JEREMIAH, Part 4

The Wail of Despair

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1

Bad times were coming for the people of Judah. Like a train racing toward the station, the rumble along the tracks was heard before the train was seen. Not everybody turned a deaf ear to Jeremiah’s words of warning. The people living in the countryside recognized the coming catastrophe, even as those living the big cities were clueless.

Why are we sitting here? Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities and perish there! For the Lord our God has doomed us to perish and given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against him. We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there was only terror. The snorting of the enemy’s horses is heard from Dan; at the neighing of their stallions the whole land trembles. They have come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who live there. (Jeremiah 8:14—16)

Of course, the day of calamity was yet to come, but these people were so convinced of its reality, they spoke of it in the past tense. Jeremiah often did the same thing. What the prophet saw in his mind’s eye was so devastating; so calamitous and so inevitable that there was little comfort for him:

O my Comforter in sorrow, my heart is faint within me. (Jeremiah 8:18)

No wonder this man is often referred to as “the weeping prophet!” Overwhelmed with what he knew was on the horizon for his beloved people, Jeremiah grew weak in the knees. But the Lord was not unaware of Jeremiah’s anguish, and thus He begins a solemn dialogue with His prophet.

1. A big question, vs. 19

Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?

This is the Lord’s response to the people’s question:

Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King no longer there?

The people were wondering where in the world God was. They had been living and acting as though God were no longer in Zion. They sought help from outside sources and from their own hands and imaginations.  The problem was, not matter what the people tried to improve their living conditions; no matter what nation they forged treaties with to forestall foreign invasions, no matter what they worshipped, nothing helped because they refused to return to God with their whole heart. God was the only One who could improve their lot and heal their land. However, to their shame, the people of Judah refused to acknowledge this.

What a pathetic picture of man’s guilt and depravity and of his own natural enmity to God. Apart from God, all mankind is spiritually stupid. Anything human beings do to produce peace and prosperity in their lives is doomed to ultimate failure unless they are following God’s way.

2. A pitiful reply, vs. 20

The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.

Jeremiah’s answer to God’s question is an acknowledgement of the true state of affairs in Judah. All those wells or cisterns the people dug on their own turned out to be broken and could hold no water. Whatever they did amounted to nothing. They may have  had bountiful harvests and good weather but they still lived in lack. They people of Judah did “everything right,” so far as the natural world was concerned. They dug wells for water. They planted seed and harvested just like they were supposed to, and yet they were “not saved.” Nothing the people did was ever enough! Why? Another prophet puts this in another way:

And now this admonition is for you, O priests. If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honor me. (Malachi 2:1, 2)

A high price is extracted from the one who steps out from under God’s covering! A dark heart leads to a dungeon of darkness. And Judah’s heart at this point was jet black.

3. A sympathetic message, vs. 21

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me.

This is one of many difficult verses to interpret in Jeremiah’s book. Who is speaking here? Is it the Lord speaking though Jeremiah? Or is it the prophet himself speaking? Bible scholars can’t be certain, but knowing the character of the Lord as we do and knowing the character of Jeremiah as we are discovering, both interpretations may be taken as correct. God hurts when His people hurt. Jeremiah frequently identifies himself with his people even as he denounces them.  We know that when Jesus wept over Jerusalem, His heart was breaking for His people.

In all their distress he too was distressed… (Isaiah 63:9)

What a wonderful Lord we serve! Can you imagine serving a God who is so close to His people that He—in some way we cannot comprehend—experiences what they experience?  That mystical identification was manifested in it’s totality on the Cross of Christ:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)

The King James Version’s translation of Jeremiah 8:21 is spectacular:

For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.

God is hurting as His people hurt, and He has turned “black.” What does that mean? He is feeling the blackness of His people’s shame and guilt because of their wilful unbelief and pride. Furthermore, the Lord is “astonished” at His people’s sinfulness and folly.  And the prophet is feeling the same things. Here were His people, blissfully going about their empty lives, only a fraction of them aware of what was going to be happening to them, but all unware of how far they had fallen from God. Both the prophet and His God saw the state of the people and couldn’t believe it! They were astonished and horrified.

4. A hope, vs. 22a

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

We can almost feel pain of the prophet’s words as he breaks out with these two questions. Gilead was famous for a medical balm made from the resin of the mastic tree, so the expected answer to the first question is: Yes! And the expected answer to the second question is: Yes! But Jeremiah is all torn up because he knows full well that there is a remedy for the sickness of his people but none of them has taken advantage of it.

What does all this mean? Were the people of Judah suffering from some kind of plague or physical illness? Perhaps, but what Jeremiah is getting at, and he is using a proverbial saying—Is there no balm in Gilead—to drive home his point, is that his people are morally and spiritually sick and not one of them has visited the great Physician to get the cure! The cure is right there in front of them, just like the balm in Gilead! All they have to do was repent and turn back to God and they would be healed. But these people, heedless, arrogant, blind, and stubborn, are rushing away from Gilead toward certain doom. The heart of the prophet (and of His God) is broken under the burden of grief.

5. A searching rebuke, vs. 22b

Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?

The balm (cure) and the Physician are right there. The simple fact was the lost state of the people was completely unnecessary: God was their King in Zion; God was their Physician in Gilead; and there was grace in abundance to heal them in every way. But they would not reach out. And God would never force His healing on those who will not be healed.

The stubbornness and pride of a person that can stay the hand of God is sad sight to behold. We wonder why some Christians today are living seemingly outside the realm of God’s blessing. We may even go do far as to question God ourselves as to why He is holding back His blessings from us. In fact, God never holds any good thing back from His people. It is we who through our thoughtless and careless rebellious attitude turn off the spigot of blessing. We blame God, but the one to blame is the one looking in the mirror.

In the Hebrew Bible, verse 1 of chapter nine is really verse 23 of chapter 8, and it gives us a clear picture of how Jeremiah felt:

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. (9:1)

This is effect of God’s Word on Jeremiah. This was how Jeremiah preached his message. Here was no critical, hard-boiled, hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher who loved to preach doom and gloom in an “I told you so!” attitude. Jeremiah stood up and preached his messages with a broken voice and tears streaming down his face even while his listeners ignored him, laughed at his messages, and mocked him.

The message Jeremiah preached broke his heart, and centuries later the people of Jerusalem saw another “weeping prophet,” a Man named Jesus Christ, who wept over the fate of the Holy City.

The folly of sin breaks God’s heart and the hearts of all who love and serve God. We all know people like Jeremiah’s people; folks who claim to know God or did know God at one time but now they seem to be content without Him even while their lives are falling apart. May God give us compassion to share the truth with them and to pray for them.

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