Damien F. Mackey
“For centuries, Jews and Christians have been debating the meaning of the so-called “Suffering Servant”…. A quick search of material on Internet sites reveals impassioned claims by various Christians who fervently believe the Servant in question is Jesus, and equally fervent counterclaims by Jews who believe that the Servant is the Jewish people”.
In an earlier series, which I now intend to replace, the best candidate I could identify for the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah (particularly chapter 53), who was chronologically right within range of the great prophet, was King Hezekiah of Judah himself.
Some others have already suggested this identification, and I tended to take my comparisons from various amongst these.
However, although this king of Judah does bear comparison, to some extent, with Isaiah 53’s “Suffering Servant”, the match is far from being a perfect one. King Hezekiah was, unlike Isaiah’s humble “Servant”, a “strong proud” king (the very words of his Assyrian foe, Sennacherib).
And more recently I have read of comparisons between Isaiah 53 and the prophet Jeremiah that I believe to dovetail far more perfectly than do those with Hezekiah.
Although Jewish tradition (e.g. Rashi) might tend to identify the “Suffering Servant” as the nation of Israel, which Isaiah certainly intended, in part, there is also an old tradition according to which this refers to a single person.
Mordecai Schreiber writes of the long-standing disagreement over this passage between Jews and Christians (“THE REAL “SUFFERING SERVANT”: DECODING A CONTROVERSIAL PASSAGE IN THE BIBLE”):
The most controversial passage in the Hebrew Bible is, arguably, Isaiah 53:1-7. For centuries, Jews and Christians have been debating the meaning of the so-called “Suffering Servant” described in these verses. A quick search of material on Internet sites reveals impassioned claims by various Christians who fervently believe the Servant in question is Jesus, and equally fervent counterclaims by Jews who believe that the Servant is the Jewish people. As a prophet, the Christian argument goes, Isaiah foresaw the future coming of the Christian messiah who “carried our affliction” and “in his bruises we were healed” (Isa. 53:4-5). References to this text are made in the New Testament, asserting the claim that Isaiah in Chapter 53 prophesied the suffering of Jesus (see John 12:38, and Romans 10:16). Not so, runs the Jewish argument.
The prophet makes it clear he is not speaking about future events. Rather, he is repeating an ancient Jewish belief, according to which God’s servant is Jacob and, by extension, his descendants, the people of Israel. The implication of the Jewish argument is that the Jews suffer because of the misconduct of the world, and their suffering has a redeeming power for humankind.
This may have been true prior to the time of Jesus, Christians might concede, but it is the death of Jesus on the cross that replaces the old Covenant and grants redemption to all people for all time.
In centuries past, this kind of polemic often resulted in violence, and many Jews suffered for it and even paid with their lives. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and it is to be hoped that it is a thing of the past.
It is common to find amongst many Christians a tendency to identify the “Suffering Servant” directly as Jesus Christ. Isaiah, as a great prophet, was able they say to reveal far distant things. In similar fashion will these identify the “Immanuel” of Isaiah 7:14 as Jesus, without any due regard to the historical context of the biblical chapter.
I probably shared this view once.
I know from experience that such Christians whose knowledge of the Old Testament may be poor can become irate if one should suggest that Immanuel was actually one of Isaiah’s children – which he undoubtedly was. Though I would accept, with these, that Jesus Christ, as a Son of God, later fulfilled the meaning of “Immanuel” (“God is with us”) more perfectly than anyone else (including anyone previously named Immanuel) was capable of doing.
But the fact remains, he was not named Immanuel, but “Jesus” (Matthew 1:21).
Now, if Isaiah’s ‘Suffering Servant” were the prophet Jeremiah, then we must consider the possibility that the life of Isaiah overlapped with the boyhood/youth of Jeremiah, a seeming chronological absurdity, though made somewhat less so now, perhaps, in light of my radical:
Book of Daniel – merging Assyrians and Chaldeans
Commentators have a method of getting around apparent chronological difficulties associated with the Book of Isaiah by Procrusteanising the great prophet of Israel, cutting him up into parts and thereby creating a Deutero-Isaiah, or a Trito-Isaiah (the same with the prophet Zechariah), who, they say, was not the actual Isaiah.
