Unlocking the Old Testament Part 39 Jeremiah 1

Well now we’ve come to one of the major prophets, only called major because it’s a much bigger book than the others, but he was a major figure in the history of Israel. There are three reasons why people don’t take to the book of Jeremiah. The first is it’s rather daunting - it’s very long. For sheer size, 52 chapters - the only longer one is Isaiah, 66. Ezekiel is shorter with 48, but the books of the major prophets are in order of time and in order of size, so Isaiah is the first and the biggest and then Jeremiah is the middle one, and Ezekiel is the shortest, but still quite long. Legend says that Jeremiah visited Southern Ireland and kissed the blarney stone as if he got the gift of the gab that way. But he was a prolific prophet. He was constantly speaking over a long period so we’ve got an awful lot of prophecies and this brings us to the second difficulty. If the first difficulty is that there is a lot of it - over 40 years preaching - in one book, the second difficulty is that it’s not in any order, it’s neither in chronological order, nor topical order. It has just been put together, bunched together, thrown into a box and then written out. It’s a collection of collections. We’ve got everything he said and did that was of any significance. And because he was preaching over 40 years, his attitude did change in some ways as the situation changed - and some rather delight in finding contradictions in him. For example, he was absolutely against Babylon in the early years - he called Babylon all sorts of dreadful things - but then in his later years, he advised people to submit to Babylon and that this would be good for them. It’s one of the reasons he was called a political traitor. The third reason why people don’t really count Jeremiah their favourite book in the Bible is because it’s depressing. It’s Daunting and it’s Difficult and it’s Depressing - and Jeremiah has given his name to at least two words in the English language, one is simply to be ‘a Jeremiah’, which means to be a wet blanket, to be a depressing sort of person who brings doom and gloom everywhere; and related to that is a less used word, but used by literary people, called Jeremiad and a Jeremiad is a mournful poem, a dirge. And so poor Jeremiah has got a bad press and he is regarded as a miserable man who had nothing but bad news. That, in fact, is not true. He had some great news, some good news, and there’s always sunshine as well as the cloud, but I am afraid he’s got that name. But we’re strangely drawn to him even though he’s not the most popular book in the Old Testament. I particularly, if you ask me which character in the Bible I identify with, it’s Jeremiah. Some of you were there when I preached my way through the whole book and I had to stop twice because I was getting too emotionally involved and it was almost too much to share it. And it was actually as a result of that series of sermons that the prophecy came that I was to leave that church and to travel. And so personally it means a lot to me this book, and I’m looking forward to meeting him. There’s a lot of human interest in the book. He reveals his heart and his inner struggles more than any other prophet. You really get inside the man and you feel how he feels. You understand what makes him tick. But there’s also a divine interest because it’s packed with information about God and if you really study Jeremiah, you will understand God much better. I’ve put an outline of what I want to say on this chart. I want to look first at the situation which he addressed, the moment he appeared, his day in history. Then I want to look at the man himself and show you what his background was, which went to make up him - because we are all creatures of our background. We’re not just isolated individuals. We come from background and from ancestry which has made us what we are. Then I want to look at his method of communicating God's words. He wasn’t just a speaking prophet. He used other methods as well, he was a drama expert. He acted his prophecies, did it in mime and through his actions people remembered his message, and he was also a writing prophet. When he was forbidden to speak, he said, well you can’t stop me writing; and fortunately he had a friend who was a good man with a pen called Baruch and Baruch wrote these prophecies down, even though the king would cut them with a penknife into pieces and put them on the fire, Baruch would write them out again. Thank God for Baruch or we wouldn’t have the book of Jeremiah. So he was a speaking, acting and writing prophet - I want to speak about that a bit. Then I want to look at his message and divide his message into two parts, the message that was like the other prophets that said very similar things to Micah and Isaiah, but there were three ways in which his message was quite different from other prophets which make him quite unique – we’re going to look at those. Then I’m going to look fifthly at the bad treatment he received. He was treated abominably and he suffered very greatly for his message and that led to great unhappiness. He has been called by the Jews ‘the weeping prophet’ and that will lead us straight into a study of a book called Lamentations because we have