God does the hard stuff.
I remember my mom telling me about an event she witnessed during her training as a physical therapist. She was observing in a doctor’s office, and a little girl had come in who was having a problem with her arm. She had broken it, and it had begun to set, but it was not setting correctly.
My mom watched as the doctor talked softly to the little girl and her parents, asking her questions, complimenting her appearance. When he had gotten everything ready, he stopped mid-sentence, asked the girl to bite down on a tongue depressor, then took her arm in his hands and swiftly snapped it. The girl screamed, and the parents were shocked, but in no time, they were heading down the hallway to get a cast on the girl’s arm so it could heal properly.
Since hearing that story (and knowing that this is a somewhat-common occurrence when bones are not setting correctly), I have wondered what it must be like for the doctor who knows he is going to cause momentary shock and blinding pain to a child. Does it bother him? Has he done it so many times that, by now, he is desensitized to it? Or does he not even think about it because, like a parent who takes their child to get a vaccination shot, he knows the benefits far outweigh any temporary discomfort?
I thought about that doctor as I read God’s commission to Jeremiah: “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (vs 9-10)
At first, it doesn’t seem like the nicest mission. How popular could a prophet be when his mandate is to uproot, tear down, destroy, and overthrow? And is that what God is all about anyway? If we don’t follow Him, if we don’t listen to Him, He’ll move in to tear us (and everything else) apart?
Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. For we must remember that we are all broken, and God is in the business of healing us. But sometimes, we try to do God’s healing work for Him. We try to “fix” ourselves in ways that will ultimately hurt us more. So, what does God do? Like the doctor who wants the little girl to be able to use her arm again, He re-breaks the bone. Even though He knows it will cause pain, shock, anguish, and grief, He moves in to uproot, tear down, destroy, and overthrow.
But that’s not the end game. As we look at all those destructive commands in the mission of Jeremiah, we can’t ignore or overlook the last two—to build and to plant. If and when God hurts us, it is never, never, never for the sake of hurting us. It is for the sake of healing us! He uproots so He can plant. He tears down so He can build.
I’m convinced that much of the stuff God has done during human history which has been for our ultimate good are things that most of us wouldn’t have the fortitude to carry out, so we don’t want to imagine that God would be willing to do them either. But God always does the hard stuff. If He knows it will heal us, if He knows it will help us, if He knows it will ultimately be for our best good, He won’t hesitate.
Does He care what we think of Him for doing things that we may find distasteful? Not a bit, I imagine. He’s concerned about one thing: healing us. And He’ll endure all the insults and anger and abuse we can heap on Him while He happily sends us down the hall to get a cast on our freshly-broken arm. Perhaps He knows that, someday, when we grow up and realize that He has saved us by doing the hard stuff, we’ll be more than eternally grateful.
God's way is easy.
I was so struck by this passage in today’s chapter: “‘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. Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth? Why then has he become plunder? . . . 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.” (vs 13-14, 19)
Contrary to much popular belief, God doesn’t want life to be hard, He wants it to be easy! In offering Himself to the nation of Israel, He was offering them a spring of living water that would never run dry. They didn’t need to work for it; all they had to do was accept it! Instead, they turned their backs on the fresh water and decided to labor hard to dig their own wells. Unfortunately, once they had dug them, they found that they wouldn’t even hold water!
This is the plight of those who forsake God. They have walked away from the constant source of blessing, yet they are driven to find a way to meet their needs. So, they work hard in an attempt to meet their own needs—only to discover that they are utterly incapable of doing so. Only God, who knows us so well, can provide all that we need.
Through Jeremiah, God warns us that forsaking Him and His way of living will lead to an evil and bitter outcome. Life will not be easy; instead, it will be very hard. God doesn’t want that for us! Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
Today, God wants to make your way easy. Let Him be the one to meet your needs!
God will take you back.
How do you picture God? Aloof? Distant? Unconcerned with your life? Too many much more pressing things to worry about than to care about what you’re doing? Au contraire. “‘If a man divorces a woman and she goes and marries someone else, he will not take her back again, for that would surely corrupt the land. But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers, so why are you trying to come back to me?’ says the Lord.” (vs 1)
God cares deeply about what we do. He cares about what we think. He cares about how we act. He cares about the things we’re in love with. He cares whether or not we have placed other idols at the center of our lives. In this chapter of Jeremiah, He uses the imagery of a jilted and jealous husband to describe how He feels about being left in the dust by His own children.
Why does He care so much? Is it because He can’t stand the affront to His honor? Is it because He doesn’t deserve to be treated so poorly? No, it’s because He knows that when we put anything but Him at the center of our lives, it hurts us. I truly don’t believe that God is at all concerned that we would hurt Him, but that by our choices, we hurt ourselves. And who wants to see their children in pain?
That’s why, later in the chapter, God reveals that He’s not like the jilted and jealous husband who won’t take his cheating wife back: “O Israel, my faithless people, come home to me again, for I am merciful. I will not be angry with you forever.” (vs 12)
The problem with sin is that it puts a wall between us and God. When we engage in sin—especially knowingly and willfully—the fear and guilt that comes with that makes us run away from God (just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden). But God doesn’t want there to be separation between us. That’s why He continually reassures us that He is merciful, forgiving, and patient.
So, no matter what you’ve done in your past, God will take you back. No matter how long you’ve been away, God will always welcome you home. And no matter how many times you’ve cheated on Him, God still loves you with a love that can never be quenched.
Silence the voices that tell you that you’ve failed Him too many times. Silence the voices that tell you that there’s no way He could ever love you again. He can, and He does. He will always take you back.
God leaves no stone unturned.
In this chapter, God sends a clear invitation to Israel to repent from their idolatry and return to Him. He wants them to escape the impending invasion by the Babylonians, but it seems they want nothing to do with God and His plan to rescue them. At every turn, they continue to reject His protection.
Their total defeat is described later in the chapter, and to it, God’s heart-wrenching reply: “Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry.” (vs 19)
Here’s the thing that is really confounding me right now, though: God knew the Israelites were not going to repent. Nearly one hundred years before this, Isaiah prophesied that Israel would fall to Babylon. Yet, God called Jeremiah to pick up the torch and continue to plead with Israel for their repentance.
In effect, God called Jeremiah to a life of prophetic failure. He knew—and He knew ahead of time—that Jeremiah would not only be ignored, but openly challenged. He actually told Jeremiah that up front: “‘Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer 1:18-19)
There is something about this that I find difficult to understand. I mean, why bother? God knows His people through and through. He knows they’re not going to heed His warnings or advice, so why not just give up?
That’s what my mind would say—I guess unless I was dealing with my own child. Perhaps when it came to her, even if I knew my efforts would fail, I would still try. How could I not? How could I just give up on the one I love so much?
If that’s what love is like, and if God is Pure Love, then it must be all but impossible for Him to come to the place where He’ll give us up. He will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of us—even if He knows that He’ll find no satisfaction underneath those stones. Always, He is compelled by His heart of love to keep going, to try harder, to find another way.
He can’t help Himself.
God gives freedom.
I love it when I’m studying the Bible and a familiar concept “hits me” in an entirely new way. That happened to me today as I was contemplating this chapter of Jeremiah and the issue of freedom. And, while these may not be new thoughts to you, they were to me, so I decided to share!
It was verses 22 and 23 that caused me to start thinking about freedom: “‘Should you not fear me?’ declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence? I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting barrier it cannot cross. The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail; they may roar, but they cannot cross it. But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts; they have turned aside and gone away.’”
For me, the imagery of the waves was a powerful one. At once, I grasped what God was saying through Jeremiah—that He has the absolute power to control. He designed the sea in such a way that those waves can beat endlessly against the shore, but they will never “break free,” so to speak. They are constrained to remain right where they are.
God could have created us this way as well—brilliant, powerful, and mesmerizing, but not free. But verse 23 immediately reveals that the hearts of men are not like these bound-up waves. They are not constrained to act a certain way or choose a certain belief. They can be stubborn and rebellious. They can turn aside and go away.
And that’s what Jeremiah discovered about the leaders in Israel: “‘I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God.’ But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds.” (vs 5) What Jeremiah is saying is that these Israelite leaders had “freed themselves” of God’s way of living. Consequently, God lamented that there was not one person to be found in the whole city who was honest (vs 1).
How ironic, that in trying to “free” themselves, these leaders ended up becoming slaves to their wickedness. That reminded me of what Paul says: “So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!” (Rom 6:15-18)
So, here’s what struck me. We talk about God creating us with freedom as if freedom is now something we possess independently of Him. But with God, freedom works the same way as life. We are only alive and breathing every second of every day because we are somehow (invisibly, I guess) connected to the Source of Life. And freedom is not something we can have independent of God either. The closer we are to Him, the more freedom we have; the farther we run from Him, the less freedom we have.
The leaders in Israel cast off what they supposed were the “bonds” that were enslaving them to God. The thing they didn’t realize was that God is the only entity in the universe with the power to grant freedom. The moment they cast off God’s yoke, they also cast off freedom with it, and it wasn’t long until they were totally enslaved in their sin!
As Paul said, offering ourselves to sin (in other words, turning our backs on God) will be the last free choice we make. Only God can give freedom; thus, we are only truly free when we are “in bondage” to Him and His way of living. When we offer ourselves to Him, the freedom never ends!
God lets us decide what we will be.
The ending of this chapter was a white-hot indictment: “They’re a thickheaded, hard-nosed bunch, rotten to the core, the lot of them. Refining fires are cranked up to white heat, but the ore stays a lump, unchanged. It’s useless to keep trying any longer. Nothing can refine evil out of them. Men will give up and call them ’slag,’ thrown on the slag heap by me, their God.” (vs 28-30)
Maybe it was because I did a lot of cooking yesterday, but when I read about the refining fires being cranked up to white heat, the first image that popped into my mind was a pot of boiling water sitting on a stove. Now, imagine that you had a fresh egg and a fresh potato, and you put them both into the boiling water.
You don’t need advanced cooking skills to know that, in the water, the egg will become hard and the potato will become soft. In fact, the longer the potato—which started out hard!—remains in the water, the softer it will get.
It seems that, when it came to the nation of Israel, God was dealing with a bunch of eggs. No matter how hot He cranked up the refining fires, the people became harder and harder and harder. Instead of allowing God’s discipline to soften their hearts, they used His corrective measures as opportunities to run further away from Him: “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.” I appointed watchmen over you and said, “Listen to the sound of the trumpet!” But you said, “We will not listen.”‘” (vs 16-17)
At some point, all of us pass through the refining fire. All of us will have encounters with the Holy Spirit—who will plunge our hearts into a spiritual pot of boiling water. It’s up to us how we will respond. Will we choose to be an egg—steeling ourselves against God and becoming harder and harder in the process? Or will we choose to be a potato—yielding ourselves to God and becoming softer and softer in the process?
Some days we may choose to be a potato. Some days we may choose to be an egg. I think this process, for most people, is much more of a back-and-forth dance on a continuum than it is a straight shot up or down. But if we persist in the hardening, eventually we will get to the place where there is no going back. We will get to the place where our hearts can no longer hear or discern the Spirit.
Potato or egg? It’s up to us.
God lets us decide what we will be.
God hates hell.
This chapter mentions one of the great “unmentionables” of the Bible—the pagan practice of burning one’s own children alive in the fire to the god Molech. It is unthinkable that the Israelites—who were supposed to know the God of Love—could ever have gotten caught up in such a detestable practice. God thought so, too:
“‘The people of Judah have sinned before my very eyes,’ says the Lord. ‘They have set up their abominable idols right in the Temple that bears my name, defiling it. They have built pagan shrines at Topheth, the garbage dump in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, and there they burn their sons and daughters in the fire. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!’” (vs 30-31)
I can’t imagine anyone under any circumstances being willing to kill their child—let alone burn them alive in a fire. And I can’t imagine God—as the Creator of us all—watching some of His own precious creatures burn to death some of His other precious creatures. To see your children hurting each other in such an unimaginable way must be something akin to hell on Earth.
It’s interesting, then, to observe that the Greek word most often translated “hell” in the New Testament is a direct reference to this despicable act. The word gehenna (which is translated as “hell” twelve times in the New Testament) is the transliteration of the Hebrew word for “valley” (ga) and the proper name Hinnom. So, the word gehenna literally meant “Valley of Hinnom,” or this place where the Israelites burnt their children alive as sacrifices.
When Jesus wanted to reference the idea of “hell” in the New Testament, He linked it directly to the worst possible acts of evil in Israel’s history. Humankind can sink no lower than to treat each other in such an awful way—particularly when parents are so far gone that they will sacrifice their own children. Even God has a hard time fathoming that.
If heaven can begin here on Earth, so can hell. And it begins when we remove God from the center of our lives; the inevitable result of that is the destruction of the innocents—even for “good” reasons. (I’m sure the Israelites were justifying it to themselves somehow!) The further away we go from God, the further away we get from love. And the further away we get from love, the closer we come to the Valley of Hinnom. That’s where we become capable of doing unspeakable things to the people we’re supposed to love.
And God hates hell.
God can't always heal us.
