God’s last word
Jeremiah 33: The last word is, I will have mercy on them.
This phrase is the conclusion of another of Jeremiah’s “prison epistles.” King Zedekiah feels he can’t have Jeremiah preaching defeat even as their enemies have their city under siege so he’s thrown Jeremiah into jail. It’s interesting that the prophet’s focus turns away from “right now” to looking to a much brighter day. In the future the people of Israel and Judah will return to this land. At that time the Lord will do “marvelous and wondrous things” for them (that is, their descendants). God has made some specific promises to this nation and even though, right now, it seems that everything’s falling apart, God has never lost sight of those promises. It’ll all start with the return of the people of Israel to this land. Every promise the Lord has given them will be fulfilled. While it’s true that things are going to get worse before they get better, it is just as true that things will get better; in fact, better than they can imagine. Right now it seems that God’s anger and dismissal of them will be their epitaph, but it isn’t so. Jeremiah says that in the end, when everything’s being summed up that the conclusion to it all will be that God has had mercy on them. Getting from where they are to that wonderful conclusion isn’t going to be easy, but in the end, when all’s said and done, it’ll be clear that everything that happened was an act of divine mercy. It’s hard to see the big picture when I’m in the middle of things that aren’t going to suit me. At times like that I have to simply trust the character of God: that he’s a good and merciful God who loves me. The last word concerning God’s dealings with me will be: “mercy.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his unfathomable mercy.
God’s last word
Business, but not quite “as usual”
Jeremiah 32: I will restore everything that was lost.
When I think of parts of the Bible that were written in jail it’s the Apostle Paul and several letters of his from the New Testament that come to mind. However, many years earlier Jeremiah was locked up and continued to declare his messages from God. In this case Jeremiah is in jail for insisting that the invading Babylonian army is going to be successful. He urges everyone to surrender and take their punishment. Even as he’s proclaiming this message, the Lord tells him that he needs to conduct some family business. It must have seemed odd to his fellow prisoners to see this man who’s been saying their nation is about to fall stop to buy some land from a relative of his. If everyone’s going to be taken away as Jeremiah claims, why in the world would he take time to buy property? Jeremiah does his business and then asks that the deed and other paperwork be sealed in a jar and buried. That deed won’t be of any use for a long time but someday it’ll be dug up and still be good when God’s people return to their homeland many years hence. Even as Jeremiah proclaims coming disaster he does so with hope for a brighter future. Today, my message may, at times, be more negative than positive. My nation can’t expect to continue down the God-ignoring road it’s on and think that God won’t notice. Still, though, my message should, in general, be a positive one. What happened at Calvary brings the hope of salvation to the whole human race. Even when there’s plenty to be concerned about, that’s the really big news.
Take Away: What happened at Calvary brings the hope of salvation to the whole human race.
Death sentence reprieve
Jeremiah 31: I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget that they ever sinned.
A few years ago I developed an itching rash on the lower right side of my back. I had some other stuff going on so when I went to the doctor I asked him about it. He took one look at it and said, “You’ve got shingles.” I thought, “Shingles? Old people get that!” Honestly, at the time, I didn’t worry too much about it. I could handle the itching. However, I had no idea of the journey I was about to take. The itching gave way to sleepless nights of burning pain. For days I was homebound, unable to get dressed. Now, at the beginning, I knew something was wrong but I thought it was going to be a minor inconvenience. Only in the mid-term of the illness did I grasp just how bad things were. I’ve seriously wondered if Job was given a full body version of shingles. When the Lord tells me I’m a sinner my reaction is something like what I had at the doctor’s office. It’s too bad; I’ll have to try harder to clean up my act. What I don’t realize is that I’ve just been given a death sentence. This isn’t just bad news; it’s the worst news possible. It’s only in this light that statements like the one I’m reading from Jeremiah carry the force they’re supposed to. Otherwise, we have God just helping us along in doing what we can pretty much handle for ourselves. When I realize that being a sinner is to be broken beyond repair; to be, for all intents and purposes dead already; and when I realize that God, in his mercy is willing to “wipe the slate clean” and to “forget” it all…well, it’s then that I begin to grasp the meaning of grace.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his grace – without it, there’s no hope whatsoever.
God’s Law in my heart
Jeremiah 31: I will put my law within them — write it on their hearts!
