What’s the worst job you can imagine? Perhaps a task for which success is near impossible, a task that is thankless and likely to end in failure. I suspect that Theresa May could claim to have been given such a task! Jeremiah had perhaps the worst of all tasks: his people were heading for utter disaster (disaster that makes Brexit look like a walk in the park) – Jeremiah had to warn them, but they would not only ignore him, they would persecute him. Under these circumstances Jeremiah would inevitably experience days of despair, feelings of helplessness and perhaps anger too. If you identify with these circumstances, then this 15th chapter of Jeremiah is for you!
1. No hope
We’ve been studying the book of Exodus in our church bible studies recently. Israel had experienced a remarkable and visible demonstration of God’s power: they had been rescued from the hands of an oppressive super-power in the most dramatic of circumstances and thus had every reason to be thankful and to be faithful to God. Sadly, they seemed to spend their time moaning about their conditions and longing to be back as slaves in Egypt! Their leader Moses was driven to distraction! He often found himself appealing to God on behalf of the people for help and forgiveness. Remarkably, God repeatedly forgave the people and granted Moses his appeals. Later in Israel’s history, when they were settled in the land, Samuel had a similarly difficult role as he represented the disobedient Israelites before the Lord. The remarkable thing was that in spite of repeated and wilful disobedience, God listened to these appeals and forgave Israel time and time again. But, that was then, and this is now: the Lord said to Jeremiah, ‘Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people’ (verse 1). If Samuel and Moses had been given thankless tasks, surely Jeremiah’s was even worse! Any appeal he made on behalf of the people toward God would be destined to fall on deaf ears. That was bad enough, but Jeremiah had to tell the people what God would do: ‘Send them away from my presence! Let them go! 2 And if they ask you, “Where shall we go?” tell them, “This is what the Lord says: ‘“Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity” (verse 1b/2). Imagine that! Rather than the promised land flowing with milk and honey, the people are destined to death, the sword, starvation and captivity – and we think that our nation’s economic and political struggles are bad! But there’s more to come: four kinds of destroyers were to be sent in Judah’s direction: ‘the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy’ (verse 3b). Through these four destroyers, the Lord says that he will make his people abhorrent to the kingdoms of the earth – the people would be utterly loathed by the other nations. What a tragedy – the nation that was to bring light would bring shame. As Christians we are the bearers of light to this dark world too and whilst it is true that a world that has turned away from truth may not welcome light, we should not become detestable for the wrong reasons.
The reason for Judah becoming abhorrent was ‘because of what Manasseh son of Hezekiah king of Judah did in Jerusalem.’ At first glance this seems as though the people could claim innocence and lay any blame for the coming judgment at the door of Manasseh. No doubt Manasseh bore much responsibility for his leadership and his sin, we read (in 2 Kings 21: 6) that ‘He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practised divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists.’ Did the people however have the right to blame Manasseh for their troubles? Many atheists believe that all that we do is preconditioned by the biology that we inherit and the environment in which we live – our actions are pre-determined, and we thus cannot be blamed for wrong doing. You see this often in cases in the criminal courts, the offender is just unfortunate enough to have been handed a bad set of genes and a bad set of circumstances – he or she had no choice! Interestingly however we have no difficulty in praising the actions of people who do great or heroic things – for these actions we recognise the choice the person made to do something laudable. The people of Judah had for sure followed and been influenced by the lead of Manasseh, but they had nonetheless made their own moral choice (see for example verse 6: ‘you have rejected me’) and would suffer the consequences. The consequences would be far reaching. Six specific forms of judgment are listed in verses 7-9: 1). The people would be ‘winnowed with a winnowing fork at the gates of the city (v 7).’ Once a cereal crop is threshed to loosen the husk from the grain, it is winnowed to recover the edible part and to scatter the husks. In this picture the people are the husks and they will be scattered from the city. 2). The Lord would bring bereavement and destruction on the people (v 7b). 3). The number of widows would be more numerous than the sand of the sea. 4). Destruction would not come at night but at a time when it is least expected: in broad daylight, at midday (v 8). 5). Mothers would be bereaved (v 9) and 6). Survivors would be hunted by the sword (v 9b). One cannot help but contrast this dire situation with the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 22: ‘17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed because you have obeyed me.’ This is Israel’s ultimate destiny under the Abrahamic covenant, but the curses of the Mosaic covenant must be played out for disobedience.