Maybe it’s because, as a musician, I’m so familiar with that great old hymn, There is a Balm in Gilead, but I nearly did a double-take when I read the ending of this chapter: “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (vs 21-22)
What do you mean, is there no balm in Gilead? Of course there is! What do you mean, is there no physician there? Of course there is! And not just any physician, either. The Great Physician. Then why is there no healing to be had for the people of Israel?
I follow a blog of some friends who are medical missionaries in Chad, Africa. A recent post discussed the rampant problem of child malnutrition in the country:
Malnutrition. It is everywhere. What obesity is to US children, malnutrition is to Chadian children. It’s just more acutely lethal. It starts at birth. I’m sure you’ve read before on our blogs that it’s the norm for families to give their new baby boy or girl water instead of breast milk or formula. Even if the mom doesn’t want to, she is a nobody. If the mother-in-law says to give it, it’s done. Sealed. The kid doesn’t have a chance to get away from malnutrition from day one. . . There IS NO FAMINE HERE. But still, we have malnutrition.
My heart goes out to those missionaries. How frustrating it must be to live in a place where the overwhelming, almost-impossible-to-do-anything-about challenges are compounded by problems that are totally unnecessary and avoidable.
Why should children starve when there is plenty of food?!
Why should God’s people die spiritually when the Great Physician is standing by?!
The sad truth is, God can’t always heal us. He can’t always heal us because He must have our consent in the healing process. Just like those doctors in Africa can’t force mothers to feed their babies properly, God can’t and won’t force us to submit to Him. If we insist on nursing our spiritual sickness, His cure is rendered useless.
The balm in Gilead isn’t a bomb. God doesn’t detonate His healing and force it on people who don’t want it. The Great Physician can cure every ailment—except the one that resides in the patient who won’t yield. In those cases, no wonder He says, “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed!”
God loves braggers.
We all know them—people who brag, boast, and show-off. Often, this isn’t an appealing quality in a person, but I suppose we all do it from time to time. Sometimes, the bragging is “legitimate” (meaning that even though it might not be an attractive character trait, a person like Michael Jordan could brag about being a basketball superstar). Sometimes, it’s just a lot of hot air.
In today’s chapter, God had a word for people who like to brag: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.” (vs 23-24)
Apparently, to know the Lord is really something to brag about! It’s more important than wisdom, strength, and wealth. It’s also something that is increasingly a rare commodity in the human race. I’m afraid that the vast majority of people today—including most Christians—don’t spend much time talking to God, listening to Him, or getting to know Him. Consequently, there are a lot of messed-up ideas out there about what God is like!
To be sure, since our finite minds will never be able to fully grasp the Infinite mind, even those who know God the very best will always harbor some misunderstandings about Him. We will always be learning more about God; we will always be uncovering new and better reasons to praise and adore Him. No human being will ever “corner the market” on God. That’s what makes a relationship with Him so fun!
And I think that’s why He says that if we want to brag about something, we should only brag about how well we know Him. Because in order to know Him better, we must spend more and more time with Him. And spending time with God is infinitely more valuable than spending time acquiring street smarts, pumping iron, or chasing a fortune.
We may waste our breath bragging about other things, but every other boast is built on a flimsy foundation. Wisdom, strength, and wealth are all perishable. God is the only thing that’s permanent, and knowing Him is the only pursuit in life at which we can just get better and better. Those who boast about knowing Him will never have to stop bragging!
God is one-of-a-kind.
I’m sitting here, trying to imagine what it would be like to carve a beautiful doll out of wood, paint and decorate it, nail it to a wooden base so it won’t fall over . . . and then bow down in front of it and say, “Help me. Save me. You’re my god.” I know we humans can be blind to a great many things—but that just seems so obvious.
Apparently, however, Israel needed the wake-up call. In speaking to them about their idolatry, Jeremiah had to spell it out clearly for them, comparing and contrasting the God of Heaven with the gods of men: “‘[The] gods [of heathen nations] are like helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field! They cannot speak, and they need to be carried because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of such gods, for they can neither harm you nor do you any good.’ Lord, there is no one like you! For you are great, and your name is full of power. Who would not fear you, O King of nations? That title belongs to you alone! Among all the wise people of the earth and in all the kingdoms of the world, there is no one like you.” (vs 5-7)
I was struck today with the differences between God’s creation and ours. When God created a man, He formed some clay into a “man-like” shape and breathed into it. Right then and there, Adam started breathing, opened his eyes, sat up, and began talking. Mud and clay immediately became flesh and blood.
But when man creates a god, he carves wood or chisels stone, tries to make it pretty, and then must still prop it up because it can’t do anything. It can’t walk, talk, or breathe. It’s totally impotent. It may be a prettier piece of wood, but it’s still just wood.
God is one-of-a-kind. As Jeremiah said, His name is “full of power.” In the whole history of the human race, we have yet to create anything even remotely approaching the things He’s made, such as the marvelous and intricate designs of the human body—the brain, the skin, even just a simple cell—or the celestial bodies. (I’d like to see NASA hang a fiery ball of gases in space!)
Among all the wise people of the earth and in all the kingdoms of the world, there is no one like God.
Truer words have never been spoken.
God never stops talking.
There is a church in town that operates under the slogan, God is still speaking. I like that. A lot. I think it’s so easy for church organizations (denominations) to become set in their ways, stagnant, and no longer open to the progressive understanding of truth. It’s easier for us to believe that we “know all the truth” than it is to believe that God is still speaking.
But Jesus Himself told the disciples, “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.” (Jn 16:12) If we have a living, breathing relationship with God, we should always be understanding more. We should always be learning new things. We should always be listening, because God never stops talking.
In this chapter of Jeremiah, we see how some people react to hearing God’s voice: “Because the Lord revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at that time he showed me what they were doing. I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.’” (vs 18-19)
People who have decided against God don’t want to hear His voice anymore. But God never stops talking. So, they resort to killing the messenger. (That’s precisely what Caiaphas and the other priests and rulers did to Jesus, and it’s what Saul did to Stephen and other new Christians.)
But, killing the messengers doesn’t stop God from talking. He does much of His speaking through the Holy Spirit. And as David so eloquently put it, “Where can I go to flee from Your Spirit?” (Ps 139:7) There is no way to get away from God’s voice. I suppose, in the end, the only way for the wicked to be “free” of it is to die. They would rather die than hear the voice of God.
God never stops talking. With His word, He creates. With His word, He sustains. (In fact, Jesus Himself is called “The Word.”) It is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb 4:12) A billion years from now, that church slogan won’t be outdated or obsolete. God will still be speaking.
God has so much more for you.
At the beginning of this chapter, it looks like Jeremiah’s ready to throw in the towel. He’s taken a good look around and seen that he is somewhat (actually very much!) at odds with popular culture. His message is falling on deaf ears. His mission is going to fail. And he’s pretty discouraged by it.
In response, God says, “If you get tired while racing against people, how can you race against horses? If you stumble in a country that is safe, what will you do in the thick thornbushes along the Jordan River?” (vs 5)
This verse was the title inspiration for Eugene Peterson’s book, Run With the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best. I hope you will indulge me as I share a quote with you from his opening chapter. It is so insightful and eloquent that, if you are not yet a lover of Peterson’s writing, I hope this will make you a convert!
The puzzle is why so many people live so badly. Not so wickedly, but so inanely. Not so cruelly, but so stupidly. There is little to admire and less to imitate in the people who are prominent in our culture. We have celebrities but not saints. Famous entertainers amuse a nation of bored insomniacs. Infamous criminals act out the aggressions of timid conformists. Petulant and spoiled athletes play games vicariously for lazy and apathetic spectators. People, aimless and bored, amuse themselves with trivia and trash. Neither the adventure of goodness nor the pursuit of righteousness gets headlines. . . No other culture has been as eager to reward either nonsense or wickedness.
If, on the other hand, we look around for what it means to be a mature, whole, blessed person, we don’t find much. These people are around, maybe as many of them as ever, but they aren’t easy to pick out. No journalist interviews them. No talk show features them. They are not admired. They are not looked up to. They do not set trends. There is no cash value in them. No Oscars are given for integrity. At year’s end no one compiles a list of the ten best-lived lives.
It doesn’t take long to discover that, everywhere you turn, the culture tries to drag you down and suck you under. Biblical values are under assault from nearly every possible avenue—movies, television, print media, leisure activities, educational institutions, and even (in some cases) the church!
But God wanted Jeremiah (and us) to know that we don’t have to become assimilated into the culture around us. Instead of spending our energies racing with men, we can choose to run with the horses:
Something very different takes place in the life of faith: each person discovers all the elements of a unique and original adventure. . . The Bible makes it clear that every time that there is a story of faith, it is completely original. God’s creative genius is endless. He never, fatigued and unable to maintain the rigors of creativity, resorts to mass-producing copies. Each life is a fresh canvas on which he uses lines and colors, shades and lights, textures and proportions that he has never used before.
We see what is possible: anyone and everyone is able to live a zestful life that spills out of the stereotyped containers that a sin-inhibited society provides. Such lives fuse spontaneity and purpose and green the desiccated landscape with meaning.
God doesn’t want you to become a nameless, faceless zombie in a sea of other nameless, faceless zombies. He made you to be unique—a one-of-a-kind expression of His image. Nobody else has ever been created with your unique set of gifts, talents, and abilities. God gave them to you and made you to be on the Earth right now, at this moment.
So, you can soak up the culture and try to be the next Snooki, Lady Gaga, or Gordon Ramsey. Or you can embrace the reality that God has so much more for you. He didn’t plan for you to become a carbon copy of someone else. He doesn’t want you to race against men; He wants you to run with the horses.
No matter what your dream is for your own life, God’s dream for you is bigger.
He has so much more for you!
God changes spots.
The Israelites were in a predicament. They were on the verge of being captured and carted off to captivity, and that was just their external problem. Their internal problems were far more dangerous. Lust, greed, and idolatry were eating out the very heart of the nation. Everywhere you turned, there was corruption and wickedness.
The really unfortunate thing, however, was that the Israelites were also rejecting the one and only cure for their condition. God, their God!, had single-handedly brought their ancestors out of Egypt and ushered them into the Promised Land. He had made generous promises to them—and had kept every single one of them.
If any nation had proof that their God was real, the Israelites did. But they kept running off to other gods. They kept seeking protection, prosperity, and happiness in all the wrong places, and the further they went from God, the harder their lives became. Soon, they were prime candidates for defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.
All this time, God had been trying to help them—sending messages through the prophets, begging them to return to Him. Instead, they went their own way. Finally, God exclaimed, “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” (vs 23)
Our biggest problems are never the external ones. They are always the internal ones. We all have a sin problem—we were born with it!—and there is no way out of it on our own. We can no more restore our sin-damaged hearts than the Ethiopian can turn his skin white or the leopard can turn his spots into stripes. We can plead with all our idols (as the Israelites did), but at the end of the day, we’ll still have our problem.
God is the only one who can change spots. Trying to “start doing good” when our hearts are in their unconverted condition is like asking a fish to leap out of the water and fly. When we allow God to enter our lives, He changes us from the inside out. That is the only way we’ll ever be healed from our sin problem.
Until then, it’s all idolatry.
God allows consequences.
This is such a pitiful chapter, detailing the great drought that had come over the land of Israel: “Judah mourns, her cities languish; they wail for the land, and a cry goes up from Jerusalem. The nobles send their servants for water; they go to the cisterns but find no water. They return with their jars unfilled; dismayed and despairing, they cover their heads. The ground is cracked because there is no rain in the land; the farmers are dismayed and cover their heads.” (vs 2-4)
It’s not like this drought was surprising, or even uncommon, for that matter. Droughts in the region were frequent, because rain in that part of the world is naturally scarce. That’s why one of God’s promises under the Covenant was the blessing of rain: “The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.” (Deut 28:12)
On the other hand, one of the “curses” of breaking the covenant was major drought: “The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” (Deut 28:23-24)
If God’s people were faithful, He would send the extra rain that wouldn’t normally fall in the region. This way, the people would be blessed with an abundance of food and water, and the surrounding nations would know that the God of Israel was a real God—not a false nothing, like so many of the other nations worshiped.
But as long as God’s people refused to acknowledge Him as God and continued to pursue other “gods,” they were subject to the consequences of their choices. Let them pray to Baal or Marduk or Molech for rain! If any of them could hear their prayers and answer them, the Israelites wouldn’t have been mourning over their dry cisterns.
In this circumstance (and in so many others we face in life), God allowed His people to experience the awful consequences of their choice. They wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Rainmaker, and as a result, they received no rain. If God had continued to send an abundance of rain despite their idolatry, would the people have been emboldened in their idol worship? Would they have concluded that Baal was answering their prayers for rain? Would they think maybe it was worth it to sacrifice another child to Molech?
God allows us to face the consequences of our decisions—even when the consequences are very, very hard. One of the reasons He does this is in an effort to educate us, to help us turn around and change course. But I think another reason He does this is because He is truly into freedom. And the freedom to make a choice also includes the inherent freedom to bear the consequences of that choice.
If God removes forever the consequences of our poor choices, He has, in effect, removed the choice itself. But God is far too much of a Freedom Fighter for that. That’s why He will allow us to experience the consequences of our choices—even when it’s painful and difficult for both us and Him!
God doesn't attend pity parties.
