The year is 588 BC. Jeremiah is imprisoned in the palace courtyard. The Babylonians hold the city in the grip of a siege that had already lasted more than a year. The city is doomed. But God is at work and he once again speaks to Jeremiah.
The climate change protestors who blocked London’s streets recently had a visit from a celebrity, Emma Thompson. She made a speech from a pink boat parked in the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street. She said that climate change is “the most pressing and urgent problem of our time, in the history of the human race.” Emma Thompson may well be correct, but what’s interesting is that she seems to command respect and a hearing not because she is an expert on climate change, (although she may well be), but because she is famous for being an actress. When God speaks, he speaks with authority because of who he is, verse 2 says: ‘2 ‘This is what the Lord says, he who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it – the Lord is his name:’ That puts him on a completely different level than anyone else! What’s also interesting is that he is happy to share information with us that cannot be known by any other means: 3 “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
Interestingly the Lord revealed quite a bit to Israel as to what the future would hold for them. Jeremiah was able to state that the exile to Babylon would last for 70 years and one of the exiles, Daniel discovered that Israel would remain under the dominion of Gentile empires for 70 x 7 years before their pattern of sinfulness would come to an end (see Daniel 9).
We know that the events recoded in Jeremiah 33 took place in the 10th year of Zedekiah’s reign. So what would God reveal to Jeremiah on this occasion? The news was specific and bad! As the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, the defendants inside the city tore down houses to provide materials to defend against the Babylonian siege ramps and their attacks. Here’s what the Lord informed Jeremiah of these ruined houses: “They will be filled with the dead bodies of the people I will slay in my anger and wrath. I will hide my face from this city because of all its wickedness” (verse 5). One may well ask why God would reveal such a disturbing future event. It was important for both the leaders and the people to understand the impact of their persistent disobedience. It’s hard to believe that king Zedekiah, faced with the might of the Babylonian army still refused to listen to God’s warnings. Many people seem to want to fix things for themselves and even if they know they lack the skills and capability, they’d rather rely on themselves than call on the God of the Universe for help! Frank Sinatra’s famous song, My Way is the most often requested song to be played at Funerals in the UK and seems to express this attitude in the last stanza:
For what is man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels
and not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows,
and did it my way.
As Zedekiah’s mind was becoming fixed on following his own path, God revealed that death and destruction would not be the final state of things for Judah and Israel. Difficult days were coming for sure, but God would deliver on his promises: 6 ‘“Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. 7 I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before.” The glory of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem would be restored, peace and security would be enjoyed, but of even more importance, the people would be changed, they would be spiritually healed: “8 I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me.” This verse uses three different words for sin which are translated, sin, sin and rebellion in the NIV version: awon from a word that means twisted or bent, hata which means to ‘miss the mark’ and pasa which means to rebel. These three words speak of the impact of sin on our nature, our actions and our relationship to God. Thus, the foundation for the restoration of Israel would be a spiritual revival of the people, there could be no restored nation without restoration of the nature of the people. I think Jesus had this in mind when he told the parable of the lost son, a son who wilfully went off to do his own thing, but who ‘came to his senses’ and came home to the welcome of a loving Father. The impact of the return of the people, the cleansing of their sin and the Lord’s provision will be noted by all around: “9 Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honour before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.” Rather than being a nation despised they will bring renown and honour to God!
The Lord now gives two contrasting pictures to emphasise the change in Israel’s fortunes. Both contrasts speak of what will become of Israel under God’s judgment at the hand of the Babylonians: “10 ‘This is what the Lord says: “You say about this place, ‘It is a desolate waste, without people or animals.’” We see pictures of some of the cities in Syria which are devastated by bombing – the streets are empty and the buildings are destroyed and devoid of life, this would be the future of Jerusalem and one suspects that it did not take much to convince the inhabitants that this would be so – they need only look over the city’s walls to see the Babylonian army ready to kill and destroy. But the contrast is that the empty streets devoid of people and animals will become filled with “11 the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord.” Alfriston is a very pretty village in East Sussex, we once visited in the summer months and watched a wedding party emerge from the church, children were running around and there was an atmosphere of joy and celebration. Weddings speak of love and the continuity of human life. Jeremiah was also told of people who would give thanks to God, people who would say: “Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures for ever.” Notice the emphasis on God’s character of goodness and love!
The second contrast is between desolated places devoid of people and animals and the return of farming and the return of agricultural activities: “in all its towns there will again be pastures for shepherds to rest their flocks (verse 12).” How this must have seemed so unlikely to Jeremiah as he waited for the Babylonians to break through Jerusalem’s defences and destroy the city. But this was God’s word!
