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God’s Word for You

Jeremiah 15:12-14

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Some readers of God’s Word for You may not find the patience or interest for my comments on verse 12 and a matter of a (perhaps minor) detail of interpretation. I do not mean to exhaust your patience. You will, I hope, be edified by today’s devotional thoughts even if you skip down to verses 13-14 below.

12 Can anyone beak iron—
      iron from the north—or bronze?

This verse is, I believe, a rare but important form of Hebrew parallelism which some scholars think of as Janus parallelism (Janus is a reference to a mythological character who looked in two directions). Some relatively recent Hebrew scholarship (since the 1970s) has identified a phenomenon in which a single word that might have two meanings can be used in both senses in a single passage. For example, Shakespeare often puns on his own name “Will,” as in this line from Sonnet XXII: “As I, not for myself, but for thee will.” In the Bible, such a “Janus” sense is evident in the word zmyr in Song of Solomon 2:12:

     Flowers appear on the earth;
      the season of zmyr has come,
      the cooing of doves is heard in our land.

Zmyr can mean both “music” (NIV “singing”) and also “pruning season.” Both senses work in the verse, and the term zmyr looks in both directions at once. (Other examples of this single-word Janus parallelism can be found clustered together in Amos 1:3-2:16). (See also the Journal of Biblical Literature 113/3, 1994).

Before us lies a whole verse, not just a single word, that appears to look two different ways. Both are valid; both are supported by the rest of the text, and both probably should be brought to our attention.

If verse 12 looks backward at what came before, then the Lord is encouraging Jeremiah. He said, “I will surely make your enemies plead with you,” and now he would be saying that Jeremiah is like the strongest iron. The iron of the north—Pontus, the Black Sea—had a reputation like that of Minnesota’s iron range or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was the best iron around. Jeremiah was like that kind of unbreakable iron, because he had the Word of God.

If verse 12 looks ahead at the judgment that follows, then the “iron of the north” would be the iron-wielding army coming out of the north: Babylon. God’s judgment was descending, and no one would be able to avert it or withstand it. Later on, God would let his people know that the only way to survive the captivity in Babylon was to ride it out and go to Babylon.

Verses 13-14:

13 I will give away your wealth
      and your treasures as loot, without cost,
because of all your sins
  throughout all your territory.
14 I will make you serve your enemies
      in a land you do not know,
for my anger is kindled in me,
  and you will burn.

Children (and adults) with certain learning issues seem to constantly deflect comments that are meant to correct their behavior. I know one child I used to work with weekly who could never be told anything indirectly. He would always find a way to wriggle out of any constructive criticism. “How will your wife be able to read your writing on the grocery list if you don’t work on your penmanship?” I might ask, to which he would reply, “I’ll never get married.” The only thing to do was to be more direct: “Can you read what you just wrote?” “No—I have terrible handwriting.” There. The truth finally came out.

The Lord is breaking down that kind of attitude or response in this verse. He has been warning Judah gently and indirectly that something very serious is coming. But the people seem to count on the Lord’s warnings being deflected somehow.

Danger coming out of the north?
     Our armies will defend us!

Our armies will be defeated?
     Our city walls will keep the invaders out!

Our city walls will crumble?
     We’ve got the Lord’s Temple!

The Temple will fall?
     We will still have our fields and flocks!

We will be carried into exile?
     We will still have our wealth with us!

Do you see how the Lord must chip away at every bit of comfort and consolation, because the Jews didn’t think that anything bad would come? They were caught up in a false security like the man in the 80s song “Nothing Bad Ever Happens” by Oingo Boingo.

When the Lord says, “You will burn,” he uses a word for “burn” (huqod) that is usually used for the perpetual fire of the temple: “The fire must be kept burning on the altar” (Leviticus 6:12). Here in Jeremiah we have a fire that keeps getting stoked, and the people had been stoking the Lord’s anger against them with their constant sin and rebellion against him.

More than a dozen times in the Bible, the fires of the Lord’s anger are described as unquenchable. But when we have been shown our sins and have turned to God in repentance, we can also be consoled that the love of God cannot be quenched, either (Song of Solomon 8:7). The fury of some worldly flames have been quenched through the faith of believers (Hebrews 11:34), and the fury of God’s anger was satisfied and brought to an end by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. His love for us halted God’s anger at our sin. So in Jesus alone we are safe, sheltered and set free from God’s justice and judgment of all sin. We have the eternal gift of the bliss and joy of heaven. In Christ alone we have eternal life.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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