JEREMIAH, A PROPHET UNDER FIRE
Third in a series of studies from Jeremiah
by Keith Bassham
Probably one of the darkest and most evil times in the history of Judah (which was all there was left of Israel, if you recall the material regarding the history of Israel in last month’s article) was the reign of King Manasseh. For a half century, the people of God were instructed to worship false and foreign deities, to give themselves to the black arts, to human sacrifice, and to activities, by Manasseh, who, 2 Kings 21:16 says, “shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; beside his sin wherewith he made Judah to sin, in doing that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
This is a remarkable record, given what we know of Manasseh’s father. After the split of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms, the north was afflicted by one wicked ruler after another. In the south, in Judah, things were not as bad in that department. And, in fact, Hezekiah, who was Manasseh’s father, was considered a good king over all.
Hezekiah was a reformer, zealous to move his nation back to the God so many of his countrymen had forsaken or forgotten. He abolished idolatry, even destroying the highly valued “brass serpent,” used in the time of Moses and thus revered as a holy artifact, even to the point of worship. He instead pointed people to the Temple and services, and he reinstated Passover. For this, he extended an invitation to the scattered tribes and interceded on their behalf when their journey made it impossible for them to fully purify themselves for the feast and celebration. The record he left behind was, “And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. … He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him” (2 Kings 18:3, 5).
These were indeed Judah’s golden days.
And then Manasseh succeeded his father after a ten-year co-regency that ended with Hezekiah’s death. All the reform was undone; the nation reverted to its Canaanite roots. Manasseh, the Bible says, “did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, like unto the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel” (2 Chronicles 33:2).
The people worshipped Baal, children were sacrificed to Moloch, and idolatrous altars were restored. Manasseh’s reign was as dark as Hezekiah’s was bright. Though he eventually repented of his evil, “Manasseh made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and to do worse than the heathen, whom the LORD had destroyed before the children of Israel” (2 Chronicles 33:11).
Unable to completely undo his wrongs, he was followed by his son Amon who saw no value in a pure faith in God. However, in the last decade of Manasseh’s reign, two boys were born as a gift to that demoralized people. One was Josiah, Manasseh’s grandson, who would come to Judah’s throne at the age of eight, and the other was Jeremiah.
Josiah became a reforming king, and Jeremiah was an outspoken prophet, and between the two of them, the kingdom of David had at least a fighting chance to renew itself and survive intact.
Josiah, the Bible says, began to seek the Lord in his teens. Shortly after that, Jeremiah comes on the scene to begin his long career. These words open the first chapter of Jeremiah’s prophecy:
1 The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: 2 to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.
4 Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,
5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
6 Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.
7 But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.
8 Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord.
9 Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.
10 See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.
So much is revealed in these phrases. We learn about the historical context, something about Jeremiah’s family, and his reluctance to accept the call, not to mention some fairly heavy theological truth concerning God, His foreknowledge, His Word, and His purposes.
Several kings are mentioned, and from that chronology you get an idea of the length of Jeremiah’s influence. He was God’s spokesman during the reign of five kings in Judah:
Josiah (639-608 B.C.) – 31 years
Jehoahaz (608 B.C.) – 3 months
Jehoiakim (608-597 B.C.) -11 years
Johoiachin (597 B.C.) -3 months
Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.) -11 years
The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C., and Jeremiah’s ministry extended even beyond that time, perhaps as many as 65-66 years, quite a long time considering how difficult others made it for him.
Jeremiah would become probably the most persecuted prophet in the Bible. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter (11:18ff); his brethren dealt treacherously with him (12:6); he was confronted by false prophets (14:13); his brethren cursed him (15:10); he was smitten, put in stocks, and denounced (20:1ff); his heart was broken (23:9); he was seized and threatened with death (26:8, 24); his teaching was opposed (28:1ff; 29:1ff); he was imprisoned (32:2, 3); he was pursued (36:26); he was beaten and imprisoned (37:15); he was thrown into a dungeon (38:6); he was bound in chains (40:1); he was falsely accused (43:2); he was taken to Egypt (43:6, 7). Tradition says he was stoned in Egypt. (Wayne Jackson in The Marvelous Book of Jeremiah)
Lest you think Jeremiah was some superman and took all this in stride and good humor, here is a sample of his protests to God, from chapter 15:
15 O Lord, thou knowest: remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors; take me not away in thy longsuffering: know that for thy sake I have suffered rebuke.
16 Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts.
17 I sat not in the assembly of the mockers, nor rejoiced; I sat alone because of thy hand: for thou hast filled me with indignation.
18 Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed? wilt thou be altogether unto me as a liar, and as waters that fail?
And see Jeremiah’s transparency before God, even to the point of accusing God of deceit and attempting to withdraw his services, in this section from chapter 20:
7 O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.
8 For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the Lord was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.
9 Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.
But Jeremiah has a sense of solidarity with his people, even though his people are sometimes against him, and he speaks up for them, much as Moses did as we see in chapter 14.
