After giving due warning to the historic enemies of Israel, Jeremiah now turns to her present tormentor, Babylon – the superpower of the day. Like the other empires that have risen and fallen before her, often attacking God’s people on the way, she too has risen and will fall, though that might seem unimaginable at Jeremiah’s time of writing.
I thought on reading these words of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias –
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It’s a striking image of human pride in the light of history. The Mighty of Ozymandias’ day may well have despaired to look upon his works but historians and poets can see them very differently. We can now look upon Babylon in the same way that Shelley’s traveller looked at the ruins of Ozymandias’ city – and it may be worth remembering that God looks at all human power and prestige in a much longer perspective still.
I didn’t realise until looking the poem up this evening (thanks to Wikipedia) that Shelley wrote his poem in competition with a friend, Horace Smith, who published his own sonnet Ozymandias just a month later. It’s similar in many ways, but with one difference which seems important in this context.
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place
Unlike Shelley, Smith explicitly draws our own civilisation, or at least, his own, into the same picture. At a time when London was the heart of the greatest – and still growing – empire in the world, perhaps Shelley (as, perhaps, a greater or just more confident poet) saw no need to spell out the parallel. Our civilisation and the superpowers of our own age have a ‘best before’ date too. Unless the Lord returns first, they will come to an end and all their power will be a footnote to history.
In the midst of the prophecy of the downfall of the powerful, there’s a brief excerpt of fascinating hope for Israel in 50:17-20.
In those days and at that time, says the LORD, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and none shall be found; for I will pardon the remnant that I have spared. (50:20)
Israel and Judah are being punished for sin – but when that punishment is over, it will be complete, and her offences will be utterly gone, wiped from the account with God. We know that we benefit from the same forgiveness, but after the suffering of another, not ourselves. If it takes several chapters of warnings of destruction to get us in the mood to realise the depth and breadth of our forgiveness, they’re worth ploughing through.
Jeremiah hasn’t been easy going – but its message of justice tempered with mercy has been well put across and for that I’m grateful.
We might hope for a more cheerful book next – but given that the title of the next book is ‘Lamentations’ perhaps we shouldn’t get our hopes up just yet…