A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

By Walter Brueggemann
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1998). 502 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 120-122

Walter Brueggemann is Professor of OT at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His commentaries and works on OT theology provide stimulating reading because his exposition consistently focuses on biblical teachings regarding the themes of covenant, land, and divine sovereignty. He seeks to reveal the relevancy of the biblical text to the present time. In this commentary he attempts to demonstrate that a canonical approach to theology can work hand-in-hand with an ideological approach (x-xiii).

Despite his insight, he does not support divine inspiration of Scripture. In the case of Jeremiah, Brueggemann allows for a variety of redactions: “Our exposition cannot easily sort out the distinctions of prophetic person, editing community, and interpreting community” (31; cf. 488, 494). His position on prophecy is vaticinium ex eventu—belief that prophecy is the product of history already played out rather than the product of divine revelation (138). Through his sociological analysis of the text, Brueggemann attributes profound theological statements to the convictions of either the writer or the community of faith rather than to direct divine revelation: “The book of Jeremiah is not a ‘record’ of what happened, but rather a constructive proposal of reality that is powered bypassionate conviction and that is voiced in cunning, albeit disjunctive artistic form” (ix, emphasis in the original). In the “Introduction” (1-20), he declares, “It is crucial to our interpretation that Jeremiah’s proposal of the world is indeed an imaginative construct, not a description of what is nor a prediction of what will be” (17). Again, he asserts that “the language is bold and daring, without responsibility for being factually precise” (56, about 4:17-18).

An example of how this plays out emerges in the commentator’s treatment of 23:5-6, a prophetic pronouncement relating to “a branch of righteousness” who is to arise in the Davidic dynasty in the future. Brueggemann indicates that Jeremiah employs the tradition of Isa 11:1. “The usage asserts the conviction that God has not finally abandoned a commitment to the Davidic house” (207, emphasis added). On the other hand, even though he skirts the issue of divine prophetic announcement in Jer 23:5-6, Brueggemann observes the irony involved in the fact that the last king of the Davidic line in 587 B.C. was Zedekiah whose name means “Yahweh is righteous.” “The coming king will be genuine ‘righteousness’ (tsedaqah), whereas the remembered King Zedekiah is not at all an embodiment of righteousness. That king bore the name; the coming king will embody the reality” (207).

In his exposition of Jeremiah 31 Brueggemann rejects a supersessionist reading of the New Covenant (292). He opposes any Christian preemption of the promised forgiveness in the passage:

My own inclination is to say that in our time and place the reading of Hebrews is a distorted reading, and we are back to the recognition of the Jewishness of the new covenant. At best, we may say that Christians come derivatively and belatedly to share the promised newness. That is not to deny Christian participation in the newness, but Christian participation is utterly grounded in Jewish categories and claims, and can have participation on no other terms (295).

Repeatedly, Brueggemann identifies key literary and grammatical elements of the Hebrew text that are essential to understanding it and representing its teachings correctly: e.g., the envelope structure with shema‘ (“hear”) in 5:21 (67), emphasis due to inverted Hebrew word order in 7:5 (79), the rhetorical use of shub (“turn”) in 8:4-6 (87), the emphatic personal pronouns of 17:14-18 (164), the forceful employment of the Hebrew infinitive absolute (287-88), and the distinctions to be observed between the two Hebrew negatives, ’al and lo’ (394 n. 73).

The evangelical reader will find many of Brueggemann’s observations eminently preachable:

“The modern form of idolatry is finally autonomy, the sense that we live life on our own terms” (107).

“The entire unit of Jer. 11:1-17 is a meditation on Deut. 6:4" (112).

“The isolation of the petitioner with this response is not unlike a citizen who learns of conspiracy in government but can find no place to report it, because everyone to whom report might be made is implicated in the conspiracy. Such a grasp of the realities of public life drives one into isolation and/or into life with God” (120, about 12:6).

“The claim of the [Exodus] tradition is shattered by the new act (cf. 23:7-8; Isa. 43:18-19). There is judgment and there is new possibility. There is exile and there is homecoming. There is death and there is resurrection. . . . [A]fter the hurling comes the homecoming” (155).

“The ‘bill of indictment’ (i.e., the record of guilt) is permanently engraved so that it is irreversible, not to be changed, denied, or forgotten. It is written in the ultimate places of memory, on the heart and on the altar. This record on the heart is the very antithesis of the torah on the heart (31:33). Something will be written on the heart, either sin or torah” (157, about 17:1-4).

“[S]elf-reliance is a central pathology of this people. Sabbath fidelity is one surrender of such self-reliance” (167).

“The oracle [42:7-17] gives every thinkable theological warrant for not running away from the trouble. God wants God’s people present both to the trouble and to the possibility” (391).

The volume closes with a helpful “Selected Bibliography” of books and journal articles, the latest being published in 1991 (496-502). It may not be the best available commentary on Jeremiah, but the discerning reader will not regret having it handy while preaching or teaching the book of Jeremiah.