Imagine you are on the beach and there is some of that nice flat wet sand that is good to walk on – and you discover someone has written: ‘Peter loves Mary.’ It’s a simple statement and it would be tempting to interpret it as something written by Peter as a statement of his romantic love for Mary – probably a reasonable assumption, but it’s not the only interpretation! Maybe Peter is a father and Mary is his young child, or perhaps Mary wrote this in the hope that it was true! What if you are not Peter but Mary is your wife! In order to really understand the statement we need to know who Peter is, who Mary is, what the circumstances were when the statement was made and perhaps when it was made. So it is with our interpretation of the bible. If someone opens the bible and immediately assumes that the words they read are to be taken as 100% applicable to themselves, well you can imagine the problems that could arise. An interpretation is required that will take into account the circumstances of the writing, the author, the intended recipient as well as idioms and figures of speech of the day.
Jeremiah was not written in a vacuum. The prophet was conveying the thoughts of the Lord to his people. There was an existing and well documented relationship between God and Israel. We have noted that this relationship was governed by a series of promises (or covenants) between God and Israel – failure to factor this into our interpretation of Jeremiah will (at best) sell us short on our understanding.
God’s people had been in the wilderness for 40 years and at last were about to enter the promised land. It was at this historic moment that God pronounced a covenant with the people (the Deuteronomic covenant – See Deuteronomy chapter 28). If the people were obedient they would fulfil their role as God’s representatives on earth. They would moreover be blessed in every way one could imagine: in the cities and in the countryside, they would be productive as families, as arable farmers and as livestock farmers. They would be blessed when they go out and blessed when they come back! But, and this was a big but, this was dependent upon their obedience to God. If they failed to do what was right, they would be cursed rather than blessed: in the cities and in the countryside, in their offspring, their crops and their livestock. The 28th chapter of Deuteronomy describes in full the extent of the curses that would befall Israel for disobedience. Part of this lengthy list is highly relevant to the circumstances in Jeremiah: verses 49-52, ‘The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. 51They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. 52They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ This must have been a frightening possibility for the people at the time, but they had a choice: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20and that you may love the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 30:19 and 20). Jeremiah’s task was to remind the people of this covenant and to pronounce that as a result of persistent and habitual disobedience, the curses were about to fall.
Did this then mark the end of God’s people? Could there be a way back? History shows us that in spite of a return to the land after the Babylonian captivity the people never really got it together, when the forerunner of the Messiah arrived they beheaded him, when the Messiah arrived they crucified him and when God spoke through the Holy Spirit they stoned Stephen and persecuted his fellow believers. More curses followed as the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and scattered the people. So utterly and finally destroyed? To find out we must go back to the details of the covenant. We are not good at reading the small print in contracts but we fail to do so at our peril! Deuteronomy 30: ‘When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, 2and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.’ Even in spite of the failure, God would be faithful! The problem is that we doubt what God says! People doubted whether God would make good on these promises in the Apostle Paul’s day too! See Romans 11 for Paul’s response to this doubt.
Back to Jeremiah – as we study this 9th chapter, let’s bear in mind this important ‘Deuteronomic’ promise.
1. A fountain of tears
It’s easy to become numb to the desperately sad situation in which Jeremiah ministered. The coming devastation was dreadful and perhaps what was worse, was the indifference of the people to the truth. Jeremiah effectively says that he has insufficient tears to express his sorrow: ‘Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people (verse 1).’ In these first few verses of chapter 9 (and the last few verses of chapter 8), it is quite difficult to work out if the words ought to be attributable to Jeremiah or God himself. It seems probable that they are mostly to be attributed to Jeremiah but they seem also an expression of God’s thoughts and feelings too. We thus see the heart of God – he is full of sorrow for the state of Judah. God’s character is one of kindness, righteousness and justice as we shall expressly stated later in this chapter.
Jeremiah next says that he wished he could get away from the sinfulness of the people – anywhere would do! Apparently in those days the ‘lodging places for travellers (v 2)’ were not desirable places! As I write this I have just had breakfast in a distinctly ordinary hotel in a Parisian suburb – it’s OK but I’m glad I’m only staying one night! Lodges for travellers in Jeremiah’s day were much worse, but Jeremiah would rather be in such an undesirable place and away from the people. This reminds us of Abraham’s nephew Lot, who was reluctant to leave Sodom in spite of coming judgment – what about us? Would we swap a comfortable but godless lifestyle to serve God no matter the conditions? Food for thought!
In any disease there is an underlying cause and a whole series of symptoms. Effective treatment of a disease requires identification of the cause rather than a focus on merely relieving symptoms. For Judah, the underlying problem was a refusal to acknowledge God (see verses 3 and 6). This seems somewhat surprising – surely this is a minor misdemeanour compared with national injustice, idol worship and such like? When we fail to acknowledge God, we effectively place our selves in God’s place, we assume his rights and do not give him his place. This is the underlying issue in our society today. Those who lead, teach and influence say that there is no God – we are (they say) merely products of the effect of time and chance on matter. But this is a lie and deceit: ‘”They make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies; it is not by truth that they triumph in the land. They go from one sin to another; they do not acknowledge me,” declares the Lord (verse 3).’ Failure to acknowledge God results in deceit, slander and lies – Jeremiah was uncomfortable because he had to ‘live in the midst of deception;’ and among people who ‘in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me (verse 6b)’ I think we live in the same sort of circumstances – how uncomfortable does this make us feel?