there his tears written down - and the book of Lamentations is Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem. Well that’s the outline of what I want to share with you so let’s get on with it and see what we can discover. The moment - it was the 7th century BC, almost at the end of the life of the two tribes in the south. The ten in the north have gone, Assyria has taken them away - just two little tribes of God's people left around Jerusalem. Isaiah’s gone, Micah’s gone, Jeremiah is the last prophet really to speak to this people and say, it’s even now not too late to stop this disaster coming, but if you don’t change, it’s absolutely certain. He was the right man at the right time in the right place. The north had gone, the south was about to go. There had been a few good kings, but some bad ones as well, and his life spanned quite a lot of kings because now, since the kings were more bad than good, they were replacing each other more quickly. And in his lifetime, he saw all these 7 kings. He was born in the reign of Manasseh who sawed Isaiah in half inside the hollow tree - that dreadful man who sacrificed his own babies to the devil and who filled Jerusalem’s streets with the blood of innocent people - that was Manasseh. And two boys were born in the same year, in Manasseh’s reign and Josiah the King or the prince, was one, and Jeremiah was the other and they were neck and neck, they grew up together. Then came Ammon and during his brief reign, Jeremiah and Josiah were both young boys and then Josiah found himself at the age of eight on the throne. And Josiah was a good boy and it was he who spring cleaned the temple, and found the book of Deuteronomy in a dusty old cupboard and realised that the curses of God were on the land and the people. He tried to reform, but I’m afraid it failed. Jeremiah was contemporary with him, but Jeremiah was silent - and Jeremiah doesn’t mention Josiah and the book of Kings doesn’t mention Jeremiah. It’s almost as if Jeremiah realised that a reform ordered by the king did not change people’s hearts and while it was outwardly looking good, inwardly the situation hadn’t changed, which was proved as soon as Josiah tried to fight the Egyptians and was killed at Armageddon. And now we have just evil, weak kings and it was during the last four reigns of the kings who were bad and who were weak, that Jeremiah spoke most of his preaching and while he offered them one last hope, I’m afraid most of his prophecy was saying about Josiah’s reform: too little, too late - the situation is hopeless. So he veers between this hopeless feeling, it’s too late, and this tiny hope - but if they changed even now, God would change the situation. And that comes out – I’ll go straight into one very important acted parable of Jeremiah. He was told to go to the potter’s house and watch the potter, and this is a scripture that again has been used in song and sermon in a grossly wrong way. We sing little hymns, ‘you are the potter, I am the clay, do with me what you want’, as if it’s the potter who decides what the clay becomes and that is not the lesson that Jeremiah learned. In Jeremiah chapter 18 you find he went to the potter’s house as God told him and he watched a potter, and the potter had a wheel and he was peddling the wheel and he had a lump of clay and he threw it on the wheel and then he tried to make it into a beautiful vase. But the clay would not run in his hands, it wasn’t the right sort of clay for a vase, and so the potter took the vase and he put it back into a lump and he threw it on the wheel again and he made it into a thick, crude pot. And God said, Jeremiah have you learned the lesson? Why was that clay not made into a beautiful vessel? Was that the potter’s fault or the clay’s fault? Who decided what it became? The answer really is the clay decided - because it wouldn’t run with the potter’s original intention. That’s the message - and it’s totally opposite from God is a potter who takes a piece of clay and makes whatever he wants, far from that. It’s God who is a potter who wanted to make the clay into a beautiful shape, but the clay wouldn’t respond and so he had to make it into an ugly shape. And then God says, you can see Jeremiah that even if, at this late stage, my people would repent and change, I could make them a beautiful vessel to be filled with my mercy; but because they won’t change, I will make them into a crude pot full of my judgement. And we have this extraordinary statement. God says, if they will repent, I will repent. Now God doesn’t repent of sin, because he doesn’t sin, but he does change his mind about his plan - and he is saying, if they will change, I will change. If they will change their mind, I will change my mind and I’ll not bring disaster. That is the dynamic relationship between God and people in the Bible. It is not a potter just saying, I will make this bit of clay this, and that bit of clay that, it’s a God who wants to make the clay into something beautiful, but when the clay refuses, he makes them into something ugly. He still uses them, but uses them to demonstrate his justice instead of his mercy - and that still applies to us. Yes, he is the potter and we are the clay, but the clay has a say in what it becomes – that’s the real