The situation was grim. The Babylonian armies were closing in on Jerusalem; barring a miraculous deliverance from God, it was only a matter of time before the capital city, the city of the Temple of God, fell—and God had made it very clear that no deliverance was coming. Through Jeremiah, in fact, he had promised Zedekiah the king that he would be captured and taken to Babylon to face King Nebuchadnezzer, and there was nothing he could do to avoid it; any effort he might make to fight Babylon was doomed to inevitable failure. That prophecy, by the way, that Zedekiah quotes here is found in Jeremiah 34—the book is not arranged in chronological order—and the details of the prophet’s imprisonment are relayed in chapters 37 and 38. Jeremiah was originally locked up for leaving the city, on charges that he was deserting to the Babylonians, which tells you how bad the situation was; but though the king transferred him to a sort of protective custody in the courtyard of the guard, he refused to set him free, because Jeremiah refused to give him a better word from God. So Jeremiah remained in custody, in a doomed city, held there by a doomed king, as the Babylonians closed in and the country fell into their hands.
It was a dark day indeed; not the sort of economic or political climate that tends to encourage things like buying property. And yet, it was in just these times, with the country dying and its independence hanging by a slender thread, that God said to his prophet, “Your cousin’s going to come and ask you to buy his field back in your hometown of Anathoth, because you’re his kinsman-redeemer. Buy it.” To explain this a little bit, “kinsman-redeemer”—the Hebrew word is go’el—is an important legal term. We’ll talk about this more later when we look at the story of Ruth, in which this plays a major part, but a go’el had several responsibilities. Most basically, under the Old Testament law, land had to stay within the family—every tribe and every family had been given its share of the land, and you weren’t allowed to permanently deprive your family of part of that inheritance by selling it outside the family—so if a person had to sell part of their inheritance, part of the family land, to make ends meet, a close relative who had the necessary resources would act as a go’el, a kinsman-redeemer, to buy the land and keep it in the family. That’s the role Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel wants him to play.
Now, under ordinary circumstances, that would be a completely reasonable thing to do; but these aren’t ordinary circumstances, because Jeremiah’s in prison, the country’s being conquered, folks are already being taken off into exile—what on earth is Jeremiah going to be able to do with that land? Nothing, that’s what. He might as well take his money and throw it over the walls of Jerusalem into the valley of the Kidron for all the good buying that land will do him, because he’s never going to see a single benefit from his purchase; what’s more, from a human perspective, it seems likely that no one else will, either. What’s the point in upholding the law and keeping the land in the family when the family’s about to be dragged off to Babylon? What are the odds they ever come back? From the world’s perspective, somewhere between slim and none. And if they don’t, who cares who was last to own a field at Anathoth anyway?
And yet God tells Jeremiah, “Buy the field”; and so when cousin Hanamel shows up and says, “I need money—buy my field,” Jeremiah buys it. I imagine Hanamel was surprised, but that didn’t stop him from going through with the sale. Jeremiah pays seventeen shekels of silver—whether that was a fair price or not, we don’t know, since we have no idea how big the field was or what it would normally have been worth—and goes through all the proper forms of purchase; then, at God’s command, he has the documents of sale placed in a clay jar and sealed so that they will last for generations. At a time when most people would have been buying stock in Babylon, Inc., Jeremiah invests in the future of Israel. Of course, this isn’t his own idea, but God’s; it isn’t really a business transaction at all, it’s an acted parable. Jeremiah buys the field as an act of faith, as a sign of God’s promise that the exile won’t last forever—that against all earthly odds, the people of Israel will return home, and they will once again buy and sell homes and fields and vineyards; in God’s time, someone will benefit from Jeremiah’s purchase of that land. It won’t be Jeremiah—he won’t live to see it—but someone of his blood will. His investment, ultimately, is in the faithfulness of God to keep his promise.
In a way, that’s what Jesus did, too. There’s a form of biblical interpretation called typological interpretation—we see it used in the Bible itself, especially by Paul—which looks for parallels and links between events in the history of God’s people and the facts and truths of God’s redemptive plan in Jesus Christ; in the standard language, the original event is the type and the truth to which it points is called the antitype. You have to be careful reading the Bible in this way, because it’s easy to go too far; but as we see in Paul’s letters, properly used, it can help us as we seek to know God and to understand his ways. Such, I think, is the case here.
Jeremiah’s purchase of the field is a type of what Christ did for us. Jeremiah was in the city of the Temple of God, Jerusalem; his home, Anathoth, was occupied territory; he bought a field in occupied territory as a sign of God’s promise that he would reclaim that territory and his people would be restored to their home in it, and preserved the deeds in a clay jar to bear witness to that promise. In the same way, Jesus left the heavenly temple to buy a field in occupied territory—the field of our flesh; in our flesh, he bought the title to our flesh, to our very lives, with his death. We have been bought with a price. In his resurrection, gave us a sign of God’s promise that one day he will reclaim this territory and restore us to our proper home in it. And in his ascension, he took the clay jar of our flesh up into heaven with him, carrying that title deed, holding that sure hope of the fulfillment of God’s promise where nothing this world can do can get at it, or keep him from returning to fulfill that promise.
In this world, we’re under foreign occupation by the powers of sin and death; even those of us who follow Christ still fight the strong pull of sin in our lives, and our bodies still die. While we live, some of us do well under that occupation, but even then, that’s subject to change at any time; at any time, we could lose all that we hold dear. But we have this hope: this will end. The Babylonians, if you will, are not going to be here forever. The day will come when Jesus will return in power, the forces that occupy this world will be swept away, and everything, including us, will be remade new, and all will be as it is supposed to be. The people of God will live in the land he has promised us, and at the name of Jesus every knee will bow to our proper king, and everything will be, finally, right.