From Death of a Nation by Ray C. Stedman
Jeremiah's first actual encounter with physical attack came in the fourth year of the reign of Jehoiakim the king, when Nebuchadnezzar was on his way to Jerusalem. The armies of Babylon were already marching. The king had heard of the approach of the Babylonians, fear had gripped the hearts of the people and of the king himself, and Jeremiah was sent by God to give a final word of warning before the judgment actually fell. What a testimony this book is to the patience of God! For by now the prophet has been conveying this message for twenty-two years, and still the judgment has been held off. But now it is about to come at last, as the nation remains obdurate and stubbornly unrepentant. Chapter 20 should begin with verse 14 of chapter 19:
Then Jeremiah came from Topheth, where the Lord had sent him to prophesy, and he stood in the court of the Lord's house, and said to all the people: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their neck, refusing to hear my words."
Now Pashhur the priest, the son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord (Jeremiah 19:14-20:2).
Now he was in the stocks! For saying what he had been saying all along, he suddenly finds himself with his back bleeding and raw and sore, his arms and legs imprisoned in stocks which held him in a most uncomfortable position, facing a long, dark, cold, lonely night. By this time Jeremiah was accustomed to assassination threats. But this was an official action taken by the chief officer of the temple, and it indicates how the opposition to the prophet was hardening at this time.
Between Faith and Despair
I want to skip forward now to verse 7, because beginning here, in poetic form, we have the thoughts of Jeremiah while he is in the stocks, waiting for what would happen on the morrow. He was, to say the least, a profoundly perturbed prophet! Here we get another look at the honest humanity of this man, at the way he faced circumstances just as we do, with fear and despair, alternating at times with faith and confidence. If you have ever found yourself in unexpected trouble for doing the right thing, you will be able to identify with Jeremiah at this time, as he fluctuates between bitterness and faith, between despair and praise. Let us look at the prophet's dilemma. The first thing he feels is that God himself has deceived him:
Here is a bitter cry. Jeremiah actually charges God with having lied to him, and with having taken advantage of him because he is bigger. Have you ever felt like that toward God? Jeremiah is probably thinking back to the promise with which he began his ministry, recorded in the first chapter. God had called Jeremiah as a young man and set him to his task, and Jeremiah had objected:
O Lord, thou hast deceived me,
and I was deceived;
thou art stronger than I,
and thou hast prevailed.
But the Lord said to me,Jeremiah, remembering those words, is saying, "What happened, Lord? What happened to your promise? You said you'd be with me to deliver me, but here I am in these miserable stocks, held a prisoner, my back bloody and sore, and they're threatening my life. You said you'd deliver me! Lord, you've deceived me!"
"Do not say, 'I am only a youth';
for to all to whom I send you you shall go,
and whatever I command you you shall speak.
Be not afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord."
Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth;
and the Lord said to me,
"Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant" (Jeremiah 1:7-10).
That is the way the heart can easily feel toward God, isn't it? Like so many of us, Jeremiah took these promises rather superficially, and he made certain assumptions God never intended. He assumed that "to deliver" meant "to keep him from hurt." But God did not say that. Jeremiah saw himself in rather heroic terms, and though he shrank from that call, he foresaw no pain or personal injury connected with his ministry. He saw himself as going and declaring the word of God to a people who needed it, expecting God to set a wall about him, giving his angels charge over him, keeping him safe through it all. But now he seems to have absolutely no protection, and so he charges God with lying.
Lying, of course, is the one thing God cannot do. There is no way he can be faithless to his promise. And yet Jeremiah feels, as many of us have felt, that God has failed his promise. I do not know how many times people have said to me, referring to the Word of God, "Well, I know what it says, but it doesn't work!" That is just another way of saying, "God has deceived me; God's a liar!" And that was the prophet's predicament.
The second thing he found was that people were mocking him: "I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me." His message was unpopular. And since the people could not answer the keenness of his logic, they did the only thing they could do--they began to ridicule his person. That is always the refuge of petty minds. When people cannot handle a logical argument they begin to attack the person, and try to destroy him. So they laughed at Jeremiah, poked fun at him, ridiculed him. Mockery is hard to bear, hard for the human spirit to take, and this was getting to Jeremiah.
Third, he discovered an unbearable tension within himself:
For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, "Violence and destruction!"