I love this statement. Jeremiah sees the sin and rebellion of his people, not as a cultural or educational or behavioral problem, but as a heart problem. Their failure isn’t the result of misunderstanding and it isn’t a mistake. They sin because they’re sinners at heart. The great need of their lives isn’t that they straighten up and act right. They need heart surgery; a change at the very foundation of their being. In this passage the Lord describes this change. On the first level, it’s a change that will take place following the Babylonian exile but on a larger scale it’s a change Jesus, the Son of God, will bring. In fact, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews returns to this passage to describe the new spiritual reality Christ has brought into the world. God’s Law is no longer written on stone tablets. Rather, it’s written on the hearts of those who receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Jeremiah sees the need and he has the promise from God that the need will be met, but he can’t imagine how it will all be brought about.
Take Away: We need more than to change our behavior – we need for our hearts to be transformed by the grace of the Lord.
The Lord, reaching out
Jeremiah 31: Everything in me cries out for him. Softly and tenderly I wait for him.
In this passage the tribe of Ephraim represents the people of Israel. Jeremiah imagines Israel humbly coming to the Lord, asking if it’s too late and wondering if the Lord can ever embrace her again. God’s answer is immediate and compassionate. The Lord says that that’s all he’s wanted to hear all along and that the strong medicine was administered not because he had stopped loving Israel but preciously because of his love. This great God of love has longed for his people to return to him and with great tenderness he waits to receive them back to himself. I can’t help but respond to this passage in a personal way. I’m moved by God’s compassion on, not only ancient Israel, but on the lost people of my day. When I’m in rebellion against God he longs for my return; reaching out to me, crying out in love. Today, I stand in awe of the mercy, grace, and compassion of God for a lost human race.
Take Away: God is love.
The Lord looking at things in the long view
Jeremiah 29: When you come looking for me, you’ll find me.
This is another of those messages from Jeremiah that’s addressed, not to his contemporaries, but to their children and grandchildren. Destruction is coming and exile is a sure thing. However, the Lord looks beyond the current generation to the next and to the one after that. His plan is a grand plan. Things have been gradually disintegrating for many years now as the nation God picked as his own has turned away from him. Through the coming hard times the Lord intends to rectify that. The current generation might not want to know him but the Lord’s putting events into motion that will impact future generations in such a way that they’ll return to the faith of their ancestors. His promise is a wonderful example of the grace of God. Even as he warns them of some soon coming radical surgery he promises them that he hasn’t permanently written them off. When the nation has been humbled and is ready to seek God it will find that he’s been there all along. I’m tempted here to respond to this passage from my Western point of view. That is, to personalize this and apply it as an example how God deals with individuals. However, I can’t help but think of the original cultural setting of this passage. I wonder if the Lord intends to humble my nation, not for the sake of the current generation but for those that follow. I’m not Jeremiah and I’m not a gloom and doom prophet. Still, I find it disturbing to be reminded that sometimes God’s so committed to a nation that he allows a generation to go through terrible times in an effort to reach the next one.
Take Away: It’s important to remember that the Lord will, when necessary, do radical surgery for the good of the patient.
God’s good plans for us
Jeremiah 29: I have it all planned out — plans to take care of you…to give you the future you hope for.
This may be the most quoted portion of Jeremiah’s prophecy. We like thinking about God’s plans to prosper us and bless us. We pull this verse out and rejoice in it because it’s such a wonderful promise. Of course, we’re using it out of context. At issue is the fall of Judah, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of God’s people. The promise being made here won’t even kick in for seventy years. The people hearing this sermon from Jeremiah will be dead and gone when its promise is fulfilled. The “you” in the passage isn’t individuals, but the entire body of exiles, especially their descendants. The actual message here is that they aren’t supposed to sit around thinking about “pie in the sky by and by.” The Lord says that they’re to settle down in the new land they’ve been moved to. They’re to build houses, have families, and make themselves at home. They’re to be good citizens of their new land and pray for its leaders because they’re going to be there the rest of their lives. However, (and here’s the big part) they must never forget that they are, before all else, God’s people. The day of their exile is going to end and they (meaning their descendants) will return home where God will pour his blessing out upon them. Really, if I’m going to apply this passage to my life, I need to avoid using it to tell me how the Lord’s going to prosper me. The “prospering” part for Christians is heaven. Meanwhile, we need to live our lives here and now as a people of God, giving our best to today without forgetting the promise of a better day coming for all God’s people.
