As human beings we were created in the image of God, but through the sin of our forefather, Adam we are born as people who are separated from God. But God loves us! He gave himself to die on the cross, in doing so, the ransom price for sin is paid and we may access forgiveness and a return to fellowship with God by simply placing our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no neutral response to this. People either accept it or reject it. What is notable is that after an initial rejection of this message a second rejection becomes easier, and a third easier still. Sadly, I believe that there comes a time when people harden themselves to the truth. They become resistant to acceptance of God’s rescue provision.
As we put our trust in Jesus Christ, we are not just forgiven and re-united with God, we are changed in our inmost being. A new nature is placed within us and that new nature with its new desires for all that is good is energised by the power of God within us: The Holy Spirit lives within us. This is a remarkable transformation, but how often is it apparent in the lives of believers? Rarely. Why is this? As believers we not only have a new nature within us, but we retain the old nature – the two are in conflict with one another. If we order our lives, our thinking and our activities towards the things of the Holy Spirit, evidence of the new nature will become apparent: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we order our lives, our thinking and our activities towards our old sinful nature the evidence will be seen in our lives, such as impurity, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factionsand envy. My impression is that the more time we spend feeding our old nature, the harder it becomes to feed the new nature, the habits of the old nature take over and we become ineffective Christians who show little or no evidence of the new nature that God has graciously planted within us.
In chapters 42 and 43 we will meet people who have become resistant to doing what is right. They have repeatedly rejected God’s message to them. They have heard the truth many times, but they have become so accustomed to reject it that when truth slaps them on the face, they take little or no notice. They say the right things, they show the right respect for truth, but when it comes to the crunch, they continue to reject it. Whether we are rejecting the Christian message outright or whether having accepted the Christian message we are failing to live it out, there is an important lesson for us all in chapters 42 and 43.
- Seeking help
It’s often our experience whether as Christians or not that we only pray when we are in difficulty. Suddenly, we wished our circumstances were different and we lack the means to change, then we pray for relief and help. It’s always a good thing to pray, but I suspect that prayer in such circumstances can tend towards the sort of ‘magic wand’ prayer: “please God, solve all my problems and make me happy again!”
The people of Judah found themselves in great difficulty. They had collectively (but not universally) turned their back on God, they had determined to do things their own way and rather than being light to guide other nations, they had taken their lead from their pagan neighbours. Warnings of coming judgment under such circumstances had been written into their covenant with God, repeated warnings had been given, but the people remained resistant. Now they really were in trouble. The Babylonians had, under God’s direction, destroyed their capital city, many of the population had been exiled to Babylon and now there were just a few that remained. In God’s goodness they were given every opportunity to live peaceful and relatively prosperous lives. The Babylonians had appointed one of their own as governor, Gedaliah – he was a man of integrity and had specifically encouraged the people to settle down and work with the Babylonians. If they did, things would go well with them. Now, Gedaliah was dead, killed by one of their own men and the people were on the run, fearful of a return to the seat and rallying point of the new regime in Mizpah. What could they do? Where could they go? They needed help and fast: the Babylonians would be back when they heard of the assassination of their appointed governor.
As these events unfolded and are described in chapters 40 and 41, there is no mention of Jeremiah. It seems that Jeremiah was in Mizpah during the assassination and he had no choice but to go along with the people as they fled. Now that the need for help was at its greatest point, the leaders (Johanan and other army officers) and all the people turned to Jeremiah for advice and help. They approached Jeremiah and said, ‘Please hear our petition and pray to the Lord your God for this entire remnant. For as you now see, though we were once many, now only a few are left. 3 Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do (verses 2 and 3).’ Jeremiah had been God’s spokesman for more than 40 years and I suspect that he was a pretty good judge of the people – no doubt the people really did want some help, but would they have the confidence and trust in God to take him at his word? Jeremiah’s response in verse 4 hinted that they may not hear what they wanted to hear: ‘I will certainly pray to the Lord your God as you have requested; I will tell you everything the Lord says and will keep nothing back from you.’
The response of the people was admirable, ‘5May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. 6 Whether it is favourable or unfavourable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.’ But what was really in their hearts?
- The Lord answers
News of the slaughter of Gedaliah (and the Babylonian soldiers with him at the time) must have reached Babylon by now. A robust response was imminent, time was short. The people must have waited anxiously to hear of God’s direction from Jeremiah. Ten days passed. During that time, the anxiety of the people must have grown, and Jeremiah must have felt under significant pressure to truly speak only what God revealed to him. Jeremiah gathered Johanan and all the people together, everyone without exception was there.
