“Nebuchadnezzar my servant” and the Church: reading Jeremiah as an exercise in typological ecclesiology
This essay explores the way in which a contemporary reading of the place of Babylon in the Book of Jeremiah can inform discussion of the practice of Christian churches today. It argues that a “typological” reading of the Old Testament in a Christian context and a “canonical” approach to such reading can make possible the use of the Old Testament in contemporary ecclesiology.
After establishing this methodological framework it outlines a “typological ecclesiology” based on seeing the Church as constituting the new Israel via the mediation of Christ. The implications of this are explored through an account of God’s sovereignty and of Israel among the nations.
This theological background then forms the basis for a reading of Jeremiah focussing on nation and empire and particularly Babylon, the Davidic monarchy and the covenants. It is argued that the account of the significance of the exile and of its temporary character in Jeremiah enable a profound exploration of the relationship between divine and human authority, or sovereignty.
Old Testament Theology – reading the OT typologically
Possible Christian approaches to the OT
For the purposes of this essay I would like to distinguish four possible ways for a Christian to read the Old Testament: as a library of timeless doctrine and ethics (“inerrancy”); as a record of a surpassed stage in religious development (“history of religions”); as a means of access to another way of being in the world (“Athens and Jerusalem”); as a repertoire of human roles in relation to God (“Typologically”).[i]
While the “inerrantist” position is strongly influential in parts of the church it is not one that features greatly in the academic context and indeed is completely ignored in recent surveys of the development of the discipline.[ii]
The “history of religions”, exemplified in the study of the OT by scholars like Wellhausen, Gunkel, Eichorn and Mowinckel[iii], sees these texts as the documentary residue of the development of Israelite religion. Influenced by 19th Century philosophies of historical progress of ancient Jewish religion was seen as a stage through which religious development had passed. This made theological use of the OT deeply problematic.
As part of the revolution in Christian theology associated with the name of Karl Barth and the period after the First World War the reading the OT as revelation moved back towards the centre of Biblical scholarship. The two thinkers most prominent in this connection were Eichrodt and Von Rad.[iv] While great differences exist between the approaches of these theological interpreters they have in common a determination to see the OT as revealing God now.
More recently the development of “canonical” and “literary” interpretation in a “post modern” field has encouraged the return of a Christocentric and “typological” method which sees Christ as the fulfilment of the religion of Israel and therefore can read the OT text through the lens of Jesus.[v] It is this approach which inspires the efforts made in this essay to grasp Jeremiah theologically.
Israel – nation and Church
Typological readings seek to understand the OT texts as revealing “types” of Christ, as enabling us to understand aspects of Christ’s identity as God the Son. Critical to this undertaking is the idea that he represents the fulfilment of Israel’s mission as God’s people. For the modern Christian one extension of this is into ecclesiology. The Church is indwelt by Christ and continues Christ’s work, it is the “body of Christ” and in so being becomes the people of God.[vi]
This gathering together and fulfilment of the Israel’s mission in Christ is multi-dimensional. In particular the three-fold ministry of Prophet, Priest and King concentrated in the person of Jesus has long been a theme of the Christian tradition. In the gospel narratives of Jesus’ ministry and the reflection on it in the epistles this theme, with the revelation of God’s will and word, the sacrificial cult, and the operation of the Law, can be discerned. These aspects of Christ’s work can only be grasped in their inherent richness through OT record.
In turn the mission of the Church, authorised, commanded and exemplified by Christ in the Spirit, needs to be developed through a reading of the Scriptural record, one part of which is attempted here. Israel is seen as a type of the Church, mediated by the embodiment of Israel by Christ. It must be stressed that this appropriation of the OT for Christianity does not necessitate the denial of the continuing existence of Israel itself as the chosen people, but can rather can seen as a parallel development.
