Jeremiah 18 & 19 – Evil That Incurs a Holy God’s Judgment

Chapter 18 starts with the Lord using a metaphor of a potter and his clay. The nations are the clay, and the Lord is the potter molding them as he wishes. The fact that nations are addressed as “nations” means in God’s economy such things exist as morally accountable entities. Some of the Christian left, to say nothing of the secular left, believe nations are artificial boundaries with no ream ontological meaning. I’ve even heard conservative Christians say God doesn’t punish or bless nations, which is completely contradicted by the beginning of this chapter. He does both, and we know what’s coming for Judah.

The rest of the chapter is God again predicting punishment, yet again, and the people plotting against Jeremiah because they don’t want to hear it. And Jeremiah is in no forgiving mood; given Judah’s leaders want to kill him, that is understandable. He tells the Lord to bring it on, show no mercy.That comes later, almost 600 years later. God never seems to be in a real hurry.

In chapter 19 we read why God is bringing his judgment against Judah:

For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. 6

It sounds like their sin has reached a pinnacle of perversion. Burning their kids as a sacrifice to a satanic God? Can it get any worse than that? Maybe not, but killing children in the womb as a sacrifice to our God of convenience isn’t all the different. The Lord then tells Jeremiah to go to the very court of the Lord’s temple to prophecy to “all the people” the coming destruction. As we’ll see in the next chapter, this doesn’t turn out well for Jeremiah. The people don’t take kindly to the bearer of bad news.

 

Jeremiah 17 – Trusting in the Lord is the Life of the Soul

This chapter starts with a vivid image of the intractable nature of Judah’s sin:

“Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool,
    inscribed with a flint point,
on the tablets of their hearts
    and on the horns of their altars.

There are two ways to look at this. One, this is the ontological condition of the people; the essence of their being is to sin. The other could be descriptive; they sin so much and so consistently, it’s as if sin is engraved in their being. Either way, it’s not flattering. But if we’re honest I think we all know how Judah feels, how easily we run after other Gods.

Much of the middle part of the chapter reads like a Psalm. The Lord reveals the answer to our sin dilemma in verses 5 and 7 by contrasting two different types of people:

Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who depends on flesh for his strength
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.

vs.

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.

Which results in two very different kinds of lives. The former’s is as a desert, while the latter like a lush garden. And as we say nowadays, this is a binary choice, one or the other, no in between. The only way we can trust the Lord is if we refuse to interpret our circumstances apart from God’s definition of reality. We see examples of this all throughout Scripture, God putting his people in positions where they are forced to trust him, where the circumstances don’t indicate that he could possibly be in control. But all of life has a redemptive-historical purpose, including our lives. And the very next verse after these two contrasting verses tell us why trusting God is so hard:

The heart is deceitful above all things
    and beyond cure.
    Who can understand it?

This is no doubt a rhetorical question: God can! We know how post resurrection, but he gives us a hint in the next verse:

10 “I the Lord search the heart
    and examine the mind,
to reward a man according to his conduct,
    according to what his deeds deserve.”

He is the only one who can fathom the intricate deceits of the sinful human heart and mind. This should give us great comfort, especially in light of the gift of the Holy Spirit post Pentecost. God doesn’t leave us to our own deceitful heart! And the latter part of that verse should only be seen in light of the Gospel because the only thing we actually deserve is judgment and death, and what we deserve was poured out on Christ.

Reading verses like this in isolation will destroy a person’s faith because without seeing it in light of the Gospel it puts God back into being our judge, jury, and executioner. Such faith is defined as trust in the person and character of God, or lack thereof. It’s impossible to trust someone you know you can never please.

The beauty of such a verse, however, seen in the Gospel light is that because he has transformed our hearts from stone to flesh, from enemy to child, to some degree our conduct and deeds can be worthy of God’s reward. In other words, we can actually do good and virtuous deeds, not to gain his acceptance, but because we love to please our Father and Lord. Jeremiah gets this even though it will be more than 500 years before the picture is clarified:

14 Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed;
    save me and I will be saved,
    for you are the one I praise.

Jeremiah understands he needs healing and saving. In contrast to his fellow countrymen who think God owes them something, and who do what is right in the own eyes. Two different orientations of the human heart which will lead to two very different outcomes, now and forever.

