Take a good look at the image above. The great Dutch master Rembrandt painted it in 1630, when he was only twenty-four. It portrays the prophet Jeremiah on what may have been the darkest day of his life. The mood is somber and sorrowful; the contrast of light and dark suggests some momentous event.
[Visit wau.org/rembrandt to view an interactive version of Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. There you will find a high-resolution rendering of the painting, along with the ability to zoom in specific aspects of it discussed in this article, like the Temple, King Zedekiah, and the remnants of the Temple.]
What has happened? What is it that a mournful Jeremiah seems to be pondering so intently? A bit of background can be helpful as we try to appreciate the drama of this scene and its message for us today.
The Biblical Backstory. Jeremiah lived in a turbulent age. About a hundred years before his birth, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrian army. By the time he began to prophesy, around 622 BC, the southern kingdom was caught between two other superpowers that were looking to expand their territory. East of Jerusalem was the Babylonian Empire; its capital, Babylon, was located about fifty miles south of modern-day Baghdad. Southwest of Jerusalem was the kingdom of Egypt.
The Israelite kings, minor players in this international conflict, tried to figure out which of their mighty warring neighbors to back. Meanwhile, Jeremiah urged obedience to God’s covenant, which Israel had violated in so many ways. He borrowed his words from the teachings of Deuteronomy: “See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death” (Jeremiah 21:8; cf. Deuteronomy 30:15). Israel’s bad choices would have dire consequences, Jeremiah warned. The Temple would be destroyed, and Jerusalem would become “a curse for all the nations of the earth” (Jeremiah 7:14-15; 26:6). As you might expect, these words enraged the priests and the people. When they had had enough, they decided to kill him.
But in 597 BC, Jeremiah’s prophecies began to come to pass. Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. He left the city and the Temple standing but enthroned Zedekiah as his puppet. King Zedekiah did listen to God’s word spoken through Jeremiah—but only when he felt threatened by the Babylonian overlords. In one case, he granted freedom to Hebrew slaves, as Deuteronomy 15:12 requires. When the Babylonian threat looked less menacing, though, Zedekiah reneged and took back his slaves (Jeremiah 34:8-22).
Through Jeremiah, God censured Zedekiah’s hypocrisy. He reminded the king that God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But now, several centuries later, the Israelites had forgotten their origins and were enslaving others, including fellow Israelites. Jeremiah kept sounding the alarm: If you choose “the way to death,” you will be exiled to Babylon; the king will become a disgrace (Jeremiah 24:8-9; 25:11).
Jeremiah’s words proved true. The Babylonians returned to Jerusalem in 587 BC to obliterate the city and deport many of the people. It’s this traumatic event in Israel’s history that Rembrandt chose as the setting for this painting: Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.
Mourning and Meditating. Rembrandt has exercised some artistic license, for the Bible doesn’t tell us that Jeremiah stopped outside the city to meditate on its destruction. But it’s easy to imagine him doing just that, for Jeremiah loved Jerusalem. Its destruction hurt him deeply.
In the scene, Jeremiah has just left Jerusalem to escape to Egypt with other refugees. (They settled in Tahpanhes, a town on the northwest side of the Sinai Desert: Jeremiah 43:1-7.) Look carefully at the background on the left, and you can see a shadowy depiction of Jerusalem’s destruction, with the Temple about to go up in flames. Perhaps you can also make out the hazy figure rubbing his eyes as he runs away. This could be Rembrandt’s imaginative portrayal of King Zedekiah, whose eyes have just been plucked out at the command of King Nebuchadnezzar. The Israelite king, who was then led away in chains to Babylon, has become the “disgrace” that Jeremiah foretold (2 Kings 25:7). (Editor’s note: To see a detailed version of this painting, visit our website at wau.org/rembrandt.)
In the foreground, Jeremiah pauses to rest. His bare foot, bathed in light, tells us that he is observing the mourning customs of ancient Israel. But his attention is not focused on the city’s destruction. His mind is elsewhere.
Despair and Hope Embrace. Jeremiah seems to recognize that the word of God he had spoken has now come to pass. But there is more. We can imagine that the barefoot prophet, deep in meditation, is laboring to understand the meaning of this crisis for Israel’s future. Rembrandt hints that Jeremiah is on the verge of seeing new possibilities for God’s chosen people, even in the midst of this tragedy.
