You knew disaster was coming, but you were powerless to stop it. The warnings were unheeded. The worst has happened. In the desolate wasteland you mourn your loss:
My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. (Jeremiah 4:19)
Rembrandt van Rijn invites us to make sense of the unimaginable scale of divine justice and destruction through the very human response of the prophet Jeremiah, who meditates on his failure to return the sinful to God. In the background the city of Jerusalem is aflame: we can just make out a torch-bearing angel, announcing the divine punishment. The smoky formlessness of Jeremiah’s immediate surroundings separates the prophet from the destruction he predicted, and echoes the language of his prophecy: ‘I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void’ (4:23); ‘The whole land shall be a desolation’ (v.27).
Resting his head on his hand in the traditional pose of the melancholic, we are invited to empathize with Jeremiah’s misery. Torn between his acceptance of God’s justice and his distress at its consequences, the prophet’s sorrow is suggestive of the conflict that all of us may often feel between what we desire and what we know to be right, and the anguish inherent in any attempt to make sense of misfortune:
Ah, Lord God, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with ’; whereas the sword has reached their very life (v.10; on the false prophets of peace, see 6:14; 14:13; 23:16–17).
Glinting in the foreground are precious vessels, ‘ornaments of gold’: the gift Jeremiah receives from Nebuzaradan on his release (Jeremiah 40:5). But though they catch our eye, the prophet disregards them, as he warned the people of Jerusalem to do. Precious though they appear, Rembrandt has rendered their highlights with the pigment ‘white lead’, a base metal: a metaphor for the vanity of all art in the face of impending destruction?
Golahny, Amy. 2003. Rembrandt’s Reading: The Artist’s Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press), pp.164–65
Suthor, Nicola. 2018. Rembrandt’s Roughness (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp.101–9
4“If you return, O Israel,
says the Lord,
to me you should return.
If you remove your abominations from my presence,
and do not waver,
2and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’
in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,
then nations shall bless themselves in him,
and in him shall they glory.”
3 For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
“Break up your fallow ground,
and sow not among thorns.
4Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your doings.”
5 Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say,
“Blow the trumpet through the land;
cry aloud and say,
‘Assemble, and let us go
into the fortified cities!’
6Raise a standard toward Zion,
flee for safety, stay not,
for I bring evil from the north,
and great destruction.
7A lion has gone up from his thicket,
a destroyer of nations has set out;
he has gone forth from his place
to make your land a waste;
your cities will be ruins
8For this gird you with sackcloth,
lament and wail;
for the fierce anger of the Lord
has not turned back from us.”
9“In that day, says the Lord, courage shall fail both king and princes; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” 10Then I said, “Ah, Lord God, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you’; whereas the sword has reached their very life.”
11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, 12a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.”
13Behold, he comes up like clouds,
his chariots like the whirlwind;
his horses are swifter than eagles—
woe to us, for we are ruined!
14O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness,
that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil thoughts
lodge within you?
15For a voice declares from Dan
and proclaims evil from Mount Eʹphraim.
16Warn the nations that he is coming;
announce to Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
they shout against the cities of Judah.
17Like keepers of a field are they against her round about,
because she has rebelled against me,
says the Lord.
18Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom, and it is bitter;
it has reached your very heart.”
19My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.
20Disaster follows hard on disaster,
the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed,
my curtains in a moment.
21How long must I see the standard,
and hear the sound of the trumpet?
22“For my people are foolish,
they know me not;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but how to do good they know not.”
23I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
25I looked, and lo, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
26I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
27 For thus says the Lord, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
28For this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above be black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.”
29At the noise of horseman and archer
every city takes to flight;
they enter thickets; they climb among rocks;
all the cities are forsaken,
and no man dwells in them.
30And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you;
they seek your life.
31For I heard a cry as of a woman in travail,
anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before murderers.”