Jeremiah’s promise of a future restoration for Israel and Judah centers on the image of a righteous branch. This image, while somewhat strange to our culture, carries along with it a rich and varied tradition, deeply rooted in the world and literature of the Old Testament. The tree of life in the Garden of Eden links trees with ideas of abundance, fertility, and renewal.
The Old Testament also uses arboreal imagery to talk about leaders, especially kings. In the famous passage from Isaiah 11:1, the king in the line of David is a “shoot” and “branch.” In this way, blessings from God reminiscent of Eden are delivered by way of a royal figure.
While this imagery is not unique, it is somewhat surprising here in Jeremiah because – to put it in a nutshell - Jeremiah hates politicians. Sharp criticism of kings in particular, and skepticism about kings in general, dominate the first 30 chapters of the book. And yet, the prophet’s vision of hope has a king at the center.
Before explaining Jeremiah’s “righteous branch” further, a quick and dirty overview of the book’s historical context will help set the stage. The book of Jeremiah straddles the most momentous event of Israel’s history: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the exile of its leaders to Babylon (586 B.C.E.). In the first half of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet announces that God is furious with the people of Judah, in particular its leaders, because they have re-negged on the covenant they made with God through Moses. They have not taken care of the poor, and they have not lived according to the stringent demands to worship God alone.
Not surprisingly, the leaders do not want to hear Jeremiah’s critiques of their ways of doing business. No politician wants to look weak – even before a god. According to Jeremiah, the leaders of Judah have prioritized – not the building of an ethical community – but their own comfort and position. Their desire to maintain their own power and influence has trumped everything. And these politicians have justified their behavior so many times and in so many ways, they don’t even recognize how far they have fallen from the ideal that guided the building of the nation.
This description of the leadership in Judah prior to its destruction rings a lot of contemporary bells. I don’t think you have to be a political radical to see some connections between Jeremiah’s characterization of Judah’s pre-exilic government and our U.S. government. Even in an ideologically divided nation such as ours, Democrats and Republicans alike agree that their politicians often prioritize the maintenance of their own power at the expense of the nation’s interests. Shocking displays of self-interested hypocrisy among politicians drive the abysmal job approval ratings of Congress.
As the country slides toward the fiscal cliff, politicians focus on how they can push a rival over the edge rather than on trying to break the nation’s fall. So many of our country’s leaders deliver sound bites that assign blame. Jeremiah would not be surprised.
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Given Jeremiah’s cynicism about politicians, it is remarkable that when he makes a radical turn to announce hope instead of judgment, at the center of his hope is a political leader.
The difference has to do Jeremiah’s new vantage point. When he speaks in chapter 33, his prophecy that Judah would be destroyed has come to pass. Babylon’s armies are invading the land with an efficient brutality. Sounds of war and scenes of death are the backdrop for his prophecies of hope and renewal.