The sixth chapter of Jeremiah concludes the opening section which is largely concerned with warnings of judgment. Remember that when Jeremiah was given this difficult task he was just a young man. It seems likely that these early chapters of the book took place when Jeremiah was still young, the good king Josiah was on the throne and things were going relatively well for Judah.
1. Run for your lives!
I once had dinner in the Virgin upperclass lounge in New York, I was on my way home from a business trip and was looking forward to heading home. People were enjoying the excellent Virgin hospitality when suddenly the fire alarm went off. It was such a loud alarm that it hurt my ears! The remarkable thing was that no one moved! For several minutes the alarm sounded and we all sat there ignoring the possibility of danger and just getting annoyed at the loudness of the sound. I actually put my fingers in my ears to relieve the effect of the noise! How daft can you be! It turned out that it was a false alarm, but we didn’t know that initially. So it was with Judah – an alarm had sounded and continued to sound but the people didn’t seem to care – they effectively put their fingers in their ears.
In verse 1, Jeremiah calls for the people to flee for safety. Jeremiah seems to mention the towns around Jerusalem – the invading army would pick off the easy prey around Jerusalem and would eventually attack the fortified city itself. The picture Jeremiah paints is of a delicate and beautiful daughter about to be destroyed by the invading army. Jeremiah calls on the people to take action – notice the action words: ‘Flee for safety, people of Benjamin! Flee from Jerusalem! Sound the trumpet in Tekoa! Raise the signal over Beth Hakkerem!’ We know that the people did not listen or take action – more of this later. But what of the invading army? Verse 4: ‘prepare for battle against her.’ The word used for prepare could be translated as ‘sanctify’ or ‘hallow’ it has religious connotations and indicates to us the way that many ancient armies saw the battle as something with religious overtones; they would offer sacrifices and seek divine guidance before the fray. In some ways this was a divine mission, this was the Lord’s work. The Babylonian army would break the normal conventions of warfare: rather than attack in the early morning they would start at noon or even into the night (verse 4 and 5). The message seems to be that there will be no respite nor delay – when the attack comes the opportunity for escape will have gone.
In these ancient times, if an invading army was headed in your direction the safest place was within the protection of a walled city. The counter-tactic of the invading army was to initiate a siege. The siege could be shortened by a direct attack by building ramps up to the top of the walls. The attacking force would cut down trees and build siege ramps against (see verse 6b): ultimately there would be no escape. Interestingly when Israel entered the promised land there was a need to capture cities and engage in sieges, they were permitted to cut trees to build siege apparatus but were forbidden to cut down fruit bearing trees. When the Messiah comes however the trees will become instruments of praise rather than materials for war! (Isaiah 55: 12).
Judah would of course suffer this attack and punishment because of its sinful state. As a spring continues to pour out water seemingly without the need for replenishment so Judah poured out wickedness, violence and destruction. Under these circumstances the need for God to act was inevitable and within the scope of the ‘Deuteronomic’ covenant.
The extent of the Babylonian route would be exhaustive (v 9); ‘Let them glean the remnant of Israel as thoroughly as a vine; pass your hand over the branches again, like one gathering grapes.’ At harvest time, grapes would be harvested and then any remaining grapes would be collected in a second sweep. So it would be with this coming destruction – there would be no escape.
2. A shameless, heedless people
In spite of all of Jeremiah’s warnings the people would not listen. They had closed their ears. It seems this way in our era too. Many people have, by their own will, become so resistant to the truth that they seem to have lost the ability to see the truth and to think in a rational way. Rather than presenting a moral standard and lead for those growing up in the next generation, our leaders fill minds with poison and confusion. Since there is no God, there is no moral standard (they say) – ‘so express your innermost being’. We once visited the Tate Modern gallery in London – I know that there are many fine and inspiring works in that gallery but on this particular day we seemed to be in one section in which the exhibits appeared to be expressions of the most base impulses of the human mind – it was a disturbing and distasteful experience. Failure to recognise who we are and how we can be changed is both a disastrous and tragic turn of events in our day.
Judah had not only closed its ears it had but had reached a state in which the very words of warning that could have helped them became offensive to them (verse 10b). This is not just indifference – it is intolerance to God’s word and truth. Again we see the same in our society today. Christian ideas and traditions and truths are either ignored or are met with increasingly intolerance.