notion of the picture here, it’s not an arbitrary God dealing with puppets and decreeing what it shall be. This is a God who is co-operating, who wants a response from us and who will make us what he wants us to be if we want to be that, but if we don’t want to be that, he makes us into a demonstration of how he judges. The choice is the clay’s. Now that’s the message which Jeremiah was given; have you learned it? And then he did a second thing. That ugly clay pot was baked and became hard so that it couldn’t be changed - and then he was to take that hard pot and take it out to the Valley of Hinnom where the rubbish was thrown and break it and throw the pieces into Gehenna, saying, if you harden your hearts, you’ll reach the point where you cannot be changed into a beautiful state and then God breaks you. See the message? It’s in chapters 18 and 19. It’s a profound understanding of God's relationship with us. God wants to make your life beautiful and if you will respond to him, he will. If you don’t, then he bakes you until you are hard in the ugly shape and then breaks and throws away. It’s a profound lesson. Well now, these were weak kings and things were just going from bad to worse, but that’s the note of hope in Jeremiah. Even at this late stage, if you repented, God would change his mind about the disaster. So Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom. He’s at least saying there’s a little hope, but frankly as he saw the people and as he preached to them and saw their response, he knew there was really no hope. Well now that’s the time, the moment when he preached. That gives us the history and of course Zedekiah was the very last king who was finally taken by the Babylonians and had to watch his sons being killed and then had his eyes put out and was taken away, blind. It’s a tragic end to the people of God. It wasn’t a permanent end, however. Now let’s look at the man, born during Manasseh’s reign, as I say, and given a most unusual name. Jeremiah: part of that name – the first part - means to build up, and to throw down. It’s a Hebrew word that you can use either way, bit like the English word raise, you can raze a building to the ground or raise a building from the ground. And the Hebrew word has the same double meaning, it can either mean to destroy something or to build it. And that’s exactly what his ministry was to be. God says, I’m calling you to build up and to pull down and the little bit at the end, ‘jah’, ‘Jerem jah’, the ‘jah’ is God, and therefore his name means ‘God builds up and he pulls down’ - and that was the basic message which for 40 years he preached. God pulls down those who disobey and he builds up those who obey. He is the potter with the clay. He was born at Anathoth or modern Anatah; I once spent a few nights in a house in that little village and read Jeremiah on the flat open roof. It was quite an experience and it was just before I walked down the Wadi Qelt to Jericho and they told me I shouldn’t do it because it was very dangerous. There was political trouble and there were people with guns down there, but I read that book - and again I’m going against my teaching - because a verse spoke to me, and God said, I will go with you and protect you wherever you go, and so I went that morning. Perhaps I was mistreating the Bible. Anyway, he was appointed a prophet before he was born, like John the Baptist, while he was still in his mother’s womb. He wasn’t a foetus, he was a human being - and he was called to be a prophet while he was still in his mother’s womb. You know that John the Baptist began his ministry three months before he was born. His ministry was to point to the Messiah, and when he’d only been six months in Elizabeth’s womb, he jumped for joy when the mother of the Messiah came into the room. So that has something to say about abortion, I think. But he was born and he became a very diffident, sensitive, shy youth - and being a descendant of the house of Eli, meant that he would never see old age because that curse was on that family line all the way down. ‘No man of this family will ever see old age.’ They all died in middle age and therefore God had to get this man early into prophecy if he was going to get 40 years out of him. He had to call him in his teens, and he did - and it was while he was probably about 17 that he began to preach and he was very, very nervous. Wouldn’t you, if you were told at 17 to go and stand up in Trafalgar Square and condemn the sins of London? Well some young people don’t seem to mind. They’re almost free of such inhibitions, but he had them. And so God said, don’t be afraid of their faces. That’s something; when a preacher’s afraid, he preaches to the ceiling or closes his eyes - but a true preacher should look people in the face - don’t be afraid of their faces. Do you know preachers who preach to the clock? But you go and look at them - don’t be afraid of their faces. He said, I’ll make your forehead like brass so none of their looks will kill or get into you. It’s a very vivid call. Later he had to move from his home because his family were going to assassinate him and he moved into the big city in Jerusalem three miles away. A lover of nature. I’ll never forget one day in the bus, driving up by Caesarea I