Wow, a new month and a new book of the Bible to read! With today’s reading you will have read the Bible for seven months straight. Congratulations and job well done. Today we begin our journey through the book of the prophet Jeremiah. While the authorship of several books of the Bible are in dispute, virtually no one disputes that the Book of Jeremiah was written by Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah. He dictated the majority of his prophecies from Jerusalem to his faithful secretary Baruch, who wrote them down verbatim. These words of prophecy come over the course of Jeremiah’s long ministry (626-580 B.C.), and Chapter 52 was most likely added, perhaps by Baruch sometime after Jehoiachin’s release from captivity (560 B.C.). Jeremiah was reclusive, analytical, and self critical by nature. He has been often called the weeping prophet, and the message he was given to preach was extremely unpopular. God’s people Judah were in apostasy, which is the abandonment of religion by a person. God had made it clear He would no longer protect them, and that they were obligated to submit to Babylonian demands. Despite the promise that God would someday give Israel a new covenant (chapter 31), Jeremiah’s overall message was one of gloom and doom: Jerusalem would soon fall. Because of his negative stance, Jeremiah was widely despised and he was continuously in danger. On at least one occasion the text of his message was destroyed by the king. Even Baruch was dismayed about his own future. Jeremiah, an old man, lived to see his words fulfilled and Jerusalem destroyed.
Jeremiah began his ministry during the thirteenth year of King Josiah (640-609B.C.) and continued on through the reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.). He lived on into the first years after the fall of Jerusalem. His ministry covered a broad period of time, over 40 years, and his book is a compilation of his messages and accounts of incidents throughout his life. He wrote during a period of political and military unrest, during which the entire region, including the small and vulnerable state of Judah, found itself at the mercy of the day’s superpowers; Assyria, Egypt, and increasingly Babylon as they vied for domination. His ministry began while Josiah was trying to reform the nation of Judah and purge it of idolatry. But despite Josiah’s attempts to turn people back to God, and Jeremiah’s message, the people were obstinate and complacent, fully deserving the sentence that would befall them. Here are some things to look for as you read. Look for Jeremiah’s frequent self revelations. You will see, under his dour expressions, a man who had a deep love for God and for his people. Look on as he prays for his people, despite God’s instructions not to waste his time doing so. Watch for the role of symbolism and the use of visual aids. In 16:1-4 we will read of the personal sacrifices Jeremiah made in order to serve God. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah also moves between judgement and the invitation to repent. Last but not least, watch for clues about Jeremiah’s perception of God. There are three major themes in the Book of Jeremiah: repentance, judgement, and restoration. So let’s dig in.
Jeremiah’s call is presented as a conversation. God spoke like a king to Jeremiah, and his objections show that he understood clearly. God responded to his objections with promises and visions. There was no doubt God was a calling. In the initial list of kings both Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin are missing because neither ruled for more than three months. In his first message from the Lord Jeremiah learned three important truths about God: His knowledge of all things including individuals, His ability to choose individuals for specific tasks even before they come into existence, and His willingness to extend His authority to the people He calls. God set Jeremiah apart to perform a special task and granted him the official status of a prophet when He appointed him to that task. Jeremiah’s ministry extended to the nations though he traveled away from Judah only three times. Jeremiah was young when God called him, probably a teenager, but God encouraged Jeremiah to look beyond himself to the importance of the task he was called to fulfill. In a sense, Jeremiah was a royal messenger. When God placed His words in Jeremiah’s mouth, he was given the ability to speak authoritatively in public. Jeremiah would not go alone to speak. Almond trees were the first to blossom, when other trees were still dormant. The almond tree served as a harbinger of spring, as though it watched over the beginning of the season. In similar fashion, God was watching over Jeremiah. In the second vision Jeremiah saw a pot of boiling water, and the pot was open towards the south, dictating which direction the flooding armies would come from. God called Jeremiah to basically gird up his loins. He didn’t want to look foolish with his message but God warned that He would make Jeremiah look foolish if he didn’t get moving. God also guaranteed Jeremiah that He would fight for him, making him a fortified city that could withstand a long siege. God had called Jeremiah and He promised to keep him safe. In fact, God was emphatic saying “they will fight you but they will fail. I am with you and will take care of you. I the Lord have spoken!). It doesn’t get too much clearer than that.
