The first 6 chapters are believed to relate to the early years of Jeremiah’s work – most likely during the years in which Josiah was king. Josiah had initiated a refurbishment of the temple and had removed much of the infrastructure for idol worship in Judah and beyond. He is not surprisingly described as a king who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.’
There were three main political and military powers surrounding Judah at that time: the Egyptians to the South, the Assyrians to the North and the Babylonians to the East. Judah was at the mercy of whichever of these three was dominant in their region. Assyrian power was in decline: Babylon had captured the Assyrian capital city and in an effort to support the Assyrians (and preserve themselves from rising Babylonian power) the Egyptians assembled their army and headed North to engage the Babylonians. The year was 609 BC and King Josiah saw an opportunity for Judah to remove the perceived threat (either immediate or in the future) that the Egyptians posed on their freedom. As the Egyptians marched north to engage with the Babylonians they were met by Josiah and his army at Megiddo. It was in the ensuing battle that Josiah lost his life. Josiah’s son succeeded him but after only three months the victorious Egyptians installed his brother Eliakim (re-named Jehoiakim by the Egyptians) as king of Judah. Jehoiakim is described thus: ‘he did evil in the eyes of the Lord his God. (2 Chronicles 36).’
It is thought that God’s message delivered to Judah as described in the first six chapters of Jeremiah took place early in the prophet’s ministry, during the reign of Josiah. Josiah’s reforms had brought about a revival in the spiritual condition of Judah but it seems this did not last and on Josiah’s death the old ways soon resurfaced under the leadership of Jehoiakim. Chapters 7 to 10 of Jeremiah probably took place under the evil reign of Jehoiakim.
1. Jeremiah’s temple sermon
The people of Judah must have had their thoughts about their future safety. They were now under Egyptian control. The stability brought about by Josiah’s reign had gone: within a few months they had had three kings. The fate of the Egyptians as they battled with the Babylonians further north remained unknown. But there were still at least some certainties; the temple! Three times a year the people gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the early spring feast (Passover, unleavened bread and first fruits), the early summer feast (feast of weeks) and the autumn feast (Trumpets, atonement and tabernacles). It was probably at one of these feasts that Jeremiah was instructed to proclaim a message as he stood at the gate of the Lord’s house (verse 1). I guess that the people had already become accustomed to Jeremiah’s words of doom and here he was again, spoiling their enjoyment at one of the great festivals! The words Jeremiah spoke were ‘the word of the Lord’ and ‘what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says.’ As we study this book, we do well to remind ourselves that we have the privilege to study what the Lord Almighty says – the words are not to be taken lightly or ‘explained away.’ The message was clear, if you want to keep the temple you need to change your ways and your actions. The problem was that the people were trusting deceptive words. Verse 4: ‘Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’’ It seems that the people were placing too much trust in their recently refurbished temple. Perhaps they saw it as something of a talisman that brought them favourable conditions. The temple was their visible sign that all would be well. Judah had escaped when Israel had fallen in 722 BC – perhaps the people felt that as long as they had the temple they were safe. In some ways there was a similar attachment to the Temple in Jesus’ day – King Herod had re-built the temple and there was no doubt pride and a sense of security that it brought to the people at that time too. But having a temple was not enough! A change was necessary. The Lord made it crystal clear what needed to be done with three ‘if’ statements; 1. ‘If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm.’ The call was for social and religious change, to deal fairly with one another and the disadvantaged and to stop following after other gods. If they would do this then the Lord would let them live in the land that he had given their ancestors forever. God had given Judah remarkable privileges but these came with responsibilities they could not have one without the other!
Rather than doing the right thing, the Judeans were accused of breaking many of the 10 commandments: they were stealing, murdering, committing adultery and perjury and burning incense to false gods (verse 9). That was bad enough but having done all of this, they then had the cheek to stand before God in the temple and claim safety to do these detestable things! Verse 11 has some familiarity with the words of Jesus: ‘ Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?’ Just as bandits would take refuge in caves in the Judean hills, so the Judeans would commit crimes and then take refuge in the Temple. It was absurd and it was wrong and God has been watching!
Jeremiah then warned the people from some of their own history. He took them back to when they first entered the land and when they had a (too) great affinity for the ark of the covenant. It was some 400 years ago that the Israelites were in a struggle with the Philistines. As a people they had failed to follow God’s directives on entering the promised land and as a consequence struggled to overcome the opposition of the Philistines. Shiloh was located about 18 miles north of Jerusalem and was the centre for national worship at that time: it was the first permanent location in which the tabernacle was set up. Israel was in a state of national sin: Eli the high priest had allowed his two wicked sons to corrupt the priesthood (see 1 Samuel 4). There was a battle with the Philistines which was not going well for Israel, 4,000 soldiers had died. Eli’s two sons brought the ark to Israel’s military camp – the soldiers cheered loudly and caused fear and foreboding in the ranks of the Philistines. But the outcome was a disaster for Israel, they lost 30,000 men and the Philistine’s captured the ark! Did this happen unexpectedly for Isreal? No. The Lord had spoken ‘again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer.’ (verse 13) The lesson from Shiloh was unambiguous: ‘14Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. 15I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’
