Letting it go…gaining it all
Jeremiah 38: I’m telling you this for your own good.
Zedekiah’s a pitiful failure. When it comes to Jeremiah, he keeps him locked up, but can’t resist talking to him; he hates what he says, but can’t stop listening. Once again the prophet’s being held in the courtyard, and, as things continue to deteriorate, Zedekiah arranges a secret meeting with Jeremiah. However, he’s just wasting his time. At first Jeremiah refuses to answer because he knows Zedekiah won’t like what he says and will once again refuse to listen to him anyway. When Zedekiah insists, Jeremiah simply tells him what he’s told him before: the city will fall and only those who surrender to the invading army will be spared. Jeremiah is offering Zedekiah the way to life, but he knows Zedekiah will reject it once again. In the New Testament we find the story of a wealthy young man who comes to Jesus asking the way to life. When Jesus tells him that the “way” is for him to give up everything and become one of his followers the young man sadly turns and walks away. In the passage before me today I find Zedekiah, like the rich young ruler, rejecting the only hope there is. How pitiful to be so close and yet so far. Jeremiah offers Zedekiah hope and Jesus offers the rich young ruler “life.” Both decide to reject what’s offered in favor of position and wealth and power. When Jesus, himself, is faced with the same choice he willingly gives up everything and surrenders to his enemies. This leads to the ordeal of the cross, but it also leads to the resurrection. So, what are you holding on to that must be released for you to have life? Today, both Zedekiah and the rich young ruler alike would tell you it is better to let it go because holding on costs too much.
Take Away: Whatever it is that keeps us from the Lord isn’t worth it.
Three cheers for Ebed-melek
Jeremiah 38: Jeremiah sank into the mud.
Jeremiah’s reprieve from the cistern of Jonathan doesn’t last. He’s more accessible where he’s being kept in the courtyard of the palace guards so people are coming to him to hear the word of the Lord. And that’s just what they hear: being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them invulnerable. The city’s going to fall and their only hope is to surrender. When community leaders realize what’s happening they go straight to king Zedekiah, insisting that Jeremiah be silenced. Once again the king fails as he washes his hands of the situation, handing Jeremiah over to his enemies. Jonathan’s cistern was at least dry. They put the miserable prophet down in Malkijah’s cistern. There, we’re told, “Jeremiah sank into the mud.” One can only imagine the terror of Jeremiah as his feet touch the mud and he begins to sink. How much mud is there? Will he suffocate, drowning in mud? The Lord, though, hasn’t forgotten his prophet, and the Lord has some loyal people in the city. One of those people is Ebed-melek. When he hears what’s happened to Jeremiah he goes to the king and insists that Jeremiah deserves better treatment. Once again Zedekiah wavers, this time giving permission to Ebed-melek to take some men and get Jeremiah out of that cistern. We don’t know much about Ebed-melek. He was an Ethiopian, an official in the court, and his name means “servant of the king.” This event causes us to wish we knew him better. This man suddenly appears on the scene, is used by God at a critical moment in history, and then moves on, never to be seen again. In the Kingdom there are those who are called to play big roles. Some are like Jeremiah who stays on the center stage of history for decades. (This is just an aside, but we shouldn’t mistake being called to play a big role in God’s plans to mean we’ll always like where that role takes us. Rather, it might be to a terrible place, knee deep in mud.) The rest of us, though, are given supporting roles. It may be that our whole lives will be lived in the background, unnoticed by history. However, we might, at just the right time and place, be given some key lines to say or a fleeting, but important, thing to do. If that’s what God has in mind for me, I hope I can do my job as well as Ebed-melek does in this passage.
Take Away: We may live our entire lives and only be given one, eternal, history making opportunity. Let’s make the most of that opportunity when it comes.
Jeremiah’s worst nightmare
Jeremiah 37: Please don’t send me back to that dungeon.
In this passage, the story of Jeremiah returns to Zedekiah and the attack of the Babylonians. The prophet has made many enemies with his gloom and doom preaching. Ultimately, he’s imprisoned on trumped up charges. The prison he finds himself in is his worst nightmare. He’s imprisoned in a cistern. There, we’re told, he stays for a long time. Jeremiah’s out of sight, but he isn’t out of Zedekiah’s mind. The king hates Jeremiah’s sermons, but, somewhere, deep inside himself, he knows that Jeremiah’s telling the truth. Finally, Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah and, in spite of his misery, Jeremiah tells the king, not what he might want to hear, but the truth: Judah will fall and Zedekiah will be handed over to the king of Babylon. Even though the prophet has just given more bad news, Jeremiah pleads with Zedekiah for mercy. He’s done nothing to bring such inhumane treatment upon himself. He begs Zedekiah to not send him back to that terrible dungeon. To his credit the king has mercy on Jeremiah and, while Jeremiah’s to remain under guard, he’s put in a better place and given rations for food. A couple of things come to mind. First, in spite of his fierce messages, Jeremiah’s just a man. He’s miserable and afraid in the cistern. He isn’t too proud to beg for mercy. Even the spiritual giants in my life are still human and in need of compassion and mercy. Second, even though Zedekiah’s deeply flawed, he shows mercy to Jeremiah. We’re created in the image of God and that means that from the most unlikely of candidates there’s the potential of the reflection of his image.