This chapter contains one of several personal prayers by Jeremiah that were written down for posterity. And it comes as no surprise that Jeremiah’s not having a pleasant time of it: “Lord, you understand; remember me and care for me. Avenge me on my persecutors. You are long-suffering—do not take me away; think of how I suffer reproach for your sake. . . Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.” (vs 15, 18)
I find something so refreshing about the honesty of Jeremiah’s prayer. How many of us are truly that honest with God when it comes to prayer? Would we dare tell God that we hope our boss drops dead of a heart attack? Or that we wish He’d blow out the tire of the jerk who cut us off on the highway? Would we dare tell God that we think He’s a failure, a liar, a good-for-nothing who doesn’t keep His promises?
Here’s the problem with not being honest in prayer: When we’re not honest with God about what’s really on our hearts and minds, we’re not even dealing with reality. If we “pretty ourselves up” before we pray, if we say “the things we should” because we’re talking to God, if we’re careful to not “step over the line,” we’re no different than those Israelites who had reduced their worship experience to a handful of meaningless rituals.
God doesn’t want your prayers because He wants prayer. He wants your prayers because He wants you. So, if you’re not being authentic when you pray, what’s the point?
Jeremiah poured out his heart to God and didn’t hold anything back. He freely expressed his anger, hurt, disappointment, loneliness, and fear. And, as shocking as that is, I found God’s response to Jeremiah even more shocking: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘If you repent, I will restore you.’” (vs 19)
Of course, that word repent means to turn around, to come back. It was the very message Jeremiah had been sent to give to the Israelites, and now, here was God giving it right back to Jeremiah! Yes, even God’s prophet needed to repent, to turn around. He needed to return to the reality that God was bigger than all his troubles (vs 20-21).
God doesn’t attend pity parties. He wants us to be honest with Him in prayer—not so He can sympathize with us, but so He can help us! I think God was very, very glad to hear all about Jeremiah’s pain and difficulty. I think He was pleased that Jeremiah was honest about his emotions. But in response, God did the thing that was the best, most loving thing He does for any of us: He told Jeremiah to focus his eyes right back on heaven.
Forget your feelings, Jeremiah. You have acknowledged them, now don’t wallow in them. Turn back to Me. I’m the One with all the answers. As long as you’re looking down, you’re in trouble.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is a pattern of behavior for God. Can you think of a time—any time in Biblical history—when He indulged Himself or any of His creatures in their self-pity? Can you think of a time when He encouraged anyone to focus on their feelings or wallow in their depression?
God wants you to be brutally honest with Him, but if you’re expecting Him to jump on the “Awww, poor you” bandwagon, you’re going to be quite disappointed. God isn’t interested in validating our feelings; He’s interested in helping us overcome them by bringing us back to reality.
God doesn’t attend pity parties. He teaches us how to stop being pity-full.
God invades life.
I was somewhat bemused as I started reading this chapter of Jeremiah. It seems God had some very interesting instructions for His prophet: “Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place’. . . For this is what the Lord says: ‘Do not enter a house where there is a funeral meal; do not go to mourn or show sympathy, because I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people,’ declares the Lord. . . ‘And do not enter a house where there is feasting and sit down to eat and drink.’” ( vs 1-2, 5, 8 )
First, the Lord tells Jeremiah he can’t marry. Then He says Jeremiah must neither mourn . . . nor celebrate. (And I’m left wondering, what can Jeremiah do?!) Without a doubt, given the customs in ancient Israel, following God’s instructions for his life would have made Jeremiah look very strange to his fellow countrymen. Perhaps this was part of the point—to get his friends and neighbors to ask him why in the world he was behaving so differently.
For God, this seems to be a pattern, in that He frequently asked His prophets to allow their relationship with Him to affect their lives. He asked Hosea to marry a prostitute (Hos 1). He asked Isaiah to name his son “a remnant will return” as a sign to the Israelites (Isa 7). He even asked Ezekiel not to mourn his dead wife (Ez 24).
The point? God wants to invade your life! He doesn’t just want to be someone you “attend to” one hour out of the week when you head to church. He doesn’t want to be relegated to a sanctuary with a pipe organ and stained glass windows. When you leave the church, He wants to go with you! When you drive home, He wants to be in the car! When you go to work, He wants to sit across the desk! When you go shopping, He wants to tag along!
It’s so easy for us to stuff God into a box, to compartmentalize Him into the “spiritual” part of our life. But, the truth is, when we’re serious about having a relationship with God, every part of life becomes spiritual. Our whole day—everything we do!—becomes an advertisement for God. Sometimes it may be a good ad. Sometimes it may be an attack ad! But if we’ve crammed God into the “spiritual” box, He won’t stay there very long. Like a nosy in-law (and no, I don’t speak from personal experience!), He’s interested in getting His clutches into every area of your life.
I have to close up shop today with Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Romans 12:1-2—
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.
Do you have God in a box? Have you heard pounding on the lid? Strange noises coming from inside? Watch out! God invades life! When you invite Him in, you’ll find it won’t be long before things may start to look very different.
God is a heart surgeon.
Tucked away in this chapter of Jeremiah is one of the well-known verses of the Bible: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (vs 9) And anybody who’s lived for very long with their sinful human heart knows that’s definitely the case!
Paul echoed this sentiment in a different way in Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:15, 18-19)
As sinful human beings, we certainly have a heart problem! What I never noticed before about this verse in Jeremiah, however, was that it says the deceitful heart is beyond cure. That stopped me in my tracks today. Especially since I think of salvation as being healed from my sinful condition, what can I do about my heart being beyond repair?
Actually, the answer is nothing. I can’t do anything about it. And, in fact, neither can God. That’s right. Our hearts—such as they are—are dead. The cure for our condition is not a repaired heart, but a new heart. God is a heart surgeon, but He never performs bypasses. He only does transplants.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Christ says, ‘Give me ALL. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you My self.’” (from Mere Christianity)
Above all, our hearts are desperately wicked. There is nothing good in them; they cannot be salvaged. Fortunately, we know someone who is able and willing to give us a new heart and a right spirit. It’s time to make an appointment with the Heart Surgeon!
God throws pots on the fly.
You may have looked at the title of this blog and went, huh? In case you’ve never worked with pottery before, doing what Jeremiah describes in the beginning part of this chapter is known as throwing a pot:“Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he was working at the wheel. And the vessel that he was making from clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he made it over, reworking it into another vessel as it seemed good to the potter to make it.” (vs 3-4)
I’ve never thrown a pot, so I don’t know how frequently the clay becomes “spoiled in the hand of the potter.” Perhaps that’s a common occurrence, as being smoothed out on the potter’s wheel exposes hard spots or air bubbles or other anomalies that render that particular lump of clay troublesome. Or, maybe it’s not so common. (Any potters out there want to weigh in?)
One thing I do know, however, is that it’s a very common occurrence for God when He sets out to fashion us as a potter fashions clay. For, in God’s case, the clay doesn’t just have incidental inconsistencies; the clay has a brain. And the clay has free will. And the clay can most certainly make life very difficult for the Potter.
But that’s why I love this image of God, as the patient potter who rolls with the punches (or, in this case, the lumps). As Jeremiah said, when He finds the clay spoiled in His hand, He simply makes it over, reworking it into another vessel. He can do that, you know. Throw pots on the fly. If, for some reason, His “Plan A” doesn’t pan out, He simply moves on to “Plan B.” (He has a whole alphabet of plans!)
This is exactly what He did with Israel. His “Plan A” for Israel was for them to be a nation that would be a light to all the other nations on Earth. The Israelites were supposed to be ambassadors for God to the heathen, sharing the truth about Him and His plan for life with them.
Had Israel been faithful to God, He would most certainly have shaped them into the beautiful pot He had planned for them to be! As they were honored and exalted among the nations, the truth that their God was the one, true God would have permeated the other nations.
But the Potter found the clay spoiled in His hand. Israel did not remain faithful to God, so God went with “Plan B.” He reworked that stubborn lump of Israelite clay into a different kind of pot—one that would, however, still accomplish God’s original purpose.
As the Israelites were taken into Babylonian captivity and introduced to a new, harsh life, many renewed their faithfulness to God. And as they lived out their faith to Him in the midst of their suffering, the light of truth began to shine in the heathen nation, and a knowledge of God was distilled among the lands.
What God had wanted to accomplish through Israel via their honor and exaltation, He was only able—because of their stubbornness—to accomplish through their humiliation and suffering. But it didn’t need to be that way. God would much rather have gone with “Plan A.”
The point is, God’s plans for us are big enough to accommodate our freedom to choose something different than His ideal. God is a master potter, and He certainly knows how to throw pots on the fly! If we are unwilling to be made into one kind of vessel, He is able and willing to conform to our wishes and incorporate our choices into His ultimate purpose.
He will alter His design as many times as is necessary, but oh, what a beautiful thing it is when we allow Him to proceed with “Plan A”!
God also throws pots . . . away.
This chapter of Jeremiah has quite a tone of finality about it. It seems God has reached the end of His rope, and there is nothing ahead for Israel except doom and gloom. Thus, God tells Jeremiah to go back to the potter and buy a clay pot that he can then smash in a dramatic, prophetic display.
Obviously, the message wasn’t a good one for Israel, nor was it a popular one! The shattering of the pot symbolized God’s total rejection of His own chosen people. And, right at the very end of the chapter, God gives the precise reason for this casting off. It wasn’t because He was angry. It wasn’t because He had lost His patience. Quite literally, it was because He had lost His patients: “Warning! Danger! I’m bringing down on this city and all the surrounding towns the doom that I have pronounced. They’re set in their ways and won’t budge. They refuse to do a thing I say.” (vs 15)
That’s right. God finally cast off the Israelites because they had so hardened themselves that there was no more opportunity to shape or sculpt them. There was nothing left to do with them but to give up on them, to let them go, to throw them away.
This is God’s “wrath.” This is what He does when He is finally and ultimately rejected. He lets go, and He allows those who have rejected Him to reap the consequences of their choices. There is no punishment. There is no revenge. There is only abandonment.
In the modern world, we have super glue, but in Bible times, there was no known way of repairing or mending a shattered clay pot. Thus, God’s little illustration could have only had one meaning in the ears of His audience—that they were not fixable. There was nothing left to do with them but toss them on the garbage heap.
So, God may be able to throw pots on the fly, but He is only able to do that as long as the clay has even the slightest, teeniest hint of malleability. Once the clay is hardened and set in stone, there is no longer any opportunity to reshape it or repair it. At that point, even the Potter is unable to do anything else with it.
The good news is twofold: (1) It takes a very, very, very, very! long time to harden ourselves to that point. Think back to Pharaoh and the plagues in Egypt. Time and time again, Pharaoh refused to listen to God, even though he confessed over and over again that he knew God was in the right and he was in the wrong. It took Pharaoh a long time and a lot of hard work to shut God completely out and become spiritually deaf. And (2), God makes it very, very, very, very! hard to get to that point. All along the way, He warns us, throws up obstacles in our path, disciplines, and even threatens. He will do anything and everything possible to keep us from becoming like that useless clay pot.
You’re a pot, and God’s going to throw you. He’s either going to throw you on the fly (as you allow Him to continue reshaping you), or He’s eventually going to have to throw you away. Don’t let it be the second one!
God's truth is like a fire.
As we’ve seen from Scripture in the past, God is a fire. One thing is for sure: He is like a fire in some way other than we know fire. He came to Moses in the form of this fire as a burning (but non-burning) bush. His fire consumed Nadab and Abihu, yet their clothes were not even singed. So, however it is that God is fire, it must be somehow different than how we typically think of fire.
Today’s chapter referenced fire from God in a different way: “You persuaded me, Lord, and I was persuaded; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (vs 7-9)
Jeremiah is between a rock and a hard place. He is not very pleased that God’s prophetic messages are landing him in hot water with the Israelites, yet he finds himself unable to bury them. Trying to hold them back is, he says, like a fire inside of him. He knows the truth, and if he tries to keep it to himself or pretend like it doesn’t exist, he is in agony.
I think this is a perfect explanation of what it is like to try to resist the Spirit. When Saul encountered God on the road to Damascus (after trying to resist the Spirit), God said, “I am Jesus, the One Whom you are working against. You hurt yourself by trying to hurt Me.” (Acts 9:5)
It was the same way with Pharaoh. Several times in the process of going through the plagues (which exposed the Egyptian gods as frauds), Pharaoh acknowledged God’s righteousness and sovereignty. Yet, time and time again, he quickly shut himself off from that truth and refused to act on what he knew was right. Consequently, he shut up that fire in his bones and, in the process of trying to hurt God, hurt himself.
God’s truth is like a fire. We can receive it with gladness, let it burn within us and change our hearts, or we can try to shut ourselves off from it and, in the process, cause damage to ourselves. It’s our choice.
God always gives us choices.
So, the time had come. The Israelites had heeded none of the warnings sent through the prophet Jeremiah regarding their impending doom at the hands of the Babylonians. They went along their merry (and wicked) way until the Babylonians were on their doorstep, and then the king sent an envoy to Jeremiah, saying, “Inquire now of the Lord for us because Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is attacking us. Perhaps the Lord will perform wonders for us as in times past so that he will withdraw from us.” (vs 2)
To me, this simply reveals that, by this time, the Israelites thought of God as just another god. I think they lumped Him right in with the rest of their loser gods they sacrificed to—Molech, Baal, Marduk, et al—and when it seemed convenient, they added Him back into the sacrificial lineup. Can’t you just hear their thoughts? Hmmm . . . we’re surrounded by the Babylonians. Who was that god who got our ancestors out of so many tight jams in the past? Yahweh, that’s it. Yahweh. Let’s take Him a sacrifice and see what He’ll do for us.
