Monthly Archives: January 2017

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.

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Jeremiah 8 – God’s Wrath, and Our Comfort

Although this is another chapter on the implications of Judah’s sin and God’s judgment, there is much to ponder about the nature of these things. In the initial verses, we read of the of the bones of the leaders and people of Judah being removed from their graves and exposed to the sun and stars, which they praised and prayed to—as deep a disgrace as one can imagine in that time. As the Lord says, “they will be like refuse lying on the ground.” How many different ways can the Lord convey that sin and idolatry is devastatingly wrong. Being banished from God’s presence, as they are soon to be, will make death more preferable than life to God’s people.

In this verse we see as good an explanation as any for the definition of sin:

I have listened attentively,
    but they do not say what is right.
None of them repent of their wickedness,
    saying, “What have I done?”
Each pursues their own course
    like a horse charging into battle.

Those who reject God see no need to be reflective, no need to assess if their ways are in accord with his law. When their conscience convicts and accuses them, they do not repent. And they are determined to do things their own way, not God’s. God for them is something, or someone, to be completely ignored, regardless of how moral or not they are.

By contrast, at the center of a life that honors God is his word:

The wise will be put to shame;
    they will be dismayed and trapped.
Since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
    what kind of wisdom do they have?

And notice here we’re not talking about the pagans, like Plato and Aristotle, who never knew of the “word of the Lord.” In some ways they were more in tune with that word because they thought deeply about God’s revelation in creation, as compared to God’s people who know of it, but reject or ignore it.

Then we see that Judah’s religious leaders, the “prophets and priests alike,” deceive the people:

11 They dress the wound of my people
    as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
    when there is no peace.

Pleasant words will never erase the radical nature of sin, whose wages is death. Sin is serious business. That’s why it’s such a dereliction of duty that most Evangelical preachers’ refuse to use the word and explain the concept of God’s wrath to their congregations. Oh that they would listen to the prophets of ancient Israel!

God is communicating to us through Jeremiah, and the rest of the prophets, that sin is horrifyingly bad. The worst thing any human being can do is to flout God’s law, think their own way is the right way, and that autonomy from God and idolatry is the right way. Why? Because it angers a holy and righteous God! It incurs his rightful wrath, and judgment. As he says toward the end of the chapter:

“Why have they aroused my anger with their images,
    with their worthless foreign idols?”

This is why we read Jeremiah, to understand the nature of God’s assessment of sin. The cross makes no sense at all apart from a God of wrath, a holy God who must punish sin. Christians trivialize the cross when they take it out of the context of God’s wrath and righteous judgment against our sin. His anger, now assuaged by Christ’s sacrifice, was so great that only he himself could pay the price to propitiate it. Thank you Jesus!

Jeremiah 7 – Judah’s Desolation is Coming

In this chapter we read of Judah deceiving itself thinking that if they just go through the religious motions everything will be fine. In the Lord’s words through Jeremiah:

Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”

And

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?

He says to them twice that if they reform their ways and actions, only then will they securely live in the land he gave their forefathers. The way that most people would read this is that if the people do all these things (care for the poor, the widow and the fatherless), and stop doing other things (like lie, murder, and follow other Gods), then they’ll find acceptance before the Lord. But the reference to “the land” is a reference to the covenant of works, and Israel’s promise to do “all” that the Lord commanded. Judah is so far from “all” that the Lord’s wrath and judgment are imminent, and yet the people think if they just show up in the temple and spout religious words all will be right. As James says, faith without works is dead.

In other words, works like caring for the poor, or telling the truth, loving others, come from a heart of faith. They don’t earn anything from God. And we know from all of Israel’s history and what God has done for us in Christ, that this faith is in his provision. We can do these things, or not, because he’s already made us right with him. Going to the temple, so to speak, or other religious rituals don’t make us right; it reflects that we already are! The people of Judah were putting their trust in the temple itself, a building, and not the God who inhabits it.

In speaking of their idolatry and sin, the Lord says something interesting about the nature of sin:

19 But am I the one they are provoking? declares the Lord. Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame?

There is a phrase I learned back in my seminary days that seems to be reflected here. It is the aseity of God, or his complete self-sufficiency. He doesn’t need us, or our works. We alone, or those around us, suffer for our sin. They affect God, not at all. The A.W. Tozer quote at the link is worth reading.

The rest of the chapter is a recapitulation of God bringing their forefathers out of slavery in Egypt, of the covenant of works, and the inability of Israel to “walk in all the ways” he commanded them. And their unwillingness. Then judgment. The chapter ends with these words:

34 I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.

All human religious striving, all idolatry, and all sin leads to the same place, desolation. And without him that’s all we’ve got. Our only hope is God’s mercy and grace, and that he alone is our salvation.

