Jeremiah 1-25: To Pluck Up, To Tear Down & Jeremiah 26-52: To Build, To Plant

By Walter Brueggeman
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1988). Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Irv Busenitz
3.2 (Fall 1992) : 219-221

In accord with the purpose of the International Theological Commentary series, the author of these two volumes "moves beyond the usual critical-historical approach to the Bible and offers a theological interpretation of the Hebrew text" (1:vii). "The series aims, first, to develop the theological significance of the Old Testament and, second, to emphasize the relevance of each book for the life of the church" (back dust cover, vol. 1).

With this focus Brueggemann, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, develops the message of the prophet accordingly, paying special attention to two emerging methods in the study of Scripture: sociological analysis (cf. 12-14) and literary analysis (cf. 14-19). Consequently, introductory matters such as authorship and date are given only summary treatment, but the author devotes enough space to them to call into question the relationship between the historical prophet and the text. For example, in his discussion of the prophet himself, he concludes,

The determination whether such evidences point to a discernible historical figure or an imaginative literary construct is not required for this exposition, and finally adjudication of the matter is impossible. We know enough about tradition, context, and style to recognize "the voice" at work in the text, even if we name that voice with full recognition of the ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty surrounding that portrayed person (1:12).

Brueggemann is equally ambiguous regarding the authorship of the "Baruch Document" (Jeremiah 36-45), giving it only scant attention.

From the opening paragraphs, the commentator deals with the prophecy's theological theme: "Yahweh's sovereign right to rule." He notes,

The prophet (prophetic person, prophetic text) authorized to carry this word is derivative from and subordinated to the irresistible purposes of Yahweh. Thus the text makes a sweeping claim for God's free governance. . . . The conversations with and about the prophet in Jer. 1:5-9 are aimed toward God's magisterial governance expressed in v. 10. It is no wonder that the prophet resists, for who wants to bear such a burdensome and unwelcomed word! But the word overrules its bearer. . . . As the person of the prophet is subject to God's sovereign action, so also is the history of Jerusalem, of Judah, and finally of Babylon (1:24- 25).

From this theological perspective, Brueggemann traces God's irresistible purposes through the trials, tests, and object lessons so prominent throughout the prophecy. He directs no attention to the details, as one would encounter with the historical-grammatical approach, but toward the theological significance of the events. For example, commenting on the familiar lament of Jeremiah in 20:7 ff., he says,

Yahweh's power is beyond challenge, and that places the prophet in an unbearable "no-win" situation. On the one hand, Jeremiah is mandated to speak against Jerusalem, but his speaking evokes deep hostility (Jer. 20:8). On the other hand, when he does not speak (in order to avoid hostility) he is even more troubled, for the word of Yahweh is a burning compulsion to him (v. 9) (1:174).

On the well-known oracle of promise in 31:31-34, the author argues strongly against any preemption "by Christians in a supersessionist fashion, as though Jews belong to the old covenant now nullified and Christians are the sole heirs of the new covenant" (2:68). Swinging to the other extreme, he virtually disallows any Christian reference or significance and seriously undermines the credibility of the NT by summarily dismissing the use of the passage in Hebrews as "a distorted reading" (2:73). Rather, he contends that the contrast of the "old and new" concerns the Israelite community of covenant in both its parts`the "old" prior to 587 B.C. and the "new" after 587.

The "old" covenant belongs to that Israelite community which through its sustained disobedience forfeited covenant with God, even as it lost the city of Jerusalem. The "new" covenant now wrought by God also concerns the Israelite community. This is the community formed anew by God among exiles who are now transformed into a community of glad obedience (2:70).

Later he adds,

At best, we may say that Christians come derivatively and belatedly to share the promised newness. This 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. Moreover, this Jewish mediation of newness is left open as an act of profound grace to all who come under these commandments and allegiance to this God (2:73).

Those who embrace the historical-grammatical approach may find the theological focus less helpful than they desire. Technical matters of the text are not treated. However, insightful observations are presented, along with occasionally rich devotional thoughts. Sources cited reflect recent scholarship and provide additional insight into the text. Although the work cannot be recommended as a primary resource for study, it is helpful as a supplement to other more technical works on the prophecy of Jeremiah.