This was the question King Zedekiah asked the prophet Jeremiah when their nation was in profound crisis (Jeremiah 37:17). And it is surely also a question many are asking in our present crisis.
Jeremiah’s answer to Zedekiah and to the other political leaders was not a comforting one (Jeremiah 37:17). The crisis will not go away, he said, many will suffer, some, including the king, will die, and the people will go into exile. Like us today, they were ‘facing their own mortality’ and heading into a ‘total recalibration of their existence’ (as journalist Simon Heffer described our present situation back in March in his trenchant critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initial response to the Coronavirus crisis). And, as seems likely for us today, even when the current crisis had run its course, things would never be the same.
Yet, the over-ruling trajectory of Jeremiah’s message is one of ‘a hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 32:17). Jeremiah faced the truth of their situation head on. But he also saw beyond it. As theologian, Walter Brueggemann put it, the book of Jeremiah “invites the reading community up to, into, and out of the abyss, at every point testifying to the one who is the Lord of the abyss”. Breuggemann, W. 2007. The theology of the book of Jeremiah, p 42. New York: Cambridge University Press. And this combination of sober realism and over-arching hope is at the heart of what I believe the Lord would say to us today.
In my next few articles, I shall address aspects of the Covid-19 crisis attempting to be faithful to this core message of sober realism and over-arching hope, and to the essence of the prophetic task as exemplified by Jeremiah and the other biblical prophets – that of seeking to understand the present times in the light of God’s eternal word as revealed in Scripture, of reading the Bible is such as way as to ‘reveal God’s hidden governance behind visible states of affairs’. Breuggemann, W. 2007. Op cit.
Finally, like Jerusalem’s crisis of 587 BC, Covid-19 is multifaceted. For ancient Israel, the immediate occasion was the imperialism and expansionism of the Babylonians, culminating in the siege and sacking of the city of Jerusalem and the carrying away of much of its population into exile. But the issue was compounded by the way the leaders, both political and religious, handled the crisis, the historical events leading up to it, and its profound social, political and economic consequences. Likewise, at the core of the Covid-19 situation is a highly contagious disease, which can cause anything from mild or no symptoms through to death, which has spread rapidly across the world and which is likely to be with us for some time. But most people’s direct experience of Covid-19 is of the lockdown, with its profound political, social and economic effects, many of which have yet to kick in. And the Covid-19 phenomenon is also shaped by our history and the way it has been addressed by our leaders.