He does not want to be ranked alongside the other partners that his beloved has had dalliances with. This is the impossible situation that is canvassed in the rhetorical question that begins chapter 3. “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?”
Now this position that God is placed in by Jeremiah’s language is ‘weak’ not ‘strong’. It is weak and vulnerable in the same way that any selfless love puts the lover into a vulnerable position. Since love cannot be commanded, it is precarious. The one initiating the love is in some ways at the mercy of the one who is loved simply because they can refuse to reciprocate that love.
Any parent enters this vulnerability by virtue of having a child. That child, although they are inferior in capacities, experience and wisdom, nonetheless has the power to hurt and refuse the love of the parent. The parent can exercise power in restraints and constraints, but they have no power to command love.
We can well understand this in our human experience of love. The one loving can be more mature, and more committed; the one loving can see the end beyond the irritations; the one loving has the wider context and goals in view. Nonetheless this disposition is, by definition, ‘weak’ simply because you cannot command love to be returned. If you want to play the game of love – and hence of relationship – anywhere in life, you open yourself up to rejection and humiliation. If you want to play the game of control, or power, you can close off any change of rejection because power cannot be rejected by the weak. Only love can be rejected by the weaker party.
This leads to the plaintive tone that is notable throughout chapters 2 and 3. The recurrent theme is ‘Have I not done enough to win your love? What else can I have done?’. The tone of voice throughout the chapters is remarkable for its oscillations and its emotional gyrations as the speaker (Jeremiah/Yahweh) casts about wildly for a rhetorical angle that will convince the hard-hearted beloved (Israel) to notice his love and respond.
The entreaties don’t work. Israel does not repent (Jeremiah 3:10) but surprisingly this does not lead to a final rejection – which natural eye for an eye justice would demand. It stunningly leads to declaration of forgiveness and reconciliation that has no precedent in Israel’s actions. It does however make sense as the culmination of the emotions of love that have driven all the analogies that preceded it. This love will get its way. So in verses 3:11 – 14 the LORD declares that he will not look on in anger but rather will take them back, ‘one from a city, and two from a family’ into Zion.
So this suggests a picture of God’s relationship with the cosmos and humanity. He is in the love game not the power game simply because He wants relationship – reciprocal love and understanding – with Israel/human beings. This means that he positions himself as vulnerable. His vulnerability even extends to disappointment. “I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’, but she did not return…” (Jer 3:7). Disappointment here goes beyond mere regret – it is the naivete of hopes and plans that turn out to be unreasonably optimistic. This is hardly the ‘all powerful’ God that we expect!
If love is God’s end game, rather than His honour or moral code, then any judgments must serve the end of relationship not the end of retribution. We are presented with a counterintuitive picture of the transcendent and divine, not as potentate or ultimate judge of right but rather as initiator of love and relationship. The ultimate dynamic of the cosmos is thus not presented as a moral system, with boundaries of good and evil that create the horizons of experience and discernment; rather the ultimate dynamic of the cosmos is presented as a system of love and desire whose boundaries are grace and covenantal relationship.
Within this system of love – new dynamics of weakness are introduced as the modus operandi just as I explained above. And within this system of love – characterised by the modus operandi of ‘weakness’ – the cross makes much more sense as the necessary mechanism and expression of mastery and kingship. To unpack this conundrum, we must integrate the cross and the resurrection as a unified act not as two separate chapters in salvation.
When we are vulnerable, we feel that our weakness may be the end of the story. The victim will be crushed; the lover will be forever spurned; the parent will never be rewarded with the love of their prodigal child. That is the human dynamic of weakness. Nonetheless it is a human dynamic that is framed by hope. It is framed by hope because somehow, we feel that it is ‘wrong’ that the loving weak one should be spurned – we feel that it is a story that has ended wrongly. It should not be so. This is the poignant heart of tragedy. Not that a bad thing happened – but that a bad thing should not have happened. However, within the scope of human contrivance, we don’t seem able to fulfil this hope.
What we find stunningly counters human expectations of power. The ‘weakness’ of the cross is transformed by the ‘strength’ of resurrection – they are inseparable as the workings of God once he enters our created order of weakness. He enters our created order of weakness in order to rule it – but not in our way. He transforms rule from power to love.
So once the omnipotent sovereign LORD enters the created zone, He does fulfil all hopes. This is the universal message of the resurrection. It introduces a new kind of power to humanity and the created cosmos. This power has never been conceived in any human system; it is a power where love reigns not force. There has been no governship in human history that has run purely by love. Love is desirable – hence people give it some lip service, and some mild concessions at the edges. But it has never been the monopolising logic of any regime.
The resurrection tips all this on its head. Love rules. Weakness it turns out triumphs, and the vulnerable is given a ‘name above all names’ (Phil 2:10) and all ‘dominion, authority, rules, and kingships’ (Eph 1:21), with their attendant allegiance to the logic of domination and force, are now subject to Him. Thus, Christ wins the cosmos back to the Father and love reigns.
Of course, this was not at all clear to Jeremiah who saw through a glass darkly. Nonetheless the language of Jeremiah suggests this kingdom of love very strongly. It can only be truly read for its prophetic power, backwards through the illuminating light of Christ who alone makes sense of the conundrum that love can rule.
Jeremiah’s vision though does intensify into a vision of cosmic inclusion and healing. God promises, against all odds and without any caveats, a coming day when he will give Israel ‘shepherds who will feed you with knowledge and understanding’ (Jer 3:15 -18). Remarkably this vision eclipses the Mosaic covenant as ‘the ark of the covenant … shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed – it shall not be made again.’ What will emerge will be a wide city not a confined sanctuary; “At that time Jerusalem will be called the throne of the LORD”.
The implications are clear; we have moved beyond a religious or ritualistic presence of God to an all-pervasive presence which will permeate the whole civic order. It will be a city not just a temple.
Furthermore, that city will attract the nations – the Gentiles – to it. Of course, we read this with modern eyes through the culminating vision of Jersualem in Revelation 21 into which the glory of the nations enters. Jeremiah presciently declares “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem”. In perfect keeping with the themes of love not coercion, we find that this ‘throne’ gathers the nations not be force but by attraction and desire – “and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.”
This inclusive vision climaxes the discourse of love that we have seen unfolding. It makes perfect sense of the paradoxes of weakness and rule that Jeremiah’s imagery has subtly explored.