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long (Jeremiah 20:8).
Just a few chapters back, he had cried out in an ecstasy of glory,
Thy words were found, and I ate them,
and thy words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart. . . (Jeremiah 15:16).
Now he is saying "Lord, your word is a reproach and derision to me. I wish I had never heard it!" And he wants to quit preaching, but he cannot:
If I say, "I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,"
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot (vs. 9).
How he is torn with this inner tension--fearful of proclaiming the truth, because it only subjects him to ridicule and scorn, and yet unable to quit. When he resolved to keep still the fire of God burned in his bones and he had to say something. Do you know anything of that? Perhaps not with respect to public preaching--we are not all called to that. But have you ever felt that you just had to speak out? Some injustice, some moral perversity, some scandalous conduct, some loveless hypocrisy was occurring, and you just could not keep quiet about it. And yet you knew that if you spoke out you would only get into trouble, and nobody would thank you for ityou would only upset the status quo and create strife but you could not contain yourself. Did you ever feel that way? That was what Jeremiah was experiencing here--this tremendous struggle within himself against the proclamation of the word of God which only created more trouble.
The last thing he mentions is the sense he had of living in an atmosphere of total insecurity:
For I hear many whispering.
Terror is on every side!
"Denounce him! Let us denounce him!"
say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall.
"Perhaps he will be deceived,
then we can overcome him,
and take our revenge on him" (vs. 10).
There is not a person he can trust, not a one. Even his familiar friends, those he ate with, visited with, talked with, even they are whispering against him. There is terror on every side. Even the walls are bugged! There is no one he can trust. Even God has deceived him. That is a vivid description of the way our fears can seize our mind and distort reality to such a degree that we believe God himself is faithless to us. That is an accurate description, also, of a satanic attack, which is exactly what this is. When we begin to look at our circumstances, something within us begins to make everything look utterly black and dark.
If you have ever been in this predicament you know that it is nonsense to try to convince yourself intellectually that things are not bleak. It seems to be madness to deny what appears to be the reality of the situation. It looks exactly that way, and everybody tells you that is the way it is. But this is a lie. It is a distorted fantasy, not real at all. What the natural mind does to us when we try to see life on our own is to twist things all out of shape, conjuring up all kinds of lurid and gruesome spectacles which appear to be actual realities.
So faith comes to Jeremiah's rescue and begins to strengthen him. Faith counterattacks to uphold the tottering prophet. In verses 11 and 12, he says,
But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior;
therefore my persecutors will stumble,
they will not overcome me.
They will be greatly shamed,
for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.
O Lord of hosts,
who triest the righteous,
who seest the heart and the mind,
let me see thy vengeance upon them,
for to thee have I committed my cause.
That is the right thing to say; Jeremiah is now fighting back against the assault of lies. He begins now to reckon , on reality, to count as truth what God had made known to him. That is the way to handle any frightening situation. You can be almost sure that the way you see it is not the way it really is. This is what you have to remember. Your mind is being assaulted, your thoughts twisted and distorted by a naturalistic view of things. And the only answer is to begin with God, the unchangeable One, the One who sees things the way they really are. Start with him and with what he has told you, and work from that back to your situation, and you will see it in an entirely different light.
This is what the prophet does here. He starts with God. "The Lord is with me [that is the first thing to remember], and he is a dread warrior [he knows how to fight, how to repel assaults]; therefore my persecutors will stumble [their plans are not going to work out], they will not overcome me. [In fact,] they will be greatly ashamed, for they will not succeed." Faith reassures him that this is what will happen. And this is the correct view, because this is what happened. And so he cries out,
Sing to the Lord;
praise the Lord!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
from the hand of evildoers (vs. 13).
That sounds like the account of the incident in Acts 16 when Paul and Silas, thrown into the dungeon and thrust into stocks at Philippi, began at midnight to sing praises to God, because their faith was fastened onto God and his greatness, and not upon their circumstances. And this is what Jeremiah learned to do--to sing praises to the Lord.
It would be great if we could end the account here. But Jeremiah is a very human man, and so he does as we often do--he sinks back into even greater despair!
Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father,
"A son is born to you,"
making him very glad (Jeremiah 20:14-15).
