One of the great benefits of Beeson Divinity School’s approach to personal theological education is that students become lifelong friends. This is as it should be, for the scriptures teach that human beings are made for community, since we are made in God’s image. Paul and John stress their strong preference for face-to-face fellowship over written communication in their epistles. Jurgen Moltmann observes, “The community of Christ is a community in the friendship of Jesus. The person who lives in his friendship also discovers Jesus’ friends his brothers and sisters, the people he calls blessed.” I have found the book of Jeremiah a rich resource for finding friends who share the joys and burdens of ministry. Jeremiah, Baruch and Ebed-melech stood together as their nation fell apart from rebellion against God. They invested in the ruins together.
The Prophet and His Friends
Jeremiah’s commissioning clearly indicates he would not be popular. His early ministry was often lonely (see 11:18–12:6), but he did not revel in his rectitude or solitude. He loved the people and the land. He prayed for his enemies until God stopped him (15:1–2). He grieved that he had to be so contrary to others (20:7–18).
Eventually he was not alone. Chapters 32–45 introduce the scribe Baruch, Jeremiah’s closest associate. From 605 B.C. until after 587 B.C., these men were partners in calling, affections and service. Their long association lessened their burdens and presents a compelling case for the necessity of friendship in theological vocation.
The book does not reveal how the two met or why they agreed to work together. But there was nothing unusual about their association. Scribes had been working with prophets for centuries in other lands and probably in Judah and Israel as well. John Hilber argues persuasively that ancient scribes were careful to convey accurately what prophets said. Honest scribes did not feel free to change the message. Jeremiah 8:8 reflects this concern for accuracy, for it criticizes “the lying pen of the scribes” that alters God’s word, and makes it “into a lie.”
In 605 B.C., Jeremiah had Baruch write his earlier messages on a scroll. Jeremiah 36 notes that Jeremiah had been banned from the temple for his stringent preaching, so he ordered Baruch to stand in for him “on a day of fasting in the hearing of all the people in the Lord’s house” (36:6). Jeremiah hoped the scroll’s words would spark repentance (36:7). Some months later (36:9), temple leaders and local officials heard Baruch read the scroll (36:11–15). They confirmed that Baruch worked with Jeremiah (36:16–18), then kindly advised Baruch and Jeremiah to hide (36:19). James Muilenburg argues that the audience’s protective reaction likely shows that Baruch had a high reputation. Regardless, the two men were now inextricably linked to the scroll, its contents and to one another.
The scroll’s next audience included King Jehoiakim, one of the shiftiest political operators in Israelite history. Unlike the earlier hearers, the scroll does not disturb Jehoiakim in the least. He burns it. Jeremiah and Baruch’s efforts seem to have been for nothing. Two significant things happen next. First, Jeremiah and Baruch rewrite the scroll, adding many similar words to it (36:32). Some scholars think this noting of additions indicates Jeremiah and most other prophetic books were edited and expanded for years after the prophets died. In context, however, the statement is a specific recollection of defiance, courage, faithfulness and theologically driven friendship, not a clue about redaction processes.
Second, Baruch receives a personal message from God recorded in 45:1–5. God notes Baruch’s groaning over his circumstances (45:1–3). He informs Baruch he is tearing down centuries of work done for his people (45:4). God then says, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.” Baruch then receives the same reward offered Jeremiah: God’s presence and God’s protection (45:5). Baruch learns ministry is not about prestige. Baruch’s association with Jeremiah may be bad for his career, but it is good for his relationship with God.
Baruch and Jeremiah persevere for 20 more years. At a crucial point, they get help from a Cushite named Ebed-melech. This man rescues Jeremiah from imprisonment in a muddy cistern, bravely confronting King Zedekiah on Jeremiah’s behalf. For his faithfulness, God provides Ebed-melech the same promises of life and divine presence given Jeremiah and Baruch (39:15–18).
After Jerusalem falls, some men kill Babylon’s appointed governor (41:1–3). Fearing Babylon’s wrath, the people ask Jeremiah if they should flee to Egypt or stay in Jerusalem (42:1–6). When Jeremiah counsels the latter (42:7–22) the people deny this is God’s word. They blame Jeremiah’s so-called faulty oracle on Baruch’s malignant influence (43:3). The people then take the two friends to Egypt (43:4–7), where they probably died, bereft of the comfort of familiar territory.
But prior to departing to Egypt, the two had made an odd purchase. As the Babylonian army besieges Jerusalem, Jeremiah languishes in prison (32:1–5). God tells Jeremiah that he will have the opportunity to buy land outside the city and that he must do so (32:6–8). God tells Jeremiah to invest in the ruins of Judah.
Jeremiah buys the land; Baruch documents the transaction (32:9–14). Quite understandably, Jeremiah asks God why this purchase was necessary (32:16–25). God answers that Jerusalem will be rebuilt, David’s lineage will rule again, and all the promises of the new covenant outlined in chapter 31 will be fulfilled (32:16–33:26). God will create a new kingdom out of the ruins of the old. As it turns out, Jeremiah has gotten a priceless deal. He has purchased property in the kingdom of God; and his friend Baruch holds the deed.
It would be nice if the book ended with Baruch returning to this spot to put his late friend Jeremiah’s life and words in proper order. This was not to be. Many diligent scholarly works have understandably sought to explain the book of Jeremiah’s seemingly scrambled order and stages of composition. Sometimes a simple answer is best. Perhaps Jeremiah reads like the work of refugees pressed by circumstances because that is precisely what it is. The book’s unsettled contents may mirror Baruch and Jeremiah’s unsettled lives.
We could wish for something neater. Or, we could thank God that for every faithful Christian theologian ever imprisoned, displaced, hounded and exiled, for every writer ever forced by persecution and deprivation to leave an untidy work, there is a book that reflects and honors their service. We could thank God that we see Jeremiah and Baruch’s friendship in the life of people like Eberhard Bethge, who collected his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s scattered papers and letters and made them available to the world. We could thank God for hope that comes from knowing current friendships will continue forever in God’s kingdom. We could rejoice in knowing the God who rebuilds the ruins of this world.
What are the characteristics of this friendship we can model today? First, we can regularly make common cause with like-minded servants of God. We can work together, diligently using our individual gifts.
Second, we can sharpen one another’s thinking and serving, and thus help one another do good work. Jeremiah spoke God’s word to Baruch concerning his selfish attitude in 45:1–5. Perhaps we who are theologians can do a better job of helping one another improve our research, writing and teaching. Perhaps we can even learn to do so without first posting our criticisms on the worldwide web.
Third, we can stand with our friends, even when doing so risks our reputations. Jeremiah and Baruch never sold out a friend for political, institutional or professional gain. Sadly, this is partly what makes their friendship so rare.
Fourth, we can invest in the ruins together. God does not promise us that biblical Christianity will win the day, if winning the day means evangelicals possessing prestige, power and influence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer ended his teaching career instructing eight people in a rural farmhouse, faithfully investing in the ruins. Investing in the ruins testifies that God reigns. The outcome of our labors is not in doubt. As co-heirs with Jesus the Christ, we have a place in the choicest territory.
I conclude by speaking quite candidly and gratefully. I could not have made it this far without Christian friends. In particular, at a crucial time in my life, certain friends mediated Christ’s delivering strength to me. Not all my friends agree with me theologically or denominationally. But because we share faith in Christ, I will enjoy their company forever. I counsel all of you, especially younger friends getting started, not to put the great things you seek for yourself before affection for God and his servants. Rather, emulate Jeremiah and Baruch’s courageous and godly friendship. Your life will be richer for it.
Paul R. House is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School.