Take Away: We need to live our lives here and now as the people of the Lord.
A broken yoke (and I’m not talking about eggs here)
Jeremiah 28: You’ve talked the whole country into believing a pack of lies.
The Lord instructs Jeremiah to make a wooden yoke for himself. We don’t see many yokes in our part of the world but they’re still common in many places. A yoke is a device used to harness an animal for the work of pulling something. Jeremiah follows the Lord’s direction and makes a yoke for himself. It’s used as an illustration for his sermons, calling for people to yield to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia and accept his authority. Those who do that will be allowed to live in their own land, although they’ll be under the dominion of Babylon. A competing prophet, Hananiah, has a very different message. “Everything’s going to work out just fine,” he says, “God’s going to rescue us.” When Jeremiah comes around wearing his yoke, Hananiah takes it off of Jeremiah and breaks it to pieces, saying that this symbolizes what’s going to happen to Nebuchadnezzar’s dominion of the region. This, of course, is the message many people want to hear. They want to believe that in spite of their sin and rebellion against the Lord they’re still his favorites. They believe they have the “trump card” of God’s promises to their ancestors Abraham and Moses and David and everything will be okay. Soon Jeremiah returns with a new message. “If you can shrug off a wooden yoke the Lord’s replacing it with an iron one. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.” It’s not smart to mess with God’s symbols.
Take Away: We might be able to shrug off unpleasant messages from the Lord, but doing so will ultimately just make things worse.
Three cheers for Ahikam
Jeremiah 26: Ahikam son of Shaphan stepped forward and took his side.
All’s not well at the Temple. God’s man, Jeremiah, already has a reputation for preaching gloom and doom messages and he’s at it again. This time he disrupts events at the Temple by telling the worshipers there that the Lord’s going to destroy both the Temple and them. It’s an understatement to say that they don’t like it. Jeremiah finds himself the center of a riot. Soon officials show up and they conduct court right on the spot. Simply put, Jeremiah’s life isn’t worth a nickel. It’s then that a respected man, Ahikam son of Shaphan, steps up. He reminds the people of another gloom and doom prophet, Micah, who during the reign of Hezekiah preached such messages. He also had many enemies but he wasn’t killed. It’s not that they’re above that sort of thing. Another prophet, Uriah, was hunted down and murdered because people didn’t like his message. On this day, though, Ahikam’s defense wins Jeremiah his freedom. Ahikam is an important man and on this day he brings his considerable weight to bear to save Jeremiah’s life. His stepping in isn’t likely the prudent thing to do, after all this is a mob we’re talking about. However, he has power and he uses it to do the right thing whether or not it’s popular to do so. Sometimes we have to spend some of our leadership simply because it’s the right thing to do. Position and authority are just fine, but only if they’re used for the right purposes. I’m not an important person like Ahikam, but I do have some influence in some limited circumstances. Am I spending it on things that really matter?
Take Away: Position and authority and leadership skills are to be used in positive ways – not just to get our own way about things.
A big two-letter word: IF
Jeremiah 26: If you refuse to listen to me and live by my teaching….
On one side of the coin Jeremiah tells what’s coming, and it isn’t good. Soon his nation will fall to Babylon and with that fall terrible things will happen. Later on, Babylon itself will be judged. Even as Jeremiah preaches this message the flow of events has begun, bringing it all to pass. On the other side of the coin is God’s hope that Jeremiah’s message will cause people to consider their ways and repent. The message of the Almighty contains the powerful word “if.” What a huge word it is. It indicates a fork in the road; an opportunity to decide. It’s also a word of mercy, hope, and grace. So here we have it all before us. God intends to bring disaster but IF they listen and IF they repent he will, even at this late stage, relent. Frankly, he doesn’t expect it to happen. The Lord says, “You’ve never listened! Why would you start now?” The Lord doesn’t expect things to change, but he offers them a different path. Two thousand years ago the Lord personally came to this world to offer all humans a choice. He didn’t come to condemn, we’re already condemned even as were those people of Jeremiah’s day. Through Jesus we’re offered hope. Once again “if” becomes the operative word. He says: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)
Take Away: The little word “if” becomes a big offer of hope, mercy, and grace when the Lord speaks it.