Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 2

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We can learn a lot from Jeremiah and his writings. Sure he lived in ancient times, but his words are just as relevant today as they were then. The names have changed, the nations have changed, and the times have changed, but man hasn’t. Looking at the actions of the Israelites, we see distorted previews of ourselves. We who enjoy the blessings of the Lord through a relationship with Jesus Christ aren’t too far removed from the Hebrews of old, who enjoyed the blessings of God yet continuously strayed from Him. Their backsliding serves as a stark, blatant warning to Christians today who think they can serve God and themselves at the same time; live with one foot in the Kingdom and one foot in the world. We can’t, any more than Jeremiah’s could.

God’s people forsake Him, Jeremiah 2:4 – 13; 22:1 – 5

Scholars seem pretty sure that what Jeremiah wrote in chapters 2 – 6 was written during the reign of Josiah and during the great religious revival that took place during those years. All the prophecies and sermons Jeremiah delivered during this time showed that in spite of outward appearances, he saw a very deep-seated problem with his people. Some of his messages seem to be addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel, others to his own kingdom of Judah, but the theme is the same, and expressed best in verse two of chapter two –

This is what the Lord says: “‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.’” (Jeremiah 2:2 NIV)

Ah yes, even God had His “good old days.” To Him, the “good old days” were the days when His people actually loved Him and depended on Him. It’s a little odd that God’s “good old days” were actually years of wandering and privation in the wilderness for Israel. The best years, in God’s estimation, were the years when Israel was so bad off they depended on Him for everything, even their daily bread, or manna. It was in the desert that they were, more or less, forced to rely on Him for everything, and He had no rivals for their affection and devotion.

It’s like that, more often than not for Christians. We are closest to God, not when our bank accounts and pantries are full to overflowing, but when we feel hard pressed from all sides because it is during those times that we, just like the Israelites before us, are forced to look to God and trust Him. How much easier would be for us is we just trusted Him all the time, not just during the hard times!

“’Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,’” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 2:3 NIV)

In those “good old days” under the leadership of Moses, Israel was holy. Israel was holy, not because they were a nation of Mother Theresa’s or of pious old people, but because she belonged completely and unreservedly to Him. That’s the definition of holiness, by the way. It’s not your actions that make you holy, it’s that you (like Israel before you) have been “separated” from the rest of the population to God for a sacred purpose. Because of that relationship, of course, your actions will necessarily change. But the separation comes first, not the other way around.

That idyllic relationship didn’t last long at all.

“What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. (Jeremiah 2:5 NIV)

Under the covenant relationship, Israel had it good; they enjoyed God’s richest blessings, including His divine, supernatural protection. But something happened to disrupt that relationship. It was a covenant relationship, which may not make a lot of sense to us, but we can understand a marriage covenant. It’s the same idea. Israel broke faith with God by running after other gods – they were committing spiritual adultery. The real stinging indictment in verse five points to the fault of Israel, not with God. God did nothing wrong. They did. Israel left Him; Israel strayed; Israel broke the covenant and because of that, Israel suffered: they became as worthless as the idols they worshipped.

“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.” (Jeremiah 2:13 NIV)

Jeremiah was a prophet, but here he sounds more like a lawyer, summing up his charges: Judah’s sin was a two-pronged one: they rejected the truth and accepted error. The pagan nations surrounding them had committed only one sin – idolatry, but Judah had far exceeded them in disobedience as they actively rebelled against God and renounced His word in order to serve false, made up gods that didn’t even exist.

The metaphor of cisterns is all the more powerful when you take into consideration that Palestine is an arid, desert land. How rational would it be for people to stray from a source of water that provides free, flowing, fresh water to an area of the desert where there is no water? That’s what the Israelites had done by straying from God, and it was irrational, just like all sin is irrational.

Cruising ahead to chapter 22, the prophet makes a case about the leadership of Judah.

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there…” (Jeremiah 22:1 NIV)

The book of Jeremiah isn’t always chronological, but thematic. Jeremiah’s sermons and prophecies aren’t necessarily grouped by dates but by themes. So, jumping ahead to chapter 22, we read some interesting things that concerned the prophet. Back in chapter 32 he railed against the nation as a whole. But you can’t separate a nation from those who lead it. A nation rises or sinks to the level of those who are leading it, be they kings, prime ministers, or presidents. Our prophet wrote these words during the reign of King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. But who was he, and where did he come from?

When Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army invaded Judah in 597, they took King Jehoiachin captive along with some 10,000 of the land’s best and brightest. The youngest son of Josiah, a loser by the name of Mattaniah, was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, who changed the kid’s name to Zedekiah. Think about that for a minute. Why would Nebuchadnezzar do that? It’s because he had no interest in killing people. All he wanted was to build his empire by accumulating the property of other nations, and by putting kings of his choice on their thrones. That way he would be the global ruler over all manner of nations and kingdoms. Judah could have lived at peace with Neduchadnezzar, except Zedekiah was loyal to Nebuchadnezzar in word only and eventually joined in a revolt against Babylon. This was the political cause for the Babylonian invasion of Judah, which led to Jerusalem’s fall. But the spiritual cause of the fall of Judah is the subject of the whole book of Jeremiah: the rebelliousness of God’s people. Jeremiah’s people couldn’t be loyal to God, even though being loyal to Him would have meant eternal blessings, and they couldn’t even be loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, which would have meant temporal blessings! These people were rotten to the very core of their being. The root of rebellion ran so deep it was part of their national fabric.

Jeremiah’s word to Zedekiah was a simple one:

Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3 NIV)

Sure, he was a puppet king, but Zedekiah was still king of a kingdom, as shrinking as it was. And he had a responsibility to care for his people and treat his citizens rightly and justly. Obviously, the kings of Judah were notorious for taking advantage of their people. That displeased God. The very least the king should have treated his people with respect.

There were four groups of people that King Zedekiah needed to protect. First, “the one who has been robbed.” That’s a large group. People got robbed all the time, and justice needed to be exercised on their behalf. But people during this time had been robbed by the Babylonians, especially robbed of their sons, if they were talented and smart. The second group, “the fatherless,” were men of Judah who had been killed in battle or taken captive, who left families behind that needed to be looked after, not taken advantage of. Another group was “the widow.” Her property didn’t need to be taken by the government as tax payments or taken by other family members. Widows needed to treated fairly and justly. But who were these foreigners? Modern politicians want us to believe they were illegal aliens, migrant workers, or refugees. During Jeremiah’s time, there were many kinds of foreigners in Judah, including people from Babylon who had been relocated to Judah just as some people from Judah had been relocated to other nations within the greater Babylonian empire. Those strangers needed to be protected and not taken advantage of or persecuted. The leaders of Judah, especially King Zedekiah, would have been blessed and Judah would have prospered if they had done what Jeremiah had told them to do. But, even as Jeremiah told them what to do, he also indicated that the die had been cast –

“People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this great city?’ And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and have worshiped and served other gods.’” (Jeremiah 22:8, 9 NIV)

God’s call to return

The end was in sight, but God was still interested in the souls of His people. Ultimately, the Israelites would be vindicated, but until then, only judgment was coming. In the midst of judgment, though, God was calling His people to return to Him.

“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. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:14, 15 NIV)

God always wants “faithless” people to return to Him. The “faithless,” or “backsliders,” refer to both Israel and Judah. God has plans for His people. God is sure that His people will learn their lesson and in time they will be ready to follow Him and serve Him. He said as much in 29:10 – 11 –

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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.”

But it’s not just the Israelites who God has plans for. He has plans for all His people, from all time, from any nation.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:6 – 10 NIV)

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