Work as a Blessed Gift in the Prophets and Writings: Reviewing Work, Part 2

Second in a series.

Not all that long ago, as I was preparing sets of sermon notes for the Theology of Work Project, it dawned on me how many faith and work sermons there were on Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22. I think the movement’s claim that preachers have tended to ignore these topics in the past is true. And it may not be that preachers now are using the resources which are out there now. However, I am happy to report that if you want to preach a four-chapter Gospel (or 5 or 3 or 6 or however many chapters you want to use for your framework) there are now a ton of resources which will help you do so.

Thus, I’m always happy when we move to some other part of the Bible to see if the theses we came up with in preaching Genesis 1 and 2 hold up. In the case of the second chapter of Work, that different focus is the prophets and poetic “writings,” especially Jeremiah. The author of this chapter is Eugene H. Merrill.

The chapter begins with a survey of the Hebrew terms for work. There are many. The most common (which we know as avodahmeans “ordinary work” and covers both common occupations of “Bible times” (such as agriculture and slavery) and the work of the temple. But there are also terms meaning “to be the victim of forced labor,” “struggle”/”oppression,” (which is probably the word being used whenever your Bible says someone is laboring in vain), and a word for labor that produces nothing but pain.

I think maybe we could use some of those words in English. Certainly, contemplating them made me think a lot about the fact that the holy book of a society which used so many negative terms for work is the same holy book we use to tell people that God values their work. There’s a New Testament sermon in there somewhere. Stay tuned.

Merrill then moves on to talk about work specifically in Jeremiah. First he introduces the context: the conquest of Jerusalem and the Exile, Jeremiah’s background, his “double calling as priest and prophet” (34) which was unusual for the prophets, and an outline of the entire letter. Then he zeroes in on chapter 29. Now, it may be that Jeremiah 29 gets mis-exegeted almost as often as Genesis or Revelation, but it is also true that it’s a central text for considering what the prophetic books say about work.

Merrill focuses on the instructions given to the exiles: build, plant, get married and make sure your children get married and give you grandchildren, pray for the peace of your city in exile, and avoid false prophets. He sets these instructions in the context of the Jews adapting to an alien culture: “Don’t be cocooned in such a manner that your role as ‘a light to the nations’ (Isa. 49:6, 51:4) will be obscured, but at the same time do not sacrifice what is central to your identity as the chosen race of Abraham to the point you become as pagan as they” (37).

He notes that at the outset of his prophetic mission, Jeremiah was also given instructions: to drive out, tear down, exterminate, annihilate, build, and plant.  Especially given that the building and planting Jeremiah (who stayed behind and did not go into exile) was to do was metaphorical, it seems that the people got a more positive mission statement than he did. Merrill attributes this to their different contexts. Neverthless, he takes building and planting as central to what the OT has to say about work.

At this point, Merrill switches gear to talk about work in the rest of the prophets and in the “writings” (the OT wisdom books.) He surveys Amos, Isaiah, Nahum, Ezekiel, Haggai, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Psalms, paying careful attention to any use of building and planting in their message. It was interesting to me that, though an overarching theme can be pulled out, each book has different things to say depending on its audience – from the positive spin on work in Proverbs to the apparent ambivalence in Ecclesiastes. (I’d actually call this a real ambivalence, but I am not an OT scholar.) At the conclusion of his survey, he concludes that these books all teach three things:

  1. Work is a gift
  2. Work is a blessing
  3. All work can and should be creative, productive, pleasurable, and purposeful

There’s a lot to like in this chapter. I appreciate the emphasis on the communal nature of the instructions in Jeremiah 29. I spent a lot of time in my youth being wrongly consoled by an individualistic interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11 (“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” [NRSV]). In good Southern style, this verse should be cited as “I know the plans I have for y’all….to give y’all a future with hope.”  As the article at that link above says, we’re all in this together.

I also appreciated being reminded of the variety of Old Testament pictures of work – and its acknowledgement that work can be experienced as oppressive and a “striving after wind” (see p. 41 of the essay, and Ecclesiastes 2:17. In fact, go read Ecclesiastes 2 right now. I’ll still be here when you get back.)  If we’re going to claim the good news of Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 for our work, we also need to claim the stories of the prophets and wisdom literature so that we realize exactly how good that good news needs to be to take care of the bad news.

I chewed a lot on the third point of his conclusion. Last night I had a conversation with my 11-year-old about the fact that she might end up doing a job she disliked when she grew up if it was necessary to feed herself and (if she acquires one) her family, and I listed all the jobs I had done in my life that I disliked. (Dear supervisors, none of them are the jobs I am doing now.)  “But why did you do them?” she asked. “Because I needed the money,” I said. “That’s not fair,” she said. “Everyone should only get to do jobs they like.”

I gave her a stern speech about adulting and the impossibility of burning it all down and starting over. Pondering the conversation now as I finish this review, I wonder: should I have given her Ecclesiastes and Jeremiah instead?

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