Jeremiah 13-16 – Israel’s Struggles Point Us To The True Israel

More judgment. I’m not sure what more can be said. The Lord put all this in his revelation to man for a reason. Since I was introduced to Reformed theology back in 1984, I learned and have often spoken of how Christians often trivialize sin. The tendency is to externalize is, as if sin were simply about what we do or think. But sin, in fact, is a disease that affects every part of our being. Every strand of DNA in every cell in our body is infected. If sin is only about what we think or do, then all we have to do is change what we think or do and we’re okay. But Paul asks this in the sin struggle chapter 7 of Romans: “who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then we’re given the answer. The result is that in his mind he is “a slave to God’s law,” but in his flesh “a slave to the law of sin.” This is why we mystify ourselves. We’re sinful schizophrenics! Why in the world do I do what I don’t want to do, and don’t do what I want to do? Because sin is who I am. I am a sinner who sins. As Paul tells Timothy, Christ came to save sinners. And he doesn’t say he was the worst. He says he is the worst.

This is not to say that there isn’t real transformation in our lives. As we are in Christ we begin to see everything differently, and our attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors do change. It’s the difference between an enemy who hates and wants to kill is adversary, and a child who yearns to please his father. But the reason Jesus told us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that he honors those who acknowledge they are sinners (notice that that tax collector is admitting his ontological status, that in his very being he is a sinner, i.e. one who sins), and rejects those who boast or depend on their good works.

This struggle why we can relate so much to Israel. But it also reminds us what Israel and its failures point to. I was listening to The White Horse Inn, and they were talking about Jesus being the true Israel. He fulfilled the covenant they couldn’t. He lived in perfect obedience to the Father. I found this piece at TGC titled, “Jesus As the New Israel” The point of Israel all the way back to Abram was something beyond itself. God wasn’t making for himself a limited ethnic people in a small strip of land in the Middle East. He was making a people “from every nation, tribe, people and language.” And the meaning of the name Israel tells us what was to happen: God rules. When the Lord changes Jacob’s name to Israel he says, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with man and have overcome.” Some say the name means “Triumphant with God” or “who prevails with God.”

I think we see through Israel’s history that the problem of sin is no small thing. In fact, it will require God himself in the person of Christ to finally overcome it. So we are reminded ad nauseam from Israel’s history the futility of man’s effort so solve his own sin problem. We can only be triumphant, and eternally so, with a divine Savior; we can only prevail when God himself is with us, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, whose perfect obedience and perfect sacrifice saved his people from their sins.

Even amid the judgment coming upon Judah in these chapters, the Lord reminds them that he will have mercy on his people and bring them back from exile. And chapter 16 ends with these hopeful words:

21 “Therefore I will teach them—
    this time I will teach them
    my power and might.
Then they will know
    that my name is the Lord.

The Lord never leaves his people hopeless, as if judgment would be the final word. Judgment was leading somewhere, and now we know!

Unrelated to this line of thought is a verse in chapter 15 that I just love:

16 When your words came, I ate them;
    they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
    Lord God Almighty.

Oh the delectable delight of God’s revelation to us; how can we not want to devour his words. If they are not our joy and heart’s delight, there is something wrong with us. They are life itself. Since we bear his name, let us feast!

Jeremiah 12 – Jeremiah’s Complaint and God’s Answer – Justice Will be Done

This chapter begins with a complaint Jeremiah has about the wicked and faithless: they always seem to prosper and live at ease. This is the theme of a famous Psalm (73) for those of us to tend to envy the God-less prosperous. As both the Psalmist and Jeremiah both realize, the issue is God’s character and can they, we, trust him. The Psalmist says:

16 But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I discerned their end.

And Jeremiah:

But you, O Lord, know me;
    you see me, and test my heart toward you.

If we live by sight, and interpret realty based on our limited perspective God will always appear unjust to us. The world is fallen, and God holds his justice back, while at other times death and destruction just seem senseless to us. As we live in this upside down kingdom, the question for each one of us always comes down to God’s character. As I’ve quoted through these posts many times, we his people must hang upon these words of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
    Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
    and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
    upright and just is he.

This will always be problematic in a fallen world because it doesn’t make sense to us that God would allow his creation to be marred by the pain and suffering we see all around us. We see and experience futility every day and wonder, why. What’s the point. Fortunately we know the end of the story, a situation Old Testament saints couldn’t fathom. They looked forward in hope, we look backward and forward in hope. Through it all we must trust him who is trustworthy.

As the Lord then explains to Jeremiah that justice will indeed come, and it won’t be pretty, he shares yet again that there is still mercy yet to come. Even for those nations who are not his people. The universality of God’s calling is affirmed at the end of this chapter, as it has been throughout the OT. But it will only be for those who “listen.” All the nations and peoples that do not listen will be uprooted and destroyed. While mercy is extended, justice must come. We see both perfectly encapsulated in Christ on the cross. Those who look to him, who have ears to hear, will be saved, while those who do not, they will pay the price for their own sin. As for me an my household . . . .

