“I am in Torment Within…”
Consider the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Imagine preaching to people for 40 years but no one listens. Imagine constantly encouraging a nation to act but no one moves. Jeremiah was thrown into prison, into a cistern, and into poverty. He was under house arrest, public torture, and witnessed the burning of his books. No matter how much Jeremiah tried to warn the nation of Israel, his message fell on closed ears and hardened hearts. No wonder he looks so dejected in this painting by Rembrandt.
The city of Jerusalem burns in the background, just as Jeremiah had predicted. The dome of the temple can be seen while soldiers enter the city. King Zedekiah, whose reign ended in the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of most of the Jews to Babylon, is standing on top of the steps with his head in his hands. Beside Jeremiah are holy artifacts from the temple—rich carpets and gilded vessels.
Notice Jeremiah’s left arm is leaning on a book, probably the Old Testament book that bears his name and the book of Lamentations that he also penned. His right arm is not visible. Could this be a reference to the reading in Psalms where we it says the right hand becoming lame as the people of Israel sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep for the city of Zion?
What I find fascinating about this painting is how well Rembrandt captured the melancholy of Jeremiah. Even though we cannot see his entire face, we get a keen sense of utter despair.
All of us can relate to the emotion of despair because all of us have been there at one time or another. In the book, Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Taylor Brown, there is a chapter on dark emotions. So often we try to hide or stuff difficult feelings. We may put a timeline on our grief which is not helpful or realistic. And it does not help when society, well-meaning friends, or maybe even the church, tells us to cheer up, look up, and move on.
In the book, Brown says, “I learned that sadness does not sink a person; it is the energy a person spends trying to avoid sadness that does that” (pg. 80). She also talks of letting emotions flow: “[I learned] the importance of letting emotions flow—even the loud and messy ones—because if they are kept from making their noise and maybe even tossing the furniture, they can harden like plaque in a coronary artery, blocking anything else that tries to come through” (pg. 84).
Being Human connection: Instead of ignoring or wishing away painful emotions, it may be helpful to learn to sit with them instead. I believe they will not go away until we do that. They will come out somehow, often sideways. If you would like someone to sit with your emotions with you, call a friend or counselor or spiritual leader. Give the book of Lamentations a read and you will see that God never admonishes Jeremiah, nor us, for our grief.
Featured art: Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
“My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground….” (Lamentations 2:11)