Really, God must get awfully tired of being treated like a cosmic vending machine.
But, though He wasn’t going to rescue the Israelites from the Babylonians, I just had to admire God all over again, for in this chapter, we see Him still doing what He can for His people. Check out these verses again: “This is what the Lord says: ‘See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death. Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives. I have determined to do this city harm and not good,’ declares the Lord. ‘It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.’” (vs 8-10)
God is so into freedom, and it seems to me that He is always looking for opportunities to give us choices. That struck me here, because this wording is so similar to the choice God gave the fledgling nation of Israel in Deuteronomy: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers.” (Deut 30:19-20)
The “life and death” choice God gave the Israelites through Jeremiah was very different than the one He gave them through Moses. When Moses told them to choose between life and death, the choice was to live as a nation under the blessing and favor of God. But by this time, the Israelites had already made that choice, and unfortunately, they had chosen sin and death instead of life.
How easy it would have been for God to point His finger in their face and say, “I told you so. You made the wrong decision, and now you’re just gonna have to deal with it.” He didn’t ever have to say another word to them.
Instead, here He is, still giving them choices. Here He is, saying, “Okay, we bombed out on that first choice. Let me now show you the best way to go in your current situation. The Babylonians are coming in. This choice will lead to life, and this choice will lead to death. Choose life!”
Incredibly, the Israelites continued to ignore God. Instead of listening to God’s advice, King Zedekiah dug in his heels and didn’t surrender. He chose the way of death, and Nebuchadnezzar was a merciless executioner. He killed all of Zedekiah’s sons right in front of him, then put out his eyes—so that the death of his sons would be the last thing he ever saw. (2 Kgs 25) How sad that Zedekiah didn’t take God’s advice!
God always gives us choices. And if we make wrong choices that land us in bad circumstances, God doesn’t give up on us. He is always working to reveal new choices to us, giving us new opportunities to reverse our previous course and follow His way of life.
Hopefully, even if we aren’t willing to listen to God at first, it won’t take us long to learn that He has our best interests at heart and truly does know the way of life. At the very least, let’s learn a little faster than Zedekiah!
There is an odd ritual we sometimes go through when we want to lend weight or credibility to our words. We add a “swear” to our words. I swear to God that I will do such and such… I promise to be there on time, cross my heart and hope to die… I swear on my mother’s grave, I’m not lying…
Typically, these kinds of inflated statements are attempts to disguise a lie. But even if we add them when we are being truthful, for the most part, much of our “swearing” has to do with God. This custom dates all the way back to Biblical times, when oaths by definition called on a deity to witness them, and it was believed that the oaths contained curses that the deities would visit on those who broke their oaths. Thus, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you swore by the highest deity you knew.
So, what would the Highest Deity do if He wanted to swear an oath? Why, swear by Himself, of course! “If you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people. But if you do not obey these commands, declares the Lord, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.” (vs 4-5)
When I read this, it made me laugh out loud. Apparently, there is no other name under heaven by which to swear besides God’s—even if you’re God! Certainly, God doesn’t need to “swear” by anything to add credibility to His words. All we need to do is look back over the record of history and see that He does what He says. He always makes good on His promises.
In this case, I think this was God’s way of telling the Israelites, “I really mean it! I will do what I say!” Unfortunately, even when God swore an oath by His own name, it didn’t make a dent in the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts. They were hell-bent on destruction and captivity.
And God swore to let them have their way.
God's flocks is always safe.
This chapter begins with a warning to the shepherds of Israel: “‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: ‘Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the Lord. ‘I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,’ declares the Lord.” (vs 1-4)
For me, there was a heartwarming message in those verses: the flock might be scattered, but the sheep will not be lost. Even though they have been besieged by false prophets and wicked priests, even though they have been temporarily led astray by wolves in sheep’s clothing, they will not suffer irreparable harm.
It reminds me of the words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” (Jn 10:14)
I think this lends credence to the idea that nobody is ultimately deceived into being lost. Sure, we might all fall under temporary deception from time to time. We might be momentarily led astray, and we might even get caught up in a situation where the actions of the group land us in a dark place (even if we ourselves are innocent). But if, in our hearts, we belong to the Lord, nothing can ultimately take us out of His hand. God knows us, and if we know Him, we are safe, no matter what.
I look forward to the day when we, God’s sheep, will no longer be afraid or terrified. And I certainly look forward to the day when we’ll all be together again with no one missing. Until then, when the difficult days arrive, it’s comforting to me to remember that, even in the worst of times, God’s flock is always safe.
God leaves no middle ground.
Have you ever heard of the Mandelbrot set? The Wikipedia definition is “a mathematical set of points whose boundary is a distinctive and easily recognizable two-dimensional fractal shape.” If you have an afternoon to kill, google “Mandelbrot set” or “fractals” and prepare to be amazed.
In my extremely-limited understanding, this set of points is created by plugging values into a simple mathematical formula. And the thing I found interesting is that the values, when exposed to this equation, do one of two things: either they increase and “shoot off” toward infinity, or they very quickly collapse and “spiral down” to zero. The pictures created in a Mandelbrot set go on forever. You can “zoom in” to them ad infinitum and they will never end.
There is no middle ground. There are no values that, when plugged into the equation, remain the same. They either go in one direction or the other. There is no halfway.
Did you get the impression, from this chapter of Jeremiah, that we are also like these numbers? “After Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and the officials, the skilled workers and the artisans of Judah were carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so bad they could not be eaten. Then the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ ‘Figs,’ I answered. ‘The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so bad they cannot be eaten.’” (vs 1-3)
In the illustration God gave Jeremiah, there were no “halfway” figs. There were no “just okay” figs. They were either excellent figs, or they were abhorrent figs. And, of course, God used these figs as an illustration of the hearts of His people at the time. Some—even though they were in captivity—were truly committed to God. Others were rotten to the core.
The same is still true of us today. There are two baskets of figs, and we get to choose which one we’ll be in. If we commit ourselves and our healing to God, we will be excellent figs; if not, we’ll be abhorrent figs. We may choose which basket we will be in, but we may not choose to not be in one of these two baskets.
With God, there is no middle ground. His Spirit so fully and completely pursues us that there is no opportunity to remain unaffected. When we are exposed to God (as numerical values are exposed to the Mandelbrot equation), there is no “remaining the same.” We either go in one direction or the other. There is no halfway. There is no maybe. There is only an ultimate Yes or an ultimate No, an ultimate infinity or an ultimate nothingness.
Which way are you spiraling?
God is a parent.
I know, I know. The title of this blog: duh! Nothing new or earth-shattering here. One of the basics of knowing God is recognizing that He is the parent and we are His children. But how often do we stop to really flesh out all the applications and implications of that? If we know God is a parent, should it surprise us when He acts like one?
Did you notice this subtle shift of phrasing in today’s chapter? “And though the Lord has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention. They said, ‘Turn now, each of you, from your evil ways and your evil practices, and you can stay in the land the Lord gave to you and your ancestors for ever and ever. Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them; do not arouse my anger with what your hands have made. Then I will not harm you.’ But you did not listen to me, declares the Lord, and you have aroused my anger with what your hands have made, and you have brought harm to yourselves.” (vs 4-7)
Our daughter Caroline is almost a year old, and though she is not walking fully unsupported yet, that hasn’t stopped her from getting into anything and everything! Of course, this has necessitated a whole new level of training on our part, and when we let her “roam free” around the house, we are constantly training her on what she can and cannot touch.
One of the things we are adamant that she not touch is electrical outlets. Duh. So we set up very strict boundaries about her exploration around those particular objects. Mommy is right there, watching like a hawk, and if she reaches for an outlet, I say in a stern (albeit calm and loving) voice, “Caroline, NO TOUCH.” (I love the way that the simple shift in voice tone gets her attention. I refer to this as my “Mount Sinai” voice.)
Most of the time, she drops her arm and wanders away. But sometimes, she hesitates. She looks at me and then back at the socket, and I can almost hear her thinking, What will happen if I do? Sometimes, I answer her unvoiced question by saying, “Caroline, Mommy will thump” (referring to giving her an immediate thump on her hand if she goes ahead and touches the socket).
In other words, what I’m saying to her is, “Caroline, if you touch the electrical outlet, I will harm you.” Or, to turn it around into the example of today’s chapter, “Caroline, if you refrain from touching the electrical outlet, then I will not harm you.”
Of course, in the verses I quoted above, it’s interesting to note that while God warned Israel that He would harm them if they didn’t change their ways, what actually ended up happening when they didn’t change their ways was that they brought harm to themselves. That’s precisely what would happen if Caroline never heeded my warnings. I can threaten to thump her and spank her and do all manner of things to her if she doesn’t stop messing with the electrical outlets, but if she is utterly determined to one day stick a fork in one of them, she will bring awful (and probably irreparable) harm to herself.
If you are a parent yourself, you know that the things we do for our children—even threatening them with pain and discomfort—in order to protect them are good things. Would anyone come to my house and claim that I am an unloving parent because I don’t allow Caroline to do certain things? Or because I discipline her if she does those things? Of course not! Everyone knows that the discipline is not punitive, but beneficial. I don’t threaten Caroline with pain and discomfort to hurt her, but—just the opposite!—to keep her from getting hurt.
Isn’t that what God is doing all over the Bible? He has a bunch of spiritual toddlers—out-of-control, evil-minded, greedy, self-centered toddlers—who need loads of training. Yet we expect to peek in the Bible and see God treating His children as mature adults. Because we know and love “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” we get a bit flustered when we look back at the Old Testament and hear God say things like, “Don’t you make Me come down there, or I’ll give you something to cry about!” But when we encounter God in this mode, I would suggest that it’s because He is dealing with people who are apt to willy-nilly stick forks in electrical outlets (spiritually speaking).
God is a parent, and that means He’ll do anything He can to protect you, even when it means protecting you from yourself! I’m not saying that we should like that, anymore than my one-year-old likes being told “no” or getting her hand thumped. But when will we be able to read the Bible (especially the Old Testament) with the spiritual maturity that understands what God is dealing with and appreciates Him for doing it even when it made Him look bad?
God can't be silenced.
I found it interesting that this chapter chronicled three men who had, in effect, prophesied the same message in Israel: Jeremiah (vs 2-6), Micah (vs 18), and Uriah (vs 20). We know that Micah’s prophesy came long before Jeremiah’s, but we aren’t told whether Uriah was before or after Jeremiah.
We are told that the same king who wanted to execute Jeremiah for what he was preaching actually executed Uriah for it. In fact, he had Uriah chased all the way into Egypt (where he ran to hide) and dragged back to Israel so he could be put to death in the palace. I guess that message really offended King Jehoiakim!
To me, it’s amazing to see what lengths people will go to in order to stop a message they don’t like. Maybe it goes back to the idea that God’s truth is like a fire in our bones—and if we’re trying to shut out that truth, we have to do a lot of fancy footwork to try to put out the fire!
If, in fact, Uriah prophesied doom on Israel before Jeremiah came along, his death only proves one thing: God can’t be silenced. Evil men can kill the messengers (and they have, all down through the ages) one by one, but when one falls, there will surely be another one who hears the call of the Spirit and steps up to take his place. You may be able to silence the messengers, but you can’t kill the message!
God tells the truth.
I have recently been having an interesting discussion with friends on my Facebook page over the issue of truth (or reality) versus feelings. This came about because of a statement made in a recent blog over the issue of Christians lining up at Chick-fil-A to buy chicken sandwiches. The author of the blog said, “Whether or not hate actually existed is not the point; people felt hated.”
Now, of course, nobody that I know wants to make anybody feel hated. And I think that’s what the author of this blog was capitalizing on, drawing the conclusion that in an effort to be loving, we should refrain from doing anything that makes anybody feel a certain way—whether or not those feelings are based on reality. But feelings are fickle, and at least in my experience as a woman, I can tell you that they are often unreliable. So, should we allow our feelings to define the reality of any given situation? If I feel cheated, does that mean I have actually been cheated? Maybe so. But maybe not.
Where should our primary concern lie? With reality? Or with feelings? Where does God’s primary concern lie?
This chapter of Jeremiah gives us a hint: “I gave the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah. I said, ‘Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, famine and plague with which the Lord has threatened any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? Do not listen to the words of the prophets who say to you, “You will not serve the king of Babylon,” for they are prophesying lies to you. “I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. “They are prophesying lies in my name. Therefore, I will banish you and you will perish, both you and the prophets who prophesy to you.”‘” (vs 12-15)
In Jeremiah’s day, the people of Judah were in trouble. They had already been conquered by the Babylonians, but they were still living in their homeland. They hadn’t been forcibly carried into exile . . . yet. And, it appears from this chapter, they didn’t have to be carried into exile. Had they submitted themselves to the reality of their situation, they would have remained in their land.