Take Away: Even spiritual giants remain human beings with the accompanying weaknesses and flaws of humanity.
How inspiration works
Jeremiah 36: There were also generous additions, but the same kind of thing.
Babylon isn’t the only threat to Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry. Egypt also invades and conquers the nation. Jehoiakim is made king of Judah by the Egyptian conquerors. It’s during his years in power that the Lord tells Jeremiah to write down a recap of all the prophecies that have been made concerning Israel and Judah. Jeremiah obeys, dictating his messages to Baruch, who serves as his secretary. The prophet sends Baruch down to the Temple to read it all to the people and the message creates uproar. Before long, Baruch, scroll in hand, finds himself before king Jehoiakim. The king, though, isn’t impressed with Jeremiah’s message. As Baruch reads, the king takes a small knife and trims away each column as it’s heard. He then, in an act of rejection, throws what has been cut off into the fire. When Baruch returns to Jeremiah and tells him what’s happened, Jeremiah starts all over again, dictating another message from God, this one more elaborate than the first. Obviously, there’s a lot here, but I find myself thinking about how God brought about the Sacred Writings that make up our Bibles. In this case, God doesn’t dictate a message to Jeremiah to dictate to Baruch. Instead, the Lord just tells Jeremiah to write down a summary of all the prophecies he’s given concerning Israel and Judah. Jeremiah goes to work, dictating to Baruch who faithfully writes down what he hears. The real kicker to me is that when this process is done a second time, we’re told that Jeremiah adds some stuff to it. In other words, there isn’t just one way for this scroll to be written. The Lord wants Jeremiah to tell the story, and I have no doubt that the Lord helps Jeremiah remember many specifics. However, for the second round, Jeremiah wants to add some stuff. It isn’t that he’s making things up; he just remembers more and decides to include it. We have here a pretty neat example of how the Scriptures were given to us. The Lord doesn’t dictate word for word (that is, unless it says he did). Instead, he says, “write about this event or tell the message you received from me.” From there, the writer’s free to frame things in his own words and even from his own perspective. Because of that we hear from the Scriptures not only the “big message” of God’s intentions, but also the “little message” of how the writer views the world. If you think about it, that’s a pretty good example of how God works in this world: partnering with humanity and even accepting some of our limitations.
Take Away: The Lord wants us to partner with him in what he’s doing in the world.
A lesson on obedience
Jeremiah 35: The descendants…carried out to the letter what their ancestor commanded.
I don’t know why it is that Recab’s son Jonadab ordered his family to become something like monks, but he did. He told them to never live in permanent buildings and to drink no wine. For generations his descendants have followed his orders. Now, with the Babylonian army in the area, the Recabite community has moved into Jerusalem for safety. The Lord gives Jeremiah an unusual order; he’s to meet with the Recabites and offer them some wine to drink. As expected they refuse to drink it, politely explaining that their ancestor forbade it and through the many years since they’ve followed his orders. The Lord points out to Jeremiah that he has before him a group of people who are carefully following the commands of a mere human being, yet the nation as a whole is steadfastly refusing to follow the commands of God Almighty. It’s clear that this passage really has nothing to do with whether or not we drink wine or even whether or not we pay attention to the directions left to us by our ancestors. Obviously, we have some clear instructions in both the Old and New Testaments to pay attention to the orders of some people. For instance, children are to obey their parents and citizens are to obey those in authority over them. However the lesson here for Jeremiah and for us is that, if it’s reasonable for us to cooperate with mere human beings who have authority over us, it’s even more reasonable for us to cooperate with what God is doing in our lives.
Take Away: The only reasonable thing is to cooperate with the Lord as he works in our lives.
Playing “let’s make a deal” with God
Jeremiah 34: The army of the king of Babylon has pulled back…but not for long.
One of the many acts of rebellion against God committed by Judah is that of making slaves of their fellow countrymen. God forbade this from the very beginning of their existence as a nation, even as they came up out of Egyptian slavery. Indentured servitude, yes – slavery, no. With things falling apart as Babylon’s army’s about to take the city of Jerusalem King Zedekiah frees all the salves. It appears that he’s playing “let’s make a deal” with God. In fact, the Lord seems to agree to the deal. Nebuchadnezzar withdraws his army and for the time being Jerusalem is spared. At this point Zedekiah does a stupid thing. He reneges on freeing the slaves. Those who have been set free are put back into slavery. The result is quite predictable. Once again Jeremiah comes forward with a message from the Lord. He says God’s going to set Zedekiah free in the same way: free to face war and destruction; to face the wrath of God expressed through a foreign king. Nebuchadnezzar will return to Jerusalem to finish what he started. I don’t think it’s ever wise to make deals with God. Sometimes, I think God sees us as we see a child who promises to keep his room clean the rest of his life if we let him stay up to watch a favorite TV show. We know the child can’t keep his side of the deal. In general, though, God expects us to keep our word. Zedekiah should have stayed with his move to make things right. In failing to do so, he became, not only a law-breaker once again, but a liar too.
Take Away: The Lord expects us to keep our word.
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.
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.