07/08/2010 09:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Star Spangled Banner: What Francis Scott Key And The Prophet Jeremiah Have In Common

By A. James Rudin
Religion News Service

(RNS) What do "Star Spangled Banner" lyricist Francis Scott Key and Hebrew prophet Jeremiah have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit.

While the American attorney-turned-poet and the biblical prophet were separated in time by about 2,400 years, they both witnessed the destruction of their nations' capital cities--Washington, D.C., for Key, and Jerusalem for Jeremiah.

On Aug. 24, 1814, one of the bleakest days in American history, an invading British army burned the White House and the U.S. Capitol, forcing President James Madison and other government leaders to flee the young federal city.

On the ninth day in the month of Av in 586 B.C.--Tisha b'Av in Hebrew--Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar captured the city that King David had chosen 400 years earlier as Israel's spiritual and political capital. They destroyed the Holy Temple built by David's son, King Solomon, making Tisha b'Av one of the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. This year, the day of fasting and prayer begins at sunset on July 19.

Key, a devout Anglican, opposed America's war with Britain, but he was stunned to see Washington in flames. A few weeks later, on Sept. 13, he was onboard a British warship in Baltimore harbor seeking the release of an imprisoned American. From that unique spot, Key witnessed the unsuccessful British assault on Fort McHenry.

When Key saw the tattered Stars and Stripes still flying over the fort the following morning, he cast aside his negative feelings about America's involvement in the war and penned a lengthy patriotic poem that was later set to music as our national anthem.

Key moved from despair to hope, from depression to optimism, because "our flag was still there" in the "dawn's early light."

Facing his nation's catastrophe, Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations in which he expressed sorrow and grief that his beloved Jerusalem "... sits lonely, the city once thronged with people is suddenly widowed."

While Key did not blame the government for the destruction of Washington, Jeremiah held his leaders accountable for the devastation of Jerusalem and its Temple. The prophet wrote:

"Let us examine our path ... and return to God ... We are the ones who have sinned, who have rebelled and you, O God, have not forgiven."

Key was inspired to see the American flag flying aloft after the enemy attack, and Jeremiah, after writing many verses of bitterness, also saw hope despite the foreign invasion:

"You God came near that day when I called to you; you said, 'Do not be afraid' ... Make us come back you, O God; renew our days as in times past."

The burning of Washington and the destruction of Jerusalem transcend the writings of Key and Jeremiah. Such events raise a critical question: How do people respond to a national disaster?

For Americans, the answer came quickly. When the battle with Britain concluded in 1815, Americans rebuilt the White House, added a dome to the burned Capitol, and moved westward as a nation. Indeed, no foreign adversary attacked the American mainland again until Sept. 11, 2001.

Nebuchadnezzar, meanwhile, sent the defeated Jews into a humiliating exile in Babylon. But within 50 years, the vanquished people returned to Jerusalem and, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, rebuilt the city and the second Temple. Unlike America, Israel suffered numerous invasions; on the ninth of Av in 70 A.D., Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed again, this time by the Romans.

Jewish sovereignty was not restored until 1948 with the creation of modern Israel. Through long centuries of exile, the people commemorated the terrible events of the ninth of Av with religious services featuring the mournful reading of Jeremiah's Lamentations.

Key's words--"our flag was still there"--are embedded in the nation's consciousness, providing generations of Americans with optimism for almost 200 years now. Jeremiah's call for his people "to come back to God" and gain a "renewal as in times past" has echoed through Jewish history for nearly 24 centuries.

Francis Scott Key, meet Jeremiah. You are both, as the prophet Zechariah would say, "prisoners of hope."

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the forthcoming "Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.")