When we’re caught out doing something wrong our response is usually to justify our actions and then downplay them as of little consequence. “I was in a hurry officer and I was only doing three or 4 miles above the speed limit, honest!” Judah had been told of the coming judgment, in chapter 5 they are reminded why it will come but they have little concern.
1. Is there one righteous?
Jeremiah was asked to perform a series of symbolic acts as he brought his message to Judah. The first of these acts is recorded in the first verses of chapter 5: ‘Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.’ No doubt the people would ask Jeremiah what he was doing, and the reply would be cutting: ‘I’m looking for one person who deals honestly and tells the truth.’ There was a Greek philosopher, Diogenes who used to walk about in full daylight carrying a lamp, when people asked him what he was doing he would reply ‘I’m looking for an honest man!’ God told Jeremiah that if he could find one honest person, then the city would be forgiven. This reminds us of the prayer of Abraham when his nephew Lot chose to live in the city of Sodom – the city was a place of intense sinfulness –perhaps a place that would not be completely out of synchrony with many towns in the UK today. The time came for God’s judgment to fall on Sodom, but Abraham’s nephew and family were there: Abraham pleaded for God to spare the city for the sake of the righteous. Would God spare the city if 50 righteous people could be found? Yes. What about 45? Yes. What about 40? Yes. 30? Yes. 20? Yes. 10? Yes, even for 10 righteous people the city would not be destroyed. Tragically it was destroyed. Only Lot and his family escaped (four people in all)– although they were highly reluctant to leave. Sadly, Jeremiah was seemingly unable to find one righteous person in Jerusalem.
It wasn’t that God hadn’t given the people the opportunity to do the right thing. Verse 3b: ‘You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them but they refused correction.’ The people were resistant to God’s correction. Was it simply that they ‘could not’ rather than ‘would not’? Verse 3b: ‘They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent.’ This is wilful disobedience. A lot of well-meaning Christians teach that our sinful nature renders us incapable of responding to truth – this view seems to be quite inconsistent with the unambiguous message of the bible that we all bear moral responsibility for our actions. The sad thing is that the more we go down the road of sinfulness and rejection of truth, the more difficult in becomes to turn around. If you continually harden your heart to God’s word your heart will indeed become hard and resistant to God’s message to you. Part of God’s judgment of ‘self-hardening’ is to ultimately further harden such hearts with the result that judgment becomes inescapable. Pharaoh ended up like this in his dealings with Moses, and the Jews did the same in their dealing with Jesus. The clear message is, don’t continue to harden your heart! I do wonder if a similar phenomenon occurs with believers if they undermine God’s word with the philosophies and theories of men. We often hear Christians question the Genesis story and from that point on it becomes easier to question more and more of God’s revelation. Could such a self-hardening to God’s word result in an increasing inability to discover the simple truths that God would have us know?
As Jeremiah looked around Jerusalem he did not find any righteous people among the poor – he thought ‘These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God. 5 So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God.’ Seems reasonable! We expect more of educated leaders. Jeremiah was disappointed: they were just as bad. Not one righteous person could be found: judgment thus became inevitable. The judgment was once again described using pictures; this time a lion from the forest will attack, a wolf from the desert will ravage and a leopard will lie in wait.
The coming of judgment raises an important question – was it fair of God to do this? Were the people really that bad? A list of the sins of the people is provided. Their main wrong is that they had rejected God for other gods and had lied about the true God. The language is stark – ‘They are well fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife.’ This seems to be a picture of the way the people had run after other gods. I’m quite saddened when I see the state of our country today – when I was at school in the 70s, most people (and I don’t mean Christians) would say ‘we’re a Christian country.’ Nobody says this anymore – and the atheists love it when they can claim that there are more people who claim to be atheists than Christians or theists. But God’s existence is not dependent on what people think or believe! Some things never change – Jeremiah says in verse 12 ‘They have lied about the Lord; they said, ‘He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine. 13 The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them.’ In Judah there was a complacency that dispatched Jeremiah’s words to the dust-bin, the people dismissed the warnings and believed that nothing bad would happen. As for Jeremiah, he had nothing of value to say, they called him a wind-bag!
I listened to radio 4 the other day and there was a discussion about religion and gender – the interviewer gave an excellent introduction by indicating that many people say that since God made us, we should celebrate the identity we have (transgender, etc.), but the problem he pointed out is that God ‘created them male and female.’ He was pointing out the inconsistency in the views expressed by religious transgender people who claim they’re just being what God made them to be. The nature of the programme quickly became clear when the guests were introduced; a Buddhist who I think was a man who had become a woman, a ‘Christian’ who was a man who dressed as a woman and an ‘academic expert’ who described herself as a ‘cisgender female.’ I switched off! There is no doubt that one day God’s wrath will be poured out on those who willfully reject truth, thankfully those who believe are not appointed to wrath, but how long will God wait? Are there many righteous remaining in our time?
