Weeping Prophet or Weeping God?

Who is weeping in Jeremiah 9:1?

This weekend I will be preaching on Jeremiah 8:19-9:1. It’s been a long time since I’ve preached a poetic text from the prophets, and it’s been a joy jumping into the text this week and interacting with great commentaries. In this post I wanted to collect some choice quotes around the question of voice in this text.

One of the most difficult aspects of interpreting the passage is determining who is speaking when. In the span of a few verses, depending on how you read it, the voice moves between Jeremiah, the people, and God. Of particular interest on the question of voice is Jeremiah 9:1:

Oh that my head were waters,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

that I might weep day and night

for the slain of the daughter of my people!

Many take the speaker to be Jeremiah, and this is one of the verses from which he earns his reputation as the weeping prophet. But others take the speaker to be Yahweh who weeps over his people. One interesting thread in the commentaries is the idea of the interchangeability of the voice of the prophet and the voice of the Lord, so that Jeremiah’s expression of grief is also the expression of the Lord’s grief, and vice versa.

“This poetic unit is one of the most powerful in the Jeremiah tradition. It is also one of the most pathos-filled….This is poetry that penetrates God’s heart. That heart is marked by God’s deep grief. God’s anger is audible here, but it is largely subordinated to the hurt God experiences in the unnecessary death of God’s people. God would not have it so, but the waywardness of Israel has taken every alternative response away from Yahweh.” Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 91-92.

“We must not think, for example, that if God is grieved by our sin he cannot also be angry about it or punish us for it. On the contrary, the very nature of the relationship is such that terrible anger and desperate grief are both simultaneously appropriate reactions, as those who have experienced or witnessed a marriage breakdown will immediately agree. Jeremiah has already portrayed the relationship between YHWH and Israel as a marriage that began with a honeymoon and ended in divorce. Anger and tears? Absolutely.” Christopher Wright, The Message of Jeremiah

“The identification of the speaker(s) in these verses is difficult. The questioning laments of the people in v. 19b (quoted by the speaker of v. 19a) seem clear enough, as does v. 20 (NRSV places both in quotation marks; NAB only the second; REB only the first). It is possible that v. 22a is also spoken by the people, but that is less certain. A more difficult task for the interpreter is to sort out the speaker in the remaining verses. Is it God or Jeremiah or both? Divine speech markers appear at 8:17 and 9:3, but it is difficult to know to which verses they refer. God is clearly the speaker of v. 19c (NRSV places it in parentheses). It has been usual for interpreters to name Jeremiah as the speaker of the other verses, probably for theological reasons, namely, hesitance or refusal to ascribe grief and hurt to God. A few scholars now name God as the speaker of most if not all of these verses. (See especially Kathleen O’Connor, “The Tears of God and Divine Character in Jeremiah 2–9,” God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, ed. T. Linafelt and T. Beal Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998, 172-85; Mark Biddle, Polyphony and Symphony in Prophetic Literature: Rereading Jeremiah 7–20 Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1996, 28-31.) I have suggested that readers are not asked to make a sharp distinction between the voice of prophet and the voice of God in these and other lamenting texts; in them we can hear the language of both. (T. Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 160-62.) Yet, the voice of God is primary; if Jeremiah speaks these words, it is because God first speaks them. The lamenting prophet embodies the words of a lamenting God. For other texts wherein the mourning of God and prophet are overlaid, see 4:19-21; 10:19-20; 13:17-19; 14:17-18. It is likely that all the protagonists in this situation—people, prophet, and God—voice their laments. The interweaving of speakers gives the text a certain liturgical character, but it may be more accurate to say that we hear a cacophony of mourning at Israel’s destruction.” Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary