If you wake up in the middle of the night and need to get back to sleep, a radio under your pillow can help! The BBC world service broadcasts 24 h a day and one of their programmes currently scheduled for 3.00 am (GMT) is Outlook. It tells stories of heroism and bravery in the face of danger and difficulty. At least it did. There’s a new presenter and the inspiring stories have taken on a different feel. It seems that the new stories are selected to present a distinctly atheistic and godless world view. So rather than (for example) battling with the disaster of failed oxygen supply whilst deep sea diving, we have stories of people with homosexual tendencies battling with the ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘homophobia’ of society in general and Christians in particular. My insomnia last night was laced with sadness as I heard the story of a young man who was taking pride in his sinful tendencies. We live for sure in tragic days when lies are presented as truth and truth is portrayed as a lie.
Some things never change. The condition of mankind has been fashioned by a lie. The lie is simple and has changed little since the days of Adam: God’s word is not to be trusted. Adam doubted what God said and his act of disobedience has impacted all of us to this very day. Lies about God have consequences. For Adam it was separation from God and banishment from the garden. The consequences of following lies about God are dependent on the circumstances of the age in which we live. For Israel, their relationship with God was founded on a series of covenants: God’s promises ensured ultimate victory, but if the people followed after lies a series of curses would ensue – this is the theme of Jeremiah. In contrast, theologians have described the age in which we live as the ‘day of grace.’ I have a PDF file of the New International Version of the bible on my laptop – if you do a search of the PDF for the word ‘grace’ you find a rather remarkable thing: the word grace in the Old testament occurs only seven times! In fact, since my search was just for ‘grace’ I was surprised to find many, many references in the Old Testament to ‘disgrace’ rather than grace! Contrast with the New Testament – it’s full of the word grace (more than 100 times)! We do indeed live in days of grace! Titus 2:11-15 sums up the message for our day beautifully: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope– the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. These, then, are the things you should teach.’ The lie in our day is that there is no God, there is therefore no such thing as a godly lifestyle, we should rather live out our instincts and ‘be who we are’ and celebrate ‘diversity.’ After all ‘it’s how god made me,’ (say inconsistent ‘Christians’) or ‘it’s how evolution formed me’ (say the atheists). Since we live in a day of grace, God’s door is open without direct judicial consequences for those who ignore the truth and embrace such lies. There is no immediate judgment for rejection of him. But there will come a day of reckoning, these days of grace will not last forever.
In Jeremiah’s day, the people were not governed by grace but by law. The law was given to a people who were in a relationship with God. As the Israelites entered the promised land, the terms of the covenant were that the people would do well if they were in obedience to God and the law, but they would be cursed if they disobeyed (compare this to preachers of the ‘prosperity gospel’ who mistakenly apply this covenant for Israel to believers in the present age – God wants you to be healthy, wealthy and a millionaire, they say, conveniently omitting the curses for disobedience!).
The people of Judah had followed after lies and the biggest lie of all seemed to be idolatry.
1. The foolishness of idolatry
We tend to look back on Judah’s problem of idolatry with a degree of smugness. They were after all a primitive people who were not to know any better – not like us in our day of enlightenment! But the lies in Jeremiah’s day are not so different from the lies we face in our world today. In both cases, the true God is replaced: with a carved image in Jeremiah’s day and broadly with atheistic evolution in our day (more of that later).
In verse 1, God addresses Israel. Remember that Jeremiah was the prophet sent to Judah, but here his message is for the entire nation (in spite of the northern tribes having been defeated and at least partly dispersed). The message for Israel is basically that idols are nothing. In spite of this, following such a lie causes unnecessary fear – verse 2: ‘This is what the Lord says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them.’ Failure to recognise the truth, lead the people in Jeremiah’s day to fear the ‘signs in the sky.’ I’m amazed that even in our day, there are so many people who still apportion meaning to the movements of the planets in the sky and who place importance of birth signs. Even the quality newspapers carry horoscopes: these are sources of lies and are to be avoided like the plague! Last week was the summer solstice and the gathering at Stonehenge demonstrates the endurance of the lies that abounded in Jeremiah’s day.
