As God’s instrument of judgment, the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean towns. In the town of Mizpah a new government had been set up by the Babylonians under the leadership of Gedaliah – there was hope of some stability after the devastation. People returned to the land, and for a time there was a real prospect that the nation could be rebuilt. This peace was shattered by the assassination of Gedaliah. Fearing Babylonian retribution, the people headed to Egypt for sanctuary. As they arrived in Northern Egypt, they asked Jeremiah to consult with the Lord. What should they do? The advice was unambiguous: stay in Judah. God would be with the people, there would be no reason to fear the king of Babylon, God would deliver the people and have compassion on them. Alternatively, if the people sought refuge in Egypt they would die by the sword, famine and plague.
A lot of people define faith as belief in something in the absence of evidence. This is quite wrong! The dictionary definition of faith is trust or confidence in someone or something. The question facing the Judeans was, would they trust the Lord and his pronouncement that return to Judea would end well, or would they trust their own judgment (and Pharaoh Hophra) that residence in Egypt would offer a more secure future? The evidence was unambiguously in favour of trusting in God. For more than 40 years, Jeremiah had warned that judgment would come from Babylon and judgment had duly come! The decision that brought the people to Egypt was a rejection of faith in God. But God does not give up on people easily! He was about to speak through Jeremiah again – it would be the last message Jeremiah would give.
- God speaks
By the time this message was given, the people now lived in both the upper and lower regions of Egypt. The original Hebrew text mentions the land of Pathros, which is the southern region of the country (upper Egypt), other towns mentioned are Tahpanhes, Migdol and Memphis (the capital of lower Egypt) . The people, in seems, had really embraced their new home and had settled deep into the country. Now God speaks through Jeremiah. Jeremiah indicates once again, that the words he speaks comes from ‘Yahweh Tsebaoth’ – the Lord of Armies or the Lord Almighty (as translated in the NIV): the emphasis is once again on God’s power and strength. The message is an appeal to evidence. Look at the disaster brought on Jerusalem and Judah – they are now deserted and in ruins. This was brought about by the Lord-of-armies as judgment on the wickedness of the people. The people could not deny this. They had heard the multiplicity of warnings given by the Lord through Jeremiah – they knew that their ‘wicked ways’ and their persistent worship of false gods was the trigger that brought God’s judgment on them. The evidence was before them!
Despite the clear lesson that faced them, it seems the people continued to worship false gods. In view of this, and the evidence of how God deals with such waywardness, why would the people take such a risk again? Previously a remnant had been preserved. Some had listened to the warnings of Jeremiah and had accepted a new life in Babylon. These people were the future and in a remarkable way their descendants would return to the land and rebuild Jerusalem. For those who were now depending on the Egyptians for safety and who continued to worship false God’s there was the threat of total annihilation. They were running the risk that this time there would be no remnant: why bring such great disaster on yourselves by cutting off from Judah the men and women, the children and infants, and so leave yourselves without a remnant? (verse 7). Jeremiah asks if the people really had forgotten what had just happened: 9 Have you forgotten the wickedness committed by your ancestors and by the kings and queens of Judah and the wickedness committed by you and your wives in the land of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem?
Failure to change would bring about disaster: 11 ‘Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah. 12 I will take away the remnant of Judah who were determined to go to Egypt to settle there. They will all perish in Egypt; they will fall by the sword or die from famine. The few people who had survived the Babylonian onslaught and who were now in Egypt would be gone! The people were hearing the same warning Jeremiah had given to them before Jerusalem fell: they would be punished by sword, famine and plague.
It’s hard to imagine that such a clear warning could be ignored. Surely this time these people who had been through so much difficulty would at last turn to God and do what the right thing?
- The people respond
As I write we are (once again) it seems amid another Brexit crisis. As the clock ticks toward 31st October 2019, proponents on both sides of this argument feverishly plot and campaign for the outcome they want. As I read the comments sections of newspapers it’s simultaneously disturbing and amusing to see how the same piece of news is interpreted in completely different ways depending on the bias of the observer. Boris Johnson has just had a meeting with Angela Merkel and at the press conference there were a few comments made by both leaders that suggested that the sticking point (the so-called Backstop) could be removed if the UK could come up with a viable alternative within 30 days. Remainers interpreted this as a clever ploy to show just how hopeless the goal was to achieve this: if they couldn’t find an alternative in 3 years of negotiating how will they find one in 30 days? thus there is no chance of the backstop being removed. On the other hand, the Brexiteers saw this as a major victory – the backstop and the withdrawal agreement are now open for negotiation: the EU has blinked first they say. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but what we observe is what psychologists call ‘confirmation bias.’ Confirmation bias involves favouring data or information that confirms one’s existing bias or belief. I think we’re all prone to this! This summer our family have developed a belief that the weather is always poor on a Sunday and that because of this we’ve had few occasions to have a barbeque Sunday lunch. I suspect that we allow any poor Sunday to confirm our bias whilst ignoring the Sundays with better weather! Why is this of interest to us in Jeremiah 44? It’s because the Judeans it seems were showing themselves to be subject to a totally erroneous confirmation bias.