But they would not submit. There were a bunch of false prophets in Judah contradicting the message of the Lord through Jeremiah. They were prophesying lies; however, they were lies that made the people feel good. They were popular lies that the people wanted to hear. No wonder they hated Jeremiah, when he came along preaching a sermon that made them feel bad! They didn’t want to submit. They wanted to fight! But, regardless of their feelings, the reality was that submission was the only way out of forcible exile.
Unfortunately, instead of listening to Jeremiah and considering the nature of reality, they followed their feelings instead and ended up in exile.
This is the dangerous path we travel when we begin to allow feelings to define reality instead of allowing reality to shape our feelings. I admit, this is difficult to do in a society that has been telling us for some time that we ought to just do what “feels right.” But how something feels is not always a reliable measure of whether it’s right.
Consider the example of Eve. Through her interaction with the serpent at the tree, Eve came to feel that she was missing out on something. Was that the truth? Was that reality? Were we to substitute Eve’s situation for the Chick-fil-A event, perhaps our blog author would have written, “Whether or not Eve was actually missing out on something is not the point; she felt like she was missing out on something.”
If Eve had taken some time to consider the reality of her situation, perhaps she would have allowed the truth to trump her feelings. Had she considered the Paradise where she lived with Adam and communed daily with God, perhaps her feeling that she was missing out on something might have changed. But when our feelings have been hurt or when they are shouting so loudly in our ear, it is so very difficult to consider any other viewpoint. So, I think we often act on our feelings.
Sometimes our feelings line up with reality and so acting on them is fine. But other times, as in the situation Jeremiah was addressing in this chapter of the Bible, acting on our feelings without considering the nature of reality is a very dangerous road to travel. That’s why I think God’s number one priority is to tell us the truth, to reveal the nature of reality, regardless of how it might make us feel.
I mean, when you think about it, what God asked “His people” to do in this situation—to serve the king of Babylon!—is incredible. I’m sure that request went against every nationalistic feeling the people of Judah ever had. But no matter what situation we find ourselves in, God is always seeking to reveal the nature of reality in that particular situation, and in this case, the reality was that the path to life was in submission, not rebellion.
So it may be prudent to remember—especially when our feelings don’t seem to line up with reality—that while we may not be able to trust our feelings, we can always trust God. He will always tell us the truth.
God will give us what we want.
Prophet drama! If there had been a Jerry Springer Show on Israeli TV, this would certainly have been an episode. Jeremiah has already made waves by going around wearing a yoke on his neck to symbolize the enslavement of the Israelites to the Babylonians. Then, in a stunning turn of events in front of a packed house at the temple, a rival prophet sweeps the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and breaks it to pieces:
“This is what the Lord says,” said the (false) prophet Hananiah, “‘In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.’” (vs 11)
There was just one problem: that’s not what the Lord had said. The Lord had said that if the people of Israel didn’t repent and turn from their evil ways, they would find themselves in bondage to the Babylonians. They didn’t listen, and the Babylonians had already conquered them. The Israelites still weren’t interested in listening to God, and with false prophets running around telling the people “what they wanted to hear,” why should they have bothered to listen to God?
But whether they were listening or not, God was still speaking: “After the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘Go and tell Hananiah, “This is what the Lord says: You have broken a wooden yoke, but in its place you will get a yoke of iron. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will put an iron yoke on the necks of all these nations to make them serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they will serve him.”‘” (vs 12-14)
Here’s the ironic thing: for many years, the Israelites had been running after any and every false god they could find. This included the gods of Babylon, of which King Nebuchadnezzar was a chief representative. To worship and serve him would be to worship and serve the gods of his land. Isn’t that what the Israelites had been after all along?
For years, God had pleaded with His people to stop chasing false gods and be true to Him. Instead, they had decided to continue to pursue gods who didn’t exist, gods who could never care about them, gods who could do nothing for them. And, in effect, God said, “What you want is what you get. You want to worship Babylonian gods? Okay! You will serve the king of Babylon!”
God is so into freedom that He will give us what we want if we insist on having our own way. Even if its contrary to His plan for us, if we are determined to ignore His will for our lives, He will eventually surrender Himself to our choices.
Think of that! God has given us the power to make choices that He will surrender to (if needs be). What other god in Biblical (or any other) history is described as conceding such power to his underlings? What other god would grant such freedom?
Only our God. He values our freedom so much that He will give us what we want.
That ought to make us very careful about what we wish for!
God wants us to live right now.
Ah, I knew one of these days I’d come to Jeremiah 29. It contains one of my favorite verses (which we’ll get to in a moment). I figured I would simply write about that verse when I came to this chapter, but something else caught my attention that has thrown the whole deal into a new light for me.
My favorite verse is one of the famous ones: “‘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.’” (vs 11) I’m sure this has been the key text for many a graduation speech, and it’s something so important to remember—that God has wonderful plans for us, and He is always seeking to prosper us.
But I had never realized what came before: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” (vs 4-7)
This was part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to the people who had been carried off into Babylonian exile, and when you consider that they were going to be there for 70 years, the likelihood is that most of those who first read the letter were going to die in Babylon. So, when God continued on to say that He had plans to prosper them, that meant He was going to do it in the land of their enemies!
In other words, what God was saying to His people was, Don’t wait until some future time to “live your life.” Live today! Right now! Right where you are! Do the very best with what you have and trust Me for the rest. I can bless you richly—even in a foreign land.
Maybe you feel like you’re in exile. Maybe you feel like life could be so much better “if only” . . . Well, let me tell you, God wants you to live right now! You may not be in your dream job or your dream home. In fact, your dream may flat out feel like a nightmare, but God is more than able and willing to bless you and prosper you today, right where you are.
You won’t always be where you are today. If you’re in a valley, you’ll be on the mountaintop again. If you’re on the mountain, I’m sure there’s a valley somewhere in your future. But wherever you happen to be today, build a house and settle down. Enjoy your surroundings. Savor every moment.
Make sure you don’t let the life God has for you today pass you by!
God is a rescuer.
At the beginning of this chapter, God relates a distressing scene to Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cries of fear are heard—terror, not peace. Ask and see: Can a man bear children? Then why do I see every strong man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor, every face turned deathly pale? How awful that day will be! No other will be like it.’” (vs 5-7)
After going through my first pregnancy last year, I have heard all the jokes about men and pregnancy. You know, if men got pregnant, maternity leave would last for two years with full pay . . . there’d be a cure for stretch marks . . . morning sickness would be the nation’s number one health problem . . . etc. So, perhaps every woman who’s had to endure a less-than-empathetic spouse during labor appreciated the beginning of this chapter.
God sees a day coming for His people when things will be so bad that even the men will be groaning as if in childbirth. And somehow I get the feeling that there will be no epidurals for whatever is causing the discomfort. Things will be bad. Yet, that’s not the end of the story: “‘In that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds.’” ( vs 8 )
In that day . . . it’s in our hour of dire need that God comes to our rescue. It’s just when we think things can’t get any worse that God arrives and shows us just how easy it is for Him to turn things around. It’s just when we think the end has come that God offers us a new beginning.
I think of the Israelites standing at the edge of the Red Sea, with the water stretched out in front of them and Pharaoh and the Egyptian army fast approaching from behind. To every fear-filled heart, it must have seemed hopeless. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to turn. They were trapped. They had yet to learn that they served a God who could make oceans stand at attention.
Is that a lesson we have yet to learn? Do we really know that our God is a rescuer? Do we really believe that just when things look most hopeless, God is able to save us? Here is one of the paradoxes of life with God: it is in the day of our most dire pain that we find our chains removed. It is in the most awful of times that God reaches down and frees us.
If you’re in dire straits today, hang on. Help is on the way. God is a rescuer, and there is nothing He can’t rescue you from: ”‘I am with you and will save you,’ declares the Lord.” (vs 11)
God wants spiritual virtuosos.
I have been playing the piano for almost 31 years. I’m 34. That means I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t play the piano. There is something warm and comforting about that, and as you may imagine, I have a very special love for the greatest of all stringed instruments.
The piano wasn’t my first instrument, however. The violin was. I started Suzuki violin when I was 3, but soon after, I was coming home from those lessons and playing my violin songs on the piano. I guess I was just born to play the piano. Ever since those early days, I have been able to play something just by listening to it. (True story: My brother used to make me play the theme song to the television show Airwolf so he could have background music while he “flew” his helicopters around the living room.)
After many years of lessons with a fantastic piano teacher, I also developed the ability to read music. Thus, I can sight read music, “play by ear,” play from a lead sheet, and even improvise. In short, I can pretty much do anything there is to do with a piano, and I frequently have the occasion to thank God for the huge blessing of music He placed in my heart.
Several years ago, when I worked as a musician in a large church, I began teaching piano lessons to some of the kids in the church. It was such a wonderful and eye-opening experience for me, taking these children through the “rules” of music one step at a time, building one skill at a time. Of course, I knew all these “rules.” I knew all the relationships of notes and chords and keys, but it had been many, many years since I had thought about them.
One day, after our contemporary service at church (where I quite frequently “rocked out” the piano), one of my students came up to the piano and asked to see the music. I showed him the lead sheet, which had the single melody line with chords written above. He looked very confused for a moment, and then I realized that he had expected there to be about five billion notes on the page. He thought I was reading the music I had just played.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders and laughed. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Can you teach me to play like that?”
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how I do it. I just do it.”
I have seen books and programs purporting to teach improvisation, so I know there are resources available. But I wonder if anyone who improvises because their brains have been taught the “rules of improvisation” can truly make music. Maybe so. But I would guess that, more often than not, the true virtuosos—the ones who can inspire and thrill with music—are those who don’t have the rules of music on the brain when they play. In fact, they are probably those who don’t think about music at all when they play.
What does this have to do with Jeremiah 31?
“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord.” (vs 31-34)
God wants spiritual virtuosos. The people He’s describing here are people who make music with their lives because they aren’t obsessed about the rules. It doesn’t mean that the Law doesn’t govern their lives—it does, just as surely as improvised music is still governed by the fundamental rules of music. The people He’s describing here are people who are different on the inside. They are people who don’t have to be taught to “play like that” because they just do it. They may not know how they do it, but they do.
The people God’s describing here remind me of those righteous people Jesus described who were surprised to learn that they had served God: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (Matt 25:37-39) These people hadn’t done these good deeds because they were trying “to live as Christians should.” They did these good deeds because it’s who they were inside. They weren’t “trying” to do good; they just did it.
Our sinful hearts don’t know how to make spiritual music. And we can take the lessons and learn the rules and, perhaps, become very good technicians. But God doesn’t want spiritual technicians; He wants spiritual virtuosos. He wants to give us a brand-new heart that knows how to improvise love without thinking about it. He wants our very lives to make spiritual music that will inspire and thrill those who hear it. He wants to put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts.
So, stop thinking about the rules. It’s much more fun to improvise.
God can give you the gift of playing like that, and He wants to!
God provides plain evidence.
You know, sometimes I think it’s a whole lot easier to see problems or blindspots in the lives of others as opposed to seeing them in ourselves. (That’s probably why Jesus advised us not to forget about the planks in our eyes when we are considering the specks in the eyes of others.)
That being said, I cannot fathom the utter blindness of Zedekiah! I mean, are you kidding me? He has thrown the prophet Jeremiah in prison because he doesn’t like what Jeremiah has to say: “Now Zedekiah king of Judah had imprisoned him there, saying, ‘Why do you prophesy as you do? You say, “This is what the Lord says: I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it.”‘” (vs 3)
Obviously, King Zedekiah had a problem with this line of reasoning. Yet, when you consider the emergency facing Jerusalem at the time he said this, it’s easy to wonder what sort of fairytale land he was living in. Zedekiah threw Jeremiah in prison and asked him this question during the final months of the siege of Jerusalem, which means that the siege had already been going on for more than a year when Zedekiah made his complaint.
Seriously, Zedekiah, you couldn’t look around and realize that what Jeremiah was saying was reality?
Prophecy after prophecy spoken by Jeremiah had been fulfilled (and some were in the very process of being fulfilled), yet Zedekiah still couldn’t believe that Jeremiah was the Lord’s mouthpiece? It seems unbelievable. But I think it is a very good example of how some people choose blindness over sight.
God provides plain evidence. He works primarily on the basis of demonstration and revelation—which is why we’re living in this mess in the first place. When Lucifer questioned the honesty and integrity of God, God didn’t say, “You must believe Me because I’m God.” He said, “I’ll show you the evidence, and you make up your own minds about Me.”
To every person at some time (or times) in their life, God provides plain evidence of who He is and what He’s like. There are some who see it and accept Him. And then there are others, like Zedekiah, who must see it, but just don’t like it. And in their repeated attempts to deny what they have seen, I believe they end up blind like this poor, old king, unable any longer to respond to what is right in front of their noses.
It is, perhaps, an ironic twist that Zedekiah ended up blind, having had his eyes gouged out by the Babylonians (2 Kings 25). But he was already blind, long before he lost his eyes. In refusing to accept the plain evidence God kept providing, he ruined his own sight.
God is faithful.
God’s people were on their way to being totally taken into captivity in Babylon. They had refused to listen to the voice of the Lord for so long that they were no longer able to hear His counsel, and they ended up doing the very things that landed them in bondage to the Babylonians.