Jeremiah’s elbow rests on a book, probably the Bible. The Bible as we know it today was not yet complete at the time of Jeremiah, but parts of it were in formation, especially the Book of Deuteronomy. And so Rembrandt depicts a weary Jeremiah supporting himself on the Bible: just as God’s word supported him during his prophetic ministry, it will nourish him in this disaster.
Next to the Bible is a basin containing the gold chains that had hung in front of the Temple’s inner sanctuary. The basin itself recalls the ten basins that Solomon had cast for the Temple. Sweeping down from the basin toward Jeremiah’s foot is one of the ten curtains from the tabernacle that Moses had built (1 Kings 6:21; 7:38; Exodus 26:1). But why has Jeremiah carried off these sacred objects? Because even as the Temple burns, he foresees the day when God’s house will be rebuilt, and these sacred objects will find their rightful home. In Jeremiah’s gaze, despair and hope embrace.
On a Personal Note. Like most refugees, Jeremiah has few personal belongings with him. The one that stands out here is a clay bottle behind the Bible. This, too, is a visual clue.
You may remember that at one point, God commanded Jeremiah to visit a potter. He saw how the potter continually reworked the clay until he had a vessel to his liking. As Jeremiah watched the potter at his wheel, God spoke to him: “Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done? says the Lord. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). Now, as he flees the burning city, Jeremiah carries the clay vessel that we can imagine the potter had given him. Israel is still the clay in God’s hands; it will be reworked for a new mission.
In a section of the Book of Jeremiah that is sometimes called the Book of Consolation, the prophet proclaims that new mission: “Days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). God has not abandoned his people—the potter will rework his clay!
There are moments in our lives when we share Jeremiah’s experience, those times when we are tempted to feel discouraged by the infidelity of the people of God in our own day. We see divisions and factions among us; we observe our failures to care for the poor or to love one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. But God has not abandoned us, as he had not abandoned Jeremiah! When we feel weighed down by something in our past—by the loss of a spouse, a job, or personal health, or when the future we hoped for seems to be going up in flames—even in the midst of these sorrows and disasters, God has not abandoned us. These crises can prompt us to turn to God, as Jeremiah did, and allow the Potter to refashion us for a new mission.
A Prophetic Pope. In every age, God raises up many prophetic voices that call us to heed the signs of the times. Today, for example, the voice of Jeremiah can be heard in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’.
Jeremiah called the people of Israel to be faithful to God’s covenant made through Moses on Mount Sinai. Pope Francis calls us to be faithful to the covenant God made with humanity at the dawn of creation. Jeremiah named the infidelities of his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Francis names our modern-day infidelities—the harm that our consumer lifestyle does to God’s creation and to the least of our sisters and brothers. Just as Jeremiah foresaw the Babylonian attack, Pope Francis foresees the conflicts that will arise as nations grow desperate for access to fresh water.
But in the midst of these crises, both the prophet and the pope offer words of hope. Francis tells us that “the experience of the Babylonian captivity provoked a spiritual crisis that led to deeper faith in God” (Laudato Si’, 74). He is hopeful that the present spiritual crisis will likewise spur our generation to shoulder generously our “grave responsibilities” (165). Jeremiah trusted that God would refashion the exiled Israelites into a new people with God’s covenant written on their hearts (Jeremiah 1:33). Pope Francis hopes God will refashion us into a people faithful to the covenant of creation so that we will take better care of the garden that God has entrusted into our hands (Genesis 2:15).
In Rembrandt’s painting, we see a prophet trying to understand a calamity but never abandoning hope that God will restore his people to their home. Jeremiah’s prophetic dream came to pass (Ezra 1–2).
In Laudato Si’ we hear a pope specifying the ways we have harmed God’s garden, as he, too, gazes into the future and affirms his hope that God can stir us to restore our home to its original beauty. May his prophetic dream also come to pass! And may we all take consolation in the knowledge that God is with us as we work toward its fulfillment.
Craig E. Morrison, a Carmelite priest, teaches Aramaic and biblical interpretation at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has a personal interest in lectio divina and preaching.