They believed that back in their time in Jerusalem and Judea when they participated in the worship of foreign and false gods that their circumstances were good, but when they stopped worshipping false gods they experienced nothing but trouble: ‘At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.’ The people were of course ignoring 40 years of warnings from Jeremiah and about 1000 years of Hebrew history! It seems that they had made their decision to worship false gods and no amount of evidence would shift their view. Interestingly they were worshiping the Queen of Heaven, a female god most probably Ishtar, a goddess associated with fertility, love and desire. The women burned incense to this goddess and with the approval of their husbands made cakes ‘impressed with her image.’ It seems almost inconceivable that after all that these people had been through and all that they had been taught that they would so brazenly worship a false god. I’m somewhat reminded of the group in the church of England who want to refer to God as ‘she.’ Some things never change! This is wilful denial of truth.
These Judeans had now been given an unambiguous warning and they had observed that previous warnings and prophecies of judgment had been realised with stunning accuracy. How would they now respond? ‘16We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord!’ Sometimes people will just not listen. A response from Jeremiah was not long in forthcoming.
- Coming judgment
There is a note of exasperation in what turns out to be Jeremiah’s last message to Judah. He says, we’ve been here before, you’ve burned incense to false gods before and look how that ended, do you think that God has forgotten? Don’t you remember that despite his patience God eventually did bring judgment: ‘22 When the Lord could no longer endure your wicked actions and the detestable things you did, your land became a curse and a desolate waste without inhabitants, as it is today.’ Jeremiah says, don’t you see that the very reason you are in Egypt is because of the incense you burned to false gods and now you’re doing it again!
In the UK, when the police question a suspect of a crime, they must explain very clearly what is happening, the words they use are: ‘You do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’ It seems that as Jeremiah addresses the people he does so with care and precision in his language, he repeats the charge of sin and for the avoidance of any doubt repeats the words the people spoke: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah in Egypt. ‘you and your wives have done what you said you would do when you promised, “We will certainly carry out the vows we made to burn incense and pour out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven.”
Having re-iterated the position of the people, it’s time to pronounce judgment: ‘Go ahead then, do what you promised! Keep your vows! 26 But hear the word of the Lord.’ The people have made their choice, OK, go ahead and live like that, but God will react! The judgment is introduced with the words: ‘I swear by my great name.’ As far as I can see, this phrase is used in no other place in the bible – it indicates that what God was about to say was deadly serious and what he said was not to be messed with. The pronouncement that follows is devastating and must be compared with previous words spoken in Jeremiah 29. God spoke of his plans to ‘to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ These words were addressed to those who had been obedient and had surrendered themselves to the Babylonians, just as God had instructed. In contrast, God had different plans for the people who had sought refuge in Egypt and had belligerently continued to offer incense to false gods: ‘27 For I am watching over them for harm, not for good; the Jews in Egypt will perish by sword and famine until they are all destroyed. 28 Those who escape the sword and return to the land of Judah from Egypt will be very few. Then the whole remnant of Judah who came to live in Egypt will know whose word will stand – mine or theirs.’ That’s pretty emphatic don’t you think? And it’s a warning to us too, we must not mess around with things that draw us away from the truth, the stakes are too high.
One can imagine that the confirmation bias of these rebellious people would make then think, well Jeremiah, look at us now, we’re safe, we’ve survived the Babylonian judgment, we’re OK. Our experience proves that your words are not worth listening to! But God would give a sign that his plans for harm would be realised. They sign was that Pharaoh Hophra, who was effectively providing the prosperous conditions from which these Judeans were profiting, would not survive: he would be delivered ‘into the hands of his enemies who want to kill him just as I gave Zedekiah king of Judah into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the enemy who wanted to kill him.’ History tells us that this is precisely what happened! Pharaoh Hophra (also known by the Greek name Apries) ultimately died at the hands of his own people who turned against him. Egypt had nothing to offer these people, their only hope lay in the path of repentance and a return to the Lord but they would not.
This is a stark warning for unbelievers – there will be no escape from God’s justice. We have the opportunity today to but our faith in Christ and in doing so to receive eternal life. For Christians too this sorry story is a reminder that there is a need to maintain a consistent relationship with the God of the universe which we do by ordering our lives according to the Spirit.