To everyone else, it appeared that God had given up on His people: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘Have you not noticed that these people are saying, “The Lord has rejected the two kingdoms he chose”? So they despise my people and no longer regard them as a nation.’” (vs 23-24)
In a world where the existence of a god was usually determined by the strength of the nation who served him, the fact that the Israelites had been conquered and carried off would have signaled either (1) that the God of Heaven was no god at all or (2) that He had kicked His people to the curb.
In fact, neither was true: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘This is what the Lord says: “If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant—and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me—can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne.”‘” (vs 19-21)
As far as God was concerned, the covenant between Him and His people wasn’t broken—any more than the cycle of day and night could cease to exist. It seems, then, that Israel’s captivity was part of the covenant! God had promised to be good to them, to do what was right for them, and to prosper them, and in their desperate condition, sending them into captivity was the best thing for them!
God is always faithful to His word. And He is always faithful to us. He will do what is best for us, even when it isn’t what He would like to do. When we need to be confronted, He will confront us. When we need to be restrained, He will restrain us. When we need to be disciplined, He will discipline us.
He is faithful to do whatever is in our best interests. As far as He is concerned, the covenant He made with us is everlasting!
God is a libertarian.
Alright, alright. I try to stay away from politics on the blog, but I just couldn’t help it. I came across a book last week called How Would Jesus Vote? When I flipped through it, I realized it was coming from a fundamentally Republican perspective. And, most days, I am treated to posts and links from my Facebook friends on “the Christian left” arguing that Jesus would support social justice and socialism, etc.
Most of the time, there is something in me that resists trying to put God into one of our many political boxes. But when I opened the Bible to my chapter for today, I was struck that yet again God is addressing the issue of freedom. This is the sixth time since we began Jeremiah that a blog is about freedom (or the power to choose), and I know there have been many other chapters that contained those issues, but I wrote about something else because I’m trying to provide some variety!
Once again, however, God takes up the cause of freedom: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, “Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.” Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim “freedom” for you, declares the Lord—“freedom” to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.’” (vs 12-18)
This is the part of libertarianism that is often left ignored. Giving people the freedom to choose the behavior also gives them the freedom to choose the consequences. And the truth about freedom is that when we abuse it, we lose it.
For instance, when we abuse our sexual freedom in order to experiment with multiple partners, we often lose the true blessing and beauty of sexuality. Let me promise you that in this day and age of unwanted pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, and broken relationships (only made more complicated by sex), the total freedom to explore the gift of sex as created by God with a life-long monogamous partner is invaluable. To be free of past regrets, comparisons with other lovers, fears of sharing diseases . . . this is true freedom in the sexual realm.
That is just one example. As Paul said, “Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!” (Rom 6:15-18)
So, while I’m sure there are issues on both the Republican and Democrat agendas that God would support, I would be more apt to put Him in the Libertarian camp. For above all, He is into freedom—giving it, living it, and safeguarding it. He seems to be more concerned with allowing us to have the freedom to disobey Him than He is with making sure we obey.
That’s something that is still hard for me to wrap my mind around.
God will try anything.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: what you see in the Bible at any given time is highly dependent upon your immediate context—that is, your current life’s circumstances that provide the “frame of reference” by which you relate to the world around you. For example, if you are currently a student, you may notice things about education or wisdom. If you are currently a farmer, references to planting and harvest will likely pique your curiosity.
What we notice first depends upon our context. And that’s probably why I noticed God’s parenting tactics in this chapter. Of course, I’ve read this particular passage before, but since this is my first time reading it as a parent, it is the first time I have realized the comedy of what’s going on here.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure God wasn’t trying to be funny when He asked Jeremiah to set up a meeting with the Rekabites. I’m sure He was dead serious. But all I could do was laugh at the realization that, when it comes to His children, God will try just about anything to get through to them. I don’t think there are any parenting methods that are out-of-bounds with Him.
It all began with a simple invitation: “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord during the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah: ‘Go to the Rekabite family and invite them to come to one of the side rooms of the house of the Lord and give them wine to drink.’” (vs 1-2)
That seems nice. Invite your friendly neighbors in for a drink. Incidentally, the Rekabites were descendants of Moses’s father-in-law and were associated with the Midianites. Thus, they had most likely lived for generations among their Israelite brothers, although they were not technically part of God’s chosen people.
So, Jeremiah invited them over to the temple for a drink. But they politely declined . . . on account of the fact that they had decided not to consume alcohol after their forefather Jehonadab asked them to refrain from it. Of course, God knew exactly what the Rekabites were going to do. He knew that they wouldn’t join in the wine tasting.
But it’s what He did next that got me laughing: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go and tell the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, “Will you not learn a lesson and obey my words?” declares the Lord. “Jehonadab son of Rekab ordered his descendants not to drink wine and this command has been kept. To this day they do not drink wine, because they obey their forefather’s command. But I have spoken to you again and again, yet you have not obeyed me. Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, ‘Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your ancestors.’ But you have not paid attention or listened to me. The descendants of Jehonadab son of Rekab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me.”‘” (vs 12-16)
Seriously? Do you just see what God has done here? He gathered the Rekabites and the Israelites together and then turned to the Israelites and said, “Why can’t you be more like your brothers?” I thought only “bad” parents pulled those kind of guilt trips! I mean, I don’t even have kids old enough to understand such a tactic (nor do I have more than one kid right now), but I have already been told never to compare my children to each other like this.
Why can’t you be more like your brother? Ha!
For some reason, this just throws another log of respect on the already-blazing bonfire of admiration I have for God. He really isn’t too proud to leave any stone unturned. When it comes to parenting His children, He will try anything. If there is even the slightest prayer that it will make a dent, He will do it. Even if it makes us feel bad. Even if it makes Him look bad!
And I can admire a parent who will throw aside all self-interest to try to do what’s best for His kids.
God can't be stopped.
When I was an impressionable teenager in the mid-90s, Doritos developed an advertising campaign for their tortilla chips that I still remember to this day. Maybe you remember it, too. The catchy slogan was, “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.” I thought about that ad campaign as I read today’s chapter from Jeremiah. I could just hear God saying, “Burn all you want, I’ll make more.”
Jehoiakim was an evil king. After making a political alliance with Egypt, Jehoiakim thought he was sitting quite securely on his throne. Then, the Babylonians conquered the Egyptians! All of a sudden, Jehoiakim was looking for ways to make sure Jerusalem didn’t get conquered, too.
But in his quest for ways to escape the Babylonians, there was one avenue Jehoiakim surely didn’t want to explore: help from the God of Israel. In fact, God had been sending messages through the prophet Jeremiah for many years, begging the Israelites to repent and come back to Him, promising help and security if they would.
They wouldn’t. And Jeremiah had finally been banned from the Temple; he was no longer allowed to share his messages with the king or the people there.
So, God devised a way around Jeremiah’s banishment: “In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.’” (vs 1-3)
What a great idea! It was certainly a reasonable solution to the problem of Jeremiah’s expulsion from the Temple. But God wasn’t dealing with reasonable people: “The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and Jehudi brought it from the room of Elishama the secretary and read it to the king and all the officials standing beside him. It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him. Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.” (vs 20-24)
This has to be one of the earliest-known instances of book burning! And I guess that’s one way to get rid of something you don’t like—burn it! Hitler and his associates did the same thing at Nuremberg in 1933, although in the days of Jehoiakim, written material was extremely rare. If you burned a scroll, you couldn’t just replace it the next day.
Or could you? It seems this course of conduct didn’t deter God in the slightest: “After the king had burned the scroll that Baruch had written at Jeremiah’s dictation, Jeremiah received this Message from God: ‘Get another blank scroll and do it all over again. Write out everything that was in that first scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah burned up. And send this personal message to Jehoiakim king of Judah: “God says, You had the gall to burn this scroll and then the nerve to say, ‘What kind of nonsense is this written here—that the king of Babylon will come and destroy this land and kill everything in it?’” (vs 27-29)
God can’t be stopped. Ignoring His messages won’t make them any less true. Burning the Bible won’t make it disappear. As God says, “Burn all you want, I’ll make more.” If we reject His first advance, He’ll come again and again and again, and He’ll keep coming until we either stop resisting or resist for so long that we ruin ourselves.
God doesn't want you to be deceived.
Poor Zedekiah. He was so deceived. He thought that making a military alliance with Pharaoh would help him. It didn’t. He thought if he asked Jeremiah to talk to God for him, he might get some good news. He didn’t. Somehow, in his mind, he thought there still might be a way out of his predicament. There wasn’t.
Yet he still couldn’t seem to listen to the Lord, which seems incredible, given the startling clarity of God’s message: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet: ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, “Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it down.” ‘This is what the Lord says: Do not deceive yourselves, thinking, “The Babylonians will surely leave us.” They will not! Even if you were to defeat the entire Babylonian army that is attacking you and only wounded men were left in their tents, they would come out and burn this city down.’” (vs 6-10)
Here was God’s basic message to Zedekiah: You’re goin’ down. Even if all Babylon has left is a few wounded guys, they’re still gonna take you down. In short, God was doing everything He could to try to open Zedekiah’s ears, but it wasn’t working very well. Zedekiah was determined to be deceived . . . and deceived he would be.
But God spoke the truth about deception to Zedekiah when He said, “Do not deceive yourself.” This is truly the only way we can be deceived—if we want to be. Ultimately, even Satan (the master of deception) cannot pull the wool over our eyes unless we help him pull it down. If we end up deceived, it’s because we have deceived ourselves.
Why does it work that way? Because God is the master of light, and as John said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (Jn 1:5) In our lives, there is no way that Satan’s darkness can overpower God’s light unless we have seen the light and decided that we prefer the darkness. We have the power to reject the light, but we don’t have the power to turn it off! God’s light will always come to us, and it is up to us to ultimately decide what we will do with it.
If you end up deceived, it is because you have deceived yourself. But God doesn’t want you to be deceived! He will use every conceivable method to reveal the truth to you, giving you every opportunity to escape deception. Learn from Zedekiah’s unfortunate example and make sure to take advantage of all those opportunities!
God always tries to help.
Well, in this chapter, Jeremiah found himself stuck in the mud because people didn’t quite like what he’d been saying: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. They will escape with their lives; they will live.’ And this is what the Lord says: “This city will certainly be given into the hands of the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.”‘” (vs 2-3)
Apparently, Jeremiah’s message didn’t sound “good” enough for some people. They wanted more of a feel-good prophecy: “Then the officials said to the king, ‘This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.’” (vs 4)
Actually, the fact of the matter is, both Jeremiah and God had the good of the people at heart! Jeremiah may have been prophesying that Jerusalem was going to fall to the Babylonians, but the thrust of his message was aimed at helping the people to understand what they needed to do in order to live and not die! Had they listened to Jeremiah’s message, they would have been helped, not hurt!
God always tries to help us. Even when we have messed things up to the point that we are in dire straits, He still wants to help us understand what we can do that would be best for us. He tells us the truth as it is, even when it doesn’t sound nice, even when it doesn’t make us feel good.
This is something important for us to learn. Often, God’s truth may not sound like something we want to hear. It may not sound cheerful. It may not sound nice. But if we learn from the historical record of God’s dealing with His people, we can trust that God will tell us what is true—even when it doesn’t sound good to us.
Sometimes, the helpful thing also sounds good, but a lot of times, it doesn’t. And if God always tries to help, that means that a lot of what He has to say may not sound very good to us. So, at the end of the day, we must each answer this question for ourselves: Would we rather hear what is true or what sounds good?
God's word is true.
So once again, we read about the fate that befell poor old Zedekiah. If only he had listened to God—perhaps he would have lived out the rest of his years with his sons in relative Babylonian comfort. Alas, the last thing he ever saw (before his eyes were gouged out) was his sons being killed by those Babylonians: “There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes and also killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon.” (vs 6-7)
As I’ve noted before, it seems incredible that Zedekiah didn’t respond to the warning messages God kept sending him through Jeremiah. But at least some Bible commentators theorize that one of the reasons for this might have been a certain prophecy given by the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel and Jeremiah, though separated by a fair amount of distance, both lived and prophesied at the same time. (While Ezekiel was carried away into Babylonian captivity, however, Jeremiah remained at home.) No doubt, King Zedekiah had also heard some of what Ezekiel had to say regarding the imminent fall of Jerusalem.
Here was one of his prophecies: “Even Zedekiah will leave Jerusalem at night through a hole in the wall, taking only what he can carry with him. He will cover his face, and his eyes will not see the land he is leaving. Then I will throw my net over him and capture him in my snare. I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Babylonians, though he will never see it, and he will die there. I will scatter his servants and warriors to the four winds and send the sword after them.” (Ezek 12:12-14)
Some Bible commentators suggest that Zedekiah was confused by what appeared to be competing prophecies from the two prophets. Although Ezekiel clearly communicates that the Lord would bring Zedekiah to Babylon, perhaps he got hung up on that next phrase—though he will never see it. Some scholars suggest that this prompted Zedekiah to hold out hope that he could rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and gain the upper hand.
I think there is a very important lesson hidden in this story for us, because when we study the Bible, we often find things that seem to contradict each other. And when that happens, it’s good to remember that God’s word is true! God said Zedekiah would never see the land of Babylon—and Zedekiah never did see the land of Babylon. By the time he got there, his eyes were gone!