Jeremiah 6 – Why God’s Judgment is Coming

Judgement is getting closer. The reality of the price they must pay for their sin arrives in the form of an army coming from the north that sounds “like the roaring sea.” And they are coming for Jerusalem, the City of David, the City of God. What a bitter failure this is, it would seem, for God. The people he formed to be his own, to bear his name, whom he saved from slavery and brought into their own land in the face of insuperable odds, will be destroyed. Of course, that is only the way it would appear to those “on the ground,” and at the time. In this life it often looks like God is losing, if we mean by that circumstances outside of God’s own definition. Fortunately, we have an entire canon of 66 books, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth to give ultimate definition, but the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time didn’t.

This chapter offers some fascinating insights into people ripe for judgment, and people ripe for grace. It’s like the Lord giving us insight into the war within the human heart that was started in Genesis 3. I’ll pick some verses that reflect one or the other, or both.

10 To whom can I speak and give warning?
    Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
    so they cannot hear.
The word of the Lord is offensive to them;
    they find no pleasure in it.

How a person sees God’s word tells you everything you need to know. To those who know him it is precious beyond measure. Think of Psalm 119—176 verses of passion for God’s word. To those who don’t it is an offense. At best they are indifferent to it.

15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
    No, they have no shame at all;
    they do not even know how to blush.

Prior to buying into Satan’s lie, Adam and Eve were naked and without shame. As soon as they took and ate, they realized they were naked, and they were ashamed and hid from the Lord God. Shame before a holy God is the natural state of sinful human beings. We naturally want to hide from him, but the lost sinner refuses to admit that they ought to feel shame, and sorrow, for their sin, for having offended their Maker. The Christian willingly brings their shame to the foot of the cross where Jesus covered it all.

16 This is what the Lord says:

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
    ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
    and you will find rest for your souls.
    But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

God’s people look back, look for what is the true, the good, and the beautiful in reality. Unlike the secular/progressive they know they cannot make it up as they go along. There is an order of creation, the way things work, the way God made them to be, and they long to find that way. For the lost sinner, even when they are shown the way, they refuse to acknowledge it, and in the pride are determined to go their own way.

20 What do I care about incense from Sheba
    or sweet calamus from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable;
    your sacrifices do not please me.”

Maybe worse of all, lost sinners think they can put God in their debt. Either they think they are good and decent people and God should reward them for that, or they do religious stuff and think God must really be impressed. Doesn’t work that way. The only ones who go away justified are like the tax collector at the temple:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

This man went away justified, Jesus said, while the Pharisee who was proud his meticulous religious observance didn’t. It isn’t our religious, or even moral, performance that makes us right before God, but our agreement with his assessment of our condition. He is the Great Definer of reality, and his people embrace his definition of things. Something Judah refused to do.

Jeremiah 4 & 5 – God Will Overcome Man’s Rebellious Heart

Chapter 4 is not a pleasant chapter. Judah refuses to repent, and the Lord promises destruction will come from the north and ruin the land. You wonder by God would choose such a people:

22 “My people are fools;
    they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
    they know not how to do good.”

I think the answer is that they are a metaphor for the natural tendency of the sinful human heart. And that God must judge sin. Only his mercy keeps him from reigning down utter destruction, as he reveals:

27 This is what the Lord says:

“The whole land will be ruined,
    though I will not destroy it completely.

There is always this declaration of judgment, but . . . We know judgment will never be total because of God’s unilateral covenant promise to Abram in Genesis 15. Especially the ceremony he performs walking through the line of dead animals, which says in ancient Near Eastern custom, may I be like these animals if this covenant is not fulfilled. The rebellion of man is no contest for the living God!

Chapter 5 continues the same theme. It’s not only that Judah does evil, but the rebellious attitude in which they do it. For instance:

Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?
    You struck them, but they felt no pain;
    you crushed them, but they refused correction.
They made their faces harder than stone
    and refused to repent.

The sex metaphors continue as well:

    Your children have forsaken me
    and sworn by gods that are not gods.
I supplied all their needs,
    yet they committed adultery
    and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.
They are well-fed, lusty stallions,
    each neighing for another man’s wife.

And in their pride they delude themselves that they will not be judged or punished for their sin:

12 They have lied about the Lord;
    they said, “He will do nothing!
No harm will come to us;
    we will never see sword or famine.

They do not even acknowledge that the Lord is the Creator, and that they are dependent on him for everything. Their deeds reflect an utter lack of gratitude or reverence for the Lord. Not every sinner is as evil as they can be, but “good” people without the Lord refuse to acknowledge they he is God and that they are not.

