Jeremiah was the Old Testament suffering servant of the Lord. He witnessed the destruction of his own people, his home town, and watched the bodies stack up like so much cord wood. He knew his people deserved their punishment, but their suffering pained him to the depths of his being (which you see in several places in Jeremiah).
Lamentations is devoted in its entirety to the grief of Jeremiah (and therefore God, whose grief Jeremiah represents). Each of its five chapters is, in Hebrew, an acrostic. Each chapter but the third has 22 verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse begins with a succeeding letter. In chapter 3, because it has sixty six verses, the first three verses begin with the first Hebrew letter, the aleph, the next three the second letter (Hebrew “bet”) and so on.
The grief of the prophet is profound. Think about it like this: A piano player has only so many keys. Whatever he plays must be played with what he has. So a grieving poet has only 22 letters. He must write with what he has. But, as a troubled piano player might stumble through his performance, so the poet, twice, stumbles in his poem (you see it plainly in the Hebrew text), mixing the order of letters in the middle of chapter 2 and chapter 4. By chapter 5, his talent fails him. Though he sticks with 22 verses (for the 22 letters), he no longer follows the successive order of letters.
Jeremiah wrote: “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” (Jeremiah 9:1). The phrase is repeated somewhat in Lamentations 1:16, and Lamentations is Jeremiah’s suffering cry, a human reflection of the pain of God over His children who have decided to abandon the way of a blessing Father for the highway of fools.
The arm and judgments of the Lord are not limited. Beginning in chapter 46, the Lord pronounces his determinations against Israel’s neighbors – and even against those who were not neighbors. The prophet begins with Egypt, moves to the coast of Canaan and the Philistines, then, the Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites. This moves us up the eastern side of the Jordan to above the Sea of Galilee. Above Israel was Syria with her capital at Damascus. Then, Kedar and Hazor along the route that would take a traveler to Babylon. Surprisingly, the Lord skips over Babylon itself and moves east of the nation to that of Elam (today, Iran) and then, back finally to Babylon where the long chapters 50 & 51 fortell her demise.
The point for God’s people in every generation is that every nation falls under the ruling hand of the God of Israel. There are no exceptions. God’s people must not entrust themselves to the benevolence of other nations, no matter how trying times get. God is the master of all – rise and fall – and only He is worthy of our trust.
Beginning with Jeremiah 46, we enter a section of six chapters where judgment is pronounced on the kingdoms of the world – specifically the ones around the land of Israel. The material is very similar to what we have already seen in Isaiah 13-23 and what we will see again in the books of Ezekiel and Amos. As Robert Davidson, former Professor at the University of Glasgow observed: “Prophets from Amos to Jeremiah insisted that to believe in the Lord is to believe in a God who has the whole world in His hands, a God who is the ruler of all nations. This is a God whose purposes all nations exist to serve, whether they know it or not; a God whose universal standards of justice and righteousness nations, including Israel and Judah, ignore at their peril.”
But there is something else in this section.
Have you ever wondered why the Lord didn’t address the nations of Greece, people living in what today we call Spain and the British Isles?
The people of the nations addressed in Jeremiah and the prophets are not the only people. They are, however, the only people who surround the people of God, interact and influence them. It’s not that the Lord doesn’t know about such people or care how they live. But the focus of the Lord is on His people. The ones mentioned in these chapters are mentioned because they are on the periphery of God’s people. To this day, the Lord’s longing and eyes are focused on His people. Such a notion should bring comfort to Christians, and perhaps not a little unease as well.
The people of Judah, fleeing they believe for their lives, refuse to heed Jeremiah’s warning. God specifically wants them to stay in the land. They, however, are unwilling. They are going to Egypt. It is interesting that they feel Jeremiah’s assistant Baruch is their enemy. They also feel Jeremiah is plotting against them. And yet, they take Jeremiah with them to Egypt. It is unclear whether Jeremiah went willingly. If he did, he went in disobedience to the word of God. But perhaps, God knowing his people were determined, God told Jeremiah to go with them. We do not know this. On the other hand, why would they take Jeremiah with them believing he was a traitor?
I believe they took Jeremiah hostage. They knew he was the servant of the Lord. That’s why they came to him in the first place. Perhaps they believed God would not hurt them if his servant went with them.
In Egypt, Jeremiah undertakes a bold act. At the Lord’s direction, he digs up the walkway going to Pharaoh’s palace and places large stones beneath it. When asked what he is doing, he replies that the Babylonians are going to come and set up the king of Babylon’s throne over those stones and destroy the gods of Egypt.
At this point, bringing Jeremiah with them must have seemed like a really bad idea to the refugees in Egypt. What an embarrassment! But there is an important point: God’s people cannot escape the watchful eye of God – nor His judgment.
In 588 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar came for the third and final time against Jerusalem. After besieging the city for two years, he broke through its walls in 586, burned what was left of Judah’s capital, ransacked and destroyed the temple and carried off everybody and everything of value. Including Jeremiah.
Six miles north of Jerusalem at Ramah, the prophet was recognized by the commander of Babylon’s imperial guard and set free, urged to seek the protection of the appointed governor, Gedaliah.
Following his own advice, it would have been better for Jeremiah to have gone on to Babylon. But that doesn’t seem to have been an option for Jeremiah. Gedaliah attempts to unify the remaining three groups of people: the very poor, those who have run to the hills to escape the Babylonians (when God had told them plainly to take refuge with the Babylonians), and soldiers who were likely carrying on a futile guerrilla warfare with the Babylonian garrisons (who found them to be little more than an annoyance). Jeremiah appears to become a pawn in the hands of these people. God has not really abandoned him, but he has no place of authority. He is but a spokesman for God. Continuing our reading, it feels like God has left him to twist in the wind. But really, he is, like us all, but a servant of the Lord, carrying out his duties until finally the Lord calls Him home.
