Jeremiah has demonstrated that Israel can by its own actions alter the course of God’s plans. Although they are like a pot that is spoiled on the potter’s wheel and headed for destruction, repentance can bring about a change. But Israel would not repent, and the pot is now hardened, complete and ready for judgment! It seems that when a nation becomes like Judah and turns its back on God that the people and the institutions of that nation begin to suppress expression of the truth. Since Jeremiah was God’s mouthpiece for truth in Judah, the leaders, having refused to repent, turned their energies to shutting Jeremiah up.
1. In the stocks
The Temple was at the heart of religious life in Israel. Three major festivals brought people from all over the land to worship; the spring feasts of Passover, Unleavened bread and Firstfruits, the early summer feast of Weeks and the autumn feasts of Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles. Throughout the year, people living in Jerusalem would attend the Temple on a daily basis as well as on the Sabbath day itself. All of this needed organisation and management. In the time of Jeremiah, Pashhur was a priest who held the title of ‘chief officer in the house of the Lord.’ He was most likely responsible for the management of Temple activities and amongst his responsibilities seems to have been policing the Temple and dealing with troublemakers. If Pashhur in particular and the people in general had been living in conformity with the law of Moses and if they had been living with faithful hearts, they would have had no trouble in taking to heart the Lord’s warnings delivered through Jeremiah. In fact they would have welcomed Jeremiah’s message and would have recognised it as truthful, persistent denial of truth however leads to an erosion of the capacity to recognise truth. This ultimately leads to an intolerance of truth. It is a tragic fact of life in the UK today that this is becoming our normal experience. Would you let men dressed as women to preside over the activities of a Girl Guide camp? Neither did two Girl Guide leaders. They were expelled from the organisation for objecting to the policy. What did the leaders say? ‘Keeping girls, young women and our adult volunteers safe is our number one priority.’ Truth is thrown to the ground. Just this morning I read of a feminist who paid to have a poster board displayed in Liverpool near the location of the Labour Party conference, the poster was just six words on a grey background: ‘woman, wʊmən, noun, adult human female.’ (which apparently is the Google definition of a woman). An NHS doctor who incidentally is married (under UK law) to another man complained to the billboard company that they were complicit ‘in the spread of transphobic hate speech.’ The poster was removed.
Some things never really change. Jeremiah had spoken the truth, he had spoken in a forthright and public way and he had to be silenced. Pashhur, the chief officer in the house of the Lord heard what Jeremiah was saying. No doubt he offered some reason for taking action against Jeremiah, perhaps ‘bringing the Temple institution into disrepute and endangering public safety.’ What he did was to have Jeremiah ‘beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin at the Lord’s temple (verse 2b).’ Jeremiah was to be silenced and disgraced. What a tragic situation that the one man in Jerusalem who spoke the truth and offered a possibility of escape from terrible judgment should be treated in this way. But Jeremiah was not to be silenced! Having been humiliated and now released from the stocks, Jeremiah spoke to Pashhur: ‘The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, but Magor-Missabib or ‘Terror on Every Side.’ I once worked with a medical doctor who had a very good sense of humour and a good way with words. He could often take someone’s name and with a simple alteration make it accurately reflect a feature of the person’s personality. There was a lady in our accounts department who had a fearsome reputation especially when it came to expense reports – nothing got past her! She had an uncanny ability to find inconsistencies and errors in expense reports and with a righteous zeal got them sorted out! She had actually a very kind heart but this was hard for people to see who had had the misfortune to come under her scrutiny! Her name Sarla was altered to Snarla! Jeremiah likewise re-names Pashhur but this was not gentle mocking, this was a serious condemnation of Pashhur’s actions and situation ‘Terror on Every Side’ would befall him. The name change spoke of the terror that was heading in Pashhur’s way. Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, lists the events that would overtake Pashhur; 1). He would watch his friends die by the sword, 2). The entire land would be given to the invading army, 3). Many would be taken captive and exiled in Babylon, 4). All of Jerusalem’s wealth and possessions would be taken and 5). For Pashhur himself his entire household would be taken to Babylon and would end their days in that place. This is a frightening prospect and raises an important question; why? Why should Pashhur’s name change to ‘Terror on every side.’ The answer is that Pashhur had ‘prophesied falsely.’ Little attention is paid to truth versus falsehood today. People who believe the bible to be true are considered ‘fundamentalist’ and are lumped into the same category as Islamic terrorists. The prevailing thinking of our time is that in matters of faith there is no absolute truth – what you believe is your personal thing and it’s what it means to you that matters – it’s a private thing: ‘truth’ is whatever you want it to be. I think this way of thinking has crept into the church too – we are somewhat embarrassed to believe anything too strongly for fear of causing offence and upset – some things are just too controversial to speak about. I note that when straightforward bible truths fall into the ‘too controversial to discuss’ category it’s usually because the straightforward words in the bible are no longer believed but have been superseded by an extra-biblical view. We should be biblicists, no more and no less. The stakes are too high for anything else – just ask Jeremiah! Just let the bible speak!