Jeremiah 3 – God’s Faithfulness the Cure for Human Rebellion

Human, and not animal, sexual metaphors are used in this chapter to express Israel’s unfaithfulness. What is it about sex that compels the Lord to use it so often to communicate about his relationship to his people? Biblically speaking, sex is reserved for marriage. As we learn in Genesis 2, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” It’s the exclusivity of the relationship as well as the complete unity I think the Lord is communicating. But Israel continues to commit prostitution with idols. Israel is not faithful to the vows it made long ago in the desert before Moses:

During the reign of King Josiah, the Lord said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood.

The story of the OT is the constant theme of the choice between God or idols. There is no in between. It is the same with all human beings, it’s one or the other, the true God or false gods. Israel keeps choosing the latter, but right in the middle of this cataloging of their unfaithfulness and adulteries, we get gospel:

14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. 15 Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding. 16 In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,” declares the Lord, “people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made. 17 At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts.

Then it’s right back to adultery. People reading this BC must have wondered what was meant by, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord” would no longer be necessary. The reason, we now know, is that the covenant promise would be fulfilled in Christ, and thus the ark is no longer necessary. Speaking of Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews says:

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

These verses are an indication that Jesus didn’t die for all humanity indiscriminately, and that whoever happens to accept the sacrifice gets the benefits of the sacrifice. Jesus’ death actually “made perfect forever,” his people, those whom the Lord is also sanctifying, that is, those “being made holy.” Jesus’ sacrifice actually took way sins! He didn’t potentially take away sins.

The Lord is telling Israel, and us, in the midst of the catalog of their continuing unfaithfulness, that he will remain faithful to his covenant promises. This includes him overcoming the “stubbornness” of their, and our, evil hearts. In other words, God’s salvation will include personal transformation of our inner being. The transformation will not come from external conformity to the law, but from internal reordering of our being, or heart in biblical terms. As I learned from the great Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, Christianity is the supernatural work of God in the soul of man. And as I’ve come to say, Christianity isn’t about me, but about what God has done for me in Christ. Here in Jeremiah 3, the Lord gives us a glimpse of what is to come, what we even now experience in our lives in Christ.

Jeremiah 2 – Human Nature Revealed

There is so much insight in this chapter as to sinful man’s relationship to God, and just how much by nature we get wrong. It starts with the Lord through Jeremiah recounting Israel’s history from the beginning, and how quickly it went wrong. Speaking of their fathers he says:

They followed worthless idols
    and became worthless themselves.

What we worship will determine who we are. We are religious beings, and thus we will worship something. Both the people and their priests refused to ask: “Where is the Lord?” They just assumed the idols would fulfill them, that idols could fulfill the empty promises idols always make. They can’t. Back then they were gods of fertility or fire or war, but we are no less delusional today with our gods of fame and fortune and sport and sex, etc. All is worthless apart from “Where is the Lord?” Here is what sinful people do instead:

13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

How typical. We forsake the source and ground of all existence, and then furiously work to fill up the void by building ships with holes in them that sink like rocks. In verse 18 we see Israel is looking to Egypt and Assyria for help, but that is all futility because:

19 Your wickedness will punish you;
    your backsliding will rebuke you.
Consider then and realize
    how evil and bitter it is for you
when you forsake the Lord your God
    and have no awe of me,”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.

The point, I think, is that Israel sinned and brought punishment upon itself not primarily because of the evil it did (graphically portrayed in the verses that follow), but that it did evil because it forsook the Lord, and refused to stand in awe of him. Using animal sexual metaphors, the Lord gets to the heart of the issue in verse 25:

But you said, ‘It’s no use!
    I love foreign gods,
    and I must go after them.’

This is a perfect description of mankind in it’s natural fallen state. Nobody naturally “seeks God,” as if on our own initiative we would try to find him. Adam and Eve showed us what we actually do: we run and hide! Then we go after “foreign gods.” No, God seeks us, and we are found. Further implicating their idolatry, the Lord says:

27 They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
    and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
    and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
    ‘Come and save us!’
28 Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
    Let them come if they can save you
    when you are in trouble!

How obvious it is that our idols do not give us life, but the sinful human heart will go to patently absurd lengths to maintain its autonomy from the true and living God. Then when confronted with their sin:

Yet in spite of all this
35     you say, ‘I am innocent;
    he is not angry with me.’
But I will pass judgment on you
    because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’

It’s all so predictable. This chapter captures the sinful human heart in all of its self-delusional, futile striving after lies. It seems so much easier to let God be God, and admit we are sinners who need saving.