1. Another of Jeremiah’s symbolic acts!
Jeremiah is careful to provide a precise chronology for these middle chapters of the book. In chapter 27 we fast-forward from the start of Jehoiakim’s 11-year reign in chapter 26 to the start of his brother, Zedekiah’s 11-year reign. Zedekiah like his brother did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. He would be the last legitimate king to reign over Israel. The impact of God’s instrument of judgment, the Babylonians, had already been felt in Judah – precious articles had been plundered from the temple, many of the elite class had been exiled to Babylon and the city of Jerusalem was under Babylonian control. In fact, Zedekiah himself had been appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. It was at this time, the start of Zedekiah’s reign around 597 BC that God gave specific instructions to Jeremiah: ‘Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck (verse 2).’ It’s another of Jeremiah’s symbolic acts! You may recall he had spoken by symbolic acts before such as the ruined linen belt, his visit to the potter’s house, the smashed jar, the basket of figs, the cup of wine and now a yoke across his neck!
Interestingly the first recipients of his message were not the Judeans, but rather the surrounding nations: ‘3 Then send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon through the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah.’ It seems that the military threat from the Babylonians had brought the nations surrounding Judah together – they were presumably planning a collective response. Since envoys of these nations were visiting Zedekiah in Jerusalem, Jeremiah was provided with a unique opportunity to bring them a message from God. I recall in 1971 Arthur Blessitt visited the city Edinburgh – he had become well known in 1969 for carrying a large wooden cross from Los Angeles to Washington DC. I guess that Jeremiah with his yoke around his neck may well have been received in much the same was as Arthur Blessitt was in Edinburgh all those years ago! Jeremiah’s message was specific and clear. Firstly, he spoke on the authority of the ‘Lord Almighty, the God of Israel.’ Jeremiah uses God’s title: ‘Yahweh Sabaoth’, which literally means the Lord of armies. How appropriate! Jeremiah is in effect saying to these countries, you’re worried about an invading and unbeatable army, well here’s a message from the God of armies! It’s quite unlikely that the nations surrounding Judah were unaware of the God of Israel, but it was important that they truly understood from whom this message came. When I work for a new company I’m often asked for a copy of my CV: they want to know what I can do, my background, experience and education. In much the same way Jeremiah gives these nations God’s CV. Here’s the first part of the message: ‘Tell this to your masters: 5 with my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. 6 Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.’ Note that God told them who he was – he is the one who made the earth and the people and animals that inhabit it. This is so, so important. The new atheists have re-written God’s CV. They say that he is only a ‘God of the gaps.’ God is redefined as one used by believers to explain what is not understood: when science brings an explanation then God is made redundant. But this is not what the bible teaches. God is not an explanation for the things we don’t understand, he’s an explanation for what we do understand! He the God of the whole of creation. We do science because he is the one who created a world that obeys laws. The early scientists like Newton looked for laws in nature because they believed in a law giver. In his Principia Mathematica Newton states of the solar system: ‘This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being….his Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator,or Universal Ruler.’ Atheistic scientists of our day still look for law in nature, but they have forgotten that their atheism grants them no expectation of such laws, quite the opposite: when atheists do science they do it as inconsistent theists! Jeremiah introduced to the nations under threat from Babylon, the God who made the earth and its people and the animals that are in it. Since this is all on his CV it should not surprise us (or the nations surrounding Judah) that God can give the countries and their land to anyone he pleases, including the Babylonians! God would even make the wild animals subject to Nebuchadnezzar! The nations would be subject to Nebuchadnezzar and his grandson too. If Nebuchadnezzar heard about this strange guy walking about with a yoke around his neck, I suspect that he would have been rather pleased with himself. He was the great one and people would be subject to him! Nebuchadnezzar however needed to recognise that any authority afforded him by the God who created the universe would be on God’s terms. See for example what happened to Nebuchadnezzar when he declared: ‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?’ Immediately after this boast he became like an animal: ‘He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird (Daniel 4: 33).’ I find it rather interesting that those who claim we are nothing more than collections of chemicals assembled by blind chance are quite happy to class human beings as qualitatively indistinct from animals. Having lived as an animal, Nebuchadnezzar wonderfully corrected his faulty thinking and eventually declared ‘Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble (Daniel 4: 37).’
So what if the nations surrounding Judah ignored Jeremiah’s warning, what if they refused to accept that the God of armies was the author of all of creation and thus could alter the course of history with ease?: ‘if, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the Lord, until I destroy it by his hand (verse 8).’ No one could say that they had not been warned! On the other hand, for those who listened to Jeremiah there was some hope and it was all about the yoke!: ‘But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord (verse11).’ What was Jeremiah’s point? I think it was simply this; acknowledge who God is and you will live, reject God’s message and you will die. This was all about having faith in what God said. There was a choice to be made. In the same way we must choose. Will we acknowledge God and accept his offer of eternal life or will we reject his offer and face the coming wrath?
