1. God’s anger
People don’t like it when the bible speaks about God’s anger. Richard Dawkins states: The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
There is no doubt that we read of God’s anger in the bible and in this 25th chapter of Jeremiah we encounter God’s anger particularly against Judah but also against the surrounding nations. The apostle Paul says that it is the law that brings wrath. When there is a stated law and it is transgressed, then wrath ensues. In Jeremiah and the Old Testament do we find a God who is (to use Richard Dawkin’s description) petty, unjust and unforgiving or a God who is consistent, just and forgiving? (see James M. Arlandson. “The Wrath of God in the Old Testament: ‘The Law Brings Wrath.’” Bible.org. 2014.) nicely demonstrates that in the Old Testament, of the 499 instances of the use of Hebrew words denoting God’s wrath, 495 of them appear after the law was given. It seems that the law does indeed bring wrath. Thus, God does not display wrath in some sort of petty, unjust and unforgiving way but rather his wrath is a measured and precise consequence of transgression of the law. Interestingly Israel who were given the law are much more frequently in receipt of God’s wrath (448/499) than nations outside of God’s covenant with Israel (51/499).
The apostle Paul shows that those who are outside of the specific legal requirements of the Mosaic law are under a kind of natural law: ‘when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts (Romans 2:14).’ Wrath comes on those who break the law whether Israel under the specific law given to Moses or Gentiles under a law ‘written on their hearts.’
This all makes sense. In the UK there are some laws about ‘noise nuisance’ in the night hours between 11.00 pm and 7.00 am. Imagine for a moment that your neighbour has an all-night party and plays very loud music all night. There is a process for investigation and ultimately action against such neighbours. Now imagine that the neighbours repeatedly play loud music at night without regard to their neighbours or the law. Time after time they are warned but they do not listen, and they do not alter their actions. Eventually the law will recognise the transgression and its wrath will be revealed on the form of a warning, a fixed penalty notice or seizing of the equipment responsible for the noise.
Israel and Judah had been in breach of the agreement that they willingly entered into with God. They had repeatedly heard the warnings of the prophets and they had repeatedly not listened. Now God’s wrath would fall.
2. Seventy years
Verse 1 begins with a chronology of the events: The word came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, which was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. By this time Jeremiah had already been speaking out to the people of Judah for 23 years! Since the 13th year of king Josiah’s reign Jeremiah said, ‘the word of the Lord has come to me and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened.’ Twenty-three years was long enough, but Israel’s failure extended beyond Jeremiah’s time: ‘4 And though the Lord has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention.’ Israel’s transgression of the law was a long-standing problem and the key issue was that they worshipped manufactured gods (verse 6). This was a clear breach of the law. The first and second commandments were: ‘You shall have no other gods beforeme. 4 ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them (Exodus 20).’ It couldn’t have been any clearer! The warnings were clear, but the people would not listen. Could they not hear (as some would contend)? Of course they could. Hearing was not the issue, listening was the problem! Interestingly the apostle Paul states that the first step to faith comes from hearing. But there must be a response! Have they (Israel) not heard asks Paul – Yes indeed comes the response. They heard but they would not listen!
Having broken the law and repeatedly ignored the warnings, the law now brings wrath.
The wrath is directed towards three distinct groups. First Judah: ‘because you have not listened to my words, 9 I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants (verses 8 and 9).’ The agency of God’s judgment on Judah was to be Babylon. As we noted previously Babylon is not mentioned in Jeremiah until after Jeremiah’s symbolic act of smashing the clay jar (chapter 19), thereafter Babylon is mentioned 147 times! There would be and could be no doubt in Judah’s mind! The impact of the Babylonian judgment would be severe. Jeremiah points out 4 distinct things that will cease in the land: 1). The sound of joy and gladness – it’s a good thing to celebrate and express joy and gladness. We had a Christmas party at the church a few weeks ago and it was a lovely thing to see from the youngest to the oldest expressing joy and gladness, in partying, in eating together and in singing carols together. Judah would be bereft of such activities. 2). The voices of bride and bridegroom would cease. It is a tragic thing that marriage is downgraded in our society – when did you last see marriage portrayed positively in our media? And note in passing that it is a bride and a bridegroom that are mentioned. This voices of those participating in this building block of a healthy society would no longer be heard in Judah. 3). The sound of millstones would cease. This is the sound of productive and useful work and its absence speaks of a total lack of economic activity. 4). The light of the lamp would be banished. Jeremiah surely meant that all basic human activity would no longer take place in the land – it would become ‘a desolate wasteland.’
