Making Music with Jeremiah

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It may seem odd to others why I would write and record an entire album from the Book of Jeremiah. As a singer-songwriter who writes music for the Church, this certainly isn’t typical. Many albums, especially of music written for worship, focus on themes within Scripture, but rarely does an album focus on one book of the Bible from beginning to end.

However, much like our Anglican liturgy, Jeremiah tells a story. And just like the liturgy, that story portrays, through exquisite poetry, key themes of our redemption. In the liturgy, we repeatedly acknowledge our condemnation, voice our repentance, and praise God for our redemption. Jeremiah, by confronting us with Israel’s disobedience and judgment, but also with God’s promise of restoration, points us to the salvation that ultimately comes through Jesus. And since so much of Jeremiah is already in verse, perhaps it is fitting that it should be explored through song.

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The Gospel Themes of Jeremiah

There are two particular aspects of the prophet’s book I fell in love with as I began to write songs for this album.

Oracles of God

First, I love the Old Testament, especially the prophesies, which are direct quotes from God. We see into the Triune God’s heart and further understand the story of our redemption as God’s beloved creation. The Book of Jeremiah details God’s message to his people—a plea for repentance and a promise of redemption—that puts his love on full display, even amid his judgment.

Jeremiah Points to Jesus

Second, I love how Jeremiah points to Jesus. Like Jesus many years later, Jeremiah

  • is set apart and consecrated to be a prophet for the Lord before he was born (Jer. 1:5)
  • predicts the destruction of the temple (Jer. 1:15)
  • is appointed over the nations and kingdoms with the words of the Lord in his mouth and is a human representative of Yahweh with his words (Jer. 1:9-10)
  • is forbidden to marry or have a family (Jer. 16:2)
  • prophesies the temple as becoming a den of robbers (Jer. 7:11)
  • identifies with his people (Jer. 8:21; 11:14; 14:11)
  • cannot trust his friends (Jer. 9:4)
  • is like a lamb to the slaughter (11:19)
  • weeps over Jerusalem.

The Album

According to The Bible Project, Jeremiah can be sectioned out thematically in this way:

  • Accusation and warning in chapters 1-24.
  • God’s wrath and the use of Babylon to execute it in chapter 25.
  • Judgment and hope for Israel in chapters 26-45.
  • Judgment and hope for the nations in chapters 46-51.
  • The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the people exiled in chapter 52.

With that in mind, here’s a walkthrough of the album, highlighting how each of these themes appears.

Cover Art

The cover art of Rachel Wilhelm's album, Jeremiah.
Rachel Wilhelm’s album, Jeremiah. Cover art by Barbara Thomas.

The album starts with the cover art by my friend Barbara Thomas. Chapter 1 inspired her, specifically the passages where God calls Jeremiah in his youth to speak as God’s mouthpiece to the nations. In her artistic expression, Barbara thought of Jeremiah as a youth, gaining confidence as the Lord anoints him for the task. Jeremiah does not know what is coming behind him in the painting. It is a thin red line of armies in the distance symbolizing destruction to an abstract unfocused city to his left. In a sense, the album has not eleven songs but twelve if you count the cover painting.

Accusation and Warning: Chapters 1-24

Not knowing Barbara painted Chapter 1, I started the project musically in Chapter 2 with “You Won’t Turn.” God expresses this lament through his prophet about how his people worship him in the temple but outside it are idolatrous in their worship of Baal and sacrificing their children to Baal over a fire. God uses this puzzling phrase, “You have turned your back but not your face” to his people, addressing the fact that they turn to him when they are in distress but worship other gods otherwise.

God’s opening lament of “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?” is a plea for reasonableness from his own, considering how he chose them and prized them above all other nations. “You Won’t Turn” is the opening call of Yahweh to his people, confronting them with the truth while expressing his heartbreak at the same time.

The second song, “Turn to Me,” from chapter 3, further shows God’s heart for restoration by asking his people to turn to him fully and forsake their idols. Phil Keaggy’s guitar work on this track brings an atmospheric sadness that feels like an appropriate representation of God’s lament process, although not a typical track two types of song.