2. Do not pray!
Sometimes the exception really does prove the rule! We are encouraged to pray – even for our enemies. But under the specific conditions in Judah of repeated wilful disobedience and disregard for repeated warnings, Jeremiah was specifically told not to pray for them! This is a concerning development for these people. It seems that they had turned a corner – they had placed themselves in a position where they were beyond remedy. They would still be under God’s warning nonetheless. Sometimes we need to warn someone before they do something highly damaging, but often such warnings come too late – the decision has already been made. Even under such circumstances, warning still seems appropriate. It was presumably difficult for Jeremiah to be standing at the gate of the Temple giving this message, no doubt receiving abuse for his troubles and all the while realising that the message was falling, and would continue to fall, on deaf ears. What were the people doing that should result in this dreadful call to not pray for them? Verse 18: ‘The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger.’ This worship of false deities brought harm and shame. The Queen of heaven concept seems to be an ancient form of idolatry that has been in some ways adopted by the Roman Catholic church who refer to Mary as the ‘Queen of Heaven’. Even in the some protestant churches there is a move to feminise God – some women in the Church of England have called on people to refer to God as ‘she.’ We live in In dark days. In Jeremiah’s day this worship of false Gods was abhorrent and would not go unpunished: ‘my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place – on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the crops of your land – and it will burn and not be quenched.’ It was under these circumstances that prayer was withdrawn. One wonders if a day will come when it becomes appropriate not to pray for those who persistently and knowingly turn their backs on truth.
3. A disobedient people
Superficially, the people were not so bad. At least they were attending a God-ordained festival, they were going to the Temple and were even offering sacrifices. But not was all that it seemed – the proper method for sacrifice at the temple was for the animal to be completely consumed by the fire. In Jeremiah’s day the meat however was cooked and eaten! I can hear myself arguing with this – surly whether the animal was consumed by fire or by people is neither here nor there! The sacrifice was still made – isn’t there any credit in that? We do often judge such matters with the attitude that ‘it’s the thought that counts.’ What God is looking for though is obedience. Verse 23: ‘but I gave them this command: obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.’ The thinking of the people is clear, they probably enjoyed going to the festivals, they probably enjoyed the act of going to the Temple and joining in the ceremonies and the procedures, however they were approaching God on their own terms. Their concept of God was flawed and there was as a result no obedience. Don’t we hear this today too? I often hear celebrities say, ‘I’m quite a spiritual person’ but they have no time for the ‘narrow minded’ people who believe the bible! And what of those of us who claim to believe the bible, don’t we have a tendency to have a small view of God – he’s there to be talked about and debated but cold, raw obedience to all that he says – it’s not so attractive. In our church the one thing that often saddens me is that many people come just when it suits, if there is something better to do meeting believers worshiping God comes a poor second. Perhaps if we had a much clearer idea of who God really is we would just simply obey him. He’s the author of the Universe! – isn’t that enough? The Judeans were ‘stiff-necked’ they were going backwards – are we like that too?
So there’s Jeremiah preaching his heart out! And God says (v 27), ‘When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer.’ There will be no response – you will be ignored Jeremiah. Now that’s not very encouraging! The problem was that the people had become accustomed to dis-obeying and were now so entrenched in this behaviour that there was no longer any prospect of them responding in a meaningful way. Interestingly what was associated with this condition was that ‘Truth has perished (v 28b).’ If the truth is lost then everything is lost. Tragically in our day, truth has been lost. We teach our children that there was nothing and then there was something, then from that something life appeared, and from that life humans eventually came, we are thus merely a bundle of biochemicals and that’s all there is or ever will be. It’s a lie that’s told with great eloquence and sophistication but it’s a lie nonetheless. This lie destroys our ability to see the truth that there is a creator and if there is a creator, we as created beings are subject to our creator. Interestingly the prophet Daniel was given glimpses into the end times what would happen to truth then? ‘truth was thrown to the ground.’ (Daniel 8:12) There seems less and less reason to doubt that these end times are upon us now. When truth is lost terrible things take place. Would you believe that Judeans were sacrificing their children to a false God? The sacrifice was all the more horrifying as it involved burning the children in the arms of a bronze figure that was heated with fire. Well at least no one would ever do that in our day! The most recent UK figures show that there are more than 190,000 abortions carried out in the UK every year – is our society really any better?
A final word of warning comes from Jeremiah. Most people in our day dismiss the bible as of no value and treat any thought of being answerable to God with derision. In Jeremiah’s day this was certainly the case, but the consequences of this would be total devastation: ‘Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. 34 I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.’ Death and destruction were the result for Judah. One day God’s wrath will be visited upon this world, by simply trusting in Jesus we will escape this coming wrath, are you ready?