It was sometime in the early 1970s and I was in a chemistry class at Secondary school. We were being taught the wonders of the atom and sub-atomic particles. We were taught that each atom has a nucleus and in that nucleus are protons and neutrons. Spinning around the nucleus are electrons (Figure 1). Protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. I recall one of my fellow pupils asking a rather excellent question: if protons are positively charged and are held together in the nucleus, wouldn’t they want to push each other away? How can they stay together, since like charges repel one another? The teacher didn’t know the answer! The basic picture of the structure of an atom is still taught in schools today, but much more is known about what holds these sub atomic particles together.

Figure 1: structure of an atomFigure 2: Structure of a proton

It turns out that the proton itself is made up of smaller parts – quarks (Figure 2). In a proton there are two so-called ‘up’ quarks which have a charge of +2/3 and one so-called ‘down’ quark with a charge of -1/3. You can therefore see that the net charge is +1 (2/3 + 2/3 – 1/3). Incidentally neutrons also have three quarks, two down and one up which gives a net charge of zero (2/3 – 1/3 – 1/3): they are neutral. This doesn’t actually answer our question as to how the positively charged protons are held so closely together in the nucleus, it merely poses another question of exactly the same kind: how are the quarks that make up protons (and neutrons) held together? There must be a force that pushes them together: the force that does this is proposed to be carried by another particle, a ‘gluon.’ The gluon provides the strong force that is required to hold the protons and their quarks close together. So we have quarks within protons that need to sit together in the centre the atom, they are each positively charged and don’t want to sit together, but the gluon carries the force to push them together. The problem is that the gluon could potentially do its job too well and push them so close together that they actually collapse into one another! What is rather amazing is that the force of the gluon to push the protons together is poised perfectly with the repulsive forces of the positive charges that the protons themselves have: thus the nucleus is held together in perfect balance.

Materialistic atheists have no explanation for why matter is the way it is and why the substructures of atoms are the way they are. They have to say that this is just the way things are: something came from nothing and that something just happens to have the structures that we observe. The fact that it all works so well is just a freak of ‘nature.’ The complexity of biology is explained in the same way.

Christian have a much more rational belief: there is an intelligent personality who made the remarkable world with great power and intelligence and who exists eternally and is outside of space, time and matter. The apostle Paul wrote this in Romans 1: ‘what may be known about God is plain…. because God has made it plain …. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.’

My daughter and her husband have just moved house and the previous owner has left an impressive train set in the loft room, it’s all wired up with a third rail electric supply to power the engines. One of the trains is a little clock-work steam engine. We sometimes think that God has basically wound up the universe like the clock-work engine and has left it to run on its own. This is not what the bible says, it says that through Jesus, God made the universe and further that Jesus sustains all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1). The apostle Paul wrote of the Lord Jesus: “16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1).”  This tells us that the quarks, protons, atoms and molecules in our amazing world are sustained and held together by a person. And remarkably this is a person whom we can know!

Thus God sustains and holds the universe together in a somewhat quiet but discoverable and observable way: it seems that God does not normally work in nature in dramatic and overt ways. This however is not always the case as we shall see in this 14th chapter of Jeremiah.

1. Drought

It’s turning out to be one of the, if not the, hottest July months on record in England. Our plants are struggling and our lawns are no longer green. It’s only been a few weeks of drought and there is water aplenty in the reservoirs. We have no shortages, water is only limited by the capacity of the system to deliver it. But in Judah it was not like this – there was a genuine drought. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah concerning this drought and we have, in poetic form, a description of its effects: both the land and the city wail and cry out! The reservoirs of water were empty. The ground was cracked and the farmers were in despair. The normally attentive doe abandoned her new born fawn. The wild donkeys were panting like jackals. The land that God promised to Israel was to flow with milk and honey! Milk is produced by grazing animals and in this drought there was no grass, similarly honey is prepared by the bees from nectar from flowers, in a drought the plants die – such was the situation in Judah.

The issue of the drought in Judah was rather different to our drought in the UK this summer. Ours seems to be attributable by the normal variability in weather systems, in spite of all of the frenzy in the media, our hot dry summer is well within the range of ‘normal’, albeit at one end of the range! For Judah, it seems that the drought was caused by an intervention in the weather system by the Lord himself. In the covenant that God made with Moses and Israel, the promise stated that if the people were disobedient to the Lord they would suffer curses: one of those curses was ‘scorching heat and drought’ (Deuteronomy 28: 22). And now the people who had knowingly committed such dreadful sins complained bitterly! Verse 7: ‘Although our sins testify against us, do something, Lord, for the sake of your name. For we have often rebelled;
we have sinned against you
.’ Is this a sign that the people were at last realising their need for repentance? Sadly it seems not. When things were going well, the people ignored God and did whatever they liked – they allowed the sacred temple to become a place of worship of idols rather than the true God. Now that God was withdrawing his goodness, they were a bit too quick to run back to him looking for a return of the good times. It seems they were only interested in God for what they could get from him: they did not give him his place. This attitude becomes clear in verse 8: ‘You who are the hope of Israel, its Saviour in times of distress, why are you like a stranger in the land, like a traveller who stays only a night?’ we are a bit like that too! When everything is going fine we can so easily have little time for God, we are satisfied with a pleasant life, but when things get difficult we turn back to God! Interestingly one of Judah’s demands for God to act was based on the very promises that they had ignored. They said, ‘we bear your name, do not forsake us!.’  What they were saying was that God’s reputation was at stake, since Israel were his chosen people, difficulty for Israel reflected badly on the Lord! What the people failed to realise was that God’s reputation would suffer if he did nothing and let his people continue to live in a rebellious and sinful way.