think we were, and the sky went black with storks. I have never seen so many storks in my life, but they all emigrate through Israel from Europe to Africa, and the sky was just filled with wheeling storks. They knew their time had come to move north and they were on their way. That comes out in Jeremiah chapter 8, the storks know their time to move - but my people don’t know. He was a lover of nature, he constantly used nature to illustrate things, particularly birds; I think he was an ornithologist and he prophesied for 40 years along with Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel and finally Daniel, all contemporaries. When the Babylonians came, because he had advised his people not to fight the Babylonians but to go with them and surrender, the Babylonians thought well of him - and the Israelis hated him. It’s a policy of appeasement; people don’t usually like that and so when the Babylonians did come, they said, Jeremiah we’ll give you a choice, you can come to Babylon with your people or you can stay here. Quite a choice, but it shows the isolation he was in - because he didn’t like the Babylonians and his people didn’t like him. Actually, he finished up by going to Egypt. Some Jews kidnapped him and took him way up the river Nile to the Elephantine Island - by the way which was where the ark of the covenant had already been taken. It’s probably now in Ethiopia, but it stayed for a time at the Elephantine Island up the Nile and that’s where he died, alone. It’s a sad story. Let’s look now at the method. He was a speaker and most of his speaking was in poetry. Now I hope you have a Bible that distinguishes between poetry and prose - because that’s very important. Poetry, the lines are short and they have lots of gaps on the page, but prose is more like a newspaper column with the lines filled up. And when God speaks in prose, he is communicating his thoughts from his mind to your mind, but when God speaks in poetry, he’s communicating his heart to your heart because poetry is the language of feeling – it’s heart language. And most of Jeremiah’s prophecy is in poetry. But it’s significant when he switches to prose, and it’s just thought. So when you read the Bible and you see it’s poetry, then ask yourself, what is God feeling here? When you read prose, what is God thinking? Unfortunately too many people treat the Bible purely as a source of understanding God's thoughts - as a purely intellectual thing - but it’s a very emotional book. And in fact, the finest translation from Hebrew into English to communicate the emotions of the Hebrew language, which is very like the Welsh language – it’s very emotional language, the very finest translation acknowledged by the experts is the Living Bible. It is the most accurate translation of God's feelings, it’s not always the most accurate translation of his thoughts, or the prose, but it is the most accurate communication of his feelings - and that’s why, when we read the Bible aloud right through, we used the Living Bible and that touched people’s hearts as well as their heads. So we need to know that God has feelings too. So he was a speaker but it was in poetry, which makes it easier to remember, but above all it communicated God's feelings - that is how I feel, says the Lord. And he felt the disappointment of the potter when the clay wouldn’t become the beautiful vessel, the disappointment comes out, the grief of God when he hoped to make Israel so beautiful. His acting is priceless really, it’s street theatre you would call it, but it was prophetic. I mean he went and buried some dirty old rotten underwear. What are you burying rotten underwear for? Well he told them. It’s the clothes you’re wearing that people can’t see that are rotten, and I’m burying it. An then he would wear a yolk, he’d walk around town wearing a cattle yolk as a burden. Mind you, Isaiah did the same thing, Isaiah once ran naked through the streets of Jerusalem and said, God is going to strip you. I am so glad God never repeats himself. And when everybody in Jerusalem was trying to sell their property because they knew when the Babylonians came it would be worthless, he went out and was buying property, as some astute businessmen have done ever since - like President Kennedy’s dad did that; when the stock market crashed, he bought. That’s what Baron Rothschild the Jewish banker did. Some people are bold enough to know when it’s right to buy, when everybody else is selling. That’s what happened in Jerusalem and he went and he bought the field off his relative who was desperately anxious to sell - and his relative said, you shouldn’t buy it, it’s going to be worthless. Jeremiah said, no it isn’t; it’s my investment in the future because they will come back from Babylon, God has told me; and so I’m making a good investment. This was how he acted out and I think of an Arab family in Northern Israel in the 1948 war. All the Arabs were selling their property and getting their money out of the Jewish banks and fleeing, and that man went and put all his money into a Jewish bank because he said, God is giving that people this land and I want my money safe. A lovely Arab man, I’ve been in his home; he has five sons, all preachers of the gospel, and he puts his money where his faith