Among the more creative scriptural interpretations related to the fulfillment of prophecy in our day is one centering on Jeremiah 16:16. According to it, the “hunters” in this verse are the brutal pursuers of the Jewish people, such as the Nazis who systematically murdered millions of Jews. The “fishers,” on the other hand, are the quiet and gentle persons who assist the Jewish people, for instance, the Christians who presently are engaged in rescuing Jews from the republics of the former Soviet Union. The proclamation of these Christians carries a tone of urgency: “Flee the Diaspora and save yourselves by returning to the land of your fathers!”
Based on this interpretation of Jeremiah 16:16, some contemporary Christians see it as their duty to seek out Jews in the Diaspora and inform them of coming persecution. According to this prophetic paradigm, the Jewish exiles must choose one of two options: 1) to heed the warning, or 2) to remain outside of Israel and suffer the consequences.
Not only is this interpretation an example of shallow exegesis, acceptance of it may lead to calamity. If we internalize fanciful scenarios about the Jewish people—who serve as the object of our prophetic fascination—and expect them to respond in a particular way to our kind efforts, our unrealized expectations could surface decades later in the form of, what might seem, theologically justified ill-will toward this “stiff-necked” people.
A Brief Discussion of Jeremiah 16:16
As is common in the literary genre of biblical prophecy, words of approaching disaster and future restoration appear immediately next to one another. Jeremiah 16:1-13 and Jeremiah 16:16-18 are messages of impending doom, punishment for the people’s wicked behavior. Jeremiah 16:14-15, however, breaks the flow, as the prophet shifts momentarily to a theme of comfort. The latter passage, which speaks of Israel’s restoration, carries a message that contrasts utterly with the passage that precedes and the passage that follows. A reader should not interpret Jeremiah 16:14-15 as the continuation of Jeremiah 16:1-13; there is a complete break in thought.
Because Jeremiah 16:16-18 and Jeremiah 16:1-13 are juxtaposed to Jeremiah 16:14-15, some have concluded that God will return the people of Israel to their land with the help of fishers and hunters. Actually, we have here two separate prophetic themes that have been juxtaposed in the prophet’s vision of the future, a phenomenon that frequently occurs in prophetic books of the Bible. The favorable prophecy of Micah 2:12-13, for example, is wedged between woes and rebukes.
In contrast to the creative “fishers and hunters” interpretation, most commentaries suggest that the fishermen and hunters mentioned in Jeremiah 16:16 symbolize the invading rulers who will carry the Jewish people out of their land into exile. The NIV Study Bible comments that the fishermen and hunters mentioned in Jeremiah 16:16 are “symbolic of conquerors (see Ezra 12:13; 29:4; Am 4:2 and note).” The note to Amos 4:2 reads: “According to Assyrian relief’s (pictures engraved on stone), prisoners of war were led away with a rope fastened to a hook that pierced the nose or lower lip.”
Here is Jeremiah’s prophecy of redemption (shown in bold) sandwiched between his prophecies of doom:
“‘…and because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me; therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favour.’
“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers.
“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are upon all their ways; they are not hid from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. And I will doubly recompense their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (Jer. 16:12-18, RSV)
Jeremiah 16:16-18 and 16:1-13 speak of the punishment of the people because of their wicked behavior. Jeremiah 16:14-15 speaks of great blessing, a return of the exiles. This event will be so dramatic that it will eclipse the exodus from Egypt.
Apparently, those who originated the “fishers and hunters” interpretation read Jeremiah 16:16-18 as if it were the continuation of Jeremiah 16:14-15. It thus seemed to them that the fishermen and hunters are sent by God to drive the Israelites from the land of the north to Israel. However, Jeremiah 16:16-18 is a return to the theme of Jeremiah 16:1-13, punishment of the people because of their sins—the fishermen and hunters are not sent by God to bring the Israelites home, but to drag them from the land of Israel into exile. To borrow a rabbinic expression, the popular “fishers and hunters” interpretation and its implications run the risk of resembling “a mountain suspended by a hair” (Mishnah, Hagigah 1:8).
Furthermore, Jeremiah 16:16a, which speaks of fishermen, and 16:16b, which speaks of hunters, are a parallelism, a central feature of Hebrew poetry. In Hebrew poetry, the ends of the lines are not rhymed; rather, one repeats each thought in a different, but synonymous, way. Consider, for example, “Extol the LORD, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion” (Ps. 147:12). Therefore, the hunters are not contrasted with fishermen. The hunters are not an aggressive, cruel lot ridding the Diaspora of its Jewry, while the fishermen are benevolent figures; instead, the fishermen and the hunters are synonymous.Both are God’s agents to punish Israel by carrying them into captivity.