I am more than a little amazed by the temerity of people in power. Not long ago, I attended a seminar hosted by a congressman. Knowledgeable speakers were brought in to help us with the topic. But the congressman himself showed late, and then only to interrupt a speaker to offer his welcome to the gathering. He then left, obviously too busy to spend time either speaking or listening at his own seminar. I wondered whether the topic was beneath him, or whether he was already an expert on that topic (he knew little about it actually), or whether it was just a ploy to curry favor with his constituents. He certainly didn’t curry my favor.
Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary, wrote down all the messages of the Lord from Jeremiah. He then took them to the temple to read to the people. But the officials couldn’t be bothered to show up to hear the reading. Instead, they asked for a private audience and though they took Jeremiah’s warning to heart and shared them with the king, their elitist attitude should not be ignored. But by the end of the story, you know where they got it. As the king listened to Jeremiah’s words in his own private audience, he took the scroll, a piece at a time, and burned them in his warming fire.
Jeremiah replaced his book, and this one included an additional warning that the house of Jehoiakim the King would be forever rejected by the Lord.
No one is too great to bow before the Lord.
If you haven’t already figured it out by now, Jeremiah isn’t a chronological presentation. Chapter 33 begins with a reference to the prophet’s imprisonment in the ‘courtyard of the guard.’ We discover in chapter 37 that Jeremiah was imprisoned there after having been placed in a dungeon for a long time. It was a concession granted him by Zedekiah.
Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem and the conditions are dire. Buildings have been torn down to further fortify the city, and many have taken to escape leaving the city desolate and deserted (though not totally). King Josiah had at least three sons: Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah. Jehoahaz had become a captive of Egypt, where he died. Jehoiakim’s lineage was rejected by the Lord (according to Jeremiah 22) and judged unworthy of David’s throne. Zedekiah, it appeared, would be taken captive to Babylon. The house of David would be no more.
But in chapter 33, God makes the astounding promise that David will never fail to have a descendant to sit on his throne. In fact, God says, it would be easier for day and night to cease than for David’s throne to fail to have a successor. God does his most amazing work when the odds are against Him. That’s why, when we find ourselves in a tight spot, the Lord can be trusted to provide deliverance.
With chapter 30 we now begin a short (5 chapters) section of Jeremiah dealing with a promise of hope. God does not disown His people. He may punish them, kill them, and disinherit them, but He never disowns His people. The Lord will alternate in these chapters from a review of His people’s current condition (incurable, punished, devoured) to why (sin) to restoration. The nations God uses to punish His people will be destroyed for doing precisely what God has told them to do: inflict pain on His people.
There is no way for the nations to win. God is sovereign, and no matter how He treats His people, they are still His people and enjoy not only Most Favored Nation status, but Only Favored Nation status.
Some time ago a parent was lamenting his wayward child. “Where did we go wrong? He was at church every Sunday, active in the youth group, at Bible camp every summer, and we even sent him to a christian university! How could he leave the church?”
I often refer to these things as “touch stones.” We feel as long as we have them, we’ll be ok. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unless a child reads the word of God, and takes the message into his heart, all the Sunday schools and christian universities and religious experiences in the world will do no good.
Neither should we believe that as long as we have programs such as these that the Church will be in good hands. There are far too many Christians who are more interested in maintaining the icons of their faith (revivals, church meetings, outreach programs etc.) than they are in exhibiting faith in their life. This is the problem of chapter 26. Jeremiah has already mentioned this attitude in chapter 7: the people oppress immigrants, refuse to care for the elderly and the orphan, and, in general, care nothing for anything worth caring about. Yet, they have the temple, and they go there regularly, and they really feel they are “safe” (see chapter 7).
Jeremiah, in the temple court, calls his hearers to proper obedience, an obedience that springs from the heart and focuses on a lifestyle God cares about – or God will remove all their “touchstones,” including the temple and their precious city and nation. His hearers respond with a threat of murder. Can you not see the irony here? The faithful believe that murder is an act of righteousness!!
Christian people must hear the message of Jeremiah. We cannot do “religious things” while drinking political venom from our airways and think we are ok. We cannot confuse patriotism with faithfulness to God. We cannot behave badly to preserve orthodoxy. There is no salvation for those who persist in such a course, only certain and sure doom.
Occasionally it’s good to remember our chronology – because Jeremiah doesn’t always pay attention to it. The prophet did his work during
the last 18 years of King Josiah,
through the 3 month reign of Josiah’s son, Jehoahahaz
through the 11 year reign of Josiah’s son Jehoiakim
through the 3 month reign of Jehoiakim’s son, Jehoiachin
through the 11 year reign of Josiah’s son, Zedekiah.
Jeremiah 24 takes place about 598 B.C., just after Jehoiachin was taken captive along with many of the people of Judah and taken as slaves and spoils of war to Babylon.
Not every citizen of Jerusalem was taken captive at that time, and those left behind must have felt like they had dodged a bullet. Jeremiah, however, also left behind, told those breathing a sigh of relief that in God’s eyes, the captives were the blessed ones. Those left behind were destined to die a horrible death.
Often Judah thought they’d gotten away with sin, when in point of fact, punishment had only been delayed. Sometimes, we too have that feeling. But God knows. A “breather” is intended by Him only as time to repent. We will get away with nothing.