Unlocking the Old Testament Part 40 Jeremiah 2

Well let's pick up the story of Jeremiah where we left off in the previous talk. We are now looking at the message of Jeremiah and we're looking at the ways in which his message was very similar to that of the other prophets. We saw first that he talks about the apostate people of God and how they've turned away from God - and when you turn away from God, you turn away from goodness; and when you lose him, you lose the good side of life - and the bad side comes to the surface, because we are basically evil even if we know how to do good things. And when God removes his restraint - or as Paul puts it in Romans 1 "When men give God up God gives men up" - and when God gives men up, the worst side of them comes to the surface and the bad things come out in society. And we all know that but for the grace of God, we would be much worse than we are, if he hadn't kept his hand on us. And when I read of the terrible things that people do and read about them in the newspapers, I have to remind myself I'm capable of being just like that - given the right circumstances, given the right pressures. There aren't men and beasts - all men can be beasts and all women, if God takes his hand off us. So we have an apostate people, they've given up on God so God has let them go and let the worse side come out. The second major theme that he has in common with other prophets is that this is bound to lead to disaster. God has got to deal with it - he can't allow his people to go on like this; and so he said he's going to bring the Babylonians. But those who say that Jeremiah is all bad news really haven't read him properly because when he looks further into the future, he's got a lovely optimism about the ultimate restoration of his people. I want to read a bit to you. I don't often have time to read the Bible in these talks, I hope you read the Bible before and after these talks - but let's just look first at the New Covenant. He says: “The time is coming declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt because they broke that covenant, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house 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 a man teach his neighbour or a man his brother saying, know the Lord, because they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord, for I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” But many readers in church stop there; I want to read on. “This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and the stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar, the Lord Almighty is his name, only if these decrees vanish from my sight, declares the Lord, will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me. This is what the Lord says only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done, declares the Lord.” He is guaranteeing that he will keep his side of the covenant and there will always be an Israel - and there still is. And the fact that the name Israel is back on the map today is proof that God keeps his promises. There'll always be an Israel. We sing ‘there'll always be an England’ - that is not certain, far from it; but there will always be an Israel because God promised them that at long as the sun, moon and stars are up there, they will be down here. This is the ultimate restoration of his people and there are some very precious things; if you read the previous chapter, it's all about ‘I'll bring them home again’ they'll come rejoicing, singing and dancing when they come home again. And sometimes I’ve been there on their Day of Independence at the beginning of May, and I have been dancing in the streets with 40,000 young people and they just put babies down under the trees and know they'll be safe, and then they dance through the streets because they are a nation again under God. It’s very exciting. Well now, he not only promised that he would bring them back, though it was Jeremiah who said ‘70 years’, and many years later Daniel read that in the exile, and he realised the 70 years were nearly up and he was so excited because Jeremiah had said it'll be 70 years and they were nearly through. It was to ensure as we saw that the land got it's rest, and that that generation who were turned out of the land died so they couldn't come back. God only promised to bring their children back and those children had been born in Babylon, they had never seen their own land but there's a whole emphasis in chapter 30 on I'll bring them home. That's a magic word - home - where you belong; this is where they belonged. But he also promised them a new leader - a new king; he gave him a lot of titles he called him the Good Shepherd, the Righteous Branch, the Messianic Prince, the shoot from David's tree, the Fountain of Life. He talked about this coming King in these beautiful terms and he also promised that this man would come and would restore the throne to them. So that's the ultimate restoration. The fourth and last point that he made which the other prophets make is that their enemies would be punished, the Babylonians would be punished, all those who'd been against Israel would be punished. God had allowed the Babylonians to take them off but he promised that he would punish them. Habakkuk particularly is a prophet who made that point. But all Israel's enemies - God will avenge his people and there's a list of them: Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus - or Syria - Kedar, Hazor, Elam and last of all Babylon. And Jeremiah promises that one day Babylon will be conquered by another world power - we now know it was going to be Persia - and that conquest of Babylon by Persia would be the release of the Jews to go back home, because Cyrus was a very