is, you see - and that’s what Jeremiah did. And he would hide stones and he would throw books into the river Euphrates, and he would carry a jar on his head round the city which is woman’s work, and that really struck people. So he was a speaker, an actor and a writer - and his writings have come down to us after all these years. Baruch is one of those little backroom boys in God's kingdom who will never in a sense do great things himself, but who makes it possible for others to hear the Word of God and in fact, God rewards those who work in secret more than those who work publicly. That is the way God works. And dear old Baruch, Jeremiah said this to him: he said, don’t seek great things for yourself - and he didn’t; and he was content simply to write down and distribute what Jeremiah said. And yet without that, words of Jeremiah would have been lost. Isn’t that delightful? Let me be very practical. I praise God for Anchor Recordings who are faithfully sending the Word of God out. They work behind the scenes, the people doing the machine this morning are working unseen, but they’re going to let the Word of God reach so many people. God who sees in secret rewards openly. Let’s look at the message now. And a lot of the message is the same as other prophets. In fact, when you read through the prophets one after the other you get bored. It’s the same old story - Idolatry, Immorality, Injustice. The same decline. They were all seeing the same thing and seeing the corruption of the nation - of this little two tribe nation that’s all that’s left of God's people, and seeing Jerusalem filled with violence so that children can’t even play on the streets and old people dare not come out. It’s the same burden, and so we see four major emphases, four major thrusts of his message which we find in all the other prophets, the same old thing. And I’m sure some people said, well what’s new, we’ve heard this before, that old preacher said that years ago; and Jeremiah said, but you didn’t listen to him. It’s interesting that something Micah said actually saved Jeremiah’s life - you must read the story to find out how. But he was saying the same thing, and when Jeremiah was nearly going to be put to death, somebody said, but remember Micah said this years ago, we ought to be listening - and that saved Jeremiah’s life. Well the four notes were these. First this people is apostate. They are totally corrupt - idolatry and immorality being the two main things. Because remember there was now child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom. There was syncretism - there were idols being brought into the temple of God - and God had said, you must never make graven images. There was rottenness, there were broken marriages, but the main thing is that Jeremiah fingers people, and says, these are the people responsible. First, the prophets. The thing that Jeremiah suffered from most was so many people around him had said they were prophets too, and who gave the opposite message - that was a real problem - and chapter 23, he really flays those false prophets. He said, you haven’t stood in the counsel of God and listened to what God’s telling you. You’ve cribbed your messages from each other. You’ve invented them from your own mind. You’re telling people what they want to hear. You’re telling them peace, peace when there is no peace. You’re telling them not to worry, it will never happen here because this is God's city, this is Jerusalem. He said, how dare you put your security in this building of the temple. You’ve just turned it into a den of thieves - that strike a chord? And he was just saying, you can’t believe that because you are God's people you won’t be judged. There is a modern version of that. If you know my book ‘The Road to Hell’, you know that I point out that the majority of Jesus’ warning about hell were given to born-again believers, but I meet many born-again believers who have no fear of hell whatever, they don’t think it can happen to God's people. That’s the very thing that Jeremiah had to face - it can’t happen to us, we are God's people. Judgement may come to everybody else, but not to us - but Paul reminds born-again believers ‘we shall all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’. We are justified by faith but we are judged by works. And so Jeremiah says, these false prophets are responsible. He says the priests are responsible because they are actually supporting interfaith festivals. They are having services in the temple of different religions, all in the name of tolerance. That’s exactly what’s happening here now, comparative religion is everywhere and we’re all different roads leading to the same God. It’s being taught to our children and this was happening there, the priests were supporting it. And then he said, the princes too, they’re all wrong. He said Jehoiakim will die without mourning, and will be buried like an ass - and do you know that happened. When Jehoiakim died, nobody was sorry and his body was taken out as if he was just a dead animal. It’s tough talk isn’t it? Zedekiah, he said, was so weak and vacillating he was just a puppet of the politicians, not a ruler. All these prophecies - the more I study them, the more I feel I’m reading yesterday’s newspaper and boy, do