Israel and the nations – the global sovereignty of God
God’s choosing of Israel (and typologically of the Church) has to be set in context of the Israelite claim of the universal sovereignty of their God. The choosing of a peculiar people does not imply the surrender or the abandonment of the rest of humanity or indeed the rest of the cosmos. In insisting on the singular creative activity of Yahweh Israelite religion made clear that their God was not one among many but unique. This claim remains central to Christian faith
The status of the division of humanity into nations within this singular created order forms part of the Genesis narrative that culminates in the election of Abraham. The genealogy of the nations is traced to Noah and his sons in Genesis 10 and the diversity of languages to the disaster at Babel in Genesis 11. The OT regards the division into nations as secondary and originating in sin. Israel’s election is set in this context.[vii]
Abram’s call and the covenant that comes from it constitutes the nation of Israel but also sets them in the family of nations in a very particular way. Israel is to be a blessing to the nations. It is set apart within the family of nations but not over or against them. This tension between being a nation amongst nations, involved in their struggles over power and pre-eminence but also established as a blessing to them with a special relationship to the sovereign God is essential the the Biblical narrative.[viii]
The sovereignty of Christ and the place of the Church
Jesus Christ as incarnate Son of God concentrates in his person the three-fold ministry of prophet, priest and king inherited from historical Israel. This distinctively Reformed emphasis[ix] includes as central the idea that the risen and ascended Christ is King. The meaning of this office is a matter of some controversy but here it is assumed (in line with the typological orientation outlined above) that it can be grasped only through immersion in the difficulties and complexities of the Scriptural record. Furthermore the relationships of Christ the King, the Church as his people, and the secular power are to be worked out through an encounter with that record.
One central issue to be dealt with here is that of the fraught question of how to reconcile God’s universal sovereignty with the election of a peculiar people, the “scandal of particularity”. This is present in the OT, as we have noted above in relation to Abraham’s call and will examine below in reading Jeremiah, but is also intensified by the situation of the Church, dispersed throughout the nations.
This is especially so when one considers the situation of the Church with respect to the secular power. For a long period the Churches in both the Eastern and Western territories of the Roman Empire, its successor states and self-appointed inheritors was deeply entangled with the state. Since the 17th Century there has been a long process of separation. This leaves the question of sovereignty as deeply problematic for the churches, especially those with a history of state establishment. It is the central argument of this essay that these questions can be illuminated through a reading of the OT, and especially of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah to which we must now turn.
Jeremiah the man and Jeremiah the book
In beginning to interpret Jeremiah some basic decisions need to be made. In particular one needs to decide how one will orient oneself in relating the canonical Book of Jeremiah and the 7th and 6th Century individual Jeremiah who is described within the book and to whom at least some of its words are ascribed by it. How one makes these decisions will depend on how one understands the activity of prophecy, the status of the biblical text and the right way to approach it.[x]
Here the text as we have it is given priority while the historical context from which it emerged and with which it deals is taken seriously as a matrix for its interpretation. It is accepted that there are limits to how much we can ever know about what sections of the text originate with Jeremiah the man or about when and where the book was put into its final form. Where we can know these things they can help us in our search for understanding but the whole book as we have it as taken as authoritative.[xi]
Prophecy, nation and empire
This approach makes it essential that one states a view of the relationship between prophecy and history understood in the widest sense. Prophetic witness takes place within history but insofar as it has canonical status it acquires a trans-historical status. That is to say that the events on which it reflects and within which it strives for influence are relevant to its meaning but that meaning can only be released for us by our typological reading back from the person of Christ. The meaning of the text for us is determined Christologically, that is to say it is salvation-historical.[xii]
This does not imply an abandonment of or indifference to temporal or secular history. Our typological-Christological reading does not release us from secular history but rather gives us a way of grasping hold of the revelation of God within it as reported by the Scriptural record. The concrete historical reference of the text is not accidental, any more than is Christ’s human particularity as the man Jesus.
The working out of the God’s rule in the history of the nations and empires is accessible to the church through the typological identification of Church, Christ and Israel. This is the guiding idea that determines this reading of the text.
People, monarchy and God
The locus of prophetic witness is Israel as God’s chosen covenant people. The implied hearer of the prophetic word is always Israel and the framework that makes it comprehensible is always covenant.[xiii] The nature and scope of the covenant is a matter of considerable complexity, though. In the OT God enters into a series of covenantal relationships with a succession of partners and these covenants overlap and interact. Here four of these need to be noted: the Noahic covenant which includes all the nations, the Abrahamic covenant that establishes Israel as the chosen people, the Davidic covenant that defines the divinely authorised monarchy, and the coming “covenant of the heart promised by Jeremiah.[xiv]
It is tempting to read Jeremiah’s promise of the writing of the Law on the hearts of the people (Jer. 31:31-34) as replacing and superseding the Davidic covenant that makes of Israel a political entity defined by the royal presence in Jerusalem, especially given that no Davidide was to rule there again after the exile. The text itself, however, does not quite allow this, and nor does the present determination to read Jeremiah typologically. There are passages that clearly promise the restoration of the House of David to the throne (e.g. Jer. 33:17-19), and these have always been important to the Christian reading of Jeremiah.
This continuing promise of a covenantal king to mediate God’s sovereign rule is one of the key routes by which we can read Jesus back into the OT and gain present access to the revelation of God’s nature and will to be found there .