benevolent ruler and he wanted to send the people who’d been taken to Babylon from wherever to go back home. And it was Cyrus who had an interesting policy - I'm jumping ahead in history now - Jeremiah doesn't tell us this but we find it from other books. Cyrus, having conquered Babylon, and wanting to be a very humanitarian ruler said, all of you who’ve been taken from your homes, go home; but he said, when you get home, be sure to build a temple to your God in which you can pray for me. And he said that to every captive people - but of course it meant that the Jews had his authority to rebuild a temple, but perhaps you didn't know that all sorts of other nations went back home and built temples to pagan gods - but that was Cyrus. He said, I want you to build a temple to pray for me - and within that overall direction, the Jews were able to go back and rebuild the temple. So Jeremiah was a prophet to the nations and there's a whole section at the end of his book which predicts what will happen to all the nations who have attacked Israel or been unkind to them, and it's God who will wreak that vengeance, not Israel. The Jews therefore - and this is in Jeremiah - would need to leave Babylon; they must not stay there when they could come home. And I’m afraid the majority did - only 50,000 out of 1,000,000 or so actually came home - and to this day Jews who've stayed in Iran and Iraq have a very difficult time. But I'm afraid when you've been born in a country and you've built up a business in a country, to leave all that and to repeat what Abraham had to do from the same place and leave it all behind and go to a country you've never seen - it's not easy. But God told them through Jeremiah, now be sure you come back. Now at this point, rather than go on with this - I'm going to come back to it - I want to just look at the whole shape or structure of the book of Jeremiah just to see how that message which he has in common with other prophets is laid out. And again I find, to get the overall shape… Now I did tell you that Jeremiah was a bit of a jumble - it's not in chronological or topical order - nevertheless, there is a pattern that you can see and this is the pattern. It's really quite simple: there is a prologue chapter 1 is about how he was called by God as a young man - as a teenager - and how he was terribly shy and that he was afraid of public speaking; and if you're afraid of public speaking, to be called to be a prophet is a bit of a problem. And then, from chapter 2 to 45 is all about this sinning nation, his own nation of Judah, and he is saying the retribution - the punishment - is coming very quickly, it's just about to come. And so it covers the years 627 to 605 BC, and it's mainly poetry which means he's communicating God's feelings to them - how God feels - God's regret and his anger, God's conflict of emotions. He loves them but he cannot let them go on as they are, every parent knows that kind of conflict; and he says clearly, Babylon will destroy Assyria and will defeat Egypt - because I'm afraid at the end, those weak kings of Judah were saying, if we make a treaty with big powerful Egypt they will protect us against Assyria, or against Babylon. And Jeremiah said, no, Babylon’s going to defeat Egypt - no use making a treaty with her, you've got to trust God. So often the Jews, you know, think that the way to peace is to make a peace pact with people outside Israel, and all through the Old Testament God says, that's not the way to get peace. I wonder just how relevant that is to what's happening right now. Israel has to look to God for peace. When it starts making pacts with those who are her enemies, Jeremiah says that's not going to work and violence will rebound on you - and maybe we're seeing just that in the news from the Middle East. Now that's chapters 2 to 20, and then chapters 21 to 45 is the good news when he looks beyond all that to the ultimate restoration; and when he realised it was hopeless, that this disaster was going to come, he then gave them this longer-term view of the ultimate restoration of the people again. And now it's mainly prose, now it's mainly thoughts rather than feelings from God. See the difference? When God talks about the immediate situation, it's his heart that's involved and his feelings, but when he looks further afield, he's simply sharing his intentions for the long-distance future - which are not so hot as it were - not so emotional. And in the long term, after Babylon has deported Judah and Jerusalem is devastated, nevertheless, some will come back and rebuild it and the situation is not totally lost. Then towards the end of the book, chapters 46 to 51 are all about the nations around Israel who have been a problem to her and that God will one day deal with them. The restoration of Israel will be accompanied by the judgement on those who have caused her troubles. That's how the God of justice operates in history. Chapter 52 is a kind of epilogue about this dreadful national catastrophe that's breaking on Jeremiah's people and it really is written in the last chapter 52 when it happened, and it describes how Jeremiah was taken away to Egypt, and Jerusalem was left empty and devastated. Well now, so far we’ve simply been looking at the things that Jeremiah says that all the other prophets have said, but there are three things that he says which are quite unique to him, new emphases rather than totally new things, but they are said in a way that other prophets do not say them, they are quite unique to this prophet Jeremiah. And the first is his great emphasis on spiritual living, he’s been called the spiritual prophet because he is the one prophet who says that religious ritual is worse than useless if your heart isn't