2. Coming judgment
In response to the rejection of Jeremiah’s message, God turns up the volume! – note that Jeremiah speaks for ‘The Lord the Almighty.’ The original Hebrew has the name ‘Yahweh Elohim’. This name speaks of God’s unique relationship with Israel (Yahweh) but also of his universality and power as it relates to all people (Elohim). What Jeremiah was about to say would thus have the added emphasis that this name brings. Since the people had rejected the warnings with their words, God said he would make his words in Jeremiah’s mouth a fire! As fire consumes wood, so these words would consume the people. Once again, Judah is warned that a distant people would be brought as an instrument of God’s judgment. The nation God would bring would be a people ‘whose language you do not know, whose speech you do not understand.’ This is a somewhat strange thing to say! The theme of this part of chapter 5 is certainly about language and words – superficially it was obvious that the Babylonians would speak their own language as their army came, but the Lord seems to attach some additional significance to this. God had always spoken to Israel in Hebrew but there seems good evidence that when Israel was spoken to in an unknown language, judgment is in view (see for example Deuteronomy 28:49). Interestingly in the book of Isaiah, Israel is warned that because of their disobedience, God would speak to them ‘with foreign lips and strange tongues.’
On the day of Pentecost (the early summer festival of Israel) as recorded in Acts 2, the people heard those filled with the Holy Spirit speaking in foreign languages. To put it mildly, much confusion in the church has resulted from this incident! In view of the stress on speaking to Israel in foreign tongues as a sign of judgment, it seems that the ‘tongues’ spoken at Pentecost conveyed a message to Israel of coming judgment: a judgment that duly came in AD 70. Later, the apostle Paul gave instructions to the Corinthian church about speaking in unknown languages and in his discourse, he quoted Isaiah 28: ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ So ‘tongues’ (foreign languages) Paul states, are a sign for unbelievers. I think it becomes obvious that the specific unbelievers Paul was thinking of were unbelieving Jews. The very generation of Jews who had rejected the Messiah and (at the time of Paul) were rejecting the new covenant and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians, he states that normal preaching was of benefit for ‘outsider unbelievers’ – i.e. Gentile unbelievers, but ‘tongues’ were a sign to unbelieving (Jews). See 1 Corinthians 14 to read Paul’s writing on this – it all makes sense when we understand God’s method of communicating with Israel.
Back to Jeremiah – so, if the foreign language speaks of coming judgment what can we say of the judgment itself? The judgment would come at the hands of ‘mighty warriors’; whose quivers are like an open grave: they will bring death with their offensive weapons. The scope of their impact would be far reaching: ‘17 They will devour your harvests and food, devour your sons and daughters; they will devour your flocks and herds, devour your vines and fig trees. With the sword they will destroy the fortified cities in which you trust.’ This is total destruction. I watched a TV programme last night which described the effect of the German invasion of Warsaw in 1944 – they reduced the city to a pile of burning rubble, it was reckoned that 85% of the city was destroyed – would Jerusalem would suffer a similar fate? Quite probably! But verse 18: ‘‘Yet even in those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not destroy you completely.’ Why? Because God keeps his promises – there would always be hope because of this. God’s plan for Israel was that they would be in their own land forever, worshipping God and serving as a centre for worship for the nations. However, since the people worshipped foreign gods in their own land, they would now serve foreigners in a land not their own! The people would be exiled to Babylon, but God’s ‘Deuteronomic’ promise would not fail (see Deuteronomy 30)!
3. Another warning
The German philosopher Georg Hegel is credited with the statement; “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”. So it was with Judah – they had watched the Northern tribe descend into God’s judgment, but rather than learn from this, they carried on in their own sinful way. Jeremiah describes them as ‘foolish and senseless people.’ He said that they had ‘eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear.’ How simple it is to do the right thing and yet how often do we fail as the people of Judah had! Sadly, there comes a time when after repeated rejection of the truth, eyes become incapable of seeing and ears become incapable of hearing. I often read the online newspapers, if there are Christian themes discussed in the comments section, I’m amazed and saddened in equal measure at the ferocity of sentiment expressed against Christian things. I may be wrong, but I suspect that for many of these people, they have closed their eyes and ears to the truth with the result that they have rendered themselves permanently blind and deaf to the truth – even if it is presented to them with great clarity they are no longer able to discern it.
The underlying problem for Judah was that the people had failed to recognize who God is. Through Jeremiah, the Lord says, ‘should you not tremble in my presence?’ The problem seems to have been that their view of God was too limited and restricted. Verse 24: ‘They do not say to themselves, “Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.”’ God is the creator and sustainer of the world and the universe; the seasons speak not only of his creative power in biology but also in cosmology. Having fundamentally missed the point about who God is and his greatness, it’s a small step further to live lives that are completely out of synchrony with God and with the truth. The sea is bounded by the sand which forms a barrier against the rolling waves (verse 22), but Judah had exceeded their boundaries and had ‘turned aside and gone away.’ Similarly, in our age people either deny the existence of God or his power with the result that there is no moral standard and no understanding of what is right – they have indeed ‘turned aside and gone away’ from the truth.
All of this creates a heartless and self-seeking society; ‘Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. 27 Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful 28and have grown fat and sleek.’ That sounds familiar! I think we call them ‘fat cats’ today! Not only were people exploiting others, there was no concern or justice for the disadvantaged: sound familiar? Tragically, the people liked it this way and were not interested in change. Chapter 5 ends with a question; ‘But what will you do in the end?’ This question would doubtless haunt God’s people over these next years of judgment.