Drive south out of our community toward Wichita and you’ll spot an advertisement for a bunker. It’s not a billboard, but a display of the real thing: a full-size corrugated steel hidey-hole. It looks like an enormous culvert pipe with a submarine portal on top. There’s a sofa inside, inviting passers-by to imagine themselves hunkered comfortably below the earth while a Kansas tornado roars above.
A shelter from the storm is always a good thing. The problem is that sometimes our minds hide out in a bunker mentality, turning privilege and wealth into a fortress to wall ourselves off from risk — and from others, especially those on the margins.
Nowhere is this more the case than in times of fear and scarcity, like when Jeremiah prophesied. Good king Josiah, the one Hilkiah and company had invested so much in, who had outlawed witchcraft and reinstated the Torah and celebrated the Passover anew, was struck by a meaningless arrow in a battle that was not his own (2 Kings 23; 2 Chronicles 35:20-27).
There was no one like Josiah who loved the Lord and followed God’s law — before or after — not his son Jehoahaz, nor his son Jehoiakim, nor his grandson Jehoiachin who reigned a mere three months, nor his other son Zedekiah (2 Kings 23:25; 23:32; 23:36-37; 24:18-20).
In the days after Josiah’s death, Babylon threatened, then exacted tribute, then tore down Jerusalem’s walls, emptied the temple of its sacred appurtenances and burned it to the ground along with the palace and other great houses of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25).
With a prophet’s certitude, Jeremiah tracked Judah’s dismemberment to the failure of the people to abide by God’s covenant and the failure of the kings to uphold God’s justice.
“O house of David! Thus says the Lord: Execute justice in the morning and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed” (Jer. 21:12).
Don’t trust in the strength of your hidey hole (21:13). Your walls can’t save you.
Neither can your troops: “A king is not saved by his great army” (Psalm 33:16).
Says Jeremiah: God’s will to destroy Jerusalem will be carried out even if you manage to grind down the whole army of Babylon. The last raggedy, wounded Babylonians will hobble from their tents swinging their crutches to torch the city (37:10).
Jehoahaz, Josiah’s original and fleetingly popular successor, is gone and dead in Egypt. Yet there is still a narrow hope for those who remain (22:10). For the people: Choose life by laying down your arms and surrendering to the Babylonians (Jer. 21:8-10). For the new king: Repent and “act with justice and righteousness” (22:3).
Jeremiah believed in that possible future. He put his money where his mouth was and purchased a parcel of land outside the walls of Jerusalem in Anathoth, the heartland of his priestly clan (32:1-15). They accused him of deserting and threw him into a cistern, where he almost died.
But in fact, even knowing Jerusalem’s fate, Jeremiah resolved to remain with his people until the end. He likely died somewhere in Egypt, carried off in the chaos that followed the assassination of Gedaliah, the governor installed by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 41-43).
We may not have Jeremiah’s prophetic insight into what will come in the next months, but we can emulate his confidence. We follow the same God.
Rather than a bunker mentality in which we gopher down and rely on our wealth or government or stockpiles to save us, we can take on Jeremiah’s Anathoth mentality, embrace the shared vulnerability of this moment and extend care in our communities, especially to those closest to the edge (22:3).
Now is the time for these words: “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan., and author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press). He blogs at DoxologyProject.com.