What the Lord revealed through Jeremiah was remarkably good news! God had planned to inflict disaster on the people, but he had relented. If they stayed in the land, the Lord would build them up, not tear them down, he would plant them, not uproot them. What about Nebuchadnezzar – of whom they were so fearful? Here’s what Jeremiah said of Nebuchadnezzar: ‘Do not be afraid of him, declares the Lord, for I am with you and will save you and deliver you from his hands. 12 I will show you compassion so that he will have compassion on you and restore you to your land.’ It was crystal clear what the people ought to do and if they did, they would do well. Humanly speaking, the most likely scenario that return to the land would bring would be destruction and death at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. But God was at work. We cannot be certain of the timing of events back in Babylon, but we do know that God was at work in the heart of Nebuchadnezzar. He was learning about the God of Israel through the witness of Daniel and his three friends. One day this pagan king would say ‘His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ This is a great declaration of faith! Would the people of Judah demonstrate the same faith? Some encouragement was in order!
If the people decided to disbelief God’s word and travel to Egypt this is what would happen: ’17..all who are determined to go to Egypt to settle there will die by the sword, famine and plague; not one of them will survive or escape the disaster I will bring on them.’ Jeremiah had spoken of sword, famine and plague before and that’s exactly what had befallen Jerusalem. All logical analysis was on Jeremiah’s side, but it would take faith in what God said. The warnings were repeated and serious: ‘my wrath be poured out on you when you go to Egypt. You will be a curse and an object of horror, a curse and an object of reproach; you will never see this place again.’ Jeremiah could see on the faces of the people what was on their minds: they would go to Egypt. Years of rejection of God’s word had infected their thinking and damaged their capacity to discern the truth – we must take care not to do the same!
- A symbolic act
Jeremiah had spoken the word of God; he had given the people all that they needed to plot a course to safety. He was a reliable witness: all that he had said about Babylon and Jerusalem had come to pass. The people had declared their desire to hear God’s word, they had committed to accept it. As the people listened however, they hardened themselves against God’s word. They would do things their own way. The men who had become leaders, Azariah and Johanan, as well as ‘all the arrogant men,’ accused Jeremiah of lying. They said that Baruch, who was Jeremiah’s secretary was behind all of this in a bid to have the people handed over to Babylon. Isn’t it interesting that wrong decisions always come with spurious justifications?
It seems almost inconceivable that the people could have responded in such a way. But I believe that repeated refusal to accept God at his word results in a skewed mindset, a mindset that is so dominated by the sinful nature that over time, the capacity to respond to God’s word is slowly eroded. It seems that ultimately part of God’s judgment on such repeated rejection is to render people incapable of response. This is a huge red flag for us. If you are not a believer, take note! Don’t wait a day longer to respond to God’s invitation, and if you are a believer do you have a temptation to explain away God’s word too? For Christians, the sinful nature promotes views that are against faith in what God says through his word. We do well to be aware of this and take care neither to detract from God’s word nor to add to it. Detracting from God’s word often manifests itself in the sort of view that says we cannot and need not take God’s word as it is written. Adding to God’s word is when we value too much doctrines and creeds that are derived from the bible but are not necessarily consistent with the bible. I heard a missionary organisation’s prayer request that indicated they were far more concerned with teaching what they called ‘the doctrines of grace’ (a human construct that leads people to conclude that God does not love everyone) than they were with preaching gospel.
Having rejected God’s word, the people who had previously expressed a desire to stay in Judah now headed for Egypt. What a tragedy. They were returning to the very nation that had enslaved their people for 400 years. Eventually they arrived in Tahpanhes. The site of Tahpanhes is now located on the Suez Canal. It was during the time of that these exiles-by-choice stayed in Tahpanhes that God asked Jeremiah to perform another symbolic act. There was a palace of Pharaoh in the city, and in front of it was a brick pavement.
On a house at 5 Cannon Street in Hapstead, London there is a blue plaque bearing these words ‘SIR FLINDERS PETRIE 1853-1942 Egyptologist lived here.’ Flinders Petrie was brought up in a Christian home and ultimately became Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London. One of his trainees would later discover the burial site of Tutenkhamun. Many of the artefacts discovered by Prof Petrie are on display at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (part of University College London near Euston Station in central London). It was in 1882 that Prof Petrie discovered a platform of brickwork at Tahpanhes which he ascribed to the very pavement described in Jeremiah chapter 43! Can we have confidence in God’s word? Yes, we can!
Jeremiah was instructed to take some large stones and bury them in the clay in the brick pavement. Having buried the stones, he declared to the people, ’10…This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will send for my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and I will set his throne over these stones I have buried here; he will spread his royal canopy above them.’ The Babylonians were coming! And they would come to the very place that these disobedient Judeans considered to be safe. Not only were the Babylonians coming but they would come with terror: ‘11 He will come and attack Egypt, bringing death to those destined for death, captivity to those destined for captivity, and the sword to those destined for the sword.’ There would be no escape. Jeremiah used a notable turn of phrase to describe what was to come: ‘As a shepherd picks his garment clean of lice, so he will pick Egypt clean and depart.’ There would be no place to hide.
Let’s learn from this. God’s word is reliable, faith is simply to believe it. We cannot and must not continue to rebuff God’s offer of rescue, time is short, today is the day to believe.