- A king and a priest
On the 11th July 2016, Theresa May infamously said that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ Here we are at the beginning of May 2019 and there is considerable doubt as to whether the UK will in fact leave the European Union any time soon, and if we do, there are many who feel rightly or wrongly that the promise of leaving is a hollow one. Politicians do have a habit of making promises that they cannot keep! It’s not really their fault – often the circumstances create impossible situations. What I think gives them a bad name is when they try to pretend that they have kept their promises when it’s obvious that that they have not! The game becomes one of explaining away the original promise. We must never attempt to explain away God’s promises. God is faithful to his word. As one theologian put it, ‘he says what he means and he means what he says.’ One does not ever have to play with his words to force his promises to fit the circumstances. Verse 14 states: 14 ‘“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfil the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.” Indeed, it is! Here’s the promise: 15 ‘“In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.” Israel and Judah had suffered a succession of bad kings. One (King Zedekiah) was on the throne in Judah at the time of this chapter. This coming king is described as a branch sprouting, and in chapter 23: 5 as a ‘righteous branch.’ The same idea is presented by the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah. Some have translated the Hebrew word semah as a ‘legitimate shoot.’ We bought an apple tree about 15 years ago and judging by the blossom on it right now we will get a good crop of apples in the early autumn. I was interested when we purchased the tree to discover that it was actually a combination of two trees: the root is from a different stock to the tree itself, one is grafted onto the other. The type of root stock influences the vigour of the tree. It’s a mixture. Not so the coming Messiah, he is the legitimate sprout from the original stock. What’s quite remarkable is that after the reign of king Zedekiah there were no more legitimate kings who sat on David’s throne, but here’s what God says: “David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel (verse 17).” Notice it does not say that there will always be someone sitting on David’s throne, but there would always be a man. Read the genealogy in Matthew’s gospel and you will see that this promise did not fail! The legitimate sprout did indeed come, and his line was preserved.
Interestingly verse 18 links this promise to David with a promise made to the Levitical priests: “18 nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.” Jesus was not only the man who fulfils the role of the legitimate sprout, but it seems he also fulfils the role of a priest – he is described in Hebrews 4 as the “great high priest who has ascended into heaven.” When the Roman governor Pilate presented Jesus (who had been beaten up and crowned with thorns) to the people and said, ‘here is the man,’ he was perhaps saying more than he realised! So the Levitical priests will never fail to have a man and surely that man is Jesus: “23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood (Hebrews 7).” We also read that this man’s actions are to present offerings which include sacrifices and grain offerings. The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that the law was set aside, and that Jesus offered a sacrifice for the sins of the people ‘once and for all.’ So, if Jesus is this priest, why does the Lord speak of him making such sacrifices? This is not the only place where such future sacrifices are mentioned in the Old Testament. After Jesus returns as king to the mount of Olives, Zechariah speaks of all the nations going to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles and making sacrifices. Ezekiel too describes a temple and part of this future arrangement includes sacrifices. What are we to make of this? When Mary was presented with something that she could not fully understand (she was to have a child without a man being involved) she asked for an explanation and having heard the explanation simply said ‘may your word to me be fulfilled (Luke 1:38).’ We ought to do the same. My impression is that if nations are to come to worship the Lord (as described in Zechariah 14) and if some in those nations are unwilling and thus not covered by the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus, that they will need some sort of provision to come to worship the Lord, perhaps such sacrifices serve this purpose. Whatever the explanation, we must not play with God’s word to fit our system of theology, we must do as Mary did.
Can we really believe that God will follow through with all these promises? Will he really deliver these promises about a king and a priest? The answer comes from the created world – as reliably as the earth spins on its axis, as reliably as the earth orbits the sun and as reliably as the sun shines, so is the reliability of God’s word: “If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, 21 then my covenant with David my servant – and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me – can be broken (verse 20 and 21).’ I don’t recall a day when night did not fall and morning did not come, the same degree of certainty surrounds God’s word.
People will say ‘the Lord has rejected the two kingdoms (Israel and Judah, verse 23).’ They more or less say that in the present day, with the same result: “So they despise my people and no longer regard them as a nation (verse 24b).” Here’s what the Lord says in response: “If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, 26 then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The promise is clear that God will restore the fortunes of his people and have compassion on them. Jeremiah was imprisoned in a doomed city, but he knew God’s promises and no doubt he enjoyed a peace that is beyond understanding. As we understand God’s word to us, this can be our experience too.