in it. In fact, some have thought Jeremiah thought the whole system of sacrificial offerings to God was a waste of time, but he wasn't exactly saying that, but what he was saying is that the outward ritual of worship is not all that important. What God is looking for is your heart behind it -whether you are really engaged in spiritual activity. In other words, Jeremiah said, it doesn't matter if your body is circumcised or not - it's whether your heart is circumcised. There's this emphasis on heart religion, emphasis on getting the spirit of the Law, and the priests were encouraging the idea that religious observance is somehow a substitute for godliness. Now when you've got professional priests and professional clergy and pastors and vicars who really are mostly concerned about how many people they can get into the church and taking part in the services, you've got the same sort of situation. Because really, that's not what God is wanting. What God is wanting is godly living - and going to church is no substitute for godly living; and raising money for a new church building is no substitute for a heart that wants to give to the poor, And so Jeremiah puts this tremendous emphasis on the spiritual aspect of religious life. He is a very spiritual man and he's concerned with the human spirit. Now of course, he's preparing them for the day when they would lose the temple and not be able to offer sacrifices, when the only things they would have in Babylon would be - not a temple but a synagogue, and the word synagogue is a Greek word ‘sunagogei’ which means to come together, that's all it means. ‘Sun’ - together, ‘gogei’ - to come. A sunagogei or synagogue is a lot of people coming together - but what could they come together for? They couldn't come together to let the priests offer sacrifices, and so priests were going to be out of a job in Babylon because all the priests were connected with the temple and the altar and the sacrifices. But looking further ahead, I wonder if you can see this - that actually this changed to doing without a priesthood and without sacrifices and without a temple but coming together for three things - praising God, praying and reading the scriptures. This was to lay the foundation for church life in the New Testament because we don't have a temple, we don't have altars, we don't have vestments, we don't have incense, we don't have priests, we don't have sacrifices - we just have a table. And we come together to pray and to praise and to read the scriptures and study them, and actually synagogue worship became the pattern for Christian worship; can you see that? And the early churches were just Christian synagogues because we now don't need a high priest, we don't need a sacrifice. Jesus has died - it's all obsolete, the veil of the temple has been torn in two because the curtains are taken down when the place is empty - and so all this sacrificial ritual we don't have or we shouldn't - I'm afraid it tends to creep back in if we're not careful. But all the paraphernalia of the priesthood and the vestments and the incense and the altars, that is now obsolete as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, but we do still need to come together for what we can do and that is to pray and to praise and to study the scripture - and that's the basic outline of Christian worship. So what the Jews were going to have in Babylon is what we now have because in fact we are in exile; did you realise that? We are ‘strangers and sojourners’, we're the diaspora - the dispersion - now, we're just passing through. The real temple is up there, it's not down here anymore and Jesus our high priest has entered beyond the veil and taken the sacrifice of himself into the Holy of Holies and so every church now is simply a Babylonian synagogue. Now there's something for you to really think through. But the application of it is terribly important because the temptation of the Christian church from the beginning has been to go back to the ritual of the temple and to have priests and to have altars and incense and vestments and it's a reversion. And Jeremiah was one of the men who liberated even the Jews from all that so that they could survive without it and in Babylon meet together, come together in sunagogei - in synagogues - to pray and to praise and to read the scripture. Now this is a unique emphasis in Jeremiah, and that's why we call him the spiritual prophet, he was setting them free from all the outward ritual so that when they lost it - been taken away from it all - they would remain the people of God. It's quite a thought isn't it? He’s the only prophet who could foresee that they would have to find a form of religion without all the temple and its paraphernalia. The next unique thing is that he really emphasised that in the new covenant, God is going to deal with individuals, he's not going to deal with groups, people in the mass, he's going to make this covenant with each individual - not with the whole people. And that is one of the striking features of the New Covenant as it comes in the New Testament - there's an emphasis on each individual. God loved the world and he sent his only begotten son that ‘whoever’… and Jesus was constantly saying, ‘if any man’ follow me - each one, that's the emphasis that's coming. Before that, people thought that God saw them as a mass - ‘my people’ - but that's got to change and though God is punishing them as a people, when they get back from exile, God's going to deal with each one individually and he makes this real statement just before he outlined the New Covenant. Let me find it and read it to you. “In those days” - this is when you get back here – “in those days people will no longer say