Jeremiah 11 – The Impossible Covenant

The Lord reminds Judah why they are in this mess. He commands Jeremiah to give them this message:

Tell them that this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Cursed is the man who does not obey the terms of this covenant— the terms I commanded your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the iron-smelting furnace.’ I said, ‘Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God. Then I will fulfill the oath I swore to your ancestors, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey’—the land you possess today.”

From pretty much the moment this covenant of works was agreed to by the people, saying they would do all the Lord commanded, they didn’t. The whole point of the story of Israel, God’s chosen people, is not that so much that they didn’t, but that they can’t! They just couldn’t pull it off, nor can we. Jeremiah tells us yet again they the people of Judah run after other gods, as do we. For them Baal was as bad as it gets, but any god that is not the Lord God, is a recipe for destruction. As he says to them in v. 17, he “has decreed disaster” for them. Which is what we get, in this life and ultimately in the next, when we follow other gods.

We read yet another in the many fascinating takes on human nature we see throughout the Bible. The people turn to the very gods to save them who the Lord has promised will bring them disaster:

12 The towns of Judah and the people of Jerusalem will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes.

People put their hope in anything but the true Lord and giver of life. Of course we know why. We are born rebels, enemies of the God who created us and demands our fealty. Any attempt we make to earn his favor fails before it even gets started. We are condemned prisoners waiting for the gallows we hear dispatching criminals outside our prison windows.

But we know the end of the story, and the Lord himself provided the remedy. A man who stood in our place, fulfilled all the demands of the covenant we could never keep, and took the punishment for us not keeping it! By a simple act of faith we are granted God’s very own righteousness, one secured for us by the perfect obedience of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course poor Jeremiah couldn’t know this at the time, and he is the unfortunately bearer of bad news for a people that don’t want to hear it.

The last verses of the chapter reveal a plot against Jeremiah by “the men of Anathoth” to take his life. This is the thanks he gets for obediently conveying to them the Word of the Lord. But the Lord showed Jeremiah what they were planning on doing, and the plotters will be the ones who will lose their lives, not Jeremiah. When God wants his word proclaimed, nothing will stop it.

 

Jeremiah 10 – Idolatry and the Inevitable Just Judgment That Will Follow

This chapter adds to the litany of verses where idols are mocked as they are compared to the living, Creator God. Idols we are told yet again are worthless, and we get a cute new metaphor for nothingness: “Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak.” They are intimate objects that can do no harm, nor do good. But those who worship them harm themselves:

They are all senseless and foolish;
    they are taught by worthless wooden idols.

And these idols are temporary:

11 “Tell them this: ‘These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.’”

Further we are told, these gods are a fraud because “they have no breath in them.” Meaning they have no life. They are objects of mockery. Then think about the idols of our day, which are not little pieces of of wood or stone. Modern idolatry is so much more sophisticated. People who worship other gods today don’t even think these are other gods, but they are just as worthless and powerless. They are just as much frauds, deceiving their worshipers as if they had the ability to give life and fulfillment, but just as much worthy of mockery are idols of wood and stone. Speaking of mockery, the Super Bowl is coming up this Sunday. It is, of course, a worthless distraction that people treat as if it had some cosmic significance—A perfect example of a modern idol. But we know:

16 He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these,
    for he is the Maker of all things,
including Israel, the people of his inheritance—
    the Lord Almighty is his name.

Then because of their idolatry, the remaining verses describe, again, the destruction to come from the north. It’s sad because the solution to averting all the pain and misery to come is simple, told to us right there in the middle of the description:

21 The shepherds are senseless
    and do not inquire of the Lord;
so they do not prosper
    and all their flock is scattered.

These are supposedly the leaders of God’s people, and they don’t even seek the Lord? It’s really not that hard, but the rebellious heart refuses to go to the source of its life and healing, and judgment must inevitably follow.

I can imagine people, even Christians, reading the Old Testament, and the ongoing, relentless, even tedious declarations of God’s judgment to come and thinking it’s all so . . . excessive. Can’t God just turn the other cheek, as Jesus enjoins us to do in the New Testament? Well, no he can’t.

What I remember when I start thinking this way is that justice has a certain function in human existence. Without it, we would have complete anarchy. If wrongdoing isn’t punished, evil and suffering would dominate existence. You could think of examples all day long. Imagine if there were no police to enforce traffic laws—chaos. Or if there were no judges to exact penalties police were trying to enforce. The law would be meaningless. Or let’s say you have a judge in a court, and when cases come before him he tells the defendants not to worry about it. He’s just not the type of judge that believes in giving penalties for crimes. Everyone would be outraged, screaming that this is a great injustice. Think about how the victims of the crimes would feel.

