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In the year 609 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah rebuked the people of Israel in Jerusalem for their misplaced sense of confidence that the merit of the Temple would somehow prevent God’s wrath against their unacceptable behavior. Chapter 7 of Jeremiah includes what is known as Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (7:1-15) as well as a series of thematically connected material (7:16-8:3) which some modern scholars consider separate from the original sermon. The chapter as a whole presents a stunning prophetic censure of a misplaced emphasis on forms and structures (literally) instead of appropriate ethical and ritual behavior.
Jeremiah is commanded by God to speak these words at the Temple gates:
"Hear the word of the Lord, all of you of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Fix your ways and your acts and I will cause you to dwell in this place. But do not trust in deceitful words saying ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, these are the Temple of the Lord" (7:1-4).
Apparently, the Jerusalemite audience that Jeremiah addresses is skeptical about the prophet’s warnings of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. How could God destroy God’s own house!? Why should we not assume that the Temple worship will continue to atone for our sins?
"The Temple of the Lord"
Traditional commentators provide different explanations of Jeremiah’s dramatic, threefold repetition of the phrase "the Temple of the Lord." The thirteenth century Italian commentator Isaiah ben Elijah di Trani understood the threefold reference as alluding to the three pilgrimage festivals: even if you come to Jerusalem three times a year, do not count on being saved if you have not reformed your behavior. Less creative, but perhaps more to the point, Moses Alshikh (early seventeenth century Safed) reads the final repetition, "these are the Temple of the Lord" as referring to the people:
"Do not think that the Blessed One calls it the Temple of the Lord, that God actually dwells in a house; God dwells in people who, by acting righteously are themselves the Temple. That is to say, since you are not righteous, God has no Temple, so what does it matter if the building called the temple is destroyed, since it is not God’s true dwelling."
Jeremiah continues his rebuke with specific, although perhaps hyperbolic, claims against the iniquity of the people:
"Look, you are putting your trust in a worthless lie. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn sacrifices to Baal, and follow other gods to your own detriment, and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears my name and say ‘We are safe!,’ in order to go on doing all of these abominations?!" (7:8-10)
The prophet’s language clearly hearkens back to the Ten Commandments, "Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not testify falsely…" (Exodus 20:13). The eighteenth century Galician commentator R. David Altschuler, noted the strange phrase "in order to go on doing…" and claimed that the Temple had become a reason for doing the abominations, since the people "knew" they would be forgiven (Metzudat David).
A century later, R. Meir Loeb ben Yechiel Michael, the nineteenth century Rumanian bible exegete also known as Malbim, puts a more subtle edge on Altschuler’s comment:
"You will rely on the merit of the Temple in order to do these abomination until you reach the point that you say that the Temple not only affords forgiveness for your past acts, but also, "in order that you do all of these abominations" in the future. Until [you claim] that through the Temple you will ‘permit to yourselves’ the performance of any abomination."
The Temple was, in general, not an excuse to sin, but relying on the Temple’s "guarantee" of forgiveness could contribute to people become more inured or habituated to these kinds of acts.
An Earlier "House of the Lord" That Was Not Saved
The prophet continues with a clear, historical demonstration of how mistaken the reliance on atonement is:
"So go to My place that used to be in Shiloh, where I first caused My name to dwell, and see what I did to it because of the evil of My people Israel. And now, because you have done all of these things–says God–and did not listen, even though I spoke to you earnestly and often, but you didn’t listen, therefore, I will do the same thing that I did to Shiloh to this house which is called by My name and in which you trust. I will cast you out of my sight…" (Jeremiah 7:12-15).
God was not concerned about Shiloh. When the house of Eli sinned and acted corruptly, the ark of the Lord was lost to the Philistines; what should stop God from acting in the same way again? Malbim points out the subtle switch in the descriptions of Shiloh and Jerusalem:
"At Shiloh, ‘I caused My name to dwell,’ but with the Temple, it says, ‘which is called by My name.’ This is to say that God’s name does not dwell [in the Temple], but rather, it only is called by God’s name, for God’s presence already has departed from the Temple, due to the people’s sins."
"Do Not Pray for This People"
At the conclusion of the sermon, God commands Jeremiah to abandon the standard role of the Israelite prophet. Usually, the prophet is not an oracle, but rather, God’s voice of rebuke to the people and an intercessor and advocate for the people with God. God commands Jeremiah:
"As for you, do not pray for this people; do not offer petitions or prayers on their behalf. Make no intercessions, for I will not listen to you."
This command demonstrates the extent of the people’s sins; at this point, the people are beyond help. God’s attitude reverses the Israelite refusal to listen to God’s command, as quoted above, "you did not listen even though I spoke to you earnestly and often" (7:13), so I, God, will not listen to your petitions. Nevertheless, Jeremiah apparently continued to ask God to forgive the people, because God had to repeat the admonition not to pray for Israel two more times (Jeremiah 11:14 and 14:11).
Jeremiah 26 retells the Temple sermon and includes the details of the response:
"Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had finished speaking…that the priests and the prophets and all the people grabbed him and said, ‘You shall surely die! Why have you prophesied in God’s name that this house will be like Shiloh…’"
This is not the only time when Jeremiah’s life is threatened; one can only wonder what would motivate him to continue to try to intercede for Israel.
Bitter Rebuke, Then Consolation
Chapter 7 concludes with a series of brief statements condemning Israel’s behavior, and, in particular Israel’s idolatry and disregard of God’s message. The final verse presents a particularly bitter image:
"Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall be desolate" (7:34).
This image becomes a trope for Jeremiah. Twice more in the book is the image repeated negatively; the first time, when Jeremiah is commanded himself not to marry since any resulting children would have to suffer through the coming disaster (16:9), and the second time when the seventy years of captivity is foretold (25:10). The third time, Jeremiah repeats the image in the positive, establishing the language which is adopted by Jewish liturgy as the final of the seven blessings of the wedding ceremony:
"Once again will it be heard…in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem…the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of bride…For I will cause the captivity of the land to return as in the beginning, says the Lord" (33:10-11).
This image of consolation seems strange after reading the harsh condemnations of chapter seven. Indeed, some scholars have even questioned whether all of the consolatory materials in Jeremiah are original to the book and not later accretions. On the other hand, perhaps Jeremiah’s ongoing prayers on behalf of the people of Israel actually had some positive result. Or perhaps the assumption of the people in the Temple courtyard that some kind of forgiveness would come was correct, but misplaced. The Temple cannot be counted on as a source of forgiveness and restoration, but God can be.
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