The true nature of Judah is revealed by God’s own words in verse 10: ‘They greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the Lord does not accept them; he will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.’ For a third time, God instructs Jeremiah specifically not to pray for the people: ‘Do not pray for the well-being of this people. 12 Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague’ (verse 11). They Lord’s compassion had been exhausted, now he would act in judgment.

2. False prophets

Cognitive bias is the phenomenon that afflicts us all to a degree: we have a tendency to select the facts before us that confirm our bias and we ignore the facts that are inconsistent with our biases. Sadly some people use these in-built biases to justify their actions. I often despair that politicians so often seem to present themselves and their ideas in such biased and self-serving ways. At the moment, one of our political parties is under intense scrutiny in relation to anti-Semitic attitudes. Their spokesmen seem to be in denial of the problem and yet persistently make decisions that confirm to the unbiased observer anti-Semitic attitudes. I don’t know if those involved are deliberately being dishonest or if they actually believe what they are saying – although I have my suspicions! It was not so different in Jeremiah’s time. Jeremiah’s message was clear, God’s promises to Moses indicated that persistent sinfulness would result in judgment. The time of God’s judgment was upon the people. There were however those who opposed Jeremiah’s message and instead said: ‘You will not see the sword or suffer famine. Indeed, I will give you lasting peace in this place’ (verse 13). Were they being deliberately dishonest or was their bias to see the blessings in God’s covenant whilst failing to see the curses? It seems to be much more of the former than the latter. The Lord speaks in verse 14: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.’

Anyone who misrepresents God’s word is playing with fire. My personal definition of faith in God is simply believing what God says, neither more nor less. The false prophets were believing less than God had said and were selecting out the portion of God’s promises that they found unpalatable. We rather look down on them and think we’d never be like that, but we must be on constant guard. We must never with the serpent say ‘did God really say?’ It’s such a simple mistake but the consequences are of great magnitude. For the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day and indeed for the people (who could have known better had they simply listened to Jeremiah) the Lord said, ‘Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine. 16 And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them, their wives, their sons and their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve.’

3. Hope?

Jeremiah considers the dreadful impact of God’s judgment on the people in verses 17 and 18: Speak this word to them: ‘“Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for the Virgin Daughter, my people, has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow. 18 If I go into the country, I see those slain by the sword; if I go into the city, I see the ravages of famine. Both prophet and priest have gone to a land they know not.”’ This raised an important question: had God completely rejected his people? It seems that the final four verses of the chapter are Jeremiah speaking on behalf of the people and in these verses are expressed the despair and hope of Jeremiah and the people. Here’s the question: ‘Have you rejected Judah completely? Do you despise Zion? Why have you afflicted us so that we cannot be healed?’ It’s a good question and must have played on Jeremiah’s mind as well as those of the people. In view of the dreadful judgment, was God finished with Israel? No doubt we sometimes ask the same question of the Lord, has he abandoned me? Why am I ill? Why are my loved ones ill without remedy? Why are things so difficult? Has God abandoned me? In Jeremiah’s day, the answer lay in what God had already said and when these questions arise in our minds we too must go back to what God has said to us.

The answer to Jeremiah’s question was to be found in the covenant God had made with Israel through Moses. Jeremiah says to the Lord, ‘Remember your covenant with us and do not break it’ (verse 21b). Jeremiah knew what God had promised: the curses would come in response to disobedience but when all the curses had played out, then God would restore his people and make them whole again. God’s plan was clear for all to see! There was hope to be had! Thankfully a number of God’s people remained true, Jeremiah was one, Ezekiel, Daniel and others really did believe what God had said. If we fast-forward another 600 years or so, we discover that God’s people chose to murder the Messiah, they then went on to murder and persecute Jesus’ disciples. What then? Would the promises that kept Jeremiah going suddenly be withdrawn? In the apostle Paul’s day, people wondered the same thing: had God finished with Israel? If we are prepared to admit it, the question really is; ‘is God reliable? Is he to be trusted? Is what he says to be really believed or explained way?’ Paul answers the question in Romans 11 with these words: ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this ismy covenant with them when I take away their sins.”’ Of course God is reliable comes Paul’s response! How could you ever doubt what God has said!

You will remember that this chapter begins with the issue of severe drought, a situation that was brought about by God’s direct intervention in his creation as a judgment against Israel. Under these conditions, to whom could Israel turn?   Sadly many turned to idols – empty, lifeless non-entities. In our enlightened age we are told to believe that this world is just something that came from nothing and just happens to be the way it is, there is no good or bad, there is no right or wrong, just accept this and get over it! This is about as useful as turning to an idol for an answer to the drought! There is however an answer to be had! Verse 22: ‘22 Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.’ If the Lord can bring a drought in judgment, he can bring rain too. After all he is the one who made the universe and sustains it by his power.