1. Jeremiah speaks out
Our politicians speak endlessly about the benefits to our society of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. The problem is that underlying their warm words is a world view that is atheistic and antagonistic to Christianity. On 29 June 2018 an English primary school (Heavers Farm Primary School) held a ‘Proud to be Me!’ event it just happened to coincide with Gay Pride Month. The children marched with gay pride flags and the local MP tweeted: ‘With the wonderful staff and children at @HeaversfarmSE25 for their Pride celebration – very proud of them for standing up for equality and diversity.’ When a mother complained that she wanted her son to be educated rather than indoctrinated she was invited to a meeting with the school. At the meeting, one school staff member attended wearing a T-shirt with the words: ‘Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you could just be quiet?’ The mother in question later reported: ‘After I complained about my young child being forced to take part in an event that goes against our Christian beliefs, the school’s attitude towards me changed completely. I know other parents who are afraid to speak up because of how the school has treated me.’ The rainbow of acceptable diversity clearly doesn’t include those with a Christian faith! There is nothing new in this. When people speak the truth there will always be those who will oppose. Often the tactic is to silence those with whom they disagree.
Jeremiah spoke out to a people who were largely unwilling to listen to his words of truth, but as we shall see in this 26th chapter of the book, the Jerusalem establishment sought to silence Jeremiah by putting him to death!
It was in the first year of Jehoiakim. In 609 BC Jehoiakim’s father had been killed in a battle with the Egyptians. The people had installed his son Jehoahaz as king but after just three months the Egyptians replaced Jehoahaz with his older brother Jehoiakim. In verse 2 we read that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah and he was asked to speak in the courtyard of the temple, his audience was to be the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the temple. Interestingly Jeremiah was told to ‘Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.’ There is a temptation when we speak God’s word (especially in antagonistic circumstances) to adjust it according to the situation. This will not do. Jeremiah was reminded of this in no uncertain terms. No doubt Jeremiah knew that there were those in the Jerusalem establishment who bitterly opposed his message: how tempting it must have been to make it more palatable! The purpose of the message was to elicit a change in the people: ‘3 Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done.’ Here’s what Jeremiah was told to say: ‘This is what the Lord says: if you do not listen to me and follow my law, which I have set before you, 5 and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened), 6 then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city a curse among all the nations of the earth.’ Note that there are two ‘if’ statements and one ‘then’ statement. If the people won’t listen to the Lord or follow the law and don’t listen to the prophets, then they will become like Shiloh. What was Shiloh and what happened to it? Shiloh was the original place of worship for Israel after their arrival in the promised land, but through the disobedience of the people it was destroyed and was left a ruin. This would be the fate of Jerusalem if the people did not listen. It’s important to note in passing that at this stage in Judah’s history (the first year of Jehoiakim) that there seemed to be a genuine possibility of change for the people. At this stage there did not seem to be an inevitability of judgment, the door to rescue remained open. It was later, when the rejection of Jeremiah’s message was more complete that judgment became inevitable. It seems that this is God’s way – to offer rescue repeatedly but when that offer is rejected there comes a time when the offer is withdrawn. We can never be certain when that day of opportunity will pass. The Psalmist (Psalm 95) reminds Israel of the day in the wilderness when a generation of God’s people rejected to do what was right and they were consigned never to enter the promised land. The Psalmist’s advice is thus: ‘Today, if only you would hear his voice,
8 ‘Do not harden your hearts.’ This advice applies today just as much as it did in the first year of Jehoiakim!
2. The trial
There were three groups of people who heard Jeremiah’s warning; the priests, the prophets and all the people. They heard the warning, but would they listen to it? Sadly, the response was a clear rejection of the warning: ‘8 But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, ‘You must die! 9 Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?’’ I often glance at the readers’ comments section of the online newspapers. When there is a news item that relates to Christian things and Christian beliefs, I’m amazed at the invective of those who oppose such things. There is an intolerance today just as there was in the time of Jeremiah. The attitude seems often to be that those who speak out must be silenced!
Fortunately, the officials (or chiefs or princes) of Judah heard what was going on they arrived to bring some sense of order. What follows is effectively a public trial of Jeremiah. He had been ‘arrested’ by the people and the priests: now the officials would preside over the hearing. The priests became the voice of the prosecution, Jeremiah the accused had the opportunity to speak, some of the elders spoke for the defence and the officials were effectively the judge.