2. God’s response
In accordance with the Deuteronomic covenant, the people would experience judgment. The judgment would be harsh – Jeremiah once again uses the picture of the process of refining metals which requires fire and not just any fire, a fire coupled with technology to increase heat to the point where metals could be melted and refined. The harsh judgment would effect everyone in Judah. Jeremiah prophesied largely in Jerusalem, in the latter part of Jeremiah’s ministry there was another prophet speaking for God in the city of exile; Babylon. He was Ezekiel. In the 5th chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet is told to have his hair and beard cut off and to take the hair and divide it into three lots. He was told to burn one third, hit one third with a sword and scatter the remaining third to the wind. This was a picture of the judgment on Judah. What is of great significance is the instruction in verses 3 and 4 of Ezekiel 5: ‘ 3 But take a few hairs and tuck them away in the folds of your garment. 4 Again, take a few of these and throw them into the fire and burn them up. A fire will spread from there to all Israel.’ In spite of the judgment on the vast majority of Judah there would be a few who would be faithful and would be kept safe! They would bring God’s fire of revival back to the people. God would not fail to keep his promises to revive the people and one mark of this was the preservation of a few faithful people.
In spite of the fire of refining, the people would not be refined, with their God-given capabilities they would do what was wrong: with their tongues they would speak deceitfully, with their mouths they would speak cordially but with their hearts they would be setting traps (verse 5). All of this brought great sadness and dismay to the heart of God as he prepared to bring judgment on the beautiful land: ‘I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the wilderness grasslands. They are desolate and untravelled, and the lowing of cattle is not heard. The birds have all fled and the animals are gone.’ Every responsible parent will know the profound sadness that comes when a loved child goes the wrong way: hurt and sorrow ensue. So it is with God, that he weeps and wails for the people who will not turn back from wrong.
I’m quite sure that there were experts in Jeremiah’s day who would explain and rationalise the demise of the people. They would explain that the attack on Egypt by Josiah was a strategic mistake, they would say that the nation should have accommodated Babylonian rule more readily – all plausible reasons for their demise but all wrong! The reason for Judah’s demise was that they had disobeyed God and had failed to heed the warnings in the Deuteronomic covenant. Note that this failure was not to be explained away as something that the people could not help or that they could be excused from: ‘It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law. 14 Instead, they have followed the stubbornness of their hearts; they have followed the Baals, as their ancestors taught them.’ The moral responsibility of the people could not be made any clearer. No excuses. So it is for us, we must make our choices too.
As the people disobeyed what was right, they followed after what was wrong: idol worship. The result was a ration of bitter food and poisoned water. Remember that this outcome was according to the Deuteronomic covenant. Since we do not live under the terms of this covenant we should not expect blessings for doing right and curses for doing wrong, we live under a different economy. Judah would not only experience bitter rations: they faced exile, and pursuit by ‘the sword’ (verse 16).
3. Time to mourn
The British ‘stiff upper lip’ calls for the absence of outward emotion – we are culturally conditioned to avoid displays of public tears. In the middle near east the cultural norm was quite the opposite: expression of public emotion was encouraged – in fact professional mourners lead the people in mourning! Can you imagine it! Judah would have plenty to mourn about and now the Lord calls for the professional wailing women to come! Only the most skilful would do! These women would encourage the tears to flow. At that time the people would say: ‘How ruined we are! How great is our shame! We must leave our land because our houses are in ruins.’ The extent of the mourning would result in a shortage of wailing women! More would be needed – ‘teach your daughters to wail, teach one another how to wail!’ The message for Judah was crystal clear – the coming judgment would result in a scale of mourning never before experienced.
A few years ago we were on holiday in Cyprus and we received a call from one of our neighbours to tell us that our home had been burgled. We had been having some building work done and the house was not as secure as it could have been. Someone climbed in the window and helped themselves to our TV and one or two other things. It was not so bad really. But for Judah it would not be a thief, but rather death that would enter the window to claim the lives of children and young men. When a field of wheat was harvested in those days one would cut the stalks of wheat and someone would come along behind to gather up the wheat. For Judah, the crop would surely be cut but it would be left to rot: ‘The dead bodies of men will lie like dung on the open field. (verse 22b)’: a grim reaping indeed.
It seems likely that the Judeans had the ‘it-will-never-happen-to-us’ mentality, perhaps most of all amongst those who were accustomed to success. Money, strength and wisdom are just as much cherished today as in ancient Judah, but these would be of no value for Judah – don’t boast about these says the Lord. Do boast about having such understanding to know the Lord! What should the Judeans know about the Lord? That he exercises kindness, righteousness and justice – he delights in these! I wonder what delighted Judah? And what delights us? If it’s not kindness, justice and righteousness perhaps its time we re-thought our priorities.