1. Listen and Tell
I once had occasion to meet a professor who, whilst without doubt was a brilliant man, but was of a distinctly objectionable character. He wanted to argue about everything and was only satisfied when he had humiliated his ‘opponent.’ On the advice of this professor we were developing a strategy to demonstrate that our test drug would modify the progression of Parkinson’s disease. One of my colleagues said that he could never quite remember the concept behind the strategy. The professor said something quite memorable – he told my colleague to teach the idea and once he had taught it to other people, then he would never forget. I suppose he was saying, learn it, teach it, remember it.
I don’t think that Jeremiah had much problem remembering his message, but he was told to listen to it and then tell it to the people. Jeremiah’s message is one that we would do well to learn, and maybe teach and thus remember too! Since the bible is more about Israel than any other nation or group of people, the key to unlocking the message of God’s word (and that of Jeremiah) is to understand the relationship between God and Israel. If we get this wrong we will miss the flow of thinking. Get it right and theme and ideas of the bible make sense. As we read and interpret God’s word we do well to remember that whilst all of the bible is written for us, not all of the bible is written to us.
It seems that the Judeans needed a reminder from Jeremiah about their relationship with God. Jeremiah is told to ‘listen to the terms of this covenant and to tell them to the people of Judah and to those who live in Jerusalem. (verse 2)’ Here’s what Jeremiah was to tell them (verse 3): ‘3 Tell them that this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “Cursed is the one who does not obey the terms of this covenant – 4 the terms I commanded your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the iron-smelting furnace.”’ Israel had been held is slaves in the ‘iron-smelting furnace’ of Egypt. The technology of iron smelting was well known in Jeremiah’s day – it needed sophisticated technology and extreme conditions to generate the sort of temperatures at which iron would melt (more than 1500 °C). God rescued his people from the furnace, but there were conditions placed upon them according to the covenant. This seems to refer to the Mosaic covenant in which God told Israel that they would receive curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience. Verse 4b-5: ‘I said, “Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God. 5 Then I will fulfil the oath I swore to your ancestors, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey”– the land you possess today.’
If you take a look back at Deuteronomy 27 you will see that the context is the Mosaic law – the law that is characterised by the 10 commandments as well as a series of instructions that related to the collective worship and society in Israel. In those days the invoking of curses was common in the making of formal agreements. Such curses, which involved the imposition of supernatural punishment, were part of legal contracts to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement. Israel had reached an important stage in its history: they were about to enter the promised land. Once the people had crossed the Jordan river, they were to gather together in their 12 tribes and the Levites were to read out a list of curses that would come upon the people if they did not comply with the Mosaic law. A total of 12 curses were read out. The first is in verse 15: ‘15 ‘Cursed is anyone who makes an idol – a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands – and sets it up in secret.’ – Now isn’t that relevant to Jeremiah’s message! After each curse was read out the people were to respond by simply saying ‘Amen’: so be it. Hold that thought for a moment. Back in Deuteronomy 27 there was a reminder for the people to keep the Mosaic law but there then follows the institution of a new covenant, the ‘Deuteronomic covenant.’ In this covenant, God made very specific promises to Israel. The covenant foresees failure by Israel and consequential curses being visited on the people, but the key promises relate to what will happen to Israel when, having received the curses they return to the Lord. Briefly the promises are (with references added to Deuteronomy 30: . The scattered Israelites will be regathered from all over the world (v 3-4). . The people will be restored to the land of their ancestors (v. 5). . The people will be regenerated: their hearts would be circumcised (v. 6). . Israel’s enemies would be cursed (v. 7) . The people at that time would live in obedience with the Lord (v. 7). . The Lord would make the people prosperous (v. 9). It is this series of promises of God that Jeremiah seems to summarise in 4b and 5. Now remember the response the Israelites had to make back in Deuteronomy 27: Amen! What is Jeremiah’s response to God’s instruction to remind the people of God’s promises? Amen! – So be it!
Jeremiah was specifically asked to ‘‘‘Proclaim all these words in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem: “Listen to the terms of this covenant and follow them.”’ The instruction would made clear to the people terms of the covenant – it would be a specific reminder of the benefits of the Deuteronomic covenant and the curses laid out in the Mosaic covenant.
How would the people respond? Not well: (verse 8) ‘8 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts.’ Notice that although God could see the future with his divine foreknowledge, the moral responsibility lay with the people: it would their stubborn refusal that would bring upon them the curses that their forefathers had responded to with an ‘Amen.’
2. Do not pray
The persistent refusal of the people of Judah and Jerusalem to turn back to God would not and, according to the terms of the Mosaic covenant, could not go unpunished. The main issue was failure at the first hurdle, the first commandment (Exodus 20): ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ and failure at the first curse mentioned in Deuteronomy 27: ‘Cursed is anyone who makes an idol – a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands – and sets it up in secret.’ Here’s the statement from God to Jeremiah in verse 10: ‘They have followed other gods to serve them. Both Israel and Judah have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors.’ The specific problem was idolatry. But there was a more fundamental problem: they ‘refused to listen to my words’ (verse 10b). It seems that this is the underlying problem for anyone who turns away from God. Faith is believing what God says is true – it cannot be more than this and it cannot be less – a refusal to listen to God’s words is the opposite of faith. Of course we would never do such a thing! Or would we? Perhaps without realizing it we become conditioned by the constant drip feeding of atheism and godlessness in our world, this thinking can undermine our confidence in what God says. The problem however can come from a source much closer to home – sometimes theological systems demand that we twist and turn God’s word to fit our system: if you ever hear yourself say: ‘did God really say’ as you study the bible, be careful, that’s how Adam’s faith-failure began.
