1. A Royal delegation
As we discovered in chapter 20, it seems that the fate of Jerusalem and Judah was now sealed. Avoidance of God’s judgment (to be brought through the Babylonians) was no longer possible.
Jeremiah had spoken God’s words for the best part of 40 years. He was ignored and persecuted for his unpalatable warnings of coming judgment. His work had spanned the reign of no less than five Judean kings. In his early years he had been God’s representative during the reign of Josiah. You will recall that Josiah was the last Judean king who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.’ Despite his faithfulness to the Lord, the rot that had set in under his wicked grandfather King Manasseh had run deep into the thinking and practices of the people. On Josiah’s untimely death in 609 BC, his son, Jehoahaz was made king. The Egyptians replaced him after only 3 months with his brother Jehoiakim. Eleven years of dong ‘evil in the eyes of the Lord,’ was ended by Jehoahaz’s exile in Babylon at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. A third son of Josiah was installed as king, Jehoiachin, sadly he did not follow in the ways of his father either and was deposed by the Babylonians after a reign of just 3 months. It was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar who appointed the final king of Judah; Zedekiah. Zedekiah again did ‘evil in the eyes of the Lord.’ He was to reign for a total of 11 years. It seems that Jeremiah 21 was written well into the reign of Zedekiah.
We are living in a time of great political and economic uncertainty in the UK. Whilst the clock is ticking on Brexit, there seems no consensus in any of the major political parties as to what to do. The supporters of Brexit seem to listen selectively to the positive opinions of potential Brexit benefits and those who represent the ‘remainers’ talk up any opinions that fit with their narrative of doom and gloom. I hope that as the deadline approaches that our national leaders on both sides of this debate will listen to all of the data and make the right decisions for the good of the country. The impending ‘cliff edge’ will surely focus minds! Zechariah had many years to assimilate the flow of Judah’s history set against the warnings of Jeremiah and the sweet talk of the false prophets. It seems that at last he was beginning to think a bit more clearly. He sent a delegation to speak to Jeremiah: the one man in Judah who was speaking the truth! No doubt the rise of the Babylonians, their military might and their position of power over Judah was at last forcing him to confront reality.
In May of 1940 the British Army and soldiers of other allied nations faced certain defeat at the hands of the German army. More than 300,000 soldiers had their backs to the North sea and faced the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Germany army. The German high command boasted that they were “proceeding to annihilate the British Army.” The situation was utterly hopeless. On Thursday 23rd of May 1940, King George VI called for a national day of prayer to take place the following Sunday (26th). On the evening of 25th (Saturday) a decision was taken to attempt to rescue more than 300,000 soldiers who faced capture or death. The following day saw crowds overflow the churches of the land! Remarkably Hitler halted his advance for 3 days, allowing most troops to reach the beaches of Dunkirk. Remarkably, bad weather on the Tuesday of that week grounded the Luftwaffe but the following day dawned with calm weather and seas and 338,000 soldiers were rescued. Sunday June 9th was declared a national day of thanksgiving.
Perhaps Zedekiah, facing the might and brutality of the Babylonian army was at least partly realising that his only hope lay in the Lord and for this reasons he consulted Jeremiah. Jeremiah had after all been consistent in his message: despite all the derision and disdain the Lord’s words through him were coming to pass before their very eyes!
2. A tragic humiliation
King Zedekiah was appointed at the tender age of 21. Since his reign lasted only 11 years, he would likely have been near 30 years old when the events of chapter 21 took place. The king sent two representatives to consult with Jeremiah; Pashhur who was no friend of Jeremiah, and Zephaniah a priest who was sympathetic. The news that the two would report back to the king was however not encouraging. It was simply too late for Jerusalem and Judah to change the course of God’s judgment. ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands, which you are using to fight the king of Babylon and the Babylonianswho are outside the wall besieging you.’ Judah would not be able to use their own weapons against the Babylonians but they would be used against themselves! In fact the Lord himself, rather than fighting for Judah would be fighting against Judah: ‘5 I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in furious anger and in great wrath.’ The Lord would act with fury, with anger and with great wrath. Jeremiah speaks of God’s ‘outstretched hand and mighty arm.’ This is a curious phrase to our ears but it was not at all curious to the Judeans. When Israel was in the grip of slavery in Egypt the Lord said: ‘I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mightyacts of judgment (Exodus 6:6).’ Later, once Israel was free, they were repeatedly reminded of what the Lord had done with a ‘mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ (see e.g. Deuteronomy 4:34, 5:15, 7:19. 11:2, 26:18, 2 Kings 17:36, 2 Chronicles 6:32). This phrase would not only remind the Israelites of the greatest rescue from tyranny in the nation’s history but it would remind them of the source of power that brought that event into being: the power of the Lord. Now, says Jeremiah that mighty power will be turned against the nation. There must have a come a terrible realisation in the mind of Zedekiah that years of idolatry and disobedience would now be dealt with in a most disturbing and dramatic way. The judgment could not be averted.
