Lord Tebbit was Margaret Thatcher’s right hand man during the 1980s, he served as employment secretary and Trade and Industry secretary and became the chairman of the Conservative Party. In 1984, at the party’s annual conference in Brighton the leaders stayed at the Grand Hotel. What no one knew at the time was that that weeks before the conference, the Irish Republican Army had planted a bomb in the hotel, it was set to explode at 3.00 am on 12th October 1984. Five people were killed. Both Norman Tebbit and his wife were badly injured, his wife would never be able to walk again.
Norman Tebbit has been in the news again this week. He has attended St Edmundsbury, the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk for the last 9 years: he has spoken out about the naming of a new Dean of the cathedral, Rev Canon Joe Hawes. The new dean is in a civil partnership with another clergyman. Lord Tebbit said: “I find it difficult to accept a sodomite as a member of the clergy who will, for example, be called upon to conduct marriage services. I will struggle to attend if he is officiating. I just don’t see how he can decently read the marriage service. I stand by what is written in the Bible, which is the basis on which the cathedral was built. It says the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God.”
We live in very similar times to those of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah’s day, the religious people had rejected God’s word and had accepted the sinful practices of the people around them. They still ‘worshipped’ in the Temple and retained some of the forms of worship, but they had essentially removed God from their religious system. Norman Tebbit has been roundly criticised for his views. Back in Judah’s day it was not an elderly statesman who was pronouncing on the sinful ways of the people in the religious establishment: it was a young man called by God, Jeremiah. He took some stick too.
Chapter 8 continues in the theme of identifying the problems in Judah and warning of coming judgment, but we also see God’s heart too and the impact the waywardness of Judah had on him.
1. Refusal to turn to God
This first section of chapter 8 begins where chapter 7 ended; with the impact of God’s judgment on Judah. The invading army would insult the defeated people by desecrating their graves. The bones of the political leaders (kings and officials), religious leaders (priests and prophets) and ordinary people would be removed from their graves and will be strewn across the land. The people had worshipped the sun, moon and stars – now their bones would be exposed to these objects of their worship! When the wicked Queen Jezebel was finally brought to justice we read that ‘her body will be like dung on the ground’ (2 Kings 9:37). The people of Judah would suffer a similar fate: ‘They will not be gathered up or buried, but will be like dung lying on the ground’ (verse 2). That’s the fate of the dead but what of the fate of the living? Verse 3: ‘Wherever I banish them, all the survivors of this evil nation will prefer death to life.’ The impact of the invading army would be so distressing that the people would wish to die rather than live. This is a dreadful prospect, but no one could say that they were not warned, but would they heed the warning?
A repeated denial of truth and a stubborn refusal to return to God seems to cause a failure in reasoning and a suppression of natural instincts. The natural response to making a mistake is to correct it, likewise the natural response to falling down is to get up, but when these people fell down they did not get up (verse 4)! The Lord asks why this should be and the answer is that they ‘cling to deceit.’ The idea that the Lord is asking Jeremiah to convey is that if people consistently and deliberately follow after lies, if they hold onto deceit then their natural impulses which are for their own good will be impaired. The Lord gives a lesson from nature: migratory birds. I remember when we lived in the North Eastern part of Switzerland, we noticed one day quite a few people in our street where standing looking into the sky. Intrigued, we did the same, to discover that there were a number of storks flying around, it was the spring migration of these impressive birds from Africa to Switzerland. It’s a pleasant exercise around our West Sussex town to watch for the first arrival of swallows – usually around mid-May. Migratory birds; storks, doves swifts and thrushes are mentioned in verse 7: they know their appointed seasons and when it is time to migrate. What of Judah? ‘But my people do not know the requirements of the Lord.’ The contrast is stark: animals know by instinct to do the right thing, but this people who have a been granted a special relationship with God and have a natural capacity to understand right from wrong have turned their back on truth and righteousness – the result is a loss of ability to discern what is right. One wonders if something similar has happened amongst the religious leaders in Bury St Edmonds.
At least part of this problem lay with those who had been given positions of authority in the religious system of the day. The ‘lying pen of the scribes’ has handled the law of the Lord falsely – and it seems the people who ought to have known better swallowed the lies without discrimination. The interpretation of the law seems to have been one of the key errors that contributed to these dreadful days for Judah. Quite a few years ago we had a visit to our church from a scientist who was working with one of the British bible creation societies. His interest was in helping people understand the importance of the Genesis account of creation. I was intrigued when he said that quite a few Universities were prepared to have members of his society come to present on their work – no doubt their views would be hotly disputed, but nonetheless they were at least granted an audience. As an aside, I suspect that in the 25 years that have passed since we talked, most Universities would probably close their doors on them to prevent their ‘inappropriate’ views being propagated. Anyway, at least the voice of truth was being heard in some the Universities at that time, but what was deeply disturbing was that in spite of many requests, not one of the British ‘evangelical’ bible colleges would entertain a visit from members of the creation society – not one. The lying pen of scribes has handled it falsely! There is a price to pay for this: verse 9b, ‘Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?’