Jeremiah now systematically dismantles what idols are and the stupidity of their worship – they are cut from trees, chiselled into shape, adorned with bits of metal and they ‘fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.’ I suspect that Jeremiah wrote this with a smile! How ridiculous idol worship is – the idols are so useless that they cannot stand up without help! They’re like a ‘scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk (verse 5).’ In spite of the stupidity of worshipping such man-made objects, people did! And they allowed themselves to be drawn away from the truth by them. Since idols are just bits of carved wood, Jeremiah says that they can do no harm nor any good. Jeremiah’s point was that they were not to be feared and in this sense they could do no harm, but of course the replacement of God and truth with a piece of carved wood was hugely damaging to the spiritual condition of the nation. Likewise today, anything that replaces God is a lie and is hugely damaging. The lies that our political leaders, the BBC, our newspapers, our education system and sadly many of our churches propagate leads to great sorrow and trouble. But thank God for a day of grace when all without exception may seek and find the truth.
So if idols are just bits of carved wood what is the real God like? Jeremiah says ‘No one is like you, O Lord (verse 6 and 7).’ Idols were ten-a-penny in contrast, turned out by the craftsmen of the day: but God, he is unique. He is one of a kind – there are no comparisons to be made, he is in a category of his own. Verse 10: ‘But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King.’ Idols were false gods: the Lord is the true God. They are inanimate lumps of wood: the Lord is living. Idols are temporary: The Lord is eternal.
Atheistic arguments for our origin are found wanting because they cannot explain how things came to be. I may be wrong, but Stephen Hawking comes pretty close to saying that something (what eventually became the universe) came from nothing. He has to eventually end up in this place as his atheistic assumptions demand it. Contrast with the bible – the Lord is the ‘eternal king.’ Now you will find that people will argue that Christians have the same problem of explanation as themselves, they will ask ‘who created God.’ They are not listening! God is eternal – he is not in the category of the created! He is the creator. Jeremiah wrote his prophecy in the Hebrew language, but he wrote one verse in the entire book of 52 chapters and 1,264 verses in Aramaic – the lingua franca of the day. Here’s the verse: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’ That statement was intended for the widest audience possible and it applies today. The little pieces of wood and stone will perish – they never made anything, they are made and they will perish. The ‘gods’ of evolution and atheism will perish too – they are just as man-made as tottering idols.
The universe is made from God’s power and wisdom. I’m constantly amazed how unthinking our scientific community are: when we study the mechanisms and complexity of biology, the degree of complexity, beauty and design-brilliance are truly astounding. The evidence of a creator is overwhelming, but modern ‘science’ disqualifies the possibility of a creator-God before the evidence is even examined. These are the lies that destroy both temporally and eternally. When we observe natural phenomena we are observing facets of God’s character. The world we inhabit is held together with consistent laws and remarkable design. In early December each year our church celebrates ‘Guy Fawkes night’ with a large bonfire and fireworks. It’s not the warmest time of year to be standing outside, but the firm gives warmth. The closer to the fire the warmer one gets – no surprises there, but what’s interesting is that our highly ordered and created physical world works according to God’s designed laws. There is consistency. The heat from our Guy Fawkes bonfire is distributed according to the inverse square law – intensity is in proportion to the inverse of the square of the distance from the fire. Eh? It’s easier to think of it this way, if you stand say, 1 metre from the fire you will experience a certain intensity of heat, let’s call it 1 unit of intensity. But if you stand double that distance back (2 metres), the intensity drops to ¼ and if you stand back 4 metres the intensity drops to 1/16th. This relationship is consistent and was the same back in 1991 when we first took our young children to the November bonfire as it was in November 2017 when our grandchild attended! God’s created universe obeys the very laws he created. Or perhaps to use the more poetic language of Jeremiah: ‘12But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. 13When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.’