It must be about three o'clock in the morning now. Up until midnight he had been doing fine, but the last hour or two have really become intolerable. He is scrunched over in this cruel position, his feet are hurting, his hands are hurting, his head hurts, his back is raw and bloody, and he cannot soothe it in any way. So the situation gets to be too much again, and he begins to curse the day he was born.
Let that man be like the cities which the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb for ever great. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame? (vss. 16-18).
Have you ever said that? "Why was I ever born? I wish I'd never been born!" Well, what can help Jeremiah now? He does not tell us any more of what went on through the long, long night. But if you turn back to verse 3 and read what happens the next morning, you will see a different man: "On the morrow, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, 'The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, but Terror on every side.'" That was what he himself had experienced during the long night: "I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side!" The name Pashhur means a "cleaver" or "splitter," a "divider." That evidently was the kind of man Pashhur was, always dividing people up, creating factions. Jeremiah says, "God is no longer going to call you Pashhur, but Terror on every side," that is, undependable, a frightening kind of man whom nobody dare trust. "Your leadership will be ignored, for no one can trust you."
"For thus says the Lord: Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends. They shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall slay them with the sword. Moreover, I will give all the wealth of the city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them, and seize them, and carry them to Babylon. And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house, shall go into captivity; to Babylon you shall go; and there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely" (Jeremiah 20:4-6).
Triumph over Trembling
Now he is as steady as a rock. What happened? Well, we do not know; we can only surmise. But I suggest that sometime through that long dark night, the burning in the bones of the prophet--the word of God--triumphed over the tremblings of his heart. The Word began to prove itself true. Jeremiah discovered what many of us have discovered in the hour of pressure, what the Word of God tells us-- "Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world." Jeremiah began to think back upon the Word, its power, what it had accomplished in the past. And somewhere faith came to take hold of this struggling, weak, toppling man and strengthen him, so that when Pashhur came in the morning he was ready to meet him, look him straight in the eye, and tell him the message God had for him.
I thought of a verse in Paul's second letter to Timothy which seems to gather this up for us beautifully. Paul, in an hour of great turbulence in the world of his day, said, "Timothy, if we are faithless, he [Christ] remains faithful--for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). Perhaps Jeremiah remembered what God had said in chapter 1: "Jeremiah, I am watching over my word to perform it." So even though it may take a while, even though things do not go right at first, do not be short-sighted and blame God, for he will "watch over his word to perform it."
Jehoiakim was left in Jerusalem to be a vassal king, and he reigned seven more years. Then he rebelled against the government of Nebuchadnezzar, was deposed by another Babylonian invasion, and his son, Jehoiachin, also called Jeconiah, was put on the throne. He reigned for only three months, and then was taken as a captive to Babylon. His uncle, Zedekiah, one of the remaining sons of king Josiah, was put on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar to serve as a kind of caretaker king.
Rubbing the Lamp of Prayer
That brings us to the twenty-first chapter of Jeremiah with Zedekiah, weakest of all the kings of Judah and the last of the line, now on the throne. Nebuchadnezzar is sending up another army against Jerusalem, the city is under siege, and king Zedekiah now sends a hasty word to Jeremiah the prophet, asking him to intercede with God on their behalf:
This is the word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashur the son of Malchiah and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, saying, "Inquire of the Lord for us, for Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon [this is merely another spelling of Nebuchadnezzar; both are used in Scripture] is making war against us; perhaps the Lord will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds, and will make him withdraw from us" (Jeremiah 21:1-2).
That sounds very pious, does it not? King Zedekiah is asking the prophet to intercede with God, so that "maybe God will be his old, sweet, kindly self and let us go." There are many people who pray like this, who think that God is only for getting them out of trouble. They imagine that they can go on doing as they please, living the way they want, and ignoring all the efforts of God to check their course and correct their folly. Then, when they really get into trouble, all they have to do is pray, and God will come and set them free. A lot of people treat God that way, as this king was doing--expecting God to come through.