This is a methodology that – due to its departing from tradition – I personally do not accept.
Hezekiah by no means a proper fit
Were King Hezekiah of Judah to have been firmly identified as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, then there would be no chronological problem involved at all, given the contemporaneity of the prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah. And some have indeed sought to make this connection, which I, too, had most favoured before on conventional chronological grounds.
But, as we have learned, King Hezekiah was characterised even by his greatest enemy, Sennacherib, as “proud” (Assyrian Bull Inscriptions): “… the strong, proud Hezekiah …”. This hardly fits with Isaiah 53:2: “He had no … majesty to attract us to him”. The King Hezekiah, who proudly showed off his abundant wealth to the Babylonian envoys (2 Kings 20:12-19), did not lack “majesty”. Far from it.
Nor was he then “like a dumb man who did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
The prophet Isaiah had to severely reprimand the king for this showy behaviour, predicting the Babylonian Captivity (2 Kings 20:16-18).
The following description of the ‘proud and ungrateful’ Hezekiah, that we find at:
https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/archives/guzik_david/studyguide_2ki/2ki_20.cfm would, in all seriousness, be quite impossible to reconcile with the docile Suffering Servant:
…. As the coming rebuke from Isaiah will demonstrate, this was nothing but proud foolishness on Hezekiah’s part. He was in the dangerous place of wanting to please and impress man, especially ungodly men.
…. “It was not spiritual pride, as with his great-grandfather Uzziah; but worldly pride – ‘the pride of life,’ we might say. It was his precious things, his armor, his treasures, his house, his dominion, etc., that he showed the ambassadors from Babylon.” (Knapp)
…. Hezekiah faced – and failed under – a temptation common to many, especially those in ministry – the temptation of success. Many men who stand strong against the temptations of failure and weakness fail under the temptations of success and strength.
Think about the extent of Hezekiah’s success:
– He was godly
– He was victorious
– He was healed
– He had experienced a miracle
– He had been promised a long life
– He had connection to a great prophet
– He had seen a remarkable sign
– He was wealthy
– He was famous
– He was praised and honored
– He was honored by God
…. Nevertheless, he sinned greatly after this great gift of fifteen more years of life and the deliverance of Jerusalem. We might say that Hezekiah sinned in at least five ways:
– Pride, in that he was proud of the honors the Babylonians brought.
– Ingratitude, in that he took honor to himself that really belonged to God.
– Abusing the gifts given to him, where he took the gifts and favors to his own honor and gratification of his lusts (2 Chronicles 32:25-26).
– Carnal confidence, in that he trusted in the league he had made with the King of Babylon.
– Missing opportunity, in that he had a great opportunity to testify to the Babylonian envoys about the greatness of God and the LORD’s blessing on Judah. Instead, he glorified himself.
- “Why did he not show these learned heathen God’s house? ‘Every whit’ of which showeth ‘His glory’ (Psalm 29:9, margin). There he could have explained to them the meaning of the brazen altar, and the sacrifices offered thereon; and who can tell what the results might not have been in the souls of these idolaters?” (Knapp)
Jeremiah seems to fit like a glove
Given that the prophet Isaiah appears to have been writing about a young contemporary male whom the community had familiarly known from his infancy (53:2): “He grew up like a tender shoot before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance”, I had been inclined to opt for King Hezekiah, a younger contemporary of the prophet who had begun to receive the word of God as far back as Hezekiah’s great-grandfather, King Uzziah of Judah (Isaiah 1:1): “The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, son of Amos, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah”.
If the prophet Jeremiah were to be intended by Isaiah, as I am now greatly favouring, then this would – as we have noted – involve a major chronological reconsideration of biblico-history.
Either that, or do what many biblical commentators tend to do, artificially create other (Deutero, Trito) prophets ‘Isaiah’, who are not the original one, but later scribes.