The second group to come under God’s wrath was to be the surrounding nations. They would suffer a similar fate to that of Judah – perhaps they were under judgment because they had knowledge of the God of Israel, but had ignored the truth that shone albeit inconsistently from Israel.
Finally, the Babylonians themselves would come under God’s judgment! Despite Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian leader being described as God’s servant they too would suffer God’s wrath. This is somewhat surprising, but God’s message to Jeremiah was that they would be punished ‘for their guilt.’ What guilt might that be? In Daniel 5 we read these words: ‘King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. 2 While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them… 4 As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.’ The leaders of Babylon drank a toast to false gods using the goblets set apart for worship of the God of the Universe! There can be little doubt that this was a deliberate act of defiance against the God of Israel. Judgment was swift thereafter (see Daniel chapter 5).
If the land of Israel was to become desolate and the people removed how can we square this with God’s promise to Abraham of a land given to his physical descendants for ever? There was to be a time limit on the judgment: ‘11 This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.’ The period of 70 years is mentioned several times and seems to relate to a series of events relating to the time the nations (and Judah) would serve the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11), the period of Babylonian dominance (Jeremiah 25:12) and the period of the desolation of Jerusalem (Daniel 9). The period of Babylonian dominance when the nations would serve the king of Babylon seems to have begun in 609 BC when the Babylonian army finally defeated the Assyrians in the fall of Harran. It was after 70 years that Babylon fell in 539 BC to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. From Israel’s perspective a different 70 year period seems to be in view: from the time of the first captivity in 605 BC to the return to the land under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 536 BC. A third 70-year period seems to relate to the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC to the completion of its reconstruction in 516 BC.
Why 70 years? The history recorded in 2 Chronicles states (of Nebuchadnezzar): ‘20 He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21 The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.’ Thus the 70 years seems to relate to the land enjoying its ‘sabbath rests.’ So, what’s a ‘sabbath rest?’ The law as outlined in the book of Leviticus instructed the people to rest the land every 7 years: ‘Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard (Leviticus 25).’ Furthermore every 50 years was to be a jubilee year in which the land was to also be rested. There is some evidence that Israel had failed to apply these laws since the commencement of the monarchy in 1043 BC. Thus from 1043 to 605 BC there ought to have been 62 sabbath rest years and 8 jubilee years observed. The 70 years would indeed allow the land to ‘enjoy its sabbath rests!’
3. Judgment on the nations
We’ve noted that Jeremiah was invited to perform several object lessons; there was the linen belt in chapter 13, the potter’s house in chapter 18, the smashed pot in chapter 18 and the two baskets of figs in chapter 24. Now Jeremiah is requested to ‘Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them.’ It seems best to view this as either a vision or a symbolic cup that Jeremiah invited representatives of the nations to drink from.
A whole list of nations is mentioned in verse 18 to verse 16. Interestingly Jerusalem and surrounding towns are first on the list! God’s judgement begins with his people (see for example 1 Peter 4:17). The final nation in the list is Sheshak. This name represents Babylon. Jeremiah uses a code known as an athbash. The code simple substitutes the last letter in the alphabet for the first letter in the alphabet and so on. The Hebrew word for Babylon was בבל – that is the letters ‘bet’, ‘bet’ and ‘lamed’ = bbl. Since these are the second and 12th letters of the Hebrew alphabet they are replaced with the second last and 12th last letters which are
שש ך – that is the letters ‘Shin’, ‘Shin’ and ‘Kaph’. Just why Jeremiah used this code to describe Babylon is something of a mystery, but some commentators see it as signifying sinister overtones relating to that evil city.
The final 9 verses of the chapter seem to look ahead to a day that has not yet come – a day when God’s wrath will be poured out on the nations over the whole earth: ‘Look! Disaster is spreading from nation to nation; a mighty storm is rising from the ends of the earth (verse 32).’ God’s wrath is described in 5 district ways. 1). Like a lion’s roar (verse 30), 2). Like a treader of grapes (verse 30), 3). Like a court prosecutor (verse 31), 4). Like a mighty storm (verse 31 and 32) and 5). Like a lion leaving its lair (verse 38). These verses seem to look toward the final day of God’s wrath on this earth. This speaks to us – the judgment for Judah was real and took place – the people would not listen but by ignoring the judgement they would not escape. Jeremiah speaks of a future judgment on this world – and there is only one way to be saved from this coming wrath and this is through the blood of Jesus Christ: ‘9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:9).’