The church as a whole is bad at preaching the Old Testament; it’s easier to focus on the New, which is more familiar, and has all those stories of Jesus we like to display for the 100th time, though note, we still leave out large swathes of his teaching – when did you last hear a sermon on Matthew 23-25 apart from the ‘Sheep and the Goats’? It’s a fun thought that a church that aspires to be a ‘New Testament Church’ would never preach from the New Testament… it wasn’t written yet.
If we are to proclaim and test ourselves against ‘the counsel of God’, we need to be engaging with ALL the bible. Unfortunately many bits of it are not nice, as I demonstrated in my material on Nahum. This is a brief introduction to Jeremiah, highlighting a few passages and presenting a series of topics that could easily become a sermon series, as that is how it started.
Jeremiah is the last prophet in Judah before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, and the exile of many to that city (cue Ezekiel, Daniel). He prophesied over many decades, long predicting the fall of Jerusalem as a result of its rejection of the Lord. Yet he also predicted a return after 70 years, and offers hope for the future long term. Whilst there are a few passages that are quoted promiscuously – and often inappropriately – much of the book is unknown to most of us. We need to do better!
The called prophet
Jeremiah 1. One of the better known passages – because it’s used in the culture wars as a criticism of abortion – is:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
Yet the chapter also includes:
The word of the Lord came to me again: ‘What do you see?’
‘I see a pot that is boiling,’ I answered. ‘It is tilting towards us from the north.’
The Lord said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the Lord.
‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones
in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem;
they will come against all her surrounding walls
and against all the towns of Judah.
I will pronounce my judgments on my people
because of their wickedness in forsaking me,
in burning incense to other gods
and in worshipping what their hands have made.’
The complaining prophet
We get a striking insight into his struggles; unlike Ezekiel, who merely records that God told him that his wife was going to die, and she does, and he goes on and preaches on the basis of that, in Jeremiah we see his pain and his struggles. This is most blatantly visible in Jeremiah 15:
Lord, you understand;
remember me and care for me.
Avenge me on my persecutors.
You are long-suffering – do not take me away;
think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.
When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
Lord God Almighty.
I never sat in the company of revellers,
never made merry with them;
I sat alone because your hand was on me
and you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unending
and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
like a spring that fails.’
To which God replies, in a less than entirely sympathetic manner:
Therefore this is what the Lord says:
‘If you repent, I will restore you
that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.
I will make you a wall to this people,
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
to rescue and save you,’
declares the Lord.
‘I will save you from the hands of the wicked
and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.’
Sometimes we need to be told to get on with it, I guess.
The weeping prophet
A feature of Jeremiah is his visible emotional reaction to the future that God is warning of. Thus in Jeremiah 9.
‘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.’
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.
Too often we hear from the pulpit the self righteous pharisee who announces judgement on others with no sign of sympathy for their impending suffering, especially when ‘they’ are obviously other than ‘us’. This is NOT a good model.
The symbol using prophet
There are a number of examples of his using acted parables to make his point. Thus we have his ‘Loincloth’ (boxer shorts equivalent) of Jeremiah 13, the Yoke Jeremiah 27 and the potter’s clay of Jeremiah 18. A particular example is his celibacy (Jeremiah 16) which was very counter cultural in his time:
Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place.’ For this is what the Lord says about the sons and daughters born in this land and about the women who are their mothers and the men who are their fathers: ‘They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like dung lying on the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.’
Note that it’s not just a parable, it’s acting on the basis of what God has told him. Having children will only result in their coming to a nasty end, so he lives by what he believes God has told him.
The confronting prophet.
He spends most of his time being contrary to the establishment’s view, even, on one occasion, having his written material cut up and burned by the king. On the whole he doesn’t react, but there’s the pointed story of Hananiah in Jeremiah 28:
Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, and he said before all the people, ‘This is what the Lord says: “In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.”’ At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way.
But a bit later God does react:
‘Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, ‘Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: “I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.”’
In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.’
The specific prophet
The way Jeremiah foretells this person’s death is an example of some very precise, dated prophecies that he offers. The best known of these is:
This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
‘But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make it desolate for ever.’
We tend to focus – because that’s what Daniel did – on the promise of restoration. Let’s not forget the other part, which Daniel had already seen fulfilled.
The prophet to the nations
That warning to Babylon of its future downfall is only one of a number of prophecies to other nations that the book contains, meeting the promise of Jeremiah 1 that he would be a prophet to the nations. Most of these are in a series from chapter 45 onwards, addressing Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Damascus as well as Babylon, whose destruction gets two long chapters.
The persecuted prophet
He’s not popular, which given he tells people to surrender to the enemy is not, perhaps, surprising. The low point comes when he’s dumped in the mud in a cistern. (Jeremiah 37, 38) He’s rescued from that – but still held as a prisoner until the fall of Jerusalem.
The ignored prophet
A feature of the whole book, but the story in chapter 42 caps it all. After the fall of the city and an attempted rebellion against the Babylonians, involving the assassination of the Babylonian, a group approaches him for advice as to whether to go to Egypt or to stay in the land. They promise to do what he says, so he goes off and seeks the Lord, and after 10 days gets His reply: ‘Stay in the land’. But no – they’re sure they should go to Egypt, and do so, taking Jeremiah with them. He promises that it won’t end well:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “If you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die. Indeed, all who are determined to go to Egypt to settle there will die by the sword, famine and plague; not one of them will survive or escape the disaster I will bring on them.”
The discouraging prophet
The most popular verse from the book, widely quoted, and usually inappropriately, are from Jeremiah 29:
‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
Yet, by contrast, the book also includes:
‘‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, “Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.” But the Lord has told me to say to you, “This is what the Lord says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.”’ (Jeremiah 45)
and not to forget: ‘ I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah’ in Jeremiah 44. These verses are somewhat less quoted; I wonder why?
Jeremiah offers us a bleak landscape, reminding us of the consequences of rebelling against God. As such it offers a part of the backdrop for the grace and mercy of God revealed especially in Jesus. Yet we are in danger of offering an idol to worship if we fail to preach the tough stuff as well:
God did judge
God does judge
God will judge
No, our sin is not OK. Yes, it does matter. Yes, we need to work with God and our brothers and sisters to sort it out. Jerusalem was trashed by the Babylonians because of their sin. Babylon was destroyed, never to rise again because of theirs. Hear the word of the Lord.