Various commentators have arrived at the conclusion that the life of the prophet Jeremiah best fulfils the terms of the Suffering Servant – chronologically ‘plausible’ when the Book of Isaiah is attributed to a trio of writers. Waldemar Janzen, for instance, writes in “Suffering Servants”: https://www.baylor.edu/ifl/christianreflection/SufferingarticleJanzen.pdf
The suffering prophet par excellence is Jeremiah. He is called by God against his own protestations, mocked and persecuted by his fellow villagers of Anathoth and others …. Beaten and put in the stocks by the priest Pashhur, he barely escapes the death sentence demanded by a mob and must go into hiding for his preaching during the reign of King Jehoiakim. He is accused of being a traitor for announcing God’s judgment on Jerusalem through the Babylonians.
After being thrown into a dry well to perish, he eventually is rescued and kept in a prison, only to be carried off to Egypt against his will.
…. Suffering under this burden of obedience to proclaim a message painful to the prophet himself and hateful to his hearers is portrayed most articulately in the so-called Laments of Jeremiah (11:18-20; 12:1-6; 15:10-12,15-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). They resemble the individual lament psalms, but their content is tied to the specifics of Jeremiah’s life. He cries out:
O LORD, you have enticed me,…
you have overpowered me,….
If I say, “I will not mention him [the LORD],
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot….
Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:7a, 9, 18
Compelling, I find, is the argument of Mordecai Schreiber, who, after a discussion of the authorship of the Book of Isaiah – Schreiber believes that a “Second Isaiah” was the author of chapter 53 – asks, and then answers, the question (op. cit.):
But herein lies the key to the question: Who, after all, is the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53?
It appears that the Second Isaiah knew the answer, but as with his own identity, it was kept a secret. It also appears that someone else at a later date knew the Servant’s identity. To find the answer, we need to turn to the Book of Jeremiah. A better understanding of Jeremiah is essential to understanding the Second Isaiah and his mysterious Servant, and the method available to us is a textual and linguistic analysis of the words of those two prophets.
That Jeremiah has a great deal to do with the Suffering Servant is something that was observed at least as early as the tenth century by Saadia Gaon, the great philosopher and exegete. According to Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Isaiah 52:13, Saadia identified the Servant with Jeremiah, an interprertation that Ibn Ezra (12th century) concurred with:
“The Gaon, Rav Saadia, his memory be blessed, interpreted the whole chapter as referring to Jeremiah, and well he interpreted.” But Saadia’s view was rejected in his own lifetime, particularly by his Karaite adversaries, who contended that he had lost his senses. (The Karaites, a Jewish sect that still exists today, were strict literalists when it came to biblical interpretation, rejecting rabbinical interpretations and innovations.) Sheldon Blank, a 20th-century Jewish biblical scholar who has written books about both Jeremiah and Isaiah, rejects the view that the Servant is Jeremiah. Blank writes:
The bitter experience of Israel, whom the Second Isaiah here personified as servant-prophet, led him necessarily to Jeremiah for the features of his personification – to that prophet within his tradition who, more than any other, had, like Israel, endured reproach and suffering. Inevitably, Jeremiah must sit as model for his portrait of God’s servant-prophet. This is not to say that the servant and Jeremiah are to be identified. ….
R.E.O. White, a Christian contemporary of Blank who also wrote a book about Jeremiah, has this to say about the identity of the Servant:
So Isaiah sketches his portrait of the coming Servant of the Lord who should save Israel, and in that portrait Jesus himself saw his own lineaments and destiny prefigured. But of whom was Isaiah thinking when he asked his questions? With Jeremiah’s story in mind, we may reverently wonder if the words do not describe his experience with astonishing accuracy. And reverent surmise becomes moral certainty when we hear Isaiah at once quote Jeremiah’s words about himself: “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, . . .’Let us cut him off from the land of the living'” (Jer. 11:19; cf. Isa. 53:7-8). ….
What makes these two quotes from two contemporary biblical scholars so telling is that even though they both sense the strong presence of Jeremiah in Isaiah 53, they are wedded to their traditional views of the Servant being the Jewish people (for Blank), and Jesus (for White). Neither one of them goes far enough in analyzing these difficult verses in which the Mystery Prophet embedded a unique message, left for future generations to be deciphered.