What of Judah? God’s wrath is on its way! As the heat is turned up and the pressure builds in a steam cooker so it would be with God’s wrath. Suddenly it would be poured out and none would escape; children, young men, husbands, wives and the elderly. Houses and fields would be taken by the invaders – the defeat would be total. Surely one would expect the spiritual leaders to be attuned to the warnings of God? The Lord paints the picture of a serious and life-threatening wound: the religious establishment merely bandage it up and say ‘peace, peace’ – but there is no peace and the wound will not respond to this inadequate treatment!
As for the people – would they recognize their sin, would they be shamed into action? Verse 15b ‘they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.’ There is a day coming when the wrath of God will be poured out on this world, it will be a time of huge distress and woe (see e.g. Revelation 9). What will be the response of men? Tragically there will be no turning back from sin and indeed there will be pleasure in the demise of those who bring a message of truth (Revelation 11). So it was in Jeremiah’s day.
3. The approaching enemy
The bible always presents us with the need for moral decision. Verse 16: ‘This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Notice the verbs, stand, look, ask, walk – these are all actions easily attainable for everyone in Judah. What exactly are the ancient paths? Perhaps this refers to the law presented to Moses, it could also be the ancient truth that God is the creator of the world and as we observe the created world we are reminded of who he is and our dependency on him. Paul wrote about this is Romans 1: 20 – ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’ There was no excuse in Judah’s day and there is no excuse today. If people would only stand, look, ask and walk then they would find rest. In our day we read of a ‘teenage mental health crisis’ (see for example Independent newspaper article). The solutions offered are just like those in the day of Jeremiah – bandage up the wound and all will be well. Jesus gave the answer 2000 years ago: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)’
Judah was afforded every opportunity to respond to God. ‘I appointed watchmen over you and said,
“Listen to the sound of the trumpet!” But you said, “We will not listen.”’ Israel was intended to be a light for the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6) and to bring God glory but because of their disobedience, the nations would be given no light and God would not be glorified. But Judah would experience disaster. I read a statement as I prepared this that I was at first somewhat negatively disposed toward: ‘God prefers obedience rather than sacrifice.’ I found this a bit surprising, surely a sacrifice of value is a better indicator of attitude than cold obedience? Judah was quite fine with offering expensive incense and burnt offerings, but these were offered in the absence of obedient hearts. Perhaps the process of sacrificing brought comfort and the ritual was a pleasant experience, but God is not interested in empty sacrifice. Sacrifice is good but only when accompanied by obedience. Richard Dawkins professes to be a “cultural Anglican” and has a “certain love” for “evensong in a country church.” But as a boy he was the one who lead a rebellion against kneeling in a school church service (see Spectator article). I suppose the Judeans might be surprised to discover they had something in common with this infamous atheist of our times (and vice versa!).
What a difficult message Jeremiah had to give! One can imagine the skeptics, intelligentsia and leaders ganging up on him. The message was uncompromising and quite terrifying: ‘Look, an army is coming from the land of the north; a great nation is being stirred up from the ends of the earth. 23 They are armed with bow and spear; they are cruel and show no mercy. They sound like the roaring sea as they ride on their horses; they come like men in battle formation to attack you, Daughter Zion.’ The message has no real hope – all the people can do is to prepare for the coming disaster, it cannot be averted. Jeremiah’s message seems to be that the disaster is coming like it or not, but by repenting the effects will be somewhat easier to bear.
I once attended a scientific congress in the city of Sheffield. The evening event was a dinner in a disused steel mill! It was a massive building and there was a mechanised demonstration of the process of steel making. The conditions in the factory in its heyday must have been distinctly unpleasant, hot, dark, smoke-filled and intensely noisy: this was heavy industry indeed. Working with metals calls for heat, lots of it and harsh processes to refine and purify. Working with iron and bronze was reasonably familiar to the Judeans, they knew enough about the harsh processes to understand Jeremiah’s warning; ‘The bellows blow fiercely to burn away the lead with fire, but the refining goes on in vain; the wicked are not purged out. 30 They are called rejected silver, because the Lord has rejected them.’ This is a fearsome statement and seems to be saying to Judah that they will undergo a refining and testing process but the fierce process would not yield purified metal, rather it would produce a rejected product. All the pain but rejection in the end. One cannot help but wonder how the Judeans could continue to ignore and scorn Jeremiah’s message, but they did. Chance after chance was afforded them. What about you? Are you listening to the warnings? Will you respond – it is not too late!