But Zedekiah had apparently interpreted that statement to mean that he wouldn’t really be taken into captivity—even though that was a central tenet of the rest of Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s prophecies about him. In his mind, I guess he just couldn’t reconcile those two things.
Maybe it’s the same for us sometimes. Even when we see things clearly in God’s word, there are often opportunities for doubt to creep in—sometimes because our own preconceived assumptions cloud our thinking and prevent us from reconciling things that seem to contradict one another.
That’s why, when it comes to God, it’s always best to keep an open mind. As we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in our understanding of God’s word, we will find that His word is always true—even when we can’t initially see how it could be! In time, we will see how everything God has said will come to pass.
Even if our eyes have been gouged out.
God is the way to freedom.
I found it surprising that, after the Babylonian siege and the devastation of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was released by the commander of the Babylonian Imperial Guard to go wherever he wanted: “When the commander of the guard found Jeremiah, he said to him, ‘The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place. And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would. All this happened because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him. But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.’” (vs 2-4)
When I read this, the thought that struck me was that God is ultimately the only way to freedom. It is in listening to His voice and obeying His word that we will find ourselves in a place of privilege while others are enslaved.
Of course, I’m talking in ultimate terms. Before the Babylonians invaded, Jeremiah spent a lot of time locked up by evil people, whether it was in jail or in a muddy pit. He certainly dealt with his share of bondage. But when it came down to being carried away for good into captivity, Jeremiah was one of only a few who were released from their chains.
All along the way, God had been sending messages through Jeremiah to the kings of Israel, warning them about their impending doom and trying to illuminate the path to freedom. But they wouldn’t listen. He is the path to freedom, but most of the Israelites wanted absolutely nothing to do with Him. Thus, they eventually found themselves in captivity.
God is still the way to freedom. When we allow Him to direct our paths, when we listen to His voice, He will always find a way to bring us out into wide open spaces. Being faithful to Him ensures our ultimate freedom, for He is always faithful to us. We can trust Him to give us, in time, every good gift—and freedom is His first and best gift!
God allows awful stuff to happen.
There’s just no getting around it—especially when you read a chapter like this. God allows awful stuff to happen in this world. He allows evil men and women to do evil things to innocent people for (apparently) no reason. He allows things to happen to His children that most of us think we would never allow our children to go through if we were in His shoes.
Or would we?
This question of how God is related to the evil and suffering in our world is a persistent problem for both believers and non-believers. You’ve heard the wonderings: Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, why does He allow suffering? How could a loving God tolerate evil?
I admit, these are hard questions. And answering them is all but impossible if your context for this life goes no further than the bounds of our planet. If you don’t know that this universe is a universe at war and that our world is the Gettysburg of that war, then you are likely to be confused. I promise you, at The Battle of Gettysburg, nobody was thinking, Gee, why are people dropping like flies all around me? Why do I hear bullets whizzing past my head? Nobody was thinking that, because they all knew what it meant to be on a battlefield.
When Lucifer (who later became Satan) rebelled in heaven, he began an experiment in the universe to see what would happen when created beings separated themselves from their Creator. Unfortunately, we (through Adam and Eve) decided to get personally involved in this experiment. Thus, our world became the battlefield.
Here’s the short answer to the question of what happens when created beings separate themselves from their Creator: nothing good. Sin (the name for this rebellion) ultimately ends in death, preceded by a whole lot of misery, both for the perpetrators and the victims of evil. That’s what the history of this world has revealed, for we have been through more suffering, sorrow, and misery than poor Eve ever could have imagined when she held that piece of fruit in her lovely hand.
So, why did God allow this experiment in the first place? Why does He allow this battle to rage? The only answer is freedom. Love requires freedom, and for us to be capable of loving God, we also had to be capable of rejecting Him. The downside to all of that is that rejecting Him comes with some very bad, albeit mostly temporary, consequences. But removing those consequences would have removed our freedom
forever . . . and God doesn’t mess around with our freedom.
That’s right. When it came to a choice between perpetual peace in a freedom-less universe or a free universe with the possibility of suffering, God chose freedom. He allows awful stuff to happen for now because it’s the only way to win the war without destroying our freedom. That means the suffering we endure in this world is, to God, actually preferable to the alternative of losing our freedom.
I guess even God must sometimes choose the lesser of two evils. That’s why He allows awful stuff to happen.
God often says, "Wait."
As a mostly impatient person, I couldn’t get over the sequence of events in this chapter. After the disturbing events of last chapter, all the people left in Israel came to Jeremiah to ask for counsel from the Lord. They were so eager to hear His word, they made an oath to obey: “Then they said to Jeremiah, ‘May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.’” (vs 5-6)
Okay, so the Israelite oath didn’t carry a whole lot of weight in those days. But, at least, the people seemed more ready than they had been in a long time to listen to what God had to say.
And what happened next? “Ten days later the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.” (vs 7) Ten days later?!You mean, after all that urgency, after the people themselves sought out the Lord to hear His voice, He made them wait ten days?
As I thought more about this, I realized that this has often been my experience with God as well. It seems that I am forever waiting on Him. Perhaps the major job of a follower of God is to wait. We so often want to get on with things, to get busy—to go, go, go, and do, do, do. But maybe God just wants us to wait.
Maybe that’s why it is written that God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10) Maybe the knowing part can’t come without the being still. Maybe it’s when we wait, when we slow down and stop what we’re doing to take note of what God is doing, that we remember that the world doesn’t have to rest on our shoulders. It isn’t up to us. It doesn’t all depend on us. We were made to rest, not to worry.
God often says, “Wait,” because so often, we are ready to run ahead of Him. I think we frequently substitute our plans for His plan—even when we don’t know we’re doing it. We get one little whiff of the direction He’s going to have us go, and we’re off and running down the path, leaving Him far behind in a cloud of dust.
We say we want to hear God’s voice, but are we willing to wait one day? Five? Ten? Fifty? Waiting is so hard, especially when we’re fired up for the Kingdom, wanting to do great things for God! But maybe the greatest thing we can do sometimes is wait.
Maybe what we need—more than being active—is to be still.
God puts up with a lot.
When I was growing up, one of the worst things we could say to my mom was, “Thank you for putting up with me.” She didn’t mind the gratitude part, but I don’t think I’m overstating it to say she absolutely hated the idea that she had “put up” with us.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I understood her in that regard. I mean, there were times growing up when I thought I was a lot to put up with (and I thought it was nice to acknowledge her patience in that endeavor), and there are still times when I think I’m a lot to put up with! But now I understand how thanking my mother for putting up with me was a ridiculous statement. It’s like a piano thanking a pianist for putting in all the hours of practice. If the pianist loves music, running scales is part of the package. It may even be delightful. Maybe it’s not Rachmaninoff, but it’s part of the deal.
And motherhood is glorious—both the “fun” parts and the parts we might be apt to label as those we “put up with.” It’s all mixed up together in one, grand experience. I no more “put up with” with Caroline’s dirty diapers than I “put up with” her goofy giggle. It’s all part of the deal.
Having said that, the first thought that came to me as I read today’s chapter was, Wow, God puts up with a lot. I mean, I know that for Him, it’s all part of the deal, too. But, come on, you Israelites!
Here, they had come to Jeremiah, begging for a message from God, promising to do whatever He said: “Then they said to Jeremiah, ‘May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.’” (Jer 42:5-6)
They even went so far as to acknowledge that the message God would send might just be something they didn’t want to hear! And, when that proved to be the case, did they keep their promise? When the message was “unfavorable” to their ears, did they obey? Of course not: “When Jeremiah had finished telling the people all the words of the Lord their God—everything the Lord had sent him to tell them—Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, ‘You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, “You must not go to Egypt to settle there.” But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.’” (vs 1-3)
Sigh. Just another empty promise. Just another dead-end road. Wasn’t God getting tired of it all?
What amazes me is that, even at this juncture, God was still answering their inquiries. He was still showing up when they asked Him to appear. He didn’t say, “What’s the use of sending a message through my prophet? You never listen to them anyway!” They asked for His word, and even though He knew they were going to ignore Him, He still graciously sent a message to them through Jeremiah.
Maybe God is like my mom, and maybe He cringes at being thanked for putting up with us. At the end of the day, I know it’s all part of the deal, but He does endure an awful lot. His everlasting love for us must pull Him constantly through the entire gamut of emotion—from exhilaration to devastation. But through it all, He is passionate, He is gracious, and He is steadfast.
He never ceases to amaze me.
God reasons with us.
Once again, the people of Israel have (1) promised to follow everything God says to a T, then (2) done the exact opposite of what He says. In our last chapter, God not only warned them that things wouldn’t go well for them if they moved to Egypt, but also promised that they would have a good life if they stayed in occupied Israel. But, the people didn’t listen. They were determined to substitute true security for perceived security.
At this point, I don’t know why God didn’t just give up.
But He didn’t. Yet again, He approached the people of Israel and asked them to reconsider their decision: “Now this is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Why bring such great disaster on yourselves by cutting off from Judah the men and women, the children and infants, and so leave yourselves without a remnant? Why arouse my anger with what your hands have made, burning incense to other gods in Egypt, where you have come to live? You will destroy yourselves and make yourselves a curse and an object of reproach among all the nations on earth.’” (vs 7-8)
In other words, God said, Are you really sure you want to do this? Think twice!
God always reasons with us. And it appears from the Old Testament record that He is willing to reason with us again and again and again, ad nauseam. That’s why, at the end of the day, there can be no doubt in a person’s mind as to which road they have chosen. Nobody gets to the camp of the wicked and says, “Oh, gee, I’ve been so deceived. If only I’d known where this road was headed.” Anybody who ultimately chooses the way of the wicked does so knowingly, because they choose it again and again and again, ad nauseam.
If you’ve made a poor decision—something that will separate you from God—don’t worry, God is not going to ignore it. He won’t let you do anything that’s going to cause you spiritual harm without making sure you know full well what you are doing. The God who says, “Come, let us reason together” (Isa 1:18), is still issuing the invitation today. He always reasons with us.
God turns great disappointments into great expectations.
This is the short message written on the back cover of my mother’s book about suffering: “After Ken was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I knew that our life as we had planned it was over. But then God turned our crisis into a grand experience, and He can do the same thing for you.”
I couldn’t help but think about this today as I read God’s message to Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, ‘Woe to me! The Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ But the Lord has told me to say to you, ‘This is what the Lord says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the earth. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Do not seek them. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the Lord, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’” (vs 2-5)
I’m sure that, as Baruch listened to and wrote down the words of Jeremiah, he was filled with a sense of dread. I’m sure he realized that his life as he had planned it was over. You see, Baruch was apparently born into a well-connected political family. He was educated and had probably planned to hold a high office in the government.
But all those ambitions were ruined by the fall of Israel to the Babylonians, and I’m sure Baruch realized it as he transcribed Jeremiah’s prophecy. God had given Israel a terminal diagnosis, and Baruch saw that the future he had envisioned for himself was not the future he was going to live after all.
To a certain extent, I think all of us must face such a moment at some point in our lives. After all, each of us deals with loss, and we wouldn’t call it “loss” if it didn’t entail our letting go of something we wanted to hang onto. But, just as God told Baruch in this chapter, He is able to take all of those great disappointments and do great things with them! He specializes in turning crises into grand experiences, and He wants us to get excited about that.
That’s why I think He told Baruch not to seek great things for himself—not because God doesn’t want great things for us, but because the great things He has planned for us are usually absolutely nothing like the great things we plan for ourselves. Thus, when we invest ourselves in our own plans for the future, it can be harder to let go of what we want to make room for what God knows is best.
In effect, God told Baruch that things were going to get worse before they got better. Yet, He wanted him to have great expectations about what He was doing in the world. And that’s what God wants for us, too. If you’ve experienced any great disappointments lately, remember that those disappointments are really opportunities to harbor great expectations over God’s plans for your life!
For when our lives as we have planned them are over, God’s future for us has room to blossom—and we will find that the life He has planned for us is more incredible than we could ever have imagined!
God wants you to be still.
A few days ago on this blog, we explored the idea of being still, of stopping and waiting to hear the word of the Lord before rushing ahead. And, in light of this chapter, it seems that in no situation is this more true than when you are contemplating war.
There is a lot of war in our world today. There is, of course, the kind we hear about most often—the wars that are fought between nations. But there are also civil wars, which are fought within nations. And then there are the more overlooked, entirely more common wars—individual, daily wars between family members, co-workers, church members, etc. War is not just something that one nation declares on another. It’s a condition of the sinful human heart.
At one time or another, we are all at war.
What should we do about that? When we sense that war—in any form—is imminent, what should we do? How should we prepare to fight? In today’s chapter, God had some advice for the Egyptians about that very subject: “‘Prepare your shields, and advance into battle! Harness the horses, and mount the stallions. Take your positions. Put on your helmets. Sharpen your spears, and prepare your armor. But what do I see? The Egyptian army flees in terror. The bravest of its fighting men run without a backward glance. They are terrorized at every turn,’ says the Lord.” (vs 3-5)
Man, I don’t know about you, but by the time I got to the prediction that the Egyptian army would flee in terror, I was already tired. They had a lot to do to get ready! Prepare shields, strategically advance, harness and mount their horses, put soldiers into formation, don their fighting gear, sharpen weapons, and try to protect themselves with armor in the process.