Zedekiah must have wondered what would happen to him personally. He would not be left in any doubt: ‘7 After that, declares the Lord, I will give Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the people in this city who survive the plague, sword and famine, into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and to their enemies who want to kill them. He will put them to the sword; he will show them no mercy or pity or compassion.’ In fact Zedekiah was not killed, his sons were killed ‘before his eyes,’ he had his eyes put out and was taken in bronze shackles to Babylon. What a truly awful experience, his sons would have been just young boys. The fate of Jerusalem would be no less horrific: those who survived the coming plague, sword or famine would survive only to face the Babylonians who would show neither mercy nor pity. Many atheists complain that God is shown here as brutal and vindictive. In fact Richard Dawkins in one of his rather infamous rants states that the God of the Old Testament is an ‘unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ The problem with Richard Dawkins and the new atheists is that they neither seem to read the bible nor understand it – God here had not acted quickly nor unjustly but had acted in patience (and with repeated warnings) in a moral way – he had dealt with sin. But perhaps of more note is that Richard Dawkins has forfeited any right to criticism any one for any action because he himself has declared that there is no morality. ‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music (River out of Eden).’ He declares that there is no morality and now uses the God-given moral compass he possesses to pronounce moral judgment on God!
Even in the dire situation in which Judah found itself God would demonstrate his compassion by offering an undeserved route to mitigate the impact of the judgment.
3. An offered salvation
God offers us a choice. This is one of the key principles of the bible. Adam and Eve chose to eat of the forbidden fruit. Cain chose to kill his brother Abel. Noah chose to do what God commanded him and just before his death Joshua invited the people to ‘choose this day whom you will serve.’ Jesus spoke of a choice between a narrow and a broad gate. We have a choice as Christians whether to walk in the Spirit or according to the flesh. This idea of choice is woven into the fabric of the bible. Remarkably, despite repeated warnings, despite persistent sinfulness, despite impending and inevitable judgment, Judah had a choice: ‘This is what the Lord says: see, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death (8).’ It seems to me that we all have this choice to make. Will we choose the way of life or the way of death? Whether we are young or old we need to choose. The choice offered the people of Judah would require action but that did not make the options easy.
No one wants to surrender to an enemy. Hiroo Onoda fought as a Japanese soldier in the second world war in the Philippines. He was given orders never to surrender to the enemy. In 1945 as the war was coming to an end he and two fellow soldiers became cut off from the rest of the Japanese forces. They never surrendered. In 1974, his two fellow soldiers having died, he was located and his former commanding officer persuaded him to give up fighting! No one wants to surrender, but that was the choice Jeremiah was asking the people to make: ‘9 Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives.’ This is a remarkable turn of events. God has repeatedly warned of coming judgment, the people repeatedly ignored the warnings. They continued to worship idols, they continued in ways described as detestable. The judgment is literally at their door and now God offers the possibility to at least escape with their lives. Some people have a warped view of God that says he predestines people to eternal punishment before they are born and before they have an opportunity to choose – they have no choice, so they say. This. Is. Not. The. God. Of. The. Bible. It seems that even under the most provocative of circumstances God is highly reluctant to put his judgment into being and even when the die is cast he offers a route to mitigate the impact of the judgment.
Now imagine for a minute that you are living in Jerusalem and you look over the city walls and you see a brutal army of soldiers trained to kill. I’m not sure I would fancy my chances if I were to take God’s advice to surrender. The choice however was one of faith. Would the people choose to put their faith in the walls of Jerusalem or would they put their faith in the word of God? God had said that if they surrendered they would escape with their lives, if they did not surrender they would die.
The message was made crystal clear in the closing verses of this chapter: ‘13 I am against you, Jerusalem, you who live above this valley on the rocky plateau, declares the Lord – you who say, ‘Who can come against us? Who can enter our refuge?’ It was time to decide, walls or word.
We have to decide too; ‘choose you this day whom you will serve.’