As Jeremiah paraded around Jerusalem with yoke in place, he gave the same message to king Zedekiah: ‘Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live (verse 11).’
2. Lying prophets to the nations
When truth is spoken it does not take long for the father of lies to organise his forces of deceit. Jeremiah instructs the nations: ‘9 So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers.’ The nations had plenty of sources for lies! These were pagan nations with no direct access to the sources of truth that were available to Israel. Prophets were those who claimed to know the future, diviners read omens and supposedly had contact with higher powers, there were those who claimed to interpret dreams, the mediums claimed to be able to contact the dead and sorcerers were those who claimed to work miracles. Interestingly when Daniel was taken captive to Babylon he was exposed to people of this sort. When the king at the time, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that he knew was of significance he called the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers (Daniel 2). Nebuchadnezzar was no fool! He knew that these people promised more than they delivered! He asked for the interpretation of his dream, but to validate the interpretation he demanded that they tell him what the dream was! This tells us a lot about those who participate in such practices – they seek truth from the source of lies and have little to offer. Contrast Daniel who, when he was brought before Nebuchadnezzar said: ‘No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries (Daniel 2:27).’ Because God is love he will reveal to us the things that are of benefit and he will do so truthfully.
The prophets, diviners, interpreters of dreams, mediums and sorcerers were telling the nations that ‘you will not serve the king of Babylon (verse 9b).’ There is no question that this was a lie, but the lie would have an impact. All lies do. If they believed the lie, they would come under the judgment of God. They would be removed from their lands, they would be banished and would perish. God always present us with a moral choice. This is the recurring theme in the bible. These nations could decide to believe the words of their false prophets or they could choose to believe the words of God spoken through Jeremiah. God’s message was contained in Jeremiah’s symbolic act: ‘11 But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord.’
3. Lying prophets to Judah
Jeremiah’s message was of course not just for the nations surrounding Judah – it was primarily for Judah itself. As Jeremiah paraded around Jerusalem with the yoke around his neck he spoke directly to the King, Zedekiah. Remember that this king would reign for another 11 years, God in his mercy was giving Zedekiah a chance to save the situation. Jeremiah told him: ‘Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live (verse 12).’ The alternative was to fight, but this would lead to death by the sword, famine and plague. These are the inevitable consequences of war. We see in the Yemen at the present time death by guns and bombs, resulting starvation of the people and the inevitable disease that war brings. Judah’s fate hung in the choice that the king and his officials were to make. Would they listen to God’s word spoken through Jeremiah or would they listen to the words of false prophets? Interestingly, in Judah, Jeremiah only mentions prophets rather than diviners, interpreters of dreams, mediums and sorcerers. At least Judah had been spared some of these sources of lies. Sadly, in our day, in our ‘Christian country,’ men and women are turning to such sources of lies. I read in the Times weekend magazine last week of educated people who meet to do Tarot readings – nothing good can come of such activity. But even in Judah there were prophets who did not speak the truth. Their message was identical to that of the prophets, diviners, interpreters of dreams, mediums and sorcerers: ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon (verse 14b).’ This was in some ways a worse situation for Judah as, in contrast to those who spoke lies to the nations, these false prophets claimed to speak on behalf of God! Those who listened to them would be banished and perish. Once again there is a choice to be made; Zedekiah had to choose between the words of truth spoken by Jeremiah and the lies spoken by the false prophets.
Having taken his message to the king, Jeremiah now speaks to the religious establishment and the people. Interestingly, the false prophets made elaborately false claims – not only did they say that the people would not serve the king of Babylon, now they claimed that the articles that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple would be returned. But this was a lie. Once again Jeremiah presents the people with a choice: ‘serve the king of Babylon and you will live, why should this city become a ruin (verse 17)?’ The temple articles would not be returned, in fact the apparently immovable objects currently in the Temple would be removed too: the bronze pillars, the bronze sea (the large bronze basin that the priests used to wash themselves) as well as other items like the ‘movable stands.’ All that was left would be taken.
This is all rather depressing! God is consistent with his promises. He had promised Abraham a land forever and he would not go back on this promise. The chapter closes with these words: ‘Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place (verse 22b).’ What a remarkable promise – amidst the despair and disaster that rejection of the Lord had brought there was hope. Why? Because God is faithful to his word. Jeremiah was faithful in bringing God’s true word to the surrounding nations, the king, the prophets and the people. We would do well to do the same.