Eschatology from a Historical and Theological Perspective
The Plymouth Brethren John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and his American Congregationalist disciple Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) have influenced to some degree all the Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations. These two men taught that the whole of Salvation History should be placed within the chronological framework of Daniel 9. According to them, the Jews are all-important—Darby and Scofield described them as “God’s timepiece.” In Darby and Scofield’s view, the final stages of redemptive history could not be fulfilled until all the Jewish people returned to their homeland.
It was inevitable that many of the Christians who followed Darby and Scofield and read their writings would have as their agenda getting the Diaspora Jewry to the land of Israel. The twisting of the meaning of Jeremiah 16:16 seems to be influenced by this agenda—the result of a desire to assist God in returning the Jewish people to the Promised Land, thus triggering the Apocalypse and the return of Christ.
Long before Christian dispensationalists, John the Baptist made a similar mistake. Due to his misinterpretation of certain biblical prophecies, he assumed that soon after the Messiah’s arrival, the Messiah would burn up all sinners and usher in the Messianic Age. With the advantage of hindsight, we know that John was wrong, and that before the final judgment thousands of years will have elapsed since John’s preaching along the banks of the River Jordan. Although Jesus was the End-time Judge (that is, the Son of Man), the Judgment obviously did not occur in his lifetime, nor has it occurred in ours. It remains a future event.
Near the spot where John was preaching and baptizing was the monastic center of the Essenes, the Jewish sect that lived by the shores of the Dead Sea. Apparently, John held a theological position similar to the Essenes, who advocated a kind of dualistic determinism.In their thinking, everyone except those who had joined their sect would soon be annihilated eternally. These highly eschatologically-oriented sectarians retired to the desert due to their literal interpretation of Isaiah 40:3, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; in the wilderness make straight a highway for our God…'” The Essenes emphasized the warnings of fire and damnation found in the minor prophets.
In Jesus’ eyes, John was more than the greatest of God’s prophets, he was none other than the herald of the Messiah (Matt 11:7-15)! Yet John questioned Jesus’ messianic mission. Apparently, because Jesus was not proceeding to unleash fire against the unrighteous, John sent disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you ‘the Coming One,’or shall we look for another?” Jesus replied to John, explaining his mission in rabbinic fashion by alluding to Scripture texts:
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:22-23, RSV)
John, it seems, never became one of Jesus’ disciples. How else can we understand Jesus’ statement, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven [Jesus’ community of disciples] is greater than he” (Matt 11:11)? Nor did John’s disciples join Jesus’ movement, and later we find some of them (“about twelve men,” in Asia Minor) who had received John’s baptism, but had “not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” After being instructed by Paul, these men “were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?”
They said, “Into John’s baptism.”
And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all. (Acts 19:1-7, RSV)
Perhaps we can learn a lesson from John the Baptist. He set his eschatological expectations in concrete. Even when gently corrected by Jesus—”Blessed is he who takes no offense at me”—John apparently still clung to his erroneous end-time scenario. John’s inspired prophetic declaration—”He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11 = Luke 3:16)—was accurate. But, due to a misreading of biblical prophecies, John’s understanding of his own prophecy was flawed. The Holy Spirit was indeed poured out on the day of Pentecost, according to Acts 2:1-4; however, after almost 2,000 years, the fiery Final Judgment still has not taken place.
As a final thought, consider what could happen if, God forbid, persecution broke out against Jews. Would we Christians have the will and courage to stand against their persecutors; or, would we rationalize the Jewish people’s plight as being God’s punishment for not heeding Christian warnings. Would we be eager to aid Jews, even if, for instance, they were not willing to immigrate to Israel? What could happen if our eschatologically-oriented love for the Jews became strained? Our warm feelings toward them might cool and even freeze into apathy. Such a cooling trend in the wake of frustrated theological expectations is not without precedent.
Consider the case of Martin Luther? At first he treated the Jews kindly. He also entertained expectations that they would respond favorably to his preaching of the Gospel. But, in 1543, three years before the end of his life, he turned on the Jews. Frustrated because they had not responded as he had anticipated, he spewed vitriol. In a tract titled Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, he advised that “their synagogues or churches should be set on fire…their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed…they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds…their rabbis must be forbidden, under threat of death, to teach…passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden…all their cash and valuables of silver and gold ought to be taken from them…let us drive them out of the country for all time…so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.” Shockingly, four hundred years later, Adolph Hitler followed Luther’s blueprint.