Of course, in that view, God is only a kind of heavenly genie, ready when you rub the lamp of prayer to appear and say, "Yes, master; what do you want me to do?" But God is not like that. God is sovereign. God moves according to his own purposes, and he does not play games with us. He will not be mollified and placated by a temporary return to him when we get into difficulty, as Zedekiah found out when he received God's answer to his plea:
Then Jeremiah said to them: "Thus you shall say to Zedekiah, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war which are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls; and I will bring them together into the midst of this city. [Zedekiah, not only am I not going to help you; I'll hinder you. I will cause the weapons with which you are fighting to be turned against you.] I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger, and in fury, and in great wrath. And I will smite the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast; they shall die of a great pestilence. Afterward, says the Lord, I will give Zedekiah king of Judah, and his servants, and the people in this city who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine, into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon and into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their lives. He shall smite them with the edge of the sword; he shall not pity them, or spare them, or have compassion'" (Jeremiah 21:3-7).
There is a way this king could have found the mercy and grace of God, of course. Had he knelt before God and confessed his evil deeds, calling upon God out of a heart of contrition and repentance, God would have turned and met him. He promises that it is still not too late wherever there is a real change of heart. But God is not there simply for bargaining, someone to whom we can call for help only out of a fervid desire to escape the consequences of our folly. Verse 10 summarizes the thrust of this chapter: " 'For I have set my face against this city for evil and not for good, says the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.'" That should have been enough to upset this king and turn him around, but it was not. So in chapter 22 God says to the prophet, "I want you to go up and talk to the king himself, face to face." This is the first time Jeremiah is sent to deliver a message directly to the king himself:
Thus says the Lord: "Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say, 'Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah, who sit on the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates'" (Jeremiah 22:1-2).
So Jeremiah goes down to the palace, and comes before the king himself. From this point through the end of chapter 25 is a record of the message Jeremiah gave before this king. In this great message Jeremiah traces before the king what has gone wrong in his nation. As we face somewhat similar troubles in our own day, Jeremiah's message can help us draw some very important conclusions related to these deeply confused times.
These ancient prophets, by the way, were not like court priests or preachers. Jeremiah's appearance at the palace was not like having Billy Graham hold meetings for the president in the White House, nor even like having John Knox thunder away before Mary Queen of Scots, expounding the Scriptures. Rather, these prophets were sent to the kings with direct messages, right from the mind of God.
The Tasks of Government
The heart of Jeremiah's message was that two areas of the national life were terribly wrong. Jeremiah sets these before the king in great power. The first area is summarized for US in the opening verses of chapter 23:
"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: "You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings," says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:1-2).
Who are these shepherds? They are the kings of the nation. Rulers and government leaders are the shepherds of God. All through the Old and the New Testaments this idea is behind God's concept of government. Governmental leaders are to be shepherds of the people, watching over them and taking care of them. As we listen to the message developed here by the prophet, we will find in it a recognition of the proper tasks of government. What are governors and presidents and leaders for? In one great verse the prophet sets forth the answer:
Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place (Jeremiah 22:3).
This king, and others like him, had failed to do these things. Notice that they were first to set an example of justice and righteousness themselves. Rulers, leaders, and elected officials are to be an example of righteousness and justice before the people. This is why it is so serious when politicians and elected officials do things which are wrong. Since Watergate, people have been saying, "Why make such a fuss over a little corruption in business or industry--look at the politicians in Washington! Everybody does this sort of thing, so what's the big deal?"
The answer is that every governmental leader, every politician elected or appointed to an official position in government, from the president on down in our own country, is, as Paul makes clear to us in Romans 13, a minister of God. He may not be a believer, but he himself is a minister, an agent of God, and is to represent God's standard of righteousness and judgment. Therefore, when these elected officials or leaders of the land--kings or presidents or whatever they may be--are guilty of wrongdoing, the effect of their wrongdoing is greatly intensified, is far greater than if they were just ordinary citizens. This is why the Watergate affair was such a serious matter. And Jeremiah was sent to teU this king that he had failed to correct the wrongs of the land, had failed to "deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who had been robbed," and had failed himself to be a pattern of justice and righteousness.
Then the second responsibility of government leaders is: "Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow." These are the minority groups in any country, the weak, the helpless. You will notice that the king is told here that it is his task to see that he does no violence to them. Here is a recognition of the power of government to hurt the weak, a recognition that government finds it easy to do so in its management of events. Bureaucracy can make it easy to turn a deaf ear and to be unavailable to those who are really in trouble. Special care must be taken by any government to watch over the weak within the nation--the aliens, the foreigners, those with different cultural patterns; and the widows and orphans--those with no one to plead their cause. This is the task of government.
