Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5); 4
This review is mainly for you preachers. Every three years passages from the Book of Jeremiah are part of the summer lections. This year (2016) they are read during August, September, and much of October, so for the August Lectionary Links I have suggested a specific scene from the film for each Sunday. See these in the upcoming July 2016 issue of Visual Parables.
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’
But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, I am only a boy; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.
This Bible story film begins in the time of King Josiah when workers discover a scroll hidden in a jar in the temple. It contains the laws of Moses (probably most of what is now the Book of Deuteronomy), and it inspires the king to lead a reformation of his kingdom. In Anathoth, a village not far from Jerusalem, the boy Jeremiah lives with Hilkiah and his mother. During the night God commissions him to be a prophet despite the youth’s protest that he is too young. The boy then accompanies his parents to Jerusalem where he witnesses his priest father kill a sacrificial lamb during the festival.
The film jumps ahead 16 years to show in Babylon the new King of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar deciding to conquer Jerusalem. Back in Judah Hilkiah tells his son, now a young man, that he and a friend will have the honor of sacrificing a lamb at the temple. In Jerusalem Jeremiah goes to the royal palace where he sees King Jehoiakim issue an unjust verdict against a family from Anathoth that he cares about. On his way back to the temple he sees the quarreling and cheating of the people, as well as the huckstering of household idols. He stops long enough to sweep off the table and smash the clay idols, reminding me of the way in which Christ overturned the money exchanger tables centuries later in the restored temple. (You might recall he quoted Jeremiah at the time.)
Hilkiah criticizes his son for being late because he missed seeing his friend preside at the sacrifice. Now it is his turn. Dressed in the white linen robe of a priest, Jeremiah starts to kill the animal, but out in the crowd he sees the old man through whom God had previously spoke to him. Ignoring the lamb, he speaks to the people and to the king who has joined in the worship service. This is the famous Temple Sermon, as found in chapters 6 and 7 of the Biblical book. It is a strong rebuke of pretending to worship God at his temple while violating the covenant with God.
Thus TV director/writer Harry Winer skillfully weaves together the various narrative strands of the Biblical book to form a coherent biographical film. Unfortunately, he also injects a fictional love story about the young man’s courting a spunky neighbor girl named Judith. I write “unfortunately” because this takes up valuable screen time that could have been devoted to the prophet’s visions—left out are such incidents as the potter’s house and the lament “Is there no balm in Gilead?” that inspired the haunting Spiritual.
However I have to say that the love story insertion does serve to show the prophet’s anguish at what serving God cost him (a family). Also the fate of Judith’s family, due to the unjust decision of King Jehoiakim, is an important part of the sequence (reported above) in which the prophet witnesses the sins of king and people in Jerusalem.
What is included in the script does give viewers who have not read the Biblical account a good picture of this prophet saddled with the awful task of denouncing his own people when the enemy is right outside the gates. In our own times, during the Vietnam War and during President Bush’s Iraq war, protestors also were denounced as traitors—the two priests Frs. Dan & Phil Berrigan in the 60’s and the Dixie Chicks in the 00’s. Of course, none suffered as much as the Hebrew prophet did, first in a dark cell and then in the muddy bottom of the cistern into which he was dumped.
The scene in which the court prophet Hananiah cuts off the yoke Jeremiah is wearing is a powerful one with modern ramifications similar to what was just mentioned. Jeremiah has barged into King Zedekiah’s throne room wearing the yoke as an acted-out parable of the fate of disobedient Israel at the hands of the Assyrians. Hananiah, out to please the King, strikes the yoke from the prophet’s neck and tells his sovereign what he wants to hear, namely that God is not with Jeremiah but with the King and his schemes against Babylonia. Jeremiah, rising from the ground, declares that his opponent is a false prophet feeding the people a lie. During the Vietnam War prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan denounced an unjust war that was destroying America’s credibility, as well as the worthy War on Poverty, whereas others, such as Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman supported and blessed the war as a crusade against “godless Communism.” The latter were far more popular at first, with the former gaining more support as the gruesome truth of what we were actually doing to the Vietnamese people came to light, thanks to the reporting of journalists.
The film’s cast is uniformly good, with Patrick Dempsey playing the shy man who gradually became bolder with each new denunciation of his people’s apostasy. Stuart Bunce as his faithful scribe and spokesman Baruch; Klaus Maria Brandauer as the imperious King Nebuchadnezzar; Andrea Occhipinti as the ill-fated King Jehoiakim; and Oliver Reed, in his last TV role, as General Shapan, commander of the Assyrian army—all turn in good performances.
This TNT production, part of its Bible Collection, belongs in your or your church library’s collection. Especially when the Common Lectionary O.T. lessons are taken from the Book of Jeremiah, this would be a good DVD to use in a Bible class on the Sundays when the pastor preaches on the lessons.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.