8 O the hope of Israel, the saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night?
9 Why shouldest thou be as a man astonied, as a mighty man that cannot save? yet thou, O Lord, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name; leave us not.
And in the middle of all this, God’s call and commission to Jeremiah to stand faithfully for Him and His Word never changes. He says to Jeremiah, concerning those people (chapter 15):
19 Let them return unto thee; but return not thou unto them.
20 And I will make thee unto this people a fenced brasen wall: and they shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail against thee: for I am with thee to save thee and to deliver thee, saith the Lord.
21 And I will deliver thee out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem thee out of the hand of the terrible.
Now I will remind you that all these speeches appear to take place in the earlier days of Jeremiah when some of the reforms were actually having a bit of an effect. But we also have a record of Judah’s fecklessness, and their tendency to walk away from God no matter who the king is or what laws he wants to enforce. Those laws in and of themselves, however well-intentioned, have no lasting power to change a society or a culture. The same is true of a religion built on ritual that does not effect behavior. That is a matter of the heart, and Jeremiah seems to have a handle on this truth in chapter 7:
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying,
2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the Lord.
3 Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place.
4 Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these.
5 For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour;
6 if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt:
7 then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.
8 Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit.
9 Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not;
10 and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?
11 Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the Lord.
So, what are the results Jeremiah is able to show after more than 20 years of preaching summed up in chapter 25?
1 The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, that was the first year of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon;
2 the which Jeremiah the prophet spake unto all the people of Judah, and to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying,
3 From the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, even unto this day, that is the three and twentieth year, the word of the Lord hath come unto me, and I have spoken unto you, rising early and speaking; but ye have not hearkened.
4 And the Lord hath sent unto you all his servants the prophets, rising early and sending them; but ye have not hearkened, nor inclined your ear to hear.
5 They said, Turn ye again now every one from his evil way, and from the evil of your doings, and dwell in the land that the Lord hath given unto you and to your fathers for ever and ever:
6 and go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt.
7 Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the Lord; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.
8 Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Because ye have not heard my words,
9 behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the Lord, and Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations.
10 Moreover I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle.
11 And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
This is at the same time both a horrible and a thrilling prophecy; a horrible prospect for those who first heard this prophetic voice. Their world was coming to an end. And yet, this prophecy of a 70-year limit indicates a control and a purpose of God over the situation, and that knowledge was a spur to Daniel to call himself and his captive nation to repentance a couple of generations hence.
The promise is more explicit in Jeremiah 29:10-14:
10 For thus saith the Lord, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.
11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
12 Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.
13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.
14 And I will be found of you, saith the Lord: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the Lord; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.
God speaks here of “an expected end.” One of the most difficult things in the world is keeping in your mind two opposing thoughts. One of those thoughts is, “This is an unbearable situation, and I can’t believe it’s happening to me.” And the other is, “God is good, and He is in control of ‘the expected end.’” David’s psalms are full of this. Why are the wicked doing so well? Why am I doing so poorly? How come my enemies are able to get away with mistreating me? When will my devotion to God pay off? And then, near the close of those psalms, David settles down and realizes there is “an expected end,” and that event is to determine how we process the present situation. Or to paraphrase my friend Gary Grey, “Present circumstances do not indicate future prospects.”
What God is saying in this passage (“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil”) is an explicit (and not a general) promise to the people of Judah who are to be carried off that He will someday cause them and their descendants to return. That promise is the one embraced by Daniel, and fulfilled by Ezra, Nehemiah, and others. In some ways, it is a message Jeremiah should take to heart.
“Jeremiah is an intensely human personality, a man whom we can understand and love, and yet a person endowed with such mysterious power from on high that we at times are overawed by his grandeur. Jeremiah, so humanly weak, and yet so divinely firm; his love so humanly tender, and at the same time so divinely holy; his eyes streaming with tears at beholding the affliction about to come upon his people, yet sparkling with fiery indignation against their sins and abominations; his lips overflowing with sympathy for the daughter of Zion, only to pronounce upon her almost in the same breath the judgment and condemnation she so fully deserved. Truly so remarkable and powerful a personality, at the same time so lovable, that we cannot fail to recognize in him an instrument especially chosen and prepared by the God of grace and strength and wisdom” (Theodore Laetsch).
What we learn from the life of Jeremiah is the comfort of knowing that, just like every believer, even great prophets of God can experience rejection, depression, and discouragement in their walk with the Lord. You can become despised in the eyes of others, and no doubt misunderstood.
This experience is not only possible, but very likely, especially in the days we are living through. When down becomes up, and up becomes down, when you point out that those things that are highly valued by men are an abomination to God, and when you attempt to get others to trade those worthless items for the truly valuable things of God, you will experience what Jeremiah experienced.
The Bible says the time will come when people will not tolerate the truth, and in so many ways we are at that point already. Even though few will listen, we have to continue to proclaim truth to rescue people from the terrible judgment that is to come. There is, after all, “an expected end.”