The bulk of chapter 23 of Jeremiah’s book is on the subject of false prophets who preach untrue things in the name of God. Through the mouth of Jeremiah God calls them out for saying whatever they want and for never listening to Him in reality (or even knowing Him at all), and declares that He’s against them and their false prophecies. All very expected, coming from a God who is holy an just. But what’s surprising, perhaps, is the precise sentence of Judgment that God declares for the false prophets:
Therefore behold, I, even I, will utterly forget you, and I will forsake you and the city that I gave you and you fathers, and cast you out of my presence. And I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten. (Jer. 23:39-40)
Let’s break this down into a bullet-point-style verdict.
- God will forget them.
- God will forsake (or abandon) them.
- God will forsake (or abandon) the place He promised to dwell among them.
- God will make them leave the place He promised to dwell with Him.
- God will never forget their guilt and shame.
A brief commentary…
First of all, the structure of this sentence seems intentional. It begins and ends with the concept of forgetting and encircles an explanation of forsaking. Let’s start in the middle and work our way out.
God will forsake them. This means that they will no longer dwell in or near the presence of God. The Spirit of God will not empower them to prophesy anymore (if that had ever happened in the first place), God will not live in the Temple in Jerusalem where they were supposed to be worshiping Him, and even they will no longer be allowed to live in Jerusalem or go to the Temple anymore. Those false prophets and God will, physically and spiritually, part ways. Understanding this definition of forsaking helps us to make sense of the concept of forgetting.
God will forget them. This is an odd one: at the beginning of the verdict, God says He’ll forget them, and the end He says He’ll never forget their shame and such. Obviously if we use the usual current definition of forget, that is, “to not remember who they are or were,” then this is a contradiction. Therefore, there has got to be something more to it than just that. This is where the concept of forsaking helps us to understand the concept of forgetting. God is everlasting and all-knowing; He isn’t about to go senile and forget peoples’ names, nor is He going to make His knowledge finite by removing parts of His own memory or omniscience. Rather, the sort of forgetting God’s using here is something more like the opposite of begetting. When something or someone is begotten, there is an intimate relationship between the begetter and the begotten. When something or someone is forgotten, there is a distinct absence of relationship between the forgetter and the forgotten. Ultimately it points right back to the idea of forsaking: God will cease to live in the presence of those sinners, and also cut off what’s left of their relationship.
On the flip side…
On a final note, it’s interesting and helpful also to note that to forget is the opposite of to remember. Unsurprisingly, this is another oft-underestimated word in the Bible. In the context of sacrifices and worship, remembrance has to do with offering something to God, particularly so that He will remember it. And again, it’s not so much about waking up a senile old man in the sky, but asking for His presence. Remembrance is the opposite of forgetting and forsaking. Let’s bullet-point this:
- When God forgets someone, they’re no longer in close relationship.
- When God forsakes someone, they’re no longer in close presence.
- When God remembers someone, relationship and presence are restored.
Another way of putting this is to say that when God remembers someone, He literally “re-members” them: they are made members of God’s family, and their own members are put back together. It is a work of wholeness and completeness, Shalom (perfect peace) is brought about. When God remembers His people, they are brought into right relationship with themselves, with one another, and with God.
So when we talk about God’s presence, and our relationship with God, this is the sort of context we need to lean back upon. We are in God’s presence and in relationship with Him because God remembers us. The primary thing that God has provided us as an assurance of his remembrance of us is the Eucharist. For Christ himself said, as he transformed the Old Covenant Passover feast into the New Covenant Eucharistic feast, “do this in remembrance of me.” We bring the sacrifice of Christ to God for Him to remember. For in re-membering that once-for-all sacrifice, God renews the presence of God-With-Us (Emmanuel) and renews His relationship with us. Therefore let us continue to repent of our sins and wickedness, casting aside the false prophecies that we daily proclaim in thought, word, and deed, and receive the Sacrament Christ instituted for us as a sign and pledge of His love and mercy.