Four Senses: Jeremiah 17

Here’s a sample interpretation of Jeremiah 17:19-27 that uses the Church’s Three Rules and Four Senses to reading Scripture (review them here).  I’ve deliberately tried to tease things out into their parts the way I would with students, so the whole is a bit stilted at times.

First the text, suitably read and re-read to the brink of memorization:

19 Thus said the LORD to me: “Go and stand in the Benjamin Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, 20 and say: `Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. 21 Thus says the LORD: Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. 22 And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. 23 Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. 24 “`But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, 25 then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited for ever.26 And people shall come from the cities of Judah and the places round about Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the Shephelah, from the hill country, and from the Negeb, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, cereal offerings and frankincense, and bringing thank offerings to the house of the LORD. 27 But if you do not listen to me, to keep the sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.'”

My first thought in approaching this text is that it uses Jerusalem and Sabbath, both of which are common types of heaven.  But Jerusalem, or Israel, is also the soul and the Church (thanks, Origen).  Let’s see what we can make of this.

The literal sense is easy: Judah is about to go into exile at the hands of the Babylonians because they do not honor God by keeping holy the Sabbath.  If they want to be restored, and have kings once more, they must change their ways and serve God with their whole heart.  If not, Jerusalem will be destroyed.  This strange tension–are they in exile already, or is there still time to save it?–fits in nicely with the final years of their subjugation to Babylon before the final destruction of city and temple.  Confer II Kings 23-25 for more details.

Now for the spiritual sense of this passage.  Here the prophet instructs us on the right ordering of our soul, for Jerusalem is a type of the soul (allegorical).  The various rulers and citizens of the city (v. 20) are the many powers of the soul, all of which must be subject to God as their king and all of which are called to account by the prophet, for any of them may lead us astray from the narrow path.  We are given to know that this instruction concerns a matter of greatest gravity, for it is given “for the sake of our lives” (v. 21), that is, to avoid mortal sin.

And what is this instruction on the right ordering of our soul?  To keep holy the Sabbath; that is, to attend Holy Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation with reverent devotion (moral).  By Rule 2 (interpretation of Scripture cannot contradict Sacred Tradition) we legitimize the move from Israel’s Sabbath to the New Sabbath, the Dominical Day whereon our Lord rose from the abode of death.  And this new Sabbath is in keeping with Jeremiah’s own words, who speaks of a new heart, and a new law, and a new act of restoration even greater than the Exodus out of Egypt.

But why the Sabbath?  There are a few commandments ahead of it in line after all.  In the literal sense Jeremiah seems to regard this as the primary failing of the men of Judah; whereas Isaiah often rails against the injustice of the Israelites, Jeremiah faults primarily their observance of God’s Sabbath.  In the spiritual sense there is quite a bit we can say.  In one sense the third commandment is a sign of the first three, and so by commanding observance of the third we always have in mind the first and greatest.  Again, by the Second Vatican Council the celebration of the Lord’s Day is both source and summit of the faith (Rule 2 again).  As the fulcrum of Christian life, it touches all the commandments–those that pertain directly to God and those that pertain to our fellow man.  And again the prophets often speak of the uselessness of our worship unless it proceed from obedience to all God’s law (Rule 1).  Just so, this teaching enjoins us to worship in spirit and in truth, that is, to keep the whole law that our worship not be in vain.

The Sabbath is also a figure of our heavenly rest (anagogical).  To reach our last end the prophet teaches we must be ever mindful of it.  If we order our life around heaven, then our soul will be inhabited by the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit forever.  And this is to possess the first fruits of heaven even now.  The gifts of the Holy Spirit especially are a foretaste of the glory that is to come.  Those who have known their delight in this life already have some idea of what heaven will be like.

And of course it wouldn’t be a jeremiad if we didn’t end on a somewhat darker note!  The penalty for failing to worship God in spirit and in truth is too horrible to contemplate: a fire kindled in our gates, devouring our palaces and never quenched.  Just so does eternal damnation destroy all our works in this life.

To summarize:

The allegorical sense of Jerusalem is the soul of the believer.  The various inhabitants of the city are the powers of the soul.  The kings who return to the city are the virtues.  The offerings brought to the city are the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The fire is hell.

The moral sense concerns the Church’s commandment to attend Holy Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day of obligation, and to be mindful of our heavenly rest.

The anagogical sense shows us that heaven is the eternal possession of all virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit; our experience of those things now gives us a glimpse of what heaven will be like for us if we persevere.

I’m a bit unhappy with the anagogical section; I kept trying to invoke Rule 3 but it was always too vague or required a longer explanation than I wanted.  I have never used this one in class before, so this is my test run.  I guess I’d need to try running it live to get that part hammered out better. Ah well, teachers learn too.


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