There was a plot to kill Jeremiah. Why? Because he had pointed out the error of the ways of the people: judgment was coming from the North. We tend to become a bit immune to the situation in Judah at that time. Yes, yes, we know about the idols, yes, we know it was bad, yeah, yeah, yeah. It seems similar today, we become so accustomed to deeply destructive sinful practices around us that we hardly notice them.
In Jeremiah’s day the circumstances were different but the extent of the sinfulness of the people was no less damaging and tragic. Judah represented the nation that God had chosen to be a light to the world. They had the covenant given to Abraham, the Mosaic covenant and the wonderful promises of the Deuteronomic covenant (see Jeremiah 11 notes for a reminder of these). Despite this, the nation had turned its back on God – quite literally (as you will see below)! Jeremiah was not the only prophet speaking for God, Ezekiel lived at around the same time. Ezekiel was about 30 years younger than Jeremiah and he prophesied in Babylon – the place of Judah’s exile. The year was 592 BC, Ezekiel was in Babylon, but was led by the Spirit of God to observe conditions in God’s holy temple in Jerusalem. If you’ve been attending our Thursday bible studies, you may recall some of the intricate detail of the tabernacle; Israel’s original portable temple. There was great importance placed upon the overall design and the specific articles necessary for the worship of God: God’s very presence was to be found in the inner part of the tabernacle. When King Solomon built a permanent Temple, the same attention to detail and the holiness of God was observed in the magnificent structure: it was truly built for the glory of God. But the Babylonians were coming to destroy the nation and the city, and the Temple would be reduced to rubble. Before the destruction of the Temple, God’s presence would leave and Ezekiel was to observe the departure! You can read the account in Ezekiel 8-11. What Ezekiel saw was shocking. At the entrance to the North gate, Ezekiel observed ‘this idol of jealousy.’ God said to him, ‘Son of man, do you see what they are doing – the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable (Ezekiel 8: 6).’ Next Ezekiel saw portrayed on the walls of the Temple all kinds of ‘crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel.’ Returning to the North gate, Ezekiel is shown women weeping for the god Tammuz. In the inner court of the Temple were 25 men – they were bowing down, but with their backs toward the temple – they were facing the east: they were not worshipping God but the sun. It seems that Jeremiah would have been fully aware of this dreadful situation in Jerusalem and in the temple.
It should thus not surprise us that Jeremiah wonders why God allows this situation to go on. He speaks to God and first acknowledges God’s character in judgment: ‘You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.’ Jeremiah’s experience of God was that he was a consistent and reliable judge. But Jeremiah is troubled by God’s failure to respond to the appalling situation in Judah, he asks ‘why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?’ The people were the sort who frequently spoke about the Lord with their lips, but the Lord was ‘far from their heart.’ Jeremiah complained that God was doing nothing to judge these people and administer his justice. How could this appalling situation be tolerated for one day longer? He wanted them sorted out: ‘Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter!’ Strong words! Jeremiah remarked somewhat poetically that the land was parched and the grass in the fields withered and as a result could no longer sustain the birds and animals. As I write, we’re going through probably the warmest and driest British summer in a generation. We’re realising right now, in our normally rainy climate, just how much we need rain. Our lovely green lawns have turned yellow/brown and the soil has become like dust. Such was the spiritual condition in Judah and the people didn’t care, they believed that God would not notice what was going on: ‘he will not see what happens to us’ (verse 4b). Jeremiah wanted God to act and could not understand why he had let things get this far.
God’s response to Jeremiah’s request was not at all that Jeremiah had expected! Jeremiah, he said, if you‘ve been in a race with other men it’s worn you has it not? Well how would you like to compete with horses! Jeremiah, you’ve found easy paths difficult to walk on at times, well how do you think you’re going to get on making progress through the thickest of jungles? The Lord was telling Jeremiah that the exertions he was currently going through were going to get worse! We were in London today – it was the 100-year celebration of the Royal Air Force and we had the privilege of seeing the remarkable fly past from our picnic spot in St James’s Park. As we made our way through the crowd back to Victoria station I heard through a loudspeaker someone preaching about Jesus. I was so pleased that a small group of Christians were doing this. We were pleased too to accept one of their leaflets. They were a very positive group of believers and their leaflet emphasised the wonderful benefits of faith in the Lord Jesus. In spite of the joy that salvation brings, sometimes the life of faith is not easy: amongst the days of joy for sins forgiven, are days of difficulty and sorrow and pain. Jeremiah was to have some difficult days despite his faith. We may experience the same thing, but God will never leave us or forsake us, of this we can be sure.
Jeremiah’s troubles would involve even those closest and most dear to him. His relatives, members of his own family, spoke well of him (perhaps to his face) but they had betrayed the prophet and were working against him. This must have been enormously dispiriting for Jeremiah – his countrymen were plotting his death and now his family were against him. Following the Lord is not for the fainthearted!
