Natural Consequences (3): Jeremiah on Suffering and Punishment

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What is punishment, according to the teachings of the Old and New Testaments? Is it just God repaying us for our guilt in a way proportional to the evil we did by inflicting suffering on us? Or can punishment mean something else too?

Normally when we think of “punishment” it is something inflicted retributively by an authority who is responsible for moral censure. But if we find a wider range of punishment language in Scripture, then this should caution us against assuming that elsewhere, punishment must mean some suffering that is meant to repay us for our guilt. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah uses punishment terminology to describe the effects of sin upon the person who sins and their social group and environment.

Jeremiah 2:19

Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will chastise you. Consider, then, and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you refuse the Lord your God and have no awe of me.

Jeremiah 3:2-3

Look up to the barren heights and see. Is there any place where you have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers, sat like a nomad in the desert. You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withheld and no spring rains have fallen.

Jeremiah 3:24-4:4

From our youth shameful gods have consumed the fruits of our fathers’ labor—their flocks and herds, their sons and daughters. Let us lie down in our shame, and let our disgrace cover us. We have sinned against the Lord our God, both we and our fathers; from our youth till this day we have not obeyed the Lord our God.

“If you will return, O Israel, return to me.” Declares the Lord. “If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory.”

This is what the Lord says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.”

Jeremiah 4:18

Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!

Jeremiah 5:21-25

“Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear: Should you not fear me?” Declares the Lord. “Should you not tremble in my presence? I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting barrier it cannot cross. The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail; they may roar, but they cannot cross. But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts; they have turned aside and gone away. They do not say to themselves, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’ Your wrongdoings have kept these away, your sins have deprived you of good.”

Jeremiah 14:7

Although our sins testify against us, O Lord, do something for the sake of your name. For our backsliding is great; we have sinned against you.

Jeremiah 25:7

“But you did not listen to me,” declares the Lord, “and you have provoked me with what your hands have made, and you have brought harm to yourselves.”

Jeremiah 34:17

Therefore, this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth.

Jeremiah 44:7-10

Now this is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Why bring such great disaster on yourselves by cutting off from Judah the men and women, the children and infants, and so leave yourselves without a remnant? Why provoke me to anger with what your hands have made, burning incense to other gods in Egypt, where you have come to live? You will destroy yourselves and make yourselves an object of cursing and reproach among all the nations on earth. Have you forgotten the wickedness committed by your fathers and by the kings and queens of Judah and wickedness committed by you and your wives in the land of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem? To this day they have not humbled themselves or shown reverence, nor have they followed my law and the decrees I set before you and your fathers.

Sins can be described as “punishing” or “chastising”.  They also cause blessing to be withheld, and deprive the sinner of good.  Related to these ideas are statements about how sin can “testify” against a sinner, or disgrace can cover sinners.  A mixture of permissive and active language is used to describe God’s involvement in the suffering that results from sins.  God can become “angry” or his “wrath can break out like fire”.  But God can also be described as “withholding” or giving “freedom”.

All of this data should be taken into account in our understanding of punishment and suffering and its relation to the divine will.  The mixture of active and passive language to describe divine action, and the mixture of language locating the source of suffering in God’s action or in the internal, social, or cosmic consequences of human actions, should alert us to the possibility that a highly-nuanced explanation stands behind God’s involvement in human suffering.  The close association between “bringing disaster on yourselves” and “provoking God to anger” raises the complicated question of whether or not God’s anger can be identified with self-inflicted suffering.  These theological issues will be explored in later posts with the help of patristic guidance.

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One Response to “Natural Consequences (3): Jeremiah on Suffering and Punishment”

  1. Natural Consequences (6): God’s Vengeance « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] given that Jeremiah explains punishment in terms of the natural consequences of sin (see here), why not think that Paul could similarly edit the meaning of “punish” to have a broader […]

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