No, justice must be done. We all know it into the very marrow of our being. It’s built into the way God created reality because reality is a reflection of God’s being, his character. Yet when we read about God inflicting justice on his creatures in the Bible we instantly move to double standard mode. We think it’s unfair that God should reign down his judgment and punishment upon people. Or at the least we think he’s overdoing it a bit. But as we read over and over in the OT, the Lord cannot do wrong. His righteousness and justice are by definition perfect. We, his people, ought always defer to his definition of things, and as the writer of the proverbs says, “lean not on our own understanding.”

 

 

 

Jeremiah 9 – Let Him Who Boasts Boast About This

The more I read of the Old Testament, and the more slowly and repeatedly as I’m doing this time through, the more amazed I am that this is a book a people could be proud of. Here are the first two verses of chapter 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.
Oh, that I had in the desert
    a lodging place for travelers,
so that I might leave my people
    and go away from them;
for they are all adulterers,
    a crowd of unfaithful people.

What kind of people would write a book about their history that is so unrelentingly negative? And this negativity goes from Genesis to Malachi. I would argue people who are writing history that really happened! It’s call the criterion of embarrassment. Human nature is such that we are normally—likely always, one hundred percent of the time—loathe to reveal things about ourselves that are embarrassing to us. In fact, we are more likely to lie in the face of facts that are less than flattering to us.

Often when the gremlin of doubt about this whole God and Christianity thing infects my mind (and what psychologically healthy person doesn’t doubt–see some of my thoughts about doubt at keepingyourkidschristian.com), one of things I do is go back to this criterion of embarrassment. What would be the point of making up a story, and one that goes over 2000 years, that pounds home the message over and over again that your ancestors are horrible, terrible, unfaithful, and adulterous people? It makes no sense, and makes even less sense when you understand how human nature works, and how predictable is that nature. But it makes perfect sense with human nature as we find it, and with the New Testament God gave us to interpret the Old.

As I’ve herd it put, the Old Testament ends and you wonder what happens next. The story just stops, unfinished, uncompleted. There must be more. And there is, praise be to God!

But back to Jeremiah 9. Poor Jeremiah. He’s been giving the job of proclaiming all the horribles these horrible people, his people, continue to do. That would be a depressing career, but God has determined that he will reveal to a benighted human race what the next four verses address: the truth.

“They make ready their tongue
    like a bow, to shoot lies;
it is not by truth
    that they triumph in the land.
They go from one sin to another;
    they do not acknowledge me,”
declares the Lord.
“Beware of your friends;
    do not trust anyone in your clan.
For every one of them is a deceiver,
    and every friend a slanderer.
Friend deceives friend,
    and no one speaks the truth.
They have taught their tongues to lie;
    they weary themselves with sinning.
You live in the midst of deception;
    in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me,”
declares the Lord.

Because they have refused to acknowledge the Lord, they are not friends of truth. And think about it, without God being real, there can be no such thing as truth, logically. So when people reject God, lying and deceiving are the natural state of affairs. There is no ultimate standard by which we can judge what is true and what is not. Fortunately for the human race, truth cannot be avoided. Lies themselves reveal that there is such a thing a truth, by which the crooked line can be compared to the straight one.

The first word of verse 7 is “Therefore.” And we get another description of God’s judgment to come. Another “Therefore” begins verse 15 after another litany of Judah’s sins. More judgment. Doesn’t this get tiring! Could be God is driving a point home.

Near the end of the chapter we get a couple verses that I memorized back in the day, and that seem almost out of place here:

23 This is what the Lord says:

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
    or the strong man boast of their strength
    or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let him who boasts boast about this:
    that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
    justice and righteousness on earth,
    for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.

From a horrific scene of dead bodies lying “like refuse on the open field” to this? I guess it’s a contrast the Lord wanted to make. Those who are their own gods will be destroyed, while those who trust in the perfect character of Yahweh will be saved. And the final two verses the Lord punishing only those who are “circumcised in the flesh,” and even Israel who is “uncircumcised in heart.” It is the heart of man that is the issue, the center of our being. As we know from the NT, we are born the first time God’s enemies who do not only not trust him, but hate him. And we are born again by God’s mighty power in what’ I’ve called a radical relational reversal—a heart of stone transformed into a heart of flesh. We become by God’s Holy Spirit through Christ those who long to boast only in him.