the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; and whoever eats sour grapes his own teeth will be set on edge.” Now that's a complete change because you must have noticed how often in the Old Testament God dealt with them corporately and he said, the sin of this generation could go on affecting to the third and fourth, and the father who’s sinned can cause with his children to sin - the father who eats sour grapes, the children’s teeth are set on edge. No longer! He said, in the New Covenant, God will deal with each person individually for their own sins - and the New Testament has picked that up. And the New Covenant is an individual covenant with each generation separately. That's why I said earlier God has no grandsons, certainly not in the New Covenant - and you can't inherit a place in the kingdom and even though your parents are in, God deals with you as an individual - and you need to come in too. Now that has profound implications even on such things as baptism for example. In the New Covenant, these things are for each individual and each individual must accept personal faith in the Lord or they can't be in the kingdom. You certainly can't be born into it - you can only be born-again into it. So the implications of all this are very far reaching. Ezekiel who came after Jeremiah would pick up this same emphasis and he would say exactly the same thing - that each person will be judged for their own sin and nobody else’s. And that is why in the New Testament on the Day of Judgement, you can't stand in a group, you can't come as a family, you can't come as a church congregation - each person stands alone and is only answerable for their own sins and you're not answerable for anybody else’s. So this great switch from God dealing with a people to dealing with the individual is first sounded in Jeremiah and then picked up by Ezekiel - and the whole New Testament is based on that understanding. The third unique emphasis is on the political side. More than any other, even more than Isaiah, Jeremiah gives political advice to the rulers of Israel because when Israel is shrinking and about to disappear, they tried to play off one super power against another, and again and again he said, it's no use your going to Egypt, they're powerful but they're not going to be able to protect you because Babylon is going to defeat them too. And he said, it's no good fighting against Babylon because if you do, God is sending them to take you and you'll lose. He said, my political advice is - give in to Babylon, co-operate with them, get the best terms you can for surrender. Now of course, to the last few kings of Israel that was treason to suggest giving in, not even trying to defend Jerusalem. He said, surrender it; you might preserve the city but if you try and fight these Babylonians, the whole city will be destroyed - it'll be utter ruin. So welcome the Babylonians, co-operate with them – say, yeah we don't mind living under you but let's come to some terms. But they would not listen, and his political advice was turned down by one weak king after another; he was called a traitor. He even said, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, is coming as God's servant. Now can you imagine somebody in 1939 saying, Adolph Hitler is God's servant, co-operate with him, get the best terms you can? Such talk – well, certainly after Churchill became Prime Minister - we'd have been absolutely horrified with that advice. But that's the word that Jeremiah had to give - not an easy word to give because it looks as if you're siding with the Babylonians. Well, he advocated surrender to the Babylonians - that's when he put a yolk on his shoulders and he walked around Jerusalem and said, you must accept the yolk of Babylon; and before the Babylonians had come, that was a terrible message. Because it was saying you've got to accept the occupation like the Channel Islanders had to accept the German occupation, not easy for them. Well now, those are the unique things that he said and when the king of Babylonia came, he actually offered Jeremiah to put him on his honours list. Can you imagine how the other Jews would feel about that? When king Nebuchadnezzar… ‘arise Sir Jeremiah you helped us’, and so that led I'm afraid to what I've called the maltreatment of Jeremiah - you can understand it perhaps. Mind you, it had begun right at the beginning in his home town. It's interesting that the first attempts to kill Jeremiah came from his own relatives in the village of Anathoth - that's why he had to move house. They plotted to assassinate him because it injured their family pride that this teenager was going around upsetting the whole of Jerusalem. The whole family was very angry with this young man - you're going to get us into trouble with the king - and they actually plotted to kill him. God had a little word for him then, he said, I'm only training you for worse. What a comfort! This is getting you ready for much worse trouble - it's all there in the book. So from then on, he was branded a traitor. He was rejected by the other prophets because they were false prophets, he was rejected by the priests because he spoke against the priests' job, the temple and the sacrifice, he was rejected by the princes because he was a political traitor, and he was rejected by the people. And there was one plot after another to assassinate him - and none of them succeeded, but more than once he barely escaped with his life. He was beaten and imprisoned by the priest, Pashhur, and he was flung into a dimly lit dungeon. At other occasions, he was put in the stocks with his hands and feet locked in the stocks and he was pilloried, he had an iron collar on him - and finally he was put in a cistern, that's a kind of deep well