And the third responsibility of government leaders is to keep the courts honest and just: "Do not shed innocent blood in this place." The task of government is to see that justice is available in a courtroom, that the guilty are found out and the innocent are freed, and that innocent people are not punished wrongly by the court. This king had failed in this, and the prophet spells out the details of his failure:
"Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing,
and does not give him his wages; who says,
'I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,'
and cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion" (Jeremiah 22:13-14).
Even in those days they had trouble with rulers embellishing their own private homes! And the amazing thing is that when this nation of Judah was bankrupt and in deep trouble, its treasures being looted from the temple and the city itself surrounded by an army, the king utilized his power and caused his subjects to build a house for him. Jeremiah says, "Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar?" "Just because you can build a bigger house than someone else, does that make you a king?" Then he refers him to the standard of his father, Josiah:
"Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
[Then he asks this insightful question.]
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord" (vss. 15-16).
That is what it means to know God--to let your actions be changed by the knowledge you have of God who watches over the needy and the weak.
Three Bad Kings
The prophet gives three bad examples of kings in Judah. In verses 11 and 12 he refers to Shallum, which is another name of Jehoahaz, who went down to Egypt: "He shall return here no more, but in the place where they have carried him captive, there shall he die, and he shall never see this land again." Another example is Jehoiakim, one of the sons of Josiah:
Therefore thus says the Lord concerning Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah: "They shall not lament for him, saying, 'Ah my brother!' or 'Ah sister!' They shall not lament for him, saying, 'Ah lord!' or 'Ah his majesty!' [Nobody is going to feel sorry when he is gone.] With the burial of an ass he shall be buried, dragged and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem" (vss. 18-19).
Then still a third is Coniah, another name for Jehoiachin, son of Jehoiakim:
"As I live, says the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off and give you into the hand of those who seek your life, into the hand of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chaldeans" (vss. 24-25).
This man Coniah, just 23 years old, and after a reign of only three months, was deposed and carried to Babylon, and spent the rest of a long life in captivity. God says an amazing thing about him in verse 30:
Thus says the Lord:
"Write this man down as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah."
This is a very significant verse, for it means the end of the Solomonic line of succession. Up to this time, all the kings of Judah had been descendants of King Solomon, son of David. But with this man, that line of succession ended. No more was a man of that line allowed to rule on the throne of Judah. This affects the story of Jesus in the New Testament, for when you trace the genealogy of Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, you discover that Joseph was the son of David through this man Coniah, or Jehoiachin, and thus had lost the right to sit on the throne of Judah. Had Jesus been his natural son, he would never have had the right to be king of Judah. But because he was the son of Mary, who was likewise a descendant of David through Nathan, a brother of Solomon, Jesus therefore had the right to the throne of David. It is amazing how God ties history together and works in marvelous ways we cannot anticipate!
Jeremiah is now given a vision of the true shepherd. For the first time in this great prophecy he does as Isaiah frequently did--he lifts up his eyes, looks down through the centuries, and sees the coming of One who would fulfill God's ideal, and on beyond that to the time when he will return again to actually carry out God's requirement for justice:
"Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. [Lest we wonder who this would be, he tells us how to identify him.] And this is the name by which he will, be called: 'The Lord is our righteousness'" (Jeremiah 23:5-6 ).
That is the name applied to Jesns by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:30: ". . . Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." He himself is our righteousness. So the prophet sees him coming as God's rightful king, and one day to come again so that "Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely."
Ungodliness Has Gone Forth
Corruption in government was the first area of national life which was wrong. But the prophet is led now to speak of something still worse:
Concerning the prophets:
My heart is broken within me,
all my bones shake;
I am like a drunken man,
like a man overcome by wine,
because of the Lord and because of his holy words.
For the land is full of adulterers;
because of the curse the land mourns,
and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up (Jeremiah 23:9-10).
What is wrong? Well, back of the king was the prophet. It is bad enough when the king goes wrong, but when the preachers who are there to correct the king go wrong, there is no hope for that land. And here were the prophets, who should have set the king right, prophesying and preaching the wrong things. So there was a fatal cancer at the heart of this nation which could not be cured. That is why judgment had to come. God says in verse 15:
Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
"Behold, I will feed them with wormwood,
and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
ungodliness has gone forth into all the land."
