Reading as the Reformers: A Review of “Jeremiah, Lamentations”

September 15, 2018
1 Comment
Title: Jeremiah, Lamentations (Reformation Commentary on Scripture)
Editor: J. Jeffery Tyler
Publisher: InterVarsity Press Academic
Publishing Date: April 24, 2018
Pages: 600 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0830829613

Pick up any contemporary commentary on the Bible and what do you expect to find? You likely hope to learn more about the book—its author, structure, original context. You may anticipate getting a deeper grasp of the intricacies of individual verses and phrases that puzzle you after your first read. You may even hope that the commentary connects the Bible to your everyday life as a Christian. But what if commentary on the Bible was meant to do more? What if it was meant to lead you deeper into relationship with Christ? That is exactly what J. Jeffery Tyler’s Jeremiah, Lamentations volume in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture does.

Any volume of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture is a window into a different world—the world of the sixteenth-century Reformers. These volumes lead the reader to walk alongside the Reformers into a deeper engagement with the Bible. In Jeremiah, Lamentations we see how the words given to the melancholic prophet Jeremiah in the aftermath of King Josiah’s reformation spoke powerfully into the European Reformation of the sixteenth century. As optimism that the gospel would sweep victoriously across the known world waned, Jeremiah’s fiery challenge and anguished lament resonated with the struggles facing the Protestant churches. Most modern commentaries are filled with the critical questions of source and form criticism, but this volume wrestles with questions from another age of the church, a time of not only struggle and controversy but also renewal and gospel witness.

Jeremiah, Lamentations is a series of quotations from Reformation era figures, reflecting on the texts of Jeremiah and Lamentations. Each section begins by printing the ESV translation of the biblical text, usually a whole chapter at a time. A short paragraph follows, summarizing how the Reformers tended to engage with this passage. The bulk of the book is a series of selections from commentaries, sermons, and treatises from the Reformation era commenting on each passage. While the dominant voices are Protestant and male, the volume includes intentional selections from Roman Catholic and female authors.

With the body of the book taking up over five hundred pages of quotations from the sixteenth century, Jeremiah, Lamentations is a challenging read. It does not reveal its fruit easily, but it is worth the effort. Reading with the Reformers provides a cross-cultural encounter for all of us in the twenty-first century West. By listening to Jeremiah with Calvin, Luther, and Melanchthon, our vision is widened beyond the urgent questions of our own contexts. Reading with those from a different century, even within our theological tradition, can reveal blind spots within our own reading of Scripture. On the one hand, many contemporary critical commentaries become fixated on reconstructing the original historical context and/or the original form of the text. On the other hand, many “practical” commentaries focus almost exclusively on how the Bible speaks into the life of the individual Christian. Jeremiah, Lamentations demonstrates how Reformation era commentators held both of these desires without falling into the danger of over-emphasizing either.

For the Reformers, the horizon of interpreting Jeremiah encompassed all of salvation-history and finds its center in Christ. Their comments include detailed discussions of the period of Josiah’s reign as well as practical advice for Christians living in the period of Reformation. Yet, all the prophecies of Jeremiah hold forth Christ clothed in his gospel. The words given to Jeremiah were given for us, that we might reject our idols and cling to Christ. The call of the LORD to “listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people and I will be your God” (Jeremiah 11:4) was certainly given to the people of God in the days of Jeremiah, but they were also given by God to the church in the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. The Reformers balance a concern for the original context of the prophecies of Jeremiah with a strong practical understanding of the Spirit’s work through Scripture in the present day. The Word of God is both historical and ever-present because it is the Word of God.

Even where we might disagree with their interpretation (such as the treatment of slavery in Jeremiah 34), listening to the Reformers read the Bible teaches us how to read. They read with both a critical eye and an open ear to the voice of God.

Honestly, Jeremiah, Lamentations was a long and tough slog. Jeremiah is a challenge book in itself, full of judgment, sorrow, destruction, and only glimpses of hope. The commentary runs just over five hundred pages of text which, read a chapter a day, takes months to work through. However, patiently listening together to Jeremiah and Lamentations will produce perseverance and hope. Reading Jeremiah with the Reformers was an exercise in reading with suffering, broken sinners and seeing the gospel in the places of darkness. Over and over again, Jeremiah forced the Reformers to confront their hearers with the dangers and destructive nature of sin, its violation of our covenantal relationship with God, and the hopelessness of our situation apart from Christ. Every glimpse of grace in Jeremiah was an opportunity to show forth the gospel to a people who, like us, were desperately in need of the Good News. The warnings of Jeremiah are meant to awaken us to our sin, and the promises of restoration for Jerusalem and Judah point to Christ’s kingdom. As Heinrich Bullinger comments, “these things have been fulfilled spiritually through the peace and security prepared for us by Christ, and these things will be fulfilled more liberally in our souls and bodies on the last day” (318). Even Jeremiah’s anguish as a prophet speak to the difficulties of the pastoral life, as Philipp Melanchthon said, “Through their trials true prophets taste the sufferings of Christ, which the attacks on Jeremiah also signify” (110-111). Reading Jeremiah, Lamentations opens our eyes and ears to the gospel, calls us to repentance, and sets our feet on the way of the cross.

In reading Jeremiah, Lamentations we are forced to deal, not simply with the text of Jeremiah and Lamentations, but with the God who speaks through them. The Reformers believed that God speaks through the ancient prophecies of Jeremiah into the church today, and this belief suffused every word they wrote about the book. For them, a commentary could never simply give information, but it should help us do what Hebrews commands, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecto of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). For the reformers, a commentary should fix our eyes upon Jesus, clothed in his Gospel. Jeremiah, Lamentations does just that.

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