Some commentators have pointed out that this 20th chapter of Jeremiah forms something of a watershed moment in the fate of Judah. Up until this point, it seems that there was a chance for the nation to repent and avoid (or at least mitigate) the coming judgment. As we saw in chapters 18 and 19, there is a time when the potter is working with soft clay, clay that can respond and be changed. In chapter 19 the clay had hardened, ready to be smashed! Moreover, in this 20th chapter, for the first time in Jeremiah’s book we are given the identity of the instrument of God’s judgment: Babylon. Perhaps up to this time there was hope and whilst there was hope the identity of the invading army would not be disclosed. The die is now cast, the pot has hardened, the judgement becomes inevitable.
2. Laughing stock
To speak God’s word to an unbelieving people is not easy. Jeremiah experienced highs and lows. In this 20th chapter, Jeremiah goes from resolute prophet to despondent complainer and then to stoic believer and finally to self-pitying defeatist!
Jeremiah seems to have coped OK with being beaten up and put in the stocks, but to be laughed at seems to have been a much harder experience: ‘I have become a laughing stock all the day; everyone mocks me.’ You can imagine the situation. Jeremiah had been predicting ‘violence and destruction’ for years and yet nothing happened. You will recall that Jeremiah had begun his ministry during the reign of Josiah, there then followed no less than four more Judean kings spanning a 22 year period before the final destruction would come. False prophets were speaking against Jeremiah – he was a discredited and tiresome figure. Jeremiah found it hard to cope and complained to God: ‘7 You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.’ Perhaps Jeremiah was beginning to doubt the prophetic words that he himself was speaking. This was not the first time Jeremiah had accused God of being a liar – I think in his heart Jeremiah knew that God was not a liar, but sometimes when it seems everyone and everything is against us we question God – why, we demand, why is life so painful and difficult God? Job, who suffered catastrophe upon catastrophe asked the same question: why? We do too. Both Jeremiah and Job learned to look beyond their own particular circumstances to see the glory of the Lord and having understood who God is and his great creative power then they could put their own personal situations in perspective and learn to cope in the here-and-now.
Jeremiah couldn’t cope with the opposition, but wonderfully he couldn’t and wouldn’t be silenced! His countrymen were ridiculing and whispering ‘Terror on every side! Denounce him! Let’s denounce him! (verse 10).’ In his moments of despair, Jeremiah decided to no longer ‘mention his word or speak any more in his name.’ But he couldn’t: ‘his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (verse 9).’ What an example for us! It is possible to put out God’s flame within us, in fact the apostle Paul said (in 1 Thessalonians 5: 19) ‘Do not quench the Spirit.’ By centering our thinking on this world and by living our lives in the milieu of our old nature we can easily quench the Spirit – the solution is to live our lives in the sphere of the Holy Spirit – if we do we will produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
3. Taking stock
Jeremiah had sunk into a despair, he had lost his focus on the Lord and on his mission, he had allowed difficult circumstances to dominate his thinking. How we feel does not however affect our real circumstances. Jeremiah was speaking truth, he was God’s mouthpiece, he was loved and God was with him – he may not have felt this, but that did not change the reality of his situation. When he looked beyond the immediate difficulty of his circumstances Jeremiah was able to see ‘the big picture.’ Verse 11: ‘11 But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.’ Jeremiah began to realise that God is greater and exceedingly more powerful than those who were against him. It seems that God in his goodness gives us from time to time glimpses of the future, and when we see the final victory over sin and death we are strengthened for the immediate battle in which we are engaged. Even when the Jews were on the cusp of crucifying the Messiah, Jesus taught them about what the future would bring: because of their unbelief they would go through difficult days, but God would ultimately prevail. It would be a difficult future but the end would be one of redemption: ‘28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21).’ Perhaps, like the apostle Paul, Jeremiah realised that he could ‘18 give thanks in all circumstances; (1 Thessalonians 5).’ He was even able to sing: ‘13 Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.’
4. Out of stock
American’s seem to love a guru – especially in the business world. There’s always some guy who (for a handsome fee) will ‘transform your business’ or indeed your life. It seems to me that these people usually state the blindingly obvious but do so in an engaging way and there seems no end to their ingenuity in persuading companies and individuals to follow their new and ‘life changing’ way of doing things. One such guru points out that any project has its ups and downs – bet you never knew that before!. Life does indeed have ups and downs, sometimes circumstances get on top of us and we’re on a down and at other times we take a step back, tackle our problems and we’re back on the up. I suppose that some people are more prone to higher ups and lower downs than others. I suspect that Jeremiah was more prone to ups and downs than the average person: he’s also painfully honest about how he feels about things.
In this chapter alone, we’ve had Jeremiah in the down mode when he reacts to being a laughing stock with the people (verses 7 to 10), then in verses 11 to 13 he regains his poise and recognises that God is with him and will see that things turn out right. Jeremiah even breaks out into song! In the last 14 verses Jeremiah sinks back into self-pity and despair. ‘14 Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! 15 Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, ‘A child is born to you – a son!’’ I’m sure that Jeremiah wouldn’t mind me saying that this is an unhelpful and destructive attitude. I suppose it’s easy for us to criticise, our lives have been lived in a period of peace and plenty. Last night I listened to the experiences of children who became accidentally separated from their parents and spend their lives in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (you can listen to the podcast here: BBC Podcast: The children of Belsen). Jeremiah lived in similar times. We end chapter 20 on a rather low note, Jeremiah asks “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” The remarkable thing is that despite this attitude of despair, God would continue to use Jeremiah to speak to kings and to continue to do a work of national significance and importance. Jeremiah kept going even when he was thrown into despair by his circumstances. We can certainly learn from this!