If this is the case why on earth would you fall for a lie and worship an idol? Why indeed!
2. The coming exile
Just as these days of grace, in which we have the good fortune to live, will one day come to an end, so it was with Judah. God’s remarkable patience became exhausted. Remember that the judgement that was about to be visited on Judah was entirely consistent with the solemn promise that Israel had entered into with God (see previous notes on Jeremiah or better still read Deuteronomy 28-30). The time for judgment had come. Jeremiah’s message of coming judgment was truly dreadful – but the people were not without capability to prepare. The judgment would come but they could in some ways prepare to alleviate some of the horror that was heading in their direction: ‘17Gather up your belongings to leave the land, you who live under siege. 18For this is what the Lord says: “At this time I will hurl out those who live in this land; I will bring distress on them so that they may be captured.”’ We’ve moved house a few times – across international boundaries on three occasions. There is no doubt that moving is stressful and difficult but the stresses can be alleviated by planning and preparation. Packing up non-essential items and disposing of old ‘stuff’ well ahead of the move date makes the pain of the removal easier to bear. The removal still comes, but efforts can be made to reduce the stress. Judah could do this too. The invasion was coming – there would be no alternative, but by listening and heeding the words of Jeremiah, the situation could be more tolerable. Get ready says Jeremiah – it’s going to be a rough ride! The coming judgment would have, 1) a personal impact (‘Woe to me because of my injury, my wound is incurable’ – verse 19), 2) a domestic impact (‘My tent is destroyed; all its ropes are snapped. Verse 20), 3) familial impact (‘My sons are gone from me and are no more’ Verse 20b) and a national impact (‘The shepherds are senseless and do not enquire of the Lord’ Verse 21).
3. Jeremiah’s prayer
In view of all of the situation Jeremiah prays. That seems like a sensible course of action! What a privilege to have the facility of prayer to the God of the universe rather than an inanimate idol! Jeremiah first of all declares that: ‘23I know, O Lord , that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.’ Some people take the view that God set up the world and stepped back to let things play out – a bit like winding up a clock and letting it run down on its own. Others take the view that God decides every minute detail of what happens in this world – it’s all done according to his plan. The problem with these two views is that the former seems to be quite inconsistent with God’s interventions – such as the rather big intervention in Judah’s history which is what Jeremiah is all about and the latter view makes God responsible for not only all the good in the world but all the bad too: this cannot be. It seems to me that God is active in the world, but he has delegated ‘moral space’ for each of us. The moral space enables us to decide what we will do. Adam and Eve needed to decide if they would obey or not, likewise Noah, Abraham and so on. At Jeremiah’s time in Judah’s history the people were suffering the consequences of God’s actions which were a direct result of their moral decisions to worship idols and turn away from the true God. So when Jeremiah says : ‘a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps,’ he seems to say this in the wider context of Judah’s rebellion and impending judgment. No longer would Judah have a choice, they had had their chance, now they were in God’s hands. Jeremiah, perhaps speaking on behalf of the nation declares, ‘Discipline me, Lord, but only in due measure – not in your anger, or you will reduce me to nothing (verse 24).’ In this statement, Jeremiah recognises who God really is – he holds Judah, and Jeremiah in his hand and may rightfully exercise his righteous judgment. How this must have pained the heart of Jeremiah as he saw the continued refusal of Judah to repent or even recognise and prepare for the coming judgment.
The judgment was bad enough, but it would come from the hand of a wicked people! It must have seemed shocking to Jeremiah that God’s chosen people would be disciplined by the Babylonians – a godless and idol worshipping people themselves! In view of this, Jeremiah prays that these other nations would fall under God’s judgment too. This prayer was answered! You can read the account in Daniel 5. As Daniel was acknowledging that God was active in his day and was bringing about judgment, the people were completely unaware – they were in denial and were impervious to the truth. We may well be living in similar days – the truth is ignored and God’s wrath is surely near. Perhaps we would do well to acknowledge with Jeremiah that ‘a man’s life is not his own.’