(This reminds us of some of El Greco’s large canvasses, in which the artist painted miniatures in the folds of the robes of the prelates and the saints, expressing his true artistic feelings.) This message amounts to a capsule biography of Jeremiah, who is indeed the Servant in these verses: Who can believe what we have heard? And on whom was Adonai’s power revealed?(Isa. 53:1).
The story of Jeremiah is absolutely amazing. Jeremiah lived during the last years of the Judean monarchy. He foresaw the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and spent his years as a solitary voice calling his people to turn back from their evil ways. He was scorned and ridiculed, and on several occasions he came within a hair’s-breadth of losing his life. It was only after the fall of Judah that the exiles in Babylon began to realize that his was the voice of God. For a while his story was unknown in Babylon, but when the Second Isaiah first heard it he was amazed to learn what Jeremiah had gone through, and how God chose such an afflicted person as his messenger. Indeed, Jeremiah should be credited for saving Judaism. He did much more than prophesy doom. With the help of the scribe Baruch ben-Neriah, he began the process of preserving the Law and transitioning Judaism from a religion centered around Temple sacrifices to a faith based on Torah, prayer and ethical behavior. In this respect, Jeremiah may be considered the first Jew, while Abraham is the first Hebrew. In comparing the language of Isaiah 53 to Jeremiah’s, it is clear that this Mystery Prophet was a disciple of Jeremiah, in whom he saw the savior of Judaism. Jeremiah to him becomes the prophet par excellence, the true servant of God. As the pivotal prophet in the Bible, Jeremiah comes to embody for the Second Isaiah the entire Jewish people, and so the Servant becomes interchangeably Jeremiah and the Jewish people. Why Second Isaiah does not come out and identify Jeremiah by name will be discussed later on.
He rose like a newborn baby before Him, And like a tree trunk in an arid land (53:2).
This is a direct biographical reference to Jeremiah. We are told in Jeremiah 1 that God chose Jeremiah at his birth. We are further told that when God first appears to Jeremiah, the young boy is looking at a blossoming almond tree.
The boy is overwhelmed by his first contact with the Divine, and when he rises and watches the tree in full blossom, the voice of God becomes his. He is told not to fear, for he will be made strong against his adversaries. The two words “arid land” are borrowed from the next episode in the Book of Jeremiah (2:6), where the prophet reminds his people of the wandering through the desert: Who leads us . . . through arid land. He had no rank and was given no respect, We did not find anything attractive about him (53:2).
Jeremiah was born a priest but gave up his priestly rank. He was not an official prophet of the court until the very end, when a desperate King Zedekiah began to consult him without actually engaging him as a court priest.
Jeremiah’s contemporaries showed him no respect. At best, he was tolerated.
A man of constant sorrow, he made few friends and had little influence over his contemporaries, who were too far gone in their idolatry and immorality to understand his message.
He was despised, shunned by all, A great sufferer, greatly afflicted (53:3).
Jeremiah was the most afflicted prophet in the Hebrew Bible. He foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem years before it happened, and mourned it for many years. The Judeans, particularly in Jerusalem, despised him, for he disturbed their complacency and smugness. (God was on their side, they argued, and no harm would come to them.)
He seemed to hide from us, Despised, we took no account of him (53:3).
Hiding is a running theme in Jeremiah’s life. After he prophesies at the Temple, the priests try to put him to death. He is banned from the public and goes into hiding. Later, after King Jehoiakim throws Jeremiah’s scroll of prophecies into the fire, he has to go into hiding again to save his life.
Indeed, he carried our affliction, And he suffered our pain (53:4).
No other prophet in the Bible suffers the pain of his people more vividly than does Jeremiah. When the Temple is destroyed and the people are exiled, Jeremiah takes on the suffering of his people and, according to rabbinic tradition, authors the Book of Lamentations, Judaism’s official lament for the destruction of the Temple.
And we thought him diseased, God stricken, tortured (53:4).
When Jeremiah parades in the streets of Jerusalem in a soiled and soggy loincloth, or with iron bars around his neck, he certainly does not convey the image of a happy and level-headed person. He is repeatedly scorned by his listeners, and rather than see him as God’s messenger, they regard him as a misguided and tortured soul.