For Judah, the relationship with God was clearly set out in the covenant described in Deuteronomy – according to the terms of the covenant, such indifference to truth and such turning away from the Lord would result in terrible loss: ‘Therefore I will give their wives to other men and their fields to new owners.(verse 10).’ We know from history that the people would be deported to Babylon, whilst there, they would lament the destruction of their city and mourn for their loss (see Psalm 137).
The problem in Judah was one of ‘institutional spiritual decay’: every level of society was affected; ‘From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practise deceit. (verse 10b)’ Under these circumstances a good leader can bring about national change and reform. In spite of his father and grandfather’s bad leadership, King Josiah had brought about some sort of improvement in the spiritual condition of Judah but following his death, his sons undid this good work. Even with Josiah’s influence for good however, there was still a deeply ingrained bias in Judah towards idolatry and injustice. The Lord uses the same analogy as used in chapter 6 to describe the distinctly unhelpful attitude of the religious leaders: ‘They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.’ (Verse 10). They effectively said to the dying cancer patient, take a couple of paracetamol tablets, there’s nothing to worry about. It seems that this sort of behaviour and carelessness with the truth was done knowingly, the Lord asks ‘are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?’ – there was no shame and no ability even to blush! Going back to Norman Tebbit’s situation in Bury St Edmunds, those whom he has rebuked have no sense of shame either, the general view seems to be that “we’ve moved on from such outdated thinking and language.” For Judah this was a dangerous attitude – God’s wrath was imminent and would result in removal of all of the good things that the Lord had provided them with: the harvest would fail, there would be ‘no grapes on the vine and no figs on the tree.’ (verse 13).
2. Resignation to judgment
This next section of chapter 8 seems to be the response of the people to God’s message of coming judgment. They say ‘Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there! For the Lord our God has doomed us to perish and given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against him.’ This ‘poisoned water’ may refer to a process described in Numbers chapter 5 (11-31) for determining the honesty of a wife suspected of adultery. The process involved the woman drinking holy water in which some dust from the tabernacle floor was placed. In addition, the priest would write a curse on a scroll and wash the writing into the holy water. They woman would then drink this ‘bitter water.’ If she was innocent, no harm would result, but if she was guilty of adultery the woman would no longer be able to bear children. The people under judgment in Judah seemed to realise that the test of the bitter water was one that they would ultimately fail (verse 15): ‘We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror.’
From the North, the people heard the snorting and neighing of the enemy’s horses – the people would tremble as the Babylonian army headed in their direction to ‘devour the land and everything in it.’ This coming judgment was inevitable – the people seemed to realise this, it would be a judgment that would cause great pain and suffering.
Back in the time of Israel’s wandering, the people at last saw the promised land! But they failed to believe that God could defeat those whom they would need to overcome to gain possession of the land. The people had spent 40 days checking out the land before arriving at their conclusion – now said God, they would spend 40 years wandering the desert! It was during those 40 years that the people complained about the conditions – there was no bread, no water and the food provided (manna) was miserable! In response, God sent venomous snakes amongst them. The people were bitten and many died. But there was a remedy – made available because of Moses’ prayer. God’s instruction to Moses was simple and astounding: ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ (Numbers 21: 8). Anyone who had been bitten by a snake need only to look at the bronze snake and they would live. This is of course a picture of the rescue that we can receive from Jesus – ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ (John 3) – William Ogden wrote in a hymn in 1887 which went like this:
I’ve a message from the Lord, hallelujah!
This message unto you I’ll give,
’Tis recorded in His word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”
That sums it up the gospel pretty well! But the message for Judah brought no hope – the venomous snakes would bite and there would be no remedy – the opportunity for repentance had closed. It seems that there will come a time when it is too late to respond. Years of opportunity to respond to the message, to simply ‘look and live’ will one day come to a close, we should not delay our response.
3. The weeping propjet
Jeremiah is known as the ‘weeping prophet’ and with good cause. He had nothing but sorrow to offer the people – there was no hope in his message. The best the people could do would be to acknowledge their sin and prepare for the coming judgment. Jeremiah knew the message he had to give and against stern opposition he was faithful to the message, but there were times when he was broken and exhausted from the experience and felt far from God and his comfort: ‘18 You who are my Comforter in sorrow, my heart is faint within me. 19 Listen to the cry of my people from a land far away: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?’
The remarkable thing is that the sorrow of Jeremiah is an expression of God’s sorrow too. In reading of the judgments pronounced on Judah one may be tempted to think of God is a cruel despot bent on vengeance and wrath, but this is not the case at all. Verse 19b; ‘Why have they aroused my anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?’ These are the people who said (in Exodus 19: 8): ‘We will do everything the Lord has said.’ But they did not and it brought great sorrow to God: ‘Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. (verse 21)’ Jeremiah may have been the weeping prophet but he was speaking for a weeping Lord.
The sorrow was because the people had exhausted the possibility of remedy. They had been afforded opportunity after opportunity and now there only judgment awaits. The remedy is no longer available: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?’ This is not a picture of a God who has predestined this people for judgment, but a God who loves and is distressed by the condition of the people for whom there is no healing available.
What about us? There is a remedy that remains available – we must simply ‘look and live.’