We wonder what has happened in America. We wonder where our national strength has gone, why we seem to grow weaker and weaker instead of stronger and stronger, why, when we have the greatest military might the world has ever known, we exercise less and less influence among the nations of earth. But behind the government, you see, is the church. Every land, eventually, is governed by what is going on in the church, by what is going on among the people of God. That is why Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world."
Jeremiah points out some of the things that were wrong among these preachers, these prophets. First, verse 16: "Thus says theLord of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. . .''' They were filling the people with vain hopes, telling them that things were going to be all right. They preached messages to convince them that man would work out his difficulties and everything would be fine--they could count on it. But they were vain hopes. Why? Well, secondly, he reveals, "'. . . they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.' " That is why they are vain hopes. They are just the prophets' own ideas of what is happening in the nation, their own subjective viewpoints of what is wrong in life, their own opinions and religious ideas. And that is all they are worth. They have not sat and listened to the voice of God. Verse 18 says,
For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord
to perceive and to hear his word,
or who has given heed to his word and listened?
That is what was wrong with the prophets--they were preaching themselves, not God. And that is what has happened in America. Turn back the record forty or fifty years in this nation, to the time of the theological movement known as "German Rationalism," when preachers began to turn from the Scriptures and to preach their own messages. The amazing thing is that this movement has influenced not only what we call "liberal" churches, but many evangelicals, as well.
At seminars for pastors which we hold regularly at our church, we study the Word of God together with men from all over the nation and learn what God is saying today to the people of this land about the resources and the tremendous basis of operation that God has made available to us. At the close of the seminars the pastors are asked to give their evaluation of what has happened to them. It is always interesting to me to see how many of these men express anger at the fact that in their previous training they had learned little or nothing of how to teach the Scriptures. They shake their heads and say, "Why didn't we learn this in school? Why weren't we taught this?" They are literally angry, because as they look back on their own ministries they find that they have been giving out their own ideas, having never been taught to expound the Word of God, to stand in the council of God and to hear his Word. That is what wrecks a nation, because then there is no correction of the evils of government.
What happens next is that they give false assurances:
"They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, 'It shall be well with you'; and to every one who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, 'No evil shall come upon you'" (Jeremiah 23:17).
That is what we are hearing today, is it not? The "new morality" tells us, "Don't worry, young people. If you love each other you can do anything you want and nothing will happen. No evil will befall you." Prophets of today are saying to our generation, "You can run off with your neighbor's wife, you can cheat on your income tax, you can do all these things and you don't have to worry about it. No evil is going to fall, no harmful results will come."
And that is why a nation begins to fall apart and lose its strength.
The last charge against the prophets is that they claimed the very authority of God:
"Behold, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who use their tongues and say, 'Says the Lord.' Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the Lord" (vss. 31-32).
They claimed God's authority to say things that God did not tell them to say at all. And that is what hurts a nation. When prophets or preachers tell lies in the name of the Lord, the heart of the nation is eaten away and the people fall apart morally because there is no faithful word from God.
The Right Way
Now the prophet draws the contrasts of the true ministry. The first thing a preacher should do is to stand before God:
"I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings" (Jeremiah 23:21-22).
A man has to stand before God and hear God speak to him, first. That is the first thing. Years ago, when I was a young pastor, I found I was preaching messages I had more or less borrowed from great Bible teachers--not taking them verbatim, but leaning heavily upon the ministry of men whom I admired. Every young man does that as he starts out in the ministry. But gradually I learned that God had to say something to my heart first, that I could not borrow somebody else's fire. It had to be fire in my own soul, something God was saying to me, or it could never set fire in the hearts of other people. This is what God says is paramount--we must stand in his council and hear his words.
Then what? Verse 28: "Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully." That is the business of a preacher--to take what God has said and set it before the people without diluting it, to say faithfully what God has said, for that is what will save a nation from hurt and preserve it from harm. God goes on to show what can be accomplished through such a ministry: "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?" (vs. 29) God's Word pounds away with honesty and realism, setting before people exactly what is happening, exactly where they are. His desire is for them to see his loving heart, urging them as a nation to turn around from what is tearing them apart.
In the last section of this great message, which you can read in chapters 24 and 25, Jeremiah refers back to a message he had given earlier to another king, in which he showed how a king ought to react when God is judging a people or a nation. How do you react when you are under the chastisement of God, when God has found that the only way he can get through to you is to bring trouble into your life, to catch you up short? What are you to do? The prophet sets before the king three things that he is to remember.
