The Art Archive/St. Pierre Church, Moissac, France/Dagli Orti

The prophet Jeremiah hangs his head in grief in a 12th- or 13th-century sculpture from the Church of St. Pierre in Moissac, France. After God punishes his sinful people with a drought, Jeremiah prays on their behalf, but his prayers go unheeded. With no outlet for his pain, he suffers a breakdown: “Why is my pain interminable,” he asks God, “and my wound incurable?…Why have you been to me like a dry gulch, an unreliable source of water?” (Jeremiah 15:18).

According to author Yochanan Muffs, the prophets of the Old Testament were caught in a dreadful bind. On the one hand the prophet is a messenger of God, bearing divine decrees against a sinful people. He is God’s agent and instrument—set apart and alienated from his fellow human beings. But at the same time, the prophet’s role is to intercede on behalf of his people, to plead their case against the angry Almighty. As the only one capable of staying God’s wrath, a prophet like Jeremiah becomes an attorney not only for the prosecution but also for the defense, and this internal conflict produces a state of deep distress—in Hebrew, va-yihar—a mixture of sadness, depression and anger.