Empire and the sovereignty of God
This revelation in respect of human political order can be sought in prophetic speech about how political Israel should position itself in regard to empire. One might expect, given the special status of Israel and of the Davidic monarchy, that these entities would be represented as the special instruments of God’s purpose in the realm of power politics. If they represent God on earth, in some way, then surely God’s plan would be worked out through their action. This, though, is not always God’s purpose as the prophetic witness reveals it.
At key moments in the biblical narrative other actors are called forward to do God’s work. two such actors stand out and in each case they are not mere nations but multi-national imperial powers: these are Babylon and especially Nebuchadnezzar and Persia and especially Cyrus (the somewhat more ambiguous case of Assyria here being left aside)
Of course there are limits to the role of these empires. In the Bible they are never discussed in isolation from their interaction with Israel and their legitimacy is derived from their enactment of God’s purposes for and through Israel. When Nebuchadnezzar comes to Jerusalem or Cyrus to Babylon they come in response to God’s will and command, whether they know it or not, and it is this dependence that the prophetic witness explains and explores.
Israel and empire
This imperial commissioning and legitimation derives from the nature and behaviour of Israel. Jeremiah’s call on Israel to submit to Babylon does not invoke anything inherent in the nature of Babylon itself, rather it points to the divine enactment of a purpose for Israel through “Nebuchadnezzar my servant” (Jer. 25:9, 27:7, 43:10). The Babylonian imperial project punishes and corrects Israel which has betrayed its God through idolatrous worship and ethical and political failure. Bringing Israel back to its true identity as God’s partner requires the action of Nebuchadnezzar.
When this purpose had been achieved, when the exiled remnant had ripened, Babylon’s legitimacy is at an end. There is no “Babylonian covenant”, the servanthood of Nebuchadnezzar is derivative and temporary. Hence the call for the overthrow and demolition of Babylon and the return of the exiles. The exile has prepared the people for a new stage in their role as bearers of God’s presence and God’s revelation to the creation.
This does not mean, though, restoration of full political autonomy to Israel. God’s purpose for Israel is now enacted through the action of Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45:1). This movement is not fully explicit in Jeremiah, being more thematic in the Book of Isaiah, and this absence in Jeremiah is itself suggestive. In Jeremiah the promise of a “Branch from David’s line” (Jer. 33:15) is explicit and definitive. The restoration of a political power directly and permanently representing God’s power on earth remains on the horizon.
Meaning in exile
This theme of political restitution, though, stands in tension with another in the text of Jeremiah. This is the “covenant of the heart” (Jer. 31:31-34) which has exercised such power and fascination in the development of Christian thinking. This theme itself, I would like to suggest, is related to the idea of the Babylonian exiles as the “good figs”, as the primary bearers of the continuing mission of Israel (Jer. 24)[xv].
The separation of the people from the land, the temple and the monarchy which comes about with the exile, combined with the imperative to retain their identity as the people brought into being by the Abrahamic covenant enables a relocation of the primary site of God’s presence from a geographical to an anthropological matrix. However the retention of the promise of return and restitution prevents this from becoming a flight from history and embodiment towards a purely spiritualised or interiorised mysticism that might dissolve the community into individual quest for unity with the divine. By remaining Jews in Babylon the exiles enable a new development that retains its continuity with the story of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.
This enables a recognition of the exile as a stage in the working out of Israel’s mission and not as a termination of interruption of it. This theological interpretation of historical experience is a key aspect of prophetic activity and education in it is vital to the way in which Scripture can be creatively authoritative in the still ongoing historical realisation of Christ’s redeeming work.
Conclusion – Jeremiah’s word to the Church
Exile and the rule of God
If the Church can be identified with Israel through the mediation of Christ what does the prophetic word of Jeremiah have to say to her? It has been suggested here that temporal sovereignty rests ultimately with God in Christ but that its enactment uses servants chosen and called by God for that specific task. It has further been shown that this mode of servanthood requires no explicit knowledge or intention on the part of the servant so called. Finally it has been suggested that this mode of servanthood can be grasped theologically only in relation to the people chosen to be God’s peculiar people.
The position of the Church can be seen to have features in common with that of Israel in exile, but the question then necessarily arises of from where the Church can be seen as exiled. There is no immediate correlate of the promised land for the Church. For some contemporary Christian thinkers the lost world of Christendom in which the Church was coterminous with the society and the state was its secular partner represents the land to which return should be wished.