God's Best for You
The first, in chapter 24, is to accept the judging hand of God as the very best hope for you. In this chapter the prophet was shown a vision of two big baskets of figs. One was a basket of good figs, the other of rotten, stinking figs. God said, "These figs are like the people. The good figs are those who are to be carried captive to Babylon." That is astonishing, because if you had lived in Judah in those days, you would have said, "The worst thing that could happen to me would be to be taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and carried away from this land into Babylon." But God would have said to you, "You are absolutely wrong! That is the best thing that could happen to you." In fact, he says,
"I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart" (Jeremiah 24:6-7).
"This is what will cure them," he says. "This will set them straight." So that what looked like the worst thing to them was actually the best thing in God's eyes. "But if you stay in this land," he says, "if you are not carried away captive, that will be the worst thing that could happen to you." For he says,
"I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their fathers" (vss. 9-10).
God's admonition is to accept what he is doing with you as the best thing for you, and to know that his love will triumph.
The second thing he sets before the king, the second principle we are to learn from this, is that we are to wait for the measured end that God has in view. The prophet says to this king,
"This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, and the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste" (Jeremiah 25:11-12).
That was a specified period of time: seventy years. As we know from other Scriptures, this was the length of time that Israel had failed to allow the land to enjoy its sabbath. For four hundred and ninety years they had lived in this land, and not once did they ever observe the sabbatical year, to let the land lie fallow for one year. So seventy of those sabbatical years had stacked up, and God said, "I will send you to Babylon for seventy years, while the land enjoys its sabbath." God always has a time limit on what he does with us. Remember the fellow who said, "My favorite Scripture is where it says, 'And it came to pass. . .' It is such a comfort to know that it didn't come to stay; it came to pass!" It will pass. And so, under the hand of God's judgment, wait out his measured time, knowing that it shall come to pass.
The third and last principle the chapter gives us is that God says the prophet is to expect a widening circle of cleansing, beginning with Judah, but reaching out to all the nations around. And in two vivid figures he describes how God works. It is like a cup which you drink from, then pass it to your neighbor and he drinks from it, who in turn gives it to another neighbor. And so the cup is sent around all the nations, first making them drunk with the judgment of God, but also bringing them into repentance before God. The king is told, "For behold, I begin to work evil at the city which is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished?" (vs. 29) And as God begins to work in your life, you know that others are also going to be subjected to the same judgment as you, and they will learn from you. God's cleansing hand will reach out.
God's work is finally described as a mighty storm:
"Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Behold, evil is going forth from nation to nation,
and a great tempest is stirring
from the farthest parts of the earth!" (Jeremiah 25:32)
The process will keep on building up into a great and mighty storm which will bring at last the final judgment of God. It may be that we' are in those days, and God is judging his people today. "The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God," says Peter. And as we are subjected to it--our hearts searched and our minds open before God--and we are brought to repentance and to confession and to turning from our evil in the church of God, that judgment is going to reach out to the nation around, and to nations beyond. And God's great judgment storm will come to pass when at last all the fearsome scenes of Revelation are brought before us, in order that the world may be cleansed. Then God can begin the new heavens and the new earth which are promised to us. That is what God is doing. We are part of a great, mighty, sweeping movement of God in the history of this day, and we ought to bow before him and give grateful thanks that we are in his hands, the God of mercy.
| 1. Josiah
Reigned 31 years (640-609 BC)
| 2. Jehoahaz (Shallum)
Reigned 3 months (609 BC)
Taken prisoner to Egypt by Pharaoh Neco
| 3. Jehoiakim (Eliakim)
Reigned 11 years (609-598 BC)
Died in Jerusalem
| 5. Zedekiah
Reigned 11 years (597--586 BC)
Taken prisoner to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar
| 4. Jehoichin (Jeconiah, Coniah)
Reigned 3 months (December 9, 598 - March 16, 597 BC)
Taken prisoner to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (with Ezekiel)
Death of a Nation by Ray Stedman
Biography of Jeremiah
Kings of Israel and Judah
A Short Chronology of Jerusalem from Abraham
The Treasures of the House of the Lord
Gates of Jerusalem
Land Owned by Famous Jews
The Destruction of the First Temple
When a Nation Dies