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Jeremiah and Loss

Jeremiah lived through and spoke to experiences of loss both individual and collective in Judah during the tumultuous decades at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries B.C.E.


Jeremiah is sometimes called “the weeping prophet.” He lived during a period of great political upheaval and understood himself to have been called by God to speak to those times, whatever the repercussions. In Jeremiah’s case, the repercussions were difficult. He was alienated from family and friends and was rejected by his community. (Jeremiah was probably the inspiration for Jesus’s observation that a prophet is not accepted by his own people.  (Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; John 4:44)) And he despaired over the fate of the country that he criticized and loved.

Besides tremendous personal loss, Jeremiah witnessed the greatest collective loss recorded in the Hebrew Bible: loss to the Babylonians of the land and nationhood that his people believed was promised to them by God, and loss of the temple in Jerusalem, where they believed God was present.

Jeremiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, which survived after the northern kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians in the late eighth century B.C.E. and its people scattered (“the ten lost tribes”). The book that bears the prophet’s name tells us that he preached for over 40 years, from 627 B.C.E. through Judah’s defeat by the Babylonians and the exile of members of its population in 586 B.C.E.

The book contains collections of oracles attributed to Jeremiah (speeches made as a mouthpiece for God), like other prophetic books. Uniquely, Jeremiah also includes several poems expressing deep personal anguish at the trials and tribulations of his calling. “Woe is me,” he says, “a man of strife and contention to the whole land,” adding a wish that he had not even been born (Jer 15:10). Jeremiah is tortured by his role as a prophet, identifying both with God, and with Judah, whom he believes God is punishing.

At times, Jeremiah’s personal laments blur the line between prophet and God, suggesting that even though God has authored Judah’s destruction, and for good reason, God also suffers at its loss, and as deeply as anyone (see especially Jer 4:19-22).

Loss, for Jeremiah, was necessary. On a personal level, loss was a product of his integrity as a prophet, called to say things that he wished he didn’t have to say and that made him unpopular with his own people. As far as the nation was concerned, Jeremiah viewed loss as a necessary punishment and a painful means to correct the human-divine relationship.

Despite his own hardships, the defeat of Judah, and the destruction of the temple, Jeremiah was confident that God would restore not merely the nation but the very heart of its people, reconciling them to God, to land, and to each other. Thus loss had purpose in Jeremiah’s eyes: restoration, especially as expressed in chapters 30–31, was its conclusion.

  • Kristin Swenson

    Kristin Swenson is visiting associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness (Baylor University Press, 2005) and Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (Harper, 2010). She is presently working on a historical novel of ancient Babylon and Persia.