Since Judah’s relationship with God was governed by the Mosaic law and the curses that were attendant to it, and since their rejection of God’s word was of a persistent and pervasive nature, the curses had to come. There would be no escape and no alternative pathway for the nation, the die was cast: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’ Even as the disaster arrived the people of Judah and Jerusalem would shockingly call on their false idols for help!: ‘12 The towns of Judah and the people of Jerusalem will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes.’ Of course pieces of carved wood and stone could do nothing to help!
For the second time in Jeremiah we read that Jeremiah was specifically told not to pray for the people. It seems that there comes a time when people by their own actions place themselves in a position that is beyond redemption. A persistent refusal to turn to the truth leads to this sorry state of affairs. Interestingly even under these dreadful circumstances, the people still attended the Temple and still offered consecrated meat. It is somewhat counter intuitive that people who attended the Temple and actively participated in Temple activities could be so far away from God that Jeremiah was told not to pray for their salvation! Just because we attend church regularly does not mean that we are full of faith!
One more picture of Judah is presented in verse 16; a thriving olive tree. Olive trees were of profound value in the ancient near east, they provided a wide range of benefits to the people of the day: the oil was used for food and in cooking as well as lighting and in sacrificial offerings. Judah and Israel had a purpose; to bring blessing and light to the nations. But the Olive tree of Israel was about to be severely damaged: ‘But with the roar of a mighty storm he will set it on fire, and its branches will be broken (verse 16b).’ What a sad day.
3. Intolerant tolerance
In 2014, the British government issued ‘Guidance on promoting British values in schools.’ The guidance states that ‘All have a duty to ‘actively promote’ the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.’ All well and good. Just this week (on 3rd July 2018) the government issued a series of documents under the head of ‘LGBT Action plan 2018.’ Amongst the documents is the ‘LGBT action Plan: command paper.’ Some excerpts: on health: ‘We will ensure that LGBT people’s needs are at the heart of the National Health Service,’ and ‘We will enhance fertility services for LGBT people,’ and you thought the NHS had no money! On education: ‘We will take action so that our education system supports every LGBT child or young person,’ and ‘We also want to see LGBT teachers supported to be role models for all children and young people.’ And somewhat disturbingly: ‘We will improve the police response to hate crime.’ And just in case you wondered what a hate crime was, here’s what our police forces advise (from https://Sussex.police.co.uk) ‘a hate crime is any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice toward someone’s actual or perceived race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or transgender identity,’ and ‘If you feel that someone has done or said something that was motivated by prejudice it’s best to trust your instincts. Even if you are not sure if what they have done has broken a criminal law, you can still report it to the police.’
Why is this important? First because it is a national tragedy that our young people are being taught that the desires and products of the sin nature are normal and to be nurtured – the result will be damage, sorrow and broken lives. If we don’t follow the instructions of our creator we cannot hope to live healthy, satisfactory and productive lives. Second, because it seems that as society jettisons truth, those who believe and act on the truth become the enemy and they must be silenced – all in the name of tolerance!
So it was in the days of Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke the truth on behalf of God, but the people were intolerant of his massage, he needed to be silenced. Jeremiah was oblivious to the danger of those who opposed his message: it was God who revealed the danger to him – verse 19: ‘19 I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realise that they had plotted against me.’ Perhaps there is a lesson here. The message we must give in our day is not some sort of campaign to return to Christian values at all costs – it is that God is love, we are sinners, Jesus died in our place and by believing on him we become God’s children and have eternal life. The example from Jeremiah is to be apolitical and like lambs – only speaking what God would have us say. I suspect that our Christian message is becoming increasingly ‘inappropriate’ in our times. The danger to Jeremiah was not that they wanted just to silence him: they wanted him dead! Verse 19b: ‘Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.’ Sadly it was the people of Jeremiah’s home town who seemed to be in the main group who were plotting his death, they were saying to Jeremiah ‘Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord or you will die by our hands.’ It’s hard for us to imagine the sorrow that this must have brought to the heart of Jeremiah. These were his own people, they were the people whom God had chosen to be a light to the nations, they were the people whom God had brought out of Egypt, they were the people whom God had brought into the promised land, the people who had the law and the prophets and the Temple and all of the benefits of the truth. They had replaced God with idols and now they would not even tolerate the man who was simply God’s messenger. We read of a similar event to take place at a future time in the history of this world when God will send two messengers but their message will be rejected and they will be the target of murderous intent. Jeremiah would know God’s protection: judgment and disaster would be the lot of those who plotted his death.