Despite the persistent wickedness of the people and despite the injustices to Jeremiah, the Lord would act in his own time. Verse 7: ‘I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies.’ God would literally abandon the Temple and he would abandon his people too. Any parent who truly loves their child will know the discomfort and indeed agony of the process of disciplining a child. God was not going to discipline his people gladly, but of necessity and ultimately, he would bring them back to himself. The writer to the Hebrews spoke of this when he wrote: ‘but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’ Judah would experience intense difficulty and the Lord uses pictures to describe what this would be like: they would become like a speckled bird of prey that would stand out such that it would become the object of attack from other birds of prey. They would be like a vineyard that is trampled down and a pleasant field that is turned into desolate wasteland. The people would sow wheat but reap thorns, they would work to the point of exhaustion but would gain nothing for their efforts. Judgment would indeed come.
3. Noisy neighbours
I believe it was Benjamin Netanyahu the current prime minister of Israel who said that ‘we live in a tough neighbourhood!’ It was the same back in Jeremiah’s day – they had ‘wicked neighbours’ (verse 14). Just as God would deal with his own wayward people so he would deal with those wicked neighbours too: ‘I will uproot them from their lands and I will uproot the people of Judah from among them.’ There can be no doubt that just as God would deal with his choice people Israel, so he would deal with the surrounding nations too. Some people have a rather negative view of the Lord in the Old Testament: the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins described the Lord of the Old Testament as a ‘malevolent bully!’ Well he would wouldn’t he! Perhaps he ought to read verse 15: ‘But after I uproot them, I will again have compassion and will bring each of them back to their own inheritance and their own country.’ The Lord has more to say about these other nations: ‘16 And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name, saying, “As surely as the Lord lives”– even as they once taught my people to swear by Baal – then they will be established among my people.’ But there is a warning for such nations, ‘if any nation does not listen, I will completely uproot and destroy it,’ declares the Lord.’ These final few verses of chapter 12 give us a remarkable insight into the fate of the nations.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on ‘the nations,’ which is a pity as it seems that the bible has a lot to say about them. You may recall that God himself created the nations through the creation of language at the tower of Babel. It seems that formation of a single global political entity would have been simply too dangerous for the well being of mankind. The creation of the nations was thus for the good of mankind. Despite wars and international disputes, the formation of nations has allowed a degree of freedom for most people as nations have been at liberty to devise and develop different political systems – not all ideal for sure, but at least the potentially catastrophic dangers of a single global political entity have been averted. Interestingly, despite many attempts to bring the nations under a single governing entity, they have remained remarkably resilient over the centuries: the current football world cup uncovers deep patriotic roots in the competing nations!
Having created the nations, God has plans for them, the most obvious being that they will be blessed through Israel. Since there is a spiritual war being prosecuted by the evil one (and there is) it should not surprise us that there is opposition to God’s plans for Israel and pressure to merge the nations rather than to retain their identity (as God intended). Interestingly UN Watch (an organisation endorsed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan)note that in the current session of the United Nations there are 27 resolutions, 21 of these resolutions are critical of Israel (see UN Watch). Ironically, the very nation who could bring benefit to the other nations is persistently criticised and ostracised by the others.
God’s stated purpose is that Israel will be a light to the Gentiles (see Isaiah 43: 6, 49: 6 and 60: 3). There is no doubt that the coming of the Lord Jesus to this world, his birth in Bethlehem and his death and resurrection in Jerusalem has brought light to this dark world, but this seems to be as much in spite of Israel as because of Israel! For Israel to fulfil its role toward the nations it needs to be in a right relationship with the Lord. That day will come according to the Lord as he spoke through the prophet Zechariah: the people will look on ‘the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son’ (Zechariah 12:10b), the inhabitants of Jerusalem will be cleansed of sin and impurity and the Lord will ‘banish the names of the idols from the land, and they will be remembered no more’ (Zechariah 13: 2).
The prophet Zechariah also spoke of a day when nations would seek to obliterate Jerusalem, but the Lord would fight for Israel. Defeat of these nations at the hand of God would not however mark their end, interestingly when the Lord again spoke through Zechariah he said ‘Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles’ (Zechariah 14: 15). At the time of these events there will be a single government, it will not be a government susceptible to sinfulness and rebellion, but rather ‘The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name’ (Zechariah 14:9) – and Israel will then fulfil its role as a light to the nations.
This theme of God’s plans for the nations is not restricted to the Old Testament. In Revelation 19 we read of the victory by the ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords!’ After the Lord comes to this earth he will set up a kingdom for 1000 years (Revelation 20). During that time the nations will play a role. Here’s what the apostle John records in Revelation 20: ‘And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient snake, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended.’ There will be a day when the nations are no longer under the deception of the enemy of truth! Finally, even in the new Jerusalem there will be provision for the nations from the ‘tree of life’ whose leaves ‘are for the healing of the nations.’ And where is that tree of life to be found? In the new Jerusalem! Where else!
Back to Jeremiah, whose task was to announce God’s judgment on Judah – a judgment which would be harsh and difficult. But we should be encouraged that ultimately these stiff-necked people will acknowledge the Lord and then the nations will fully benefit from the light of Israel and reign of the Lord. What a day that will be!