Reading Jeremiah provides some helpful correctives to this perspective. First both before and after the exile God’s rule is enacted through political power external to the people and indifferent to their God. Secondly the promise of a restored monarchy remains unfulfilled after the return to Jerusalem and the construction of the second Temple.
The covenant of the heart, the eschatological vision of an unmediated and direct rule of God is the promise the Christian must appropriate via Christ’s fulfilment of the Law.
The promise of restitution
This promise is to be realised in and through history, the prophetic insistence on God’s action in the nations and empires demonstrates this. It is not, though, to be realised through the action of those who consciously orient themselves to God’s will. These people, Israel and now the Church, have their role to play, but this role is primarily one of covenant loyalty in worship and prayer, with right action flowing from it.
The political establishment of divinely appointed and aligned sovereign power may at times have a part to play in God’s purpose but the Scriptural text points clearly to the reality that this will not always be so. In some cases God can choose and send a Nebuchadnezzar or a Cyrus to do God’s work, and the work given them to do may not always be comfortable or agreeable to God’s people. It will, however, always derive its theological meaning from its relation to them.
In order for the Church to be what it is called to be, the body of Christ and the new people of God, it has to recall and proclaim God’s promise. The promise of a return to a land for which the ancient promised land is merely a type, the land of milk and honey, of the realisation of the peace and plenty figured in the prophetic texts of eschatological yearning.
There are times when the historical processes by which God prepares the way fall to the chosen people but there are other times when the people in exile have to wait for the time when God’s chosen servant, of whom Cyrus is the type, appears to bring about the movement towards the land of promise.
BRUEGGEMANN, W. 1988. To pluck up, to tear down : a commentary on the book of Jeremiah 1-25, Grand Rapids
Edinburgh, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ;Handsel Press.
BRUEGGEMANN, W. 1997. Theology of the Old Testament : testimony, dispute, advocacy, Minneapolis, Fortress Press.
BRUEGGEMANN, W. 2008. Old Testament theology : an introduction, Nashville, Tenn., Abingdon Press.
CARROLL, R. P. 1986. Jeremiah a commentary, London, SCM.
DULLES, A. R. 1987. Models of the church, Garden City, N.Y. ; London, Image Books.
KECK, L. E. 1994. The new interpreter’s Bible : general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books : in twelve volumes [and index], Nashville, Abingdon Press.
LOHR, J. N. 2011. Taming the untamable: Christian attempts to make Israel’s election universal. Horizons in Biblical Theology, 33, 25-33.
MCKANE, W. 1986. A critical and exegetical commentary on Jeremiah, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark.
MUILENBURG, J. 1965. Abraham and the nations : blessing and world history. Interpretation, 19, 387-398.
PERDUE, L. G. 2005. Reconstructing Old Testament theology : after the collapse of history, Minneapolis, Minn., Fortress Press.
SAKENFELD, K. D. & ABINGDON PRESS. 2006. The New Interpreter’s dictionary of the Bible, Nashville, Tenn., Abingdon Press.
STROUP, G. W. 1983. The relevance of the munus triplex for Reformed theology and ministry. Austin Seminary Bulletin (Faculty ed.), 98, 22-32.
WALTKE, B. K. & YU, C. 2007. An Old Testament theology : an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach, Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan.
WATSON, F. 1997. Text and truth : redefining Biblical theology, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark./
[i] This scheme of classification draws on that of Leo Perdue in (Perdue, 2005) p 15-16
[ii] e.g. (Watson, 1997) pp 179-224 and (Brueggemann, 2008)pp 1-116
[iii] (Perdue, 2005) pp 36-39
[iv] (Brueggemann, 1997) pp 16-38
[v] Find reference for typological reading
[vi] On models of the church setting “body of Christ” ecclesiology in context see (Dulles, 1987 esp. Ch3)
[vii] See the discussion of Christian readings of Israel’s election in (Lohr, 2011)
[viii] See the very suggestive account in (Muilenburg, 1965)
[ix] See (Stroup, 1983) for an account
[x] (Perdue, 1985) illustrates the variety of ways in which the interpretation of Jeremiah may be approached
[xi] For a brief overview of scholariship on the composition of the text see (Keck, 1994) Vol. VI pp 563-566
[xii] For a helpful account of Christological readings of the OT see (Waltke, 2007) pp 143-161
[xiii] See (Keck, 1994) Vol. VI 19-20 for an interesting discussion of prophecy, covenant and empire
[xiv] (Sakenfeld, 2006) Vol. I pp767-777
[xv] (Carroll, 1986) pp482-486; (Brueggemann, 1988) pp208-212; (McKane, 1986) pp 605-617