“My Heart Is Faint” (chapters 8 & 9) and “Far from Their Hearts” (chapter 12) show Jeremiah’s complaints about the whole business being God’s representative in bodily form. Jeremiah identifies with his people yet is angry at them, wondering why God is so patient. “Woe to You, O Jerusalem” (chapter 13) is a warning love song, positioned as a plea for change instead of a cry for doom. The lyric, “Give glory to the Lord your God, before I bring darkness,” demonstrates God’s patience and love toward his people, giving them a chance to turn because of his steadfast love.

God’s Wrath and the Use of Babylon to Execute It: Chapter 25

Jeremiah 25 is where God lays the hammer down, or rather, depicts himself as a lion coming out of his mountain lair to tear the corrupt Israelites to shreds, especially the shepherds and leaders of his people. The images of both God and Babylon as lions particularly struck me: God is the great Judge, and Babylon is the evil nation doing God’s judging on earth. “Vengeance with the Sword” is a very unsettling track with booms and robust acoustic and electric guitars, played by Keaggy. They create an atmosphere of a modern western showdown paired with an incredibly eerie bright banjo to complicate things. It sounds like something’s gonna happen, and it ain’t good. The track holds the album together with a love song plea before it with “Woe to You, O Jerusalem” and the following peppy track of “I Know the Plans.”

Judgment and Hope for Israel: Chapters 26-45

“I Know the Plans” from chapter 29 kicks off a bluegrass “bridge” section of the album that expresses hope and light, especially after the booming destruction of “Vengeance with the Sword.” Just as the first and second section repeats the phrases “turn to me” or “woe to you” and “disaster,” this third section has repeat phrases of “fear not,” “I am with you,” and themes of future restoration. God repeats messages that he feels are important. He consistently brings a message of hope through Jeremiah, assuring his people that their fortunes will be restored. They will not be alone. He will cause them to thrive in difficulty. The use of gang vocals on “I Know the Plans” and “Fear Not for I Am with You” suggests that God is in this, he will gather, and collectively his people will be brought through.

Judgment and Hope for the Nations: Chapters 46-51

Because the album begged to focus on the story of Yahweh and his bride, I completely left out God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies for executing his will and focused on God’s words in Jeremiah 50:4-7. These point us back to the main plea: that he desires his beloved to return and find him:

“In those days and in that time, declares the Lord, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the Lord their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten.’ My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, ‘We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the Lord, their habitation of righteousness, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.’”

When reading that, my heart broke. I thought of God as a Father, longing for his vulnerable daughter to come home and be safe. Again, he asks for her face to be turned, but up to the mountain, not taking heed of those who would entice and mislead as she climbs. “Daughter, Daughter” is the track that leaves God with his last words of love and reconciliation—a last plea before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah Speaks Last: Looking Toward Chapter 52 and Lamentations

I wrote the last track, “Refuge of the Weary,” during the 2020 lockdown. I had forgotten it, hiding it as a voice recording on my phone.

Jeremiah needs to have the last word because he is not finished. He has more work to do. More weeping to do. As I picture Jeremiah’s life of sacrifice and trauma, I imagine him feeling alone as the world crumbles around him. God not only calls the people to endure the judgment and destruction of God, but Jeremiah, identifying with his people, receives the same call.

He knows it is coming—almost like it is Jeremiah against the world. But his cry is for his people, the Lord’s own, as he remembers the promises. He finishes out the lament with trust in God’s goodness. Yahweh will carry all of them to the other side as a shepherd finds his lost sheep and brings them home.

As I contemplated what should be track 11, Jeremiah’s last words, the Holy Spirit dropped the memory of my 2020 song (I wrote many!) into my brain. I went hunting for it. Just as a faint memory brought the story of Jeremiah to a close. This is fitting since the Book of Jeremiah brings a theme of memory to the forefront. God’s people have forgotten him and “deserted all memory.”

God pleads with his people to remember all he has done. At the last, Jeremiah asks God to “Remember us, remember us, in the flame, in the flood. Lead us on, lead us on, but carry us, carry us. We might be burned and fall down, but we won’t drown.” Jeremiah looks at the future destruction in faith just like Jesus, “who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross.” He did this fully knowing his prophesied words, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up.”


Listen

Rachel’s new album, Jeremiah, releases on August 18, and is available here. Check out the first two singles below:

Artwork: Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem by Horace Vernet (1844).

Published on

August 18, 2023

Author

Rachel Wilhelm

Rachel Wilhelm lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and is Vice President of United Adoration, leading songwriting and worship arts retreats to build creative community at local churches around the globe.

View more from Rachel Wilhelm

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