Introduction to the Tuned for Praise Series
Leonard Bernstein once observed that “music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”
In this series, we will take advantage of music’s power to pick up where words leave off. Each Bible passage will be paired with a link to a recording that—in my judgement at least—interprets Scripture’s words in ways that words cannot.
Read: Jeremiah 31:7-14
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble…. (Jeremiah 31:9, NRSV).
It’s easy to personalize this beautiful passage from Jeremiah, especially when it sounds so much like the 23rd psalm. It sounds like the prophet is speaking directly to us. But if we take the time to hear his words in their original context, they may speak to us even more powerfully. It’s one of those times when the longest way around may be the surest way home.
Here’s what I mean.
Jeremiah was speaking to a people who had seen their dreams shattered. The Babylonians had come calling, and nothing would ever be the same.
Some years before, the prophet Habakkuk had described the badly-behaved Babylonians with stunning precision. He called them a
…fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
Dread and fearsome are they;
Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
They fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
with faces pressing forward;
they gather captives like sand.
At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.
Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!
Habakkuk 1: 6-11, NRSV
The people of Jeremiah’s day had seen all of this play out before their eyes. The temple was in ruins, the land was lost, and the citizens of Judah who hadn’t been killed had indeed been scattered like sand. What made it all so much worse was wondering why God had allowed it all to happen.
Now that you know this, imagine what Jeremiah’s words must have sounded like to those traumatized survivors. Imagine them listening to this crusty old prophet who has seems to have undergone a complete personality transplant. No more gloom and doom, but words of comfort and hope.
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back.
Jeremiah 31:8-9, NRSV
Some of them must have thought he was crazy. Maybe it had all been too much for him, and his mind had snapped.
But I wonder if some of them heard his words and hoped against hope. He had been right, after all, about what was coming. Maybe he had inside information this time, too. Maybe God was, somehow, going to find a way to lead them home.
People have been listening to Jeremiah’s words for centuries, hoping against hope. They are so surprising, so out of character, and so “over the top,” that we may be tempted to write them off as delusional.
But what if they aren’t? What if they’re true? What if God intends to lead, not just Jeremiah’s brokenhearted exiles, but the brokenhearted children of every age to home where we “shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,” where “our life shall become like a watered garden, and [we] shall never languish again”? (Jer. 31:12)
It may be hoping against hope, but it the hope at the heart of the Gospel.
While the words to this traditional American hymn do not come directly from Scripture, they capture well the spirit of Jeremiah 31. Listen especially for the soprano soloist in the final verse, whose soaring invitation on God’s behalf seems designed to break through even our deepest pain. As she puts it, “There is no such beauty as where you belong. Come away, come away—I will lead you home.”
Prayer: Our hope is in you, O God. Help us to hear and follow your voice—through grief, through pain, through doubt, and through disaster. Lead us home.