In a few weeks, I’m heading to a couple of conferences where I’m going to be teaching Jeremiah. It was a flattering invitation, there’s to be a bit of a fun holiday as well, and I thought it would be an easy gig.
Let me ask you the obvious question: have you ever actually read Jeremiah? I don’t mean, have you read the famous bits, and I don’t mean have you read it sequentially in your quiet times over a series of weeks. No, I mean, have you read it, all the way through, in a sitting.
So, by way of going back to basics, here’s how I approached a whole book – by some estimates, the longest book in the Bible.
1.Read and re-read
Yup, you have to grab a chair, a bible, some coffee (more than one) and read. This is the time when the Readers Bible comes into its own: no clutter, cross references or marginalia, just the text. I reckon it took me over two hours, closer to three. But it’s a heads-down-and-focus activity.
And then you have to do it again, and again. Not on the same day, naturally (and once I did have a slight pause because I dozed off), but the hard news is that that the hard work still needs doing.
Once I’d read it three times I allowed myself to crack open the reference tools – easy ones, like the introductions to study Bibles, just to get my bearings. But nothing can replace place your own, first-hand reading.
2.Think Sunday school (maps, diagrams, charts)
With Jeremiah there are a couple of background questions which a fairly easily solved with a map and a time-line. There are five kings, two of whom have almost identical names, one who operates with a nickname, and two who reign so briefly that blink and you’ll miss them. But, think Sunday school and draw them out.
Then there’s the structure of the book, and there are broadly three kinds of problem. One is on the surface, which is that it is not a chronological structure and you can’t map it onto a timeline. Having said that, it becomes very difficult to work out what the structure actually is, and it becomes clear that senior scholars disagree. Second, there’s the fact that the book bears witness to a textual history – at one point being deliberately burnt, and re-written with expansions. And third – which isn’t obvious until you open the commentaries – the Greek version (LXX) is shorter and differently ordered to the Hebrew. Which came first, then?
Again, get out the paper, and diagram away.
3.Use larger paper
Now this sounds stupidly obvious, but I’ve had to wean myself off A4 for this project. I’ve bought pads of A3 graph paper, and an A3 ring binder. It felt really over the top, but the scale of Jeremiah has made it necessary. If I find it hard to keep the argument of Romans clear in my mind, it is much harder with non-linear material which is five times the length.
4.Use all the tools available
Study bibles, commentaries, bible dictionaries, exegetical dictionaries – the works. I’ll be frank: I won’t have the time to read all the commentaries I would like, by a long way, but their introductions are critical at this stage. And I’m looking at the Ancient Near East too, because these events happened on the world stage, and events like the battle of Carchemish, the siege of Jerusalem, the rise of Babylon and the reign of Nebuchadnezzar are marks of historical accuracy and plausibility for people.
5.Identify your best tool
The stand out book for me, is Andrew Shead, A Mouth Full of Fire (IVP Academic, 2012) This was the book that really helped my understand the nature of the book, its architecture, and relevant themes.
6.Work on structure and patterns rather than detail
Some books become friends for long seasons, and I can think of some where I had read all the major commentaries available. That’s not practical here, and the wealth of detail makes it impossible to be carefully methodical and still have a life – the great ones who write the commentaries labour for decades, and it is an inevitable truth that long bible books produce long commentaries.
But, to say it again, these big writers write their introductions last, and use them to distill and clarify. There’s treasure there, and although I’m mostly a plodder by nature, and I work through books and commentaries from beginning to end, if I’d done that here I’d never have got beyond chapter 2
And on my own, I’m looking for the big blocks of ideas. Shead identifies a particular repeated phrase that serves (mostly) as an internal structural marker – that’s helpful. In the second half there’s a repeated circling back to prophecies ‘in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim’ – a critical date to research. And then there are the dramatic events and theological themes which are so rich in this book: identifying those is critical. There’s the rhythm of poetry and prose, the alternating kings in the spotlight, the framework around the whole – this is a book with structure which it’s exciting to discover for yourself.
7.Dig some test wells
Having said that, Im really grateful for some opportunities to preach from Jeremiah as well, because that enables me to go deep at a couple of places, and really pull the detailed elements together.
Calvin produced five volumes on Jeremiah, verse by verse – that is daunting. But I think I’m in a better place both to give the overviews, and to plunge into some deep pools as well.
What have I missed?
In ‘The Word of His Grace’, I try to help preachers tackle a long, narrative book: Acts. I walk you through the structure, to show how it fits together, and give sample sermons along the way, with a running commentary on the choices and decisions I made.
You can order ‘The Word of his Grace’ at discount from 10ofthose here.
Or from Amazon here.
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Aussies, Koorong has it here.