First testament enthusiasm is contagious.

The Theology of Jeremiah: The Book, the Man, the Message
John Goldingay
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 151

If nothing else, John Goldingay deserves credit for writing a book titled, Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself (2015). Though I have never read it, I like how the title flips the script, where it’s the new instead of the old that is in question.

Solidifying his esteem for these ancient writings Goldingay authored The First Testament: A New Translation (2018), which I have been using for my daily readings in that part of the Bible. The aim is to give readers a sense of the Hebrew. I like the challenge of it not being easier to read or understand.

Perhaps a little of this philosophy transfers to The Theology of Jeremiah, which includes his translation. He likens the writings to a “collection of blogposts” more than a book. It’s helpful to keep this in mind in relation to the organization of the “scroll”, his word for the book of Jeremiah.

The scroll is not a linear progression of events. The author has a forthcoming commentary, The Book of Jeremiah, coming later this year, which most likely will analyze the material line by line, going from start to finish. The way the scroll was written, however, makes it like a series of different scenes. Goldingay skips back and forth like a movie that alternates between past and present to show how it fits together.

It’s an expert synthesis of the major themes and theology, drawing from the various parts. To use the author’s analogy, it’s to provide a view of the forest from the trees. It’s to explain why the forest might seem to be full of examples of the same trees.

Being the scholar that he is Goldingay draws from rather than reads into the text. Application is helpful, but first of all it’s important to grasp meaning, which is the focus in this book. There is only a judicious use of application.

Part one analyzes Jeremiah’s person, scroll, story and theme. Each theme emerges from consecutive chapters, which include outlines. Jeremiah 11-13, for example, focuses on the “covenant” between Yahweh and Israel. Illustrative of his care in exegesis, Goldingay uses the word “pledge” instead of covenant. Pledge has some overlap with the word translated covenant “but isn’t the same.” “The pledge meant their listening to what he said and acting on it” (35).

It’s something that God imposed on Israel, and yet there are two sides to it. Judah benefited from the relationship in return for surrendering its independence. One of the initial benefits was God getting Israel out of Egypt. Another, “Israel benefited again because Yahweh took them into Canaan, a country with so much land for sheep and goats it seemed to be flowing with milk, and so much land for orchards it seemed to be flowing with syrup that was to be made from the fruit of the trees (traditionally, translations speak of the land flowing with honey, but fruit syrup is the sweetness the word usually denotes” (36). I appreciate this small incidental that sheds light on a familiar phrase.

In what initially could raise eyebrows Goldingay goes on to say that “it might be misleading to say that Yahweh was liberating Israel from Egypt. He wasn’t granting their freedom … Yahweh was actually removing them from service to one master so that they entered the service of another master” (36). Unfortunately, too often God’s people have to learn the hard way that it’s much better to serve God than some other master.

Near the end of this section readers find a distinction that can be easily overlooked. “Was Yahweh’s pledge conditional? … Putting the question this way causes more problems that it solves (as it does in human relationships). Yahweh’s grace and commitment were not conditional, but they did require a response of commitment, otherwise the relationship wouldn’t work. Or we could say that Yahweh’s promises were unconditioned but they were conditional” (37). This is a good example of the nuance that Goldingay continually applies to the text.

Towards the end of the second section, which deals with Jeremiah’s theology, the author surprises. In acknowledging the difficult of defining a prophet, he makes reference to this ministry continuing “recurrently” in the church over the centuries. It’s not clear what he means but it made me wonder if he believes that there are people who function as prophets today.

Some circles in Christianity do recognize people as prophets. They are seen as part of the five fold ministry referenced in Ephesians 4:11.

He does offer a little clarification when he composes questions to ask “prophets or purported prophets today.” In one of his best applications from the life and ministry of Jeremiah, he sets a high standard, one that might leave most weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Lastly, I appreciate how Goldingay highlights apparent contradictions, only to show how they hold together and can be respected despite the tension. In relation to the destruction of Judah, “Did Yahweh intend total destruction and then have a change of mind? Would the order of the chapters rather imply that he intended incomplete destruction, then changed his mind in favor of total destruction, then changed his mind again and didn’t do it” (131).

The author points out that at times Jeremiah appears to be hyperbolic. “In between some of the qualified threats, Jeremiah has already observed to Yahweh, ‘you finished them off’ (Jer 5:3), though he goes on, ‘but they refused to accept discipline,’ which indicates that they still existed and that Jeremiah was being hyperbolic” (131).

Also, “If people turn, then Yahweh can pardon and devastation can be averted (Jer 36:3). If there is no turning and devastation happens, there can be compassion and pardon” (Jer 30:18, 31:34, 33:8). This kind of analysis shows restraint. I appreciate someone who avoids reconciling competing scenarios to achieve what might be an artificial resolve.

It’s why I like reading Goldingay and would read any of his books. He may not always be right but shows himself trustworthy.

Michael Dalton