But . . . what a bummer. It’s all for nothing. The bravest men in the army still run away afraid. All their fretting and stewing and preparing didn’t help them win anything. Maybe that’s because this is a picture of what happens when we try to go to war without God. Look at all the things we have to try to do in our strength to simply be able to stand against the enemy! And, at the end of the day, if God is not with us (or rather, if we’re not with Him), we will turn and run like girls. (Sorry, girls.)
Now, let’s contrast this with the picture of what it means to go to war with God: “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’” (Ex 14:10, 13-14)
What a drastically different picture! When the Israelites sensed war was imminent and they cried out for help, God told them to do only two things:
- Stand still.
- Watch Him work.
People, what if we would actually do that?! What would happen in this world if, instead of flying off the handle with our neighbor, we would stand still and expect God to fight for us? What would happen if, instead of yelling at our children or siblings or parents, we would stand still and watch God work? What would happen if, instead of allowing fear to take over, we would stand still and allow God to take over?
What if we were willing to just give up the fight?
For it is only when we give up the fight that God is able to fight for us. That’s right. Don’t mistake God for a pacifist. He is a fighter, and He has promised to fight for you. He doesn’t want you to go to war. He wants you to relax and take it easy while He handles the fighting. Just ask those Egyptians, and they’ll tell you: There is nothing we can do in our human strength to rival the power of our Almighty God on the battlefield.
So, if you’re headed for a battlefield today, there are only two things you need to do: Be still, and look up.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle. (Ps 24:7-8)
God thinks of others.
Because of my parent/child context on this trip through the Bible, this jumped out at me from today’s chapter: “The people will cry out; all who dwell in the land will wail at the sound of the hooves of galloping steeds, at the noise of enemy chariots and the rumble of their wheels. Parents will not turn to help their children; their hands will hang limp.” (vs 2-3)
Apparently, what was about to befall the Philistines was going to be so horrific and frightening that it would totally overwhelm the natural inclination of the parents to their children. Fear and self-preservation would take over, and in the ensuing chaos, the fathers (overtaken and consumed by panic) would forget about their own flesh and blood.
That seems incredible to me! It’s hard to imagine anything so awful that it would cause me to forget about Caroline or not be willing or able to lift a hand to help her in a time of distress. Yet, Jeremiah seems to indicate that the unconverted heart—when stressed to the extreme—has nothing in itself to sustain love. When put to the hardest possible test, it will apparently revert to self-preservation.
In contrast, there was one man who—when subjected to the most horrific torture imaginable—did not revert to self-preservation, but continued to think of others. Of course, I’m talking about Jesus Christ. In the midst of life’s most awful circumstances, He:
- Forgave His torturers. (Lk 23:34)
- Gave hope to another dying man. (Lk 23:43)
- Comforted His mother. (Jn 19:26-27)
He did not allow fear and despair to overwhelm Him. Instead, He put fear aside, choosing to put Himself in the Father’s hands, trusting that what He knew of His Father was right (even when it didn’t feel right): “And Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46)
When stressed to the extreme, I don’t think the unconverted heart has any chance to escape fear and self-preservation. It’s simply part of our sinful nature. But, the more we come to know God and the more our hearts are healed, we will be able to choose what Jesus did—the way of faith and not fear.
In impossibly trying times, it does not have to be said of us that we didn’t turn to help our children. Instead, we can be like God who, when faced with the worst kind of suffering, looked past His pain and reached out to bless others. I want to be more like that.
God helps the poor.
Jesus once said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) At another time, He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mk 10:25)
From statements such as these, some people have concluded that worldly wealth automatically disqualifies people from salvation. But nothing could be further from the truth. God loves all people, and He wants everyone to be saved. Furthermore, we must assume that God isn’t opposed to wealth in general, since He generously blessed many of His friends with financial riches.
The problem that sometimes accompanies wealth is seen in today’s chapter: “You thought you could be saved by your power and wealth, but you will be captured along with your god Chemosh, his priests, and officials. Not one of your towns will escape destruction.” (vs 7-8)
The problem with wealth is that it tends to skew our perspective about what we need. Jesus warned the church of Laodicea about this very thing in the book of Revelation: “I know everything you have done, and you are not cold or hot. I wish you were either one or the other. But since you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spit you out of my mouth. You claim to be rich and successful and to have everything you need. But you don’t know how bad off you are. You are pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)
Wealth tends to make people feel like they have everything, and if they discover something they need that they don’t have, they assume it is easy to buy. But salvation cannot be bought, and the problem with trusting in our riches is that they don’t last! They are in the process of perishing, just like we are!
In Jesus’s statement about the kingdom of heaven, notice that He didn’t say the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, but the poor in spirit. The truth is, we are all poor in spirit. That is, we are all spiritually poor. No matter how much money is in our bank account, we are in need of a Savior. And, as long as our riches don’t cause us to ignore that need, wealth won’t keep us from the kingdom.
God helps the poor. Whether we are financially well-off or destitute, God wants us to recognize our spiritual poverty. He wants us to know that worldly power and wealth will never save us. In His hands, He holds all the spiritual treasures of heaven, and these are the riches that matter!
God is an ecumenical abuser.
Okay, so maybe “abuser” isn’t the right word, but I’m getting at the concept behind the word—the idea that God doesn’t discriminate. He is ultimately invested in all His children equally.
As I read through this chapter, as I read the warnings to Ammon, Edom, Damascus, and Elam, I started to think, This sounds exactly like God’s warnings to Israel. He says that because they rejected Him and worshiped other gods, they will be destroyed. However, He also promises that He will bring their descendants back to their homeland.
I marvel that God doesn’t treat His “chosen” people any differently than the surrounding “heathen” nations! He doesn’t play favorites. It’s clear that He didn’t “choose” Israel to somehow be pampered and protected while the other nations suffered. He “chose” Israel to minister to the other nations, and when they turned their back on God, they suffered the same consequences as the nations they had come to look down on.
So, maybe we can change “abuser” to “Savior.” God is an ecumenical Savior. He didn’t predestine Israelites for salvation and the Ammonites, Edomites, and others for destruction. He is out to save everyone, because every single person who has ever been born in this world is His special creation.
No matter who you are, where you’ve come from, or what you’ve done, God doesn’t love you any more or any less than anyone else. He is an ecumenical lover, an ecumenical Savior, an ecumenical friend, and yes, an ecumenical disciplinarian!
God's Kingdom is everlasting.
As I read this chapter (the first of two that details the end of Babylon), I couldn’t help but ponder the fact that every single “great” kingdom of this Earth hasn’t lasted. All the formidable kingdoms or empires that once conquered and ruled most of the world—the Assyrian, the Roman, the Babylonian, the British, the Egyptian, and many others—have either been totally destroyed or divested of their power.
Even in modern days, great economic superpowers have come and gone. Once highly-formidable Communist empires have crumbled. And it doesn’t take a creative imagination to see how America could easily end up on the ash heap of history.
In all this, there seems to be one truth: all Earthly kingdoms come and go.
Perhaps that is because every Earthly kingdom has been built on the basis of greed, selfishness, and force, and these principles are simply unsustainable. We reap what we sow. What we do to others is done to us. That’s what God said about Babylon: “Summon archers against Babylon, all those who draw the bow. Encamp all around her; let no one escape. Repay her for her deeds; do to her as she has done. For she has defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel.” (vs 29)
This idea of payment, or repayment, made me think of Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Kingdoms that are built on the principles of sin deal in wages, payment, and things deserved. But kingdoms built on the principles of love and self-sacrifice (i.e. God’s Kingdom) deal in gifts, grace, and things undeserved.
So, when we choose to ignore God and build up our kingdoms on sinful principles—as the Babylonians did—there may be absolutely no way to avoid eventual ruin. History would certainly seem to bear that out, wouldn’t it? There has yet to be a great and powerful empire that hasn’t met its demise at the hands of another great and powerful empire, and the very methods of forcible cruelty the first empire used to conquer the world are usually employed by the second in its destruction.
Jesus once told His disciple to “put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) And Paul wrote, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7-8)
If we want to live with the blessings of grace, there is only one place to find them—in God! If we reject Him and His way of doing things, we will thrust ourselves (and any kingdoms we try to build) into the sinful payment and repayment cycle, where we will definitely reap exactly what we sow.
Only God extends grace—both to His friends and His enemies. And that’s why His great and powerful Kingdom alone is everlasting. Every other kingdom will crumble; His is forever.
God doesn't want us to be lost at sea.
To the Hebrew mind, the sea was associated with evil. In Isaiah 57, Isaiah wrote that the wicked were like the sea. In Psalm 89, the psalmist wrote that the raging sea was akin to the opponents of the Lord. In Revelation, the sea is pictured as the birthplace of the Satanic beast (Rev 13) and the place of the dead (Rev 20). No wonder, when John pictured the earth made new, he wrote that the sea had disappeared (Rev 21).
In this chapter, Jeremiah combines the imagery of the sea with the demise of Babylon, that great and powerful empire built on a sinful foundation. He warns God’s people to escape from the city while there’s still time: “Flee from Babylon! Run for your lives! Do not be destroyed because of her sins. It is time for the Lord’s vengeance; he will repay her what she deserves. Babylon was a gold cup in the Lord’s hand; she made the whole earth drunk. The nations drank her wine; therefore they have now gone mad.” (vs 6-7)
If you have ever read Revelation, you might be thinking that I have just mistakenly quoted from that book instead. But, no. That’s Jeremiah.
Bible commentator James Coffman explains, “The analogy between the literal Babylon here and the spiritual Babylon of Revelation is amazing. Note the following: (1) Both shall be utterly destroyed (2) God’s people are commanded to ‘come out of her.’ (3) She has a golden cup in her hand. (4) The nations have become drunk with her wine. (5) Her judgment reaches all the way to heaven. (6) Her doom is like a stone cast into the river. (7) She is responsible for all the slain in the land.”
So, where does the sea fit in? I think this chapter of Jeremiah gives us an important clue as to how that figures into the destruction of Babylon:
Verse 9: “We would have healed Babylon, but she cannot be healed.”
Verse 42: “The sea will rise over Babylon; its roaring waves will cover her.”
When you put both of these verses together in the context of the rest of the chapter, it says (to me) that God wants to heal Babylon, but He cannot. There is no cure for her, as she has completely given herself over to the sea (evil) that is going to overtake and destroy her.
Of course, this is all couched in the terms of God’s “vengeance” and “wrath,” because, as Romans 1 reminds us, God’s wrath is His giving us up to the ultimate consequences of choosing evil. And, in the imagery of Jeremiah and Revelation, evil is like a sea that will swallow us up if we don’t take hold of the Life Preserver. If we who are drowning stubbornly refuse to grasp the life preserver, what more can God do for us? He will eventually be forced to let us drown.
The bad news is, all of this must tear God’s heart apart! He doesn’t want us to be “lost at sea.” It’s so unnecessary! There is a free and ready rescue, and He wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim 2:4).
But, while the Bible indicates that everyone will not choose to be saved, the good news is, one day there will be no more sea. One day, there will be no more evil. Though it now appears to dominate our existence so thoroughly that we sometimes think there could never be an end to it, there will be: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘See, I will defend your cause and avenge you; I will dry up her sea and make her springs dry.’” (vs 36)
Hopefully, each of us will decide to be among those who are rescued from the sea!
God bears the consequences of our sins.
Once again, in this chapter, we are reminded of how the residents of Judah were finally carried off into Babylon, and Jerusalem was destroyed. How depressing. And even though he was given every opportunity to change his course, I still couldn’t help but feel bad for Zedekiah, whose sons were killed right in front of him before his eyes were plucked out. That would be an awful image to have to remember for the rest of your life. It’s just another stark reminder of the evil darkness we face when we try to live life without God.
And then, continuing on in the chapter, I was somewhat surprised to see this: “On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan . . . came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the Lord, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. . . The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried all the bronze to Babylon. They also took away the pots, shovels, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, dishes and all the bronze articles used in the temple service. The commander of the imperial guard took away the basins, censers, sprinkling bowls, pots, lampstands, dishes and bowls used for drink offerings—all that were made of pure gold or silver.” (vs 12-13, 17-19)
The Babylonians plundered God’s temple. This must have been absolutely shocking to the people of Judah. For all their idol worship, they must have known deep down that the God of Heaven was still the one, true God. They must have thought that—despite their evil—nothing would ever be able to demolish His dwelling place.
They were wrong.
Throughout the centuries, God had been pleading with the people of Judah and Israel for their cooperation and obedience. He had been pleading with them to turn from their idol-worshiping ways and return to Him. He wanted to be their God, and He wanted them to be His people. But they were bent on running after other gods.
So, what did God do? In the end, He suffered the shame of their sin along with them. He could have put some sort of supernatural hedge around His temple and just allowed the people of Judah to be carried away. He could have symbolically made it clear that He was abandoning His people because they weren’t faithful. But He didn’t do that.
Instead, He allowed His name to be run through the mud as well. He allowed heathen nations to look at what had been done to His temple and say, See? We told you the God of the Israelites was nothing! He couldn’t even save His own house! He suffered the scorn and shame along with His people—even though He had never been anything but faithful to them. When the time came, He stood shoulder to shoulder with them and bore the consequences of their sin.
Doesn’t that just sound like God?