But he was stricken because of our sins (53:5).
God indeed makes Jeremiah carry the burden of the sins of his generation.
Oppressed because of our iniquities, The lesson of our welfare is upon him (53:5).
The life of Jeremiah and his teaching were an object lesson for his generation.
That they recovered their national welfare was because of him and the legacy he bequeathed them, namely, the Torah and prophetic teachings he helped preserve for them with the help of his scribe, Baruch ben-Neriah.
And in his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep (53:5-6).
When Jeremiah is flogged, or when he is lowered into the mud pit, he emerges full of bruises. But he is doing it for the sake of his people, who went astray and did not see the impending doom.
Each going our own way, And God visited upon him the guilt of us all (53:6).
The people were divided during the time of the siege of Jerusalem, and Jeremiah had to live through that time of national divisiveness and bear its consequences. This continued during the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and after the assassination of Gedaliah, whom they had appointed governor.
He was attacked, yet he remained submissive, He did not open his mouth (53:7)
When the priests in the Holy Temple try to pass a death sentence on Jeremiah, he humbly accepts his fate, and is only saved by the last-minute intercession of a highly-placed friend.
He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, Silent like a ewe about to be sheared (53:7).
Here we have Jeremiah’s own words being quoted: But I was like a gentle sheep led to the slaughter (Jer. 11:19).
To the Second Isaiah, Jeremiah came to symbolize the Suffering Servant, whom God chose to help save His covenanted people. In a broader sense, the Servant is the Jewish people as a whole. Why, then, does the author fail to identify Jeremiah by name?
To begin with, the Second Isaiah does not identify anyone by name, not even himself. He remains the Mystery Prophet throughout. But it should be clear by now that he knew Jeremiah quite well, and was greatly influenced by him. Furthermore, since his prophecies were inserted into an already-existing book, namely, the Book of Isaiah, it is clear that other hands were involved in the compilation of the book as we know it. (It is a rather ancient compilation, dating back before the Common Era, as evidenced by the Isaiah scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.) We need to ask ourselves: What were the circumstances under which this text was written and compiled, and how did they affect the presentation of the Servant concept, so clearly depicting none other than Jeremiah? ….
Pointing to Jesus Christ
Richard B. Hays, writing a review of Pope Benedict XVI’s book, Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection (2011), acknowledges an outstanding feature of Benedict’s book: how the Old Testament prefigures and leads to the New Testament: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/08/001-benedict-and-the-biblical-jesus
Benedict and the Biblical Jesus
From beginning to end, Benedict grounds his interpretation of Jesus in the Old as well as the New Testament. The significance of the gospel stories is consistently explicated in relation to the Old Testament’s typological prefiguration of Jesus, and Jesus is shown to be the flowering or consummation of all that God had promised Israel in many and various ways. The resulting intercanonical conversation offers many arresting insights into Jesus’ identity and significance. Many of the connections that Benedict discerns are traditional in patristic exegesis, but his explication of them is artful and effective.
On p. 81, Pope Benedict credits French priest André Feuillet with pointing out how well Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Songs throw light upon the high-priestly prayer of Jesus (John 17):
Before we consider the individual themes contained in Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, one further Old Testament allusion should be mentioned, one that has again been studied by André Feuillet. He shows that the renewed and deepened spiritual understanding of the priesthood found in John 17 is already prefigured in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Songs, especially in Isaiah 53. The Suffering Servant, who has the guilt of all laid upon him (53:6), giving up his life as a sin-offering (53:10) and bearing the sins of many (53:12), thereby carries out the ministry of the high priest, fulfilling the figure of the priesthood from deep within. He is both priest and victim, and in this way he achieves reconciliation. Thus the Suffering Servant Songs continue along the whole path of exploring the deeper meaning of the priesthood and worship, in harmony with the prophetic tradition ….
On p. 136, Benedict returns to this theme:
For we have yet to consider Jesus’ fundamental interpretation of his mission in Mark 10:45, which likewise features the word “many”; “For the Son of [Man] also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. Here he is clearly speaking of the sacrifice of his life, and so it is obvious that Jesus is taking up the Suffering Servant prophecy from Isaiah 53 and linking it to the mission of the Son of Man, giving it a new interpretation.