we need this prophetic message from God in our land. Well, an apostate people. Full of sexual metaphors, some of them quite obscene because he saw the people’s apostasy as a faithless, adulterous wife going after other gods as if they were other men – that’s the real heart of his complaint. Hosea was the first to have used that metaphor, but Jeremiah uses it as well. He says, you’re the bride of God, you’re the wife of God - now you’re running after other gods, you’re nothing better than an adulterous wife – it’s a vivid metaphor. How does God feel, he says, when he has an unfaithful wife? Well if you’ve ever had that sad experience, then you know how God feels. One of the most dreadful things he said to them - he said, you’ve got to the stage where you are unable to blush – unable to blush. You have no shame. It doesn’t even trouble you. Well, God at one point says, I divorce the ten tribes; do you want me to divorce you two tribes as well? Because that’s what an unfaithful wife deserves. The second major thrust of his message, again in common with other prophets, is impending disaster. He says, God will keep his promise to you to punish you. You see when God made promises to Israel, he made two kinds: I bless you when you’re obedient, I curse you when you’re disobedient - and when God punishes, he is keeping his promise. That is his faithfulness. Now most people think of his faithfulness as keeping on doing good things for us, but no, his faithfulness is equally seen in punishing as in pardoning. He’s a ‘faithful God and without injustice’ sang Moses. So God is keeping his word and he will curse them and Jeremiah is quite specific. He says the danger will come from the north and it will not come from Assyria who took the ten tribes away, it will come from Babylon, but they will still invade from the north and the danger is soon. He had a vision of an almond branch bursting into blossom, the sign of spring - and it happens so quickly with an almond tree and he said, it will happen as quickly as that and you’ll suddenly see the Babylonians coming. Well, the next theme is ultimate restoration and beyond all this doom and gloom, he saw a restored nation and above all, he saw that they would have to have a new covenant with God, that the old one of Moses wasn’t working. And he realised why too, because the commandments were written outside people and not inside them. They were written on stone - they needed to be written on the heart. And so in chapter 31, we have one of the loveliest predictions of the Old Testament. Days will come when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It’s a Jewish covenant and it will be a new covenant based on the fact that I will write my laws in their heart and they will all know me. They won’t have need to be taught about me because they will know me and it’ll all be based on forgiveness - their sins I will remember no more. I think that’s the most moving thing that God could say because we can’t forget our sins, they stay with us. We never forgive ourselves because we can’t forget it, but when God forgives you, he forgets it. He has almighty control over his memory and over his ‘forgetory’, and when God forgives something, he doesn’t remember it. One night in Guildford, I came back into the church long after a service was over. There was one little old lady sitting in the front row by herself, weeping her heart out. I went and sat by her and said, what’s the matter dear? And she said, 30 years ago I did the most terrible thing and she said, if my family knew about it, they’d disown me; if my friends knew about it, I’d have no friends. And she said, for 30 years I’ve pleaded with God to forgive me and he never has. I said, oh you poor thing, 30 years ago, when you asked God to forgive you, he forgave and forget it. And for 30 years, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about. She said, I can’t believe that. I took her through the texts that I knew, particularly Jeremiah 31, ‘your sins I will remember no more’. I said, he forgot it 30 years ago, the problem is you can’t forgive yourself because you can’t forget it. That’s why we find it hard to forgive other people because we can’t forget what they said or did. But God forgets it. And do you know when that dear old lady realised the truth of it, she got up and she danced around the church. That’s the kind of dancing I love, far deeper than the charismatic two-step. This was dancing for joy and I just watched her, she must have been in her late sixties or perhaps early seventies and she literally danced around while I sat there and watched. She danced for joy because God had forgotten it - which means that one day when you face God and you say, oh, God now I look at you, I really regret doing that, and God will say, doing what? I don’t recall that. Isn’t that amazing? That is forgiveness and that’s the new covenant that God is going to make with the house of Israel and Judah, and forget it all - and write his laws in their heart and enable every single man and woman to know him so well that they won’t need teaching about God. A lovely promise of an ultimate restoration of God's people and it was fulfilled the night Jesus said, take and drink, this is my blood of the new covenant. We’ll stop there.