2. Jeremiah’s surprising complaint!
There is no doubt that to be in a right relationship with God and to be aligned with truth is a place of satisfaction, rest and joy, but the bible repeatedly reminds us that as we enjoy these benefits of faith, we are engaged in a serious conflict too. The entire bible story is about a war between the forces of Satan and God, and whilst the ultimate outcome is not in doubt, the circumstances of the war and the battles associated with that war are very real causing real pain, difficulty and distress. The apostle Paul makes this clear for the church age in which we live: this is (as the writer Alva McClain put it in ‘The Greatness of the Kingdom’) a period of humiliation, testing, trouble, persecution, suffering, groaning, patient endurance, refining, perfecting, unceasing labour and agonising conflict. The question then is how ought we to react to such things? Jeremiah experienced these things in extra measure – it was distinctly uncomfortable, and he was about to let God know his thoughts!
I wish I had never been born he says in verse 10! He sees himself as a man who is in conflict with the land in which he lives. He said in v 10b ‘I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me.’ Jeremiah had led a quiet life, he had not ‘lived it up’ so ‘18 Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?’ We will see that Jeremiah’s situation does indeed become intensely difficult as the people become more and more antagonistic to the truth and thus Jeremiah rightly asks, why am I suffering? Sometimes the experience of such difficulty brings us, in our despair, to the point of blaming God. It seems to me that there is something quite commendable in Jeremiah’s honesty as he complains to God, but what Jeremiah does next is both surprising and unfortunate. After complaining that he had never ‘lived it up,’ but rather had suffered isolation, he said to the Lord: ‘You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails. (v 18b).’ Jeremiah seems to be saying that the Lord had failed to deliver on his promise – God had deceived him, God was a liar! Maybe at times you have felt like this, and maybe you too have felt that God’s promises have failed, but such thoughts are distinctly unhelpful and only lead to further despair. How would God respond to this? Jeremiah’s ‘complaint’ it seems was genuine, he really did want to do the right thing, but he had trouble understanding his experience in the light of God’s promises. God in his mercy would respond to Jeremiah to bring him back!
3. God’s response & Jeremiah’s return
God’s response to Jeremiah seems to come first in a general re-statement of his overall plans for Israel and second in a specific instruction for Jeremiah himself. First in verse 11, the Lord says: ‘surely I will deliver you for a good purpose; surely I will make your enemies plead with you in times of disaster and times of distress.’ This is followed by a reminder of the coming judgment: ‘can a man break iron – iron from the north – or bronze?’ So, what exactly is God’s point? It seems that he is saying is that he will ultimately make good on his promise to bless his people in accordance with the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Deuteronomic covenants (for more on this, see Part 1 of this series). The promise of ultimate rescue still stands! It’s good to be reminded that God keeps his promises! Even in the darkest moments, even in the most troubling of times, he has a plan that he is working out. In our church age we must be careful not to mis-apply promises for Israel to the church. Whenever you hear someone speaking about a passage in the bible, always, always ask yourself; was this text written to me (as a believer in the church age) or to some other group of people? I notice time and time again, earnest Christians speak about a passage in the bible and slip into the mode of assuming the words apply directly to us, this is a grave error. We must constantly remember that the promises made to Israel were not made to us! Moreover, much of what Jesus himself said and taught, whilst being of great value to us, was not said to us. What did Jesus say to the non-Jewish woman from Canaan? – ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel!’ Take note!
If Jeremiah could take comfort from the specific promises made with Israel, what about us? We can learn from these promises of God’s faithfulness, but we must turn to the writings of Paul, the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ for specific words for our age. In Romans 8, the apostle says ‘38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ That’s not bad for us to be getting on with!
God had firstly spoken encouragingly about the broad sweep of Israel’s future – but now he addresses Jeremiah. Remember that Jeremiah had basically just accused God of being unreliable! Jeremiah needed a change of mind – he needed to repent. He needed to revise his view of God. Perhaps his outburst had been one of emotion rather than clear-minded thinking, but he needed to change nonetheless. If he repented, then God would bring restoration. There is something rather wonderful here: God’s willingness to receive Jeremiah back! This speaks to us of the character of God: he is a forgiving God who recognises our weaknesses. Jeremiah still had work to do! He must not speak worthless words, but words that are worthy. How much of our conversation and speaking is worthy I wonder? In addition, he must be careful to let the people turn to him (as God’s spokesman) rather than the other way around. It is one of the great temptations of God’s people to turn to the world for our thinking and influence rather than to be influencers for good.
Part of Jeremiah’s restoration involved him returning to his past. He had trusted in God in the past and it seems that a reminder of that time was of significant benefit – verse 16: When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty. And I suspect that as Jeremiah pondered on his initial response to God’s words his delight was restored in God. Please note that Jeremiah’s restoration and his recovery were based on a recognition that when God’s words are ‘eaten’ they bring joy and delight. Do the words of God bring delight to your heart? I pray that they do!