AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 61, 2013
ANDREW G. SHEAD, A Mouth Full of Fire. The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah (New Studies in Biblical Theology 29; Downers Grove, Illinois: Apollos, Inter-Varsity Press, 2012). Pp. 328. Paperback. $18.99.
Shead’s deep immersion in the book of Jeremiah is poignantly expressed in his thanks to his wife and children for their tolerance “over the adoption of an unplanned prophet” into their family (16).
Noting the prevalence of vocabulary concerning ‘word’ and ‘words,’ Shead states that Jeremiah hears the word of God which he then speaks or writes in order for it to become the words of God (61). Thus, human words convey the word of God which is never ineffectual; if they are heard and obeyed they bring blessing, if they are unheard or disobeyed they bring judgement. Shead examines the prophet’s use of divine speech formulae in forming the structure of the book, arguing that Jeremiah highlights the direct speech of God in order to present ‘the word of the LORD’ as the main character.
Shead undertakes a close exegetical reading of several chapters: Jeremiah 1, 14–15, 26–28, 30–31, 36 and 50. He provides clear figures and tables to aid the analyses of these texts and offers helpful hints to enable an easier reading of his book, such as skipping footnotes and blocks of text. He discusses Jeremiah’s prophetic call (1:1–19), God’s anger towards Israel, warnings of invasion and destruction (Chap. 4–10), covenant unfaithfulness and disobedience (Chap. 11–17). He notes that the word of the LORD battles with Israel, especially its prophets, priests and kings who have ignored Jeremiah’s words (Chap. 25–34). He concludes that, while God’s word informs and warns the people, it also acts against them with destructive power. Yet, the destroying divine word is also a creative, restoring and renewing word, providing hope for the future (31:22). It is through judgement that life is enabled to emerge.
Although Shead presents a brief biography of Jeremiah the person, he also notes the prophet’s essential absence from the book that bears his name. With the focus on the word of the LORD as the main character, Shead explains that Jeremiah acts as an embodiment of the divine word. Jeremiah’s life, words and actions constitute God’s communication. Even when he expresses his own opinions and argues with God (e.g., 15:16–17, 20:7–9) this is also God’s message. Jeremiah’s words are the words of God.
While ‘word’ and ‘words’ take centre stage in Jeremiah, there is also a focus on ‘hearing’ (147) and discerning which is the true word of God? Jeremiah’s message is pitted against that of the false prophets (e.g., Chaps 5, 23, 26). Though his message does not meet all of the normal biblical requirements for identifying true prophecy, nevertheless, his hearers are expected to discern the true prophetic message and are held accountable. Whether it is heard and obeyed or unheard and rejected the word of God is efficacious—it never fails. For Jeremiah, God’s speech and actions are identical. The divine word has intrinsic power, once spoken it will happen. The heard and obeyed word of God is renewing and transforming; however, when unheard and rejected it becomes a word of destruction.
Following announcements of judgement, invasion and exile, Jeremiah presents a radical reconfiguration of the covenant relationship (Chaps 30 and 31). The sin that had been engraved on the people's hearts (17:1) will be replaced by God’s law (the Deuteronomic Torah 30:33–34). God’s forgiveness will prompt inner transformation but judgment cannot be avoided. Only those who experience judgment (the exiles) can be renewed.
The word of God is initially spoken by the LORD and then by the prophet. However, the fact that it is available to Jeremiah’s generation in written form does not diminish its divine authenticity and power. In the final chapter Shead bring Jeremiah into conversation with Karl Barth, who also has the Word of God as a frame of reference for his dogma (269–70). Shead concludes that Jeremiah is clearer than Barth in presenting the word of God as ‘God with us,’ as well as God’s words to us.
Shead’s stated aim of combining doctrine and biblical studies in his exploration of the word of God in the book of Jeremiah has been more than adequately achieved. Carson sums up the potential impact of Shead’s work, stating that it will change the way people read Jeremiah (13). A Mouth Full of Fire is inspiring, providing a crucial link between Jeremiah’s doctrine of the word of God and the Gospel of John’s Word of God. Jeremiah still challenges us to “Hear the word of the LORD in what I am telling you (38:20)” and promises, “I will put my law within them, on their heart I will write it” (31:33).
Whitley College, Parkville