Book Review: John Goldingay, The Theology of Jeremiah

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Goldingay, John. The Theology of Jeremiah. Downers Grove Ill..: IVP Academic, 2021. 151 pp. Pb; $22.00.   Link to IVP Academic

This short primer to the theology of Jeremiah joins Goldingay’s The Theology of Isaiah (IVP Academic, 2014). Goldingay wrote the forthcoming NICOT volume on Jeremiah (Eerdmans, late 2021), informing his reflections on this important prophetic voice. Like the previous book in Isaiah, The Theology of Jeremiah is more like a series of challenging reflections on the book of Jeremiah.

Part one contains four chapters covering the contents of Jeremiah. As with any prophetic book, historical context is critically important for understanding the content and theology of the book. The first chapter (“The Man, The Scroll”) briefly introduces what we can know of the “historical Jeremiah” and the world to which God called him to announce his word. The exile was a catastrophe, a great calamity which destroyed Jerusalem. As for the date and composition of the book, Goldingay takes the “more old-fashioned view that the scroll was produced during the decades after the fall of Jerusalem, during or just after Jeremiah’s lifetime” (p. 9).

In the second chapter, “Reading Jeremiah Backwards,” Goldingay begins with the end of the book, the tragic conclusion to the book: Babylon devastated Jerusalem, and Jeremiah himself takes refuge in Egypt. He then backtracks through the narrative to explain what has happened. “It’s amazing how God keeps giving the people of God a new start and how we are capable of throwing it away. I picture God sitting with his cabinet in the heavens and they are all rolling their eyes at our stupidity and then starting another discussion about how they can fix things to give us another chance” (p. 19).

Goldingay then surveys the contents of Jeremiah in two chapters entitled “Themes in Jeremiah.” The book of Jeremiah asks Israel to get its thinking and commitments straight. Goldingay therefore divides the book into sections calling on Israel to “think about”: the Exodus (2-6), the temple (7-10), the covenant (11-13), prayer (14-17), God’s sovereignty (18-20), the government (21-25), the “reassuring prophets” (26-29), restoration and returning (30-33) “what is written” (34-26), tragedy and trauma (37-45), Egypt (46-49), and empire (50-51).

Part two covers five theological themes which arise from a reading of Jeremiah. Each of these five chapters are illustrated with scripture drawn from Goldingay’s own translation, The First Testament (IVP Academic, 2018). After creating a biblical theological reading of Jeremiah’s view of the topic, Goldingay connects Jeremiah to Christian theology. Here is sometimes uses categories of systematic theology (as in the chapter on God), the New Testament (as in the chapter on the People of God), or connects the theological theme to a contemporary work like Anglican Common Book of Prayer.

Goldingay is adamant that modern readers hear Jeremiah’s voice. He sometimes wonders what Jeremiah would think of later readings of his words. For example, in his chapter on the People of God, Goldingay says, “Jeremiah speaks with more than one voice about Israel’s security or vulnerability. He speaks of God annihilating Israel, of his decimating Israel but preserving a small community, and of his restoring Israel and vastly increasing its numbers. Jeremiah does not seek to reconcile these different positions in the way Paul does in Romans 9-11. Maybe he was glad when he could eventually read Romans—or will be when he gets the chance” (p. 100).

Since God called Jeremiah to confront the people of Judah about their wrongdoing, Goldingay devotes a chapter to the topic. He avoids using the word sin until the last section connecting Jeremiah to Christian theology. Jeremiah in fact uses a wide range of terms for sin: wrongdoing, taint, corruption, profanation, shamefulness, stubbornness, and even stupidity! Once again Goldingay concludes the chapter with the question of “what would Jeremiah think” about the Christian generalized confession of sin, For Jeremiah, says Goldingay, there are times when a person needs to seriously face their wrongdoings.

More than most of the prophets, Jeremiah has a great deal to say about “being a prophet” (chapter eight). God commissioned Jeremiah to speak his word to Judah. But because of his message, he was unpopular and vulnerable to attack. Jeremiah prays for (and against) those who attack him, even asking God to do what he has intended to do and judge Judah.

For many Christians, prophetic books are about the future. Goldingay devotes his final chapter to the future, but he is also clear the vast majority of the book of Jeremiah concerns the prophet’s own day and the next several generations. “The consideration about messianic prophecy leads into a reflection on the alternative inclination of Christian theology to see prophecy such as Jeremiah as forth-telling more than foretelling (p. 140).” Even in the seventy-year exile concerns his immediate audience: their grandchildren will experience the restoration.

Can Judah avoid the threat of exile? After all, God promised total devastation. If Israel does not repent, will God limit the time of the devastation? If the people turn and repent, will God restore them from their exile among the nations? For Jeremiah, the answer seems to be yes. Goldingay offers a list of the things expected when Israel is restored (p. 100). However, when he connects Jeremiah to Christian theology, these things are ultimately fulfilled in Christ. (There is no pre-millennialism here).

Conclusion: The book is a collection of Goldingay’s insights after the intense study required to write a major academic commentary. But Goldingay writes for a popular audience, so his style is clear, non-academic, and occasionally witty. The book is not cluttered with jargon or technical details. He challenges his readers to think more deeply about Jeremiah, perhaps in ways which confront their own assumptions about the book.

Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.