The prosecution spoke first: ‘This man should be sentenced to death because he has prophesied against this city. You have heard it with your own ears!’ There was no doubt about this! Jeremiah had indeed spoken of a day of judgment for Jerusalem. What the priests failed to note was that Jeremiah’s message was about avoiding the judgment! The priests it seems had already hardened their hearts and would no longer listen or be open to the possibility of God’s rescue. Repentance was necessary but they were unwilling. This is a common response to the gospel today – people of all persuasions seem to become impervious to the gospel, they have hardened their hearts. Tragically the priests wanted to hang onto their privileged positions rather than listen to the truth, but to retain what they had was worthless in the face of God’s judgment. This is obvious to us as we look back at history. What is holding us back from accepting all that God has for us? Whatever worldly things we cling to are worthless compared to the benefits offered to us in Christ. They are also worthless compared to the loss to be suffered for those who reject the message of rescue.
Jeremiah speaks next. He simply states that he was speaking for the Lord: ‘The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the things you have heard.’ If the people of Judah want to silence Jeremiah, they will be silencing God! Jeremiah seized this opportunity to get his message across: ‘13 Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.’ Isn’t it amazing that despite the threats to his life, Jeremiah brings a message of hope! We should take note that the people had the opportunity to exercise their free will: they could reform, obey and then the Lord would relent. There is a day of judgment coming in this world too and in the same way there is a genuine message of hope. There is value in preaching the gospel. I’ve been listening recently to Prof John Lennox as he travels around universities presenting the Christian message – he enters debate with atheists and argues powerfully for the God of the bible. Is this just a game, a debate for the fun of it? Not at all, he is very clear that he is in the business of changing minds. The gospel is to be presented with reason. The apostle Peter wrote: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (1 Peter 3:15).’ Jeremiah’s work was not some sort of charade, God’s offer to relent was real and genuine. Jeremiah’s job was to persuade the people to change. Interestingly Jeremiah was originally reluctant to be God’s messenger, now he is prepared to give up his life: ‘14 As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right.’ But if the people did kill him, they would add to their guilt the death of an innocent man (verse 15)!
3. The verdict
On hearing Jeremiah’s account, the officials and the people pronounce their verdict: ‘This man should not be sentenced to death! He has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God. (verse 16b). Phew! At least there was some sense left in the nation! (is there any sense left in the UK as we go through this Brexit turmoil I wonder!). In fact, some of the elders now spoke up and recounted an incident in the life of the nation that was highly apposite. They reminded the people that in the time of King Hezekiah, another prophet (Micah) made a similar warning to Judah. The response of the nation at that time was not to threaten the death of the prophet, but rather the king, Hezekiah did ‘fear the Lord and seek his favour (verse 19).’ And indeed the Lord did relent and disaster was averted.
Jeremiah escaped from this brush with death. But despite this outcome all was not well in Judah. A second prophet is mentioned, and his fate was less good. We are told that Uriah ‘was another man who prophesied in the name of the Lord; he prophesied the same things against this city and this land as Jeremiah did (verse 21).’ This time it was king Jehoiakim who decided to silence the words of this prophet. Uriah fled to Egypt, but Jehoiakim was determined to have Uriah killed and had him dragged back to Judah where the prophet met his death. I think this parenthetic story is chiefly indicating that Judah was corrupt from the very top, and that despite Jeremiah’s escape the nation’s heart remained very far away from God. Perhaps also there is a lesson for those who speak for God: don’t flee, stand! The apostle Paul commands us to wear the full armour of God, why? So that ‘when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand (Ephesians 6: 13).’ Take note!
Chapter 26 closes with some better news; Ahikam son of Shaphan supported Jeremiah and so he was not handed over to the people to be put to death. Ahikam’s father was active in King Josiah’s government and played a role in helping Josiah determine God’s will for the nation. Here now is Shaphan’s son, Ahikam doing what is right and later in Jeremiah we will see that Ahikam’s son Gedaliah was also a man of integrity and faith. The influence of godly people can be significant, reaching across generations and influencing nations! Perhaps we ought to consider as believers what our legacy will be. Will there be those whom we have influenced for good, will our godly lives reach across generations and influence our people and our nation. I pray that they will!