And then, on pp. 173 and 199, he broadens it:
This idea of vicarious atonement is fully developed in the figure of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, who takes the guilt of many upon himself and thereby makes them just (53:11). In Isaiah, this figure remains mysterious: the Song of the Suffering Servant is like a gaze into the future in search of the one who is to come.
The history of religions knows the figure of the mock king — related to the figure of the “scapegoat”. Whatever may be afflicting the people is offloaded onto him: in this way it is to be driven out of the world. Without realizing it, the soldiers were actually accomplishing what those rites and ceremonies were unable to achieve: “Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5). Thus caricatured, Jesus is led to Pilate, and Pilate presents him to the crowd — to all mankind: “Ecce homo”, “Here is the man!” (Jn 19:5).
Before concluding his treatment of the subject on pp. 252-253:
A pointer towards a deeper understanding of the fundamental relationship with the word is given by the earlier qualification: Christ died “for our sins”. Because his death has to do with the word of God, it has to do with us, it is a dying “for”. In the chapter of Jesus’ death on the Cross, we saw what an enormous wealth of tradition in the form of scriptural allusions feeds into the background here, chief among them the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). Insofar as Jesus’ death can be located within this context of God’s word and God’s love, it is differentiated from the kind of death resulting from Man’s original sin as a consequence of his presumption in seeking to be like God, a presumption that could only lead to man’s plunge into wretchedness, into the destiny of death. ….
A ‘Christian’ tendency to skip over Old Testament
Such Christians as those who tend to relate solely to the New Testament, having an extremely poor knowledge of – even sometimes seeming to be virtually allergic to – the Old Testament, will immediately identify Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” as Jesus Christ the Messiah, without any consideration that the ancient prophet might have intended, directly and literally, some younger contemporary of his.
Now, whilst I could never accuse Pope Benedict XVI of discounting the Old Testament – he who in his book, Jesus of Nazareth (2011), is at pains show how the Old Testament prefigures and leads to the New Testament – and that Jesus Christ cannot be properly understood without the Old Testament – also writing along such lines as (p. 202):
What is remarkable about these [Four Gospel] accounts [of Jesus’ crucifixion and Death] is the multitude of Old Testament allusions and quotations they contain: word of God and event are deeply interwoven. The facts are, so to speak, permeated with the word – with meaning; and the converse is also true: what previously had been merely word – often beyond our capacity to understand – now becomes reality, its meaning unlocked [,]
– Benedict does, nevertheless, seem to bypass any possible ancient identification of Isaiah 53’s Suffering Servant in this next statement of his:
“In Isaiah, this figure remains mysterious: the Song of the Suffering Servant
is like a gaze into the future in search of the one who is to come”.
The “figure” becomes far less “mysterious”, I would suggest, if he is to be grounded in some literal flesh and blood person of Isaiah’s day, Jeremiah as I am now arguing – one who also points to “the one who is to come”, who perfectly fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy, but who also re-interprets it, thereby, in the words of Benedict, ‘unlocking its meaning’.
Part Two: Jeremiah and John the Baptist
“Is this all blind coincidence? Of course not! This is God’s plan from the beginning! St. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, the new Elijah, the new Jeremiah,
is completing Jeremiah’s final work so the Kingdom of God can begin”.
Rev Eric Culler
Reverend Culler has here drawn some compelling parallels between the ancient prophet Jeremiah (including also Elijah) and the great St. John the Baptist who came centuries later: www.splendorofthetruth.org/…/Advent_C_2_-_Baptist.338114608.doc
The New Jeremiah
The greatest danger to Christians today is a type of familiarity with our faith that breeds contempt. We know about the miracles that God worked in the past, we know about the prophecies of Christ fulfilled in Scripture, and we know about the workings of the Holy Spirit in us and in the Church today. But sometimes we say “so what?” We grow bored with the drama of salvation history, and we do not see how God affects our lives. Boredom and contempt have led Christians to give up their faith and embrace strange new religions that keep them entertained with lies.