From chapter 2 through chapter 20 we will read of Jeremiah’s early ministry. In describing the state of Judah, Jeremiah used images of marriage, infidelity, and divorce to represent Judah’s spiritual apostasy. Jeremiah used the language of ‘this is what the Lord said’ often. This statement was equivalent to an official seal or stamp of authority on a document. Jeremiah recalled that from Egypt the Israelites were symbolically married to God when they agreed to a covenant relationship, and Israel was holy because God is holy. Jeremiah spoke of giving the first of the harvest in thanks to God, the same place we are taught we are to give the first fruits of our labors to the Lord. The Israelites who made the covenant with God at Mount Sinai pledged their full commitment to Him. In return the Lord protected them as they journeyed to the promised land. However, the people quickly lost interest in the Lord and turned to idols. God wondered aloud what He had done that made His people want to forget about Him. ‘Therefore’ often indicated the Lord was about to issue a decree. Had anyone ever heard of people just abandoning their God? You could look far and wide and not even the pagan nations did that. The heavens and earth were shocked, meaning they were witnesses to these things these humans had done. The Israelites had done two foolish things. They abandoned God, their true source of life, and they began to worship idols who could never help them. The cisterns the Israelites dug after they entered the promised land were holes in the ground that were lined with plaster. These crude tanks collected water that drained from roofs in wet weather and provided water through the summers. But the water could become putrid and dangerous to drink, and the plaster often cracked and the water drained out. Verses 14-22 are a historical review of Israel’s sin and they emphasize the folly, violence, arrogance, and despair of turning away from the one true God to worship false pagan gods.
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt but later had enslaved themselves to the Assyrians and again to Egypt. They found themselves in trouble from both the north and the south. The Egyptian cities of Memphis and Tahpanhes were Egypt’s major cities, located near the mouth of the Nile River. They were famous for their wealth. But, neither the Nile in Egypt or the Euphrates in Assyria ever helped Israel. Abandoning the Lord only brought further punishment and shame on Israel. Even remembering their history had little effect on the Israelites. They had backed their defiant words with rebellious behavior and they had forgotten God had given them every good thing. Jeremiah spoke of dirty clothes that even lye cannot get clean. No matter how hard they scrubbed, their guilt was still apparent, just like Lady MacBeth and her spots of blood that would not go away. Using marriage language Jeremiah told the Israelites they were no longer behaving like a faithful wife, but like a wild animals heat, a thief, and a prostitute. The Israelites confessed to Baal worship, revealing the true state of their unrepentant hearts. They felt no shame nor did they feel a need to repent. The idols of father and mother were most likely a reference to Baal and Asherah. Even punishment did not sway the people to return to worshiping the nor true Lord. For centuries the Israelites had forgotten the Lord, their husband. Instead they plotted and schemed with their neighbors, making covenants no one would ever keep. They chose unreliable and unfaithful allies for help.
Adultery was solid grounds for divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-2) and Judah had committed spiritual adulatory, smugly assuming God would have no objections. It is in this passage from Deuteronomy we find the prohibition to marry a woman he had previously divorced, who had married another man. The Lord did not condone the shameless behavior of His people. He had already brought drought but that did not get their attention. And instead of confessing their sins, the people tried to cover them up with sweet talk. God saw through their deception, but they were correct when they said He would not be angry forever. God would vent His wrath and the people would play for their sins. The detestable practices of idol worship had begun in the northern kingdom, led by kings and priests. But sister Judah was watching and even after the northern kingdom was over run by the Assyrians, Judah persisted, eventually paying a heavy price for her sins. Even the land was affected, producing scant crops. Animals had very poor land to graze on and food was scarce. The Lord appealed to Judah to repent, return, and be reconciled to Him. They had seen what had happened to Israel but now the people of Judah were sinning even more brazenly that the north. What happened to the north didn’t phase them one bit. But it was not too late, if they would just repent. The Lord quit referring to Judah as an adulterous wife and began calling them wayward children. That didn’t matter either. God even promised to provide them with leaders (shepherds) who would guide them with knowledge and understanding, and He would give them land. Again this offer fell on deaf ears.
When Judah was decimated and Jerusalem nearly destroyed, the land was nearly empty of people. But God had ordained that His shepherds would lead Israel through a time of blessing, increase in numbers, and material prosperity. And in the future time, the highest symbol of God’s presence, the ark of the covenant, would no longer be central to the true religion of Israel. God Himself would be central to Jewish worship. Jerusalem, not the ark of the covenant would be the center of worship, called the throne of the Lord, and people would come from around the earth and renounce their rebellion. Judah and Israel would be counted among those numbers. The Lord would ,mercifully bring them back from exile and settle them in the promised land once more. However, the contrast between what the Lord wanted and the actual situation was vast. The Lord wanted to treat His people as precious children but He couldn’t. The covenant marriage between God and His people had been ruptured by a faithless wife. The Lord could not overlook this sin.
The people in Assyria cried out that they had repented of their sins but their words were insincere and the Lord rejected their plea. If they were to come back they had to abandon their altars to pagan gods and remove any trace of idols worship. But God did not forget His children. Out of the depths of His being He called them to come back so that He could heal them. He wanted to set aside His anger and pour forth His love. When people say God is only angry in the Old Testament and there is no grace, they are mistaken. God’s grace is abundant there too. It just doesn’t look like it does in the New Testament. We see plenty of it here in today’s reading. And there will be more.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W