If we would only read what the Scriptures really say! If we would only study what has really happened in history! We would see the ingenious and awe-inspiring plan of God carried out to the smallest detail in the life of every human being on the planet, including each of us. We would be ecstatic with His plan to transform us into living reflections of his glory and power like the very angels in heaven by sanctifying us with his own Holy Spirit through our sacramental life in the Church.
And we would appreciate the earth-shattering appearance of St. John the Baptist today.
What began almost 900 years earlier with Elijah finishes with John, who is the last and greatest of the prophets. Elijah appeared suddenly from nowhere, wearing rough clothing and rebuking King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel. John the Baptist also appears suddenly in the desert, wearing rough clothing and rebuking King Herod and his wicked wife Herodias.
But if we look deeper into God’s plan, we will be even more amazed by the similarities between St. John the Baptist and another prophet. Over 600 years before John lived Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a priest of the old covenant, born of a priestly family, though it seems he never served in the Temple. John was also a priest, born of his priestly father Zechariah, though he too never served in the Temple. At the start of the Book of the prophet Jeremiah, God tells him “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I sanctified you and made you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). John was sanctified by Christ in the womb before he was born, which caused him to leap for joy in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, and he became Christ’s own prophet to prepare the way. Both Jeremiah and John never married because of the difficult days ahead, and indeed, both of them were imprisoned by wicked kings and executed by their own people: John by beheading, and Jeremiah by being stoned to death. John is not only a new Elijah come to convert Israel; he is a new Jeremiah.
Mackey’s comment: While Jeremiah’s trials are sometimes described as a “martyrdom”, there is no scriptural evidence that he was “stoned to death”.
The Christian legend (pseudo-Epiphanius, “De Vitis Prophetarum”; Basset, “Apocryphen Ethiopiens,” i. 25-29), according to which Jeremiah was stoned by his compatriots in Egypt because he reproached them with their evil deeds, became known to the Jews through Ibn Yaḥya (“Shalshelet ha-Ḳabbalah,” ed. princeps, p. 99b); this account of Jeremiah’s martyrdom, however, may have come originally from Jewish sources.
Reverend Culler continues:
And if we look deeper still, we see that John shares more than outward characteristics with Jeremiah. John also completes the final work of Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived at the end of a kingdom. In his last days, Babylon was threatening to destroy the Kingdom of Judah and everything holy to the Chosen people. So Jeremiah commanded the people to hide three sacred items to preserve their bond with God before they fled into Egypt. He commanded them to take the holy fire from the altar in the Temple and to keep it burning secretly, to keep the Law of God hidden within their hearts by refusing to worship idols, and to hide the Arc of the Covenant, the seat of God’s living presence among them (see 2 Maccabees 2:1-7).
600 years later, St. John the Baptist is living at the beginning of a Kingdom—the Kingdom of God which he is heralding. The time has come to reveal those three sacred items hidden by Jeremiah—to complete his work—so that God can recreate a holy people. The holy fire from the altar consumed all offerings, giving them forever to God. John reveals to the people that the Christ will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit will consume the faithful, body and soul, like offerings, giving them forever to God through baptism.
The Law of God taught the people how they ought to live. By his teaching, John reveals to the crowds how they ought to live, and prepares them for the Lawgiver himself, Jesus Christ. Finally, the Arc of the Covenant was literally a seat or throne for God in the Temple. The Holy of Holies was the room that held the Arc, which was God’s living presence among the Chosen people. John reveals to the people the real, living presence of God among them as one of them: the true man and true God, Jesus Christ himself.
Is this all blind coincidence? Of course not! This is God’s plan from the beginning! St. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, the new Elijah, the new Jeremiah, is completing Jeremiah’s final work so the Kingdom of God can begin.
As Advent continues, we will hear about miracles and prophesies. We will hear about the ingenious and awe-inspiring plan of God which involves each one of us here. Let the Scriptures inspire you! Let human history inspire you! See God’s plan with fresh eyes, and be filled with joy that he has chosen to transform you into a reflection of His own glory—into a son or daughter of God! ….