shaped like a flask with a narrow neck so that the water didn't evaporate. They used to keep their water in these cisterns. The result was that when the water was taken out, it left mud silt in the bottom and an empty cistern was like this flask with a little hole at ground level and then about four or five feet of soft mud in the bottom. And you can still see such cisterns, there are a lot of them on the top of Masada which you can still see and you can see the silt that the water leaves in the bottom. They threw him into that and he found himself up to his neck in the slime. Can you imagine that in that dark place - just seeing daylight through a little hole up above your head - and having to stand? He couldn't sit down, he had to stand all the time or he'd have drowned in this mud - and it was a foreigner actually, not an Israeli, a foreigner let down a rope and said, get it round under your elbows and I'll pull you out. A foreigner took pity on him and got him out of the cistern. He was often in hiding. There were few remaining in Jerusalem who would seek his advice. Finally, he was forcibly removed by the Jews who fled to Egypt when the Babylonians came - and there he died. His death is not in scripture; he died in obscurity, little dreaming that he would become world famous and that we'd be talking about him 2,000 years – more – later. Quite a story. Now it's because of all this that he's called the weeping prophet. He wasn't a happy man but then, would you be? And it's his misery that comes out again and again - and in the next talk I'm going to talk about a whole book in which he weeps from start to finish, it's written in tears. It's called Lamentations. But even in the book itself, his miserable life comes out because he wasn't afraid to let us know how he prayed in those situations, he bared his soul. He revealed his feelings and he was deeply hurt, this wasn't a thick-skinned man who didn't mind what people said about him. This was a very sensitive man and he was deeply hurt because he was regarded as a traitor by his own family and by his own fellows and because all the prophets were against him and all the priests were against him and all the kings were against him. Loneliness is what the man suffered. His physical sufferings were bad enough, but he felt not only trapped by man, he felt trapped by God - that was the real hurt, the real pain. He felt as if God had given him no choice, God had called him to this and shut him into it, and God had somehow trapped him into this ministry; and he frankly says he resented this and he cried out to God against it, and it's the mental and emotional suffering that came out of this loneliness and rejection. One of the worst things was this, God said, I forbid you to marry Jeremiah because if you did, you'd only have to see your children starve when the Babylonians came. And so this was another way in which he got the message across. He would say, I've never married and I'm not having children because I'm not bringing children into the world right now just to watch them suffer. There's a powerful message - but it meant that he didn't even have a wife to go with him. It's interesting how God used prophets and their marriages to communicate the message. For example, he told Hosea to marry the prostitute so that he could preach from that experience how he felt about an unfaithful wife. And then he told Ezekiel, Ezekiel your wife's going to die tomorrow and you're not to weep - because my wife's going to die and I'm not weeping - and Ezekiel had to go through that. Now here's Jeremiah - he's got to remain a bachelor. And so these men were told that their life must reflect their message and they had to live it out and in this way, God was able to communicate his feelings to them. And Jeremiah was feeling very lonely and trapped, and he says when he felt most trapped, I know oh Lord that a man's life is not his own, and it's not for a man to direct his steps. Some of the most heart rending passages he cries out God you've given me a hopeless task; and one of those cries – it’s widely quoted - he said, if I decide that I'll never talk about God again, there is a hidden fire burning in my bones; I am weary with forbearance and I cannot contain it. And the poor man is saying, I'm never going to preach another sermon and then he says, but I can't stop it - it's burning in my bones; I've got to let it out. And that's the trap he felt himself in, that he really had no choice because his heart was burning for God and even when he made a decision never to preach again, he just found himself out on the streets preaching again. He hadn't really been forced into it by God; God never forces people, but you can understand the feelings that he'd been trapped. Now I'm quite sure in heaven he's saying, it was all worth it. But at the time, it doesn't feel like that, does it? At the time, it feels that God has trapped you and put you in a corner and made you do something - but someone had to do it. But his prayer life is quite unique. I haven't time to go through it but if you read the prayers of Jeremiah, there are about seven of them all the way through in which he's written down just how he talked to God and the sheer honesty of the man, very honest. He told God exactly what he felt - you should do that you know because God knows how you feel anyway - so why tell him what's not true? There's a place for honesty in prayer. One of the classic cases I came across - well it's a letter I received from a lady in Harari in South Africa. I wonder if you know the lady? But she had a terrible car crash and for many years she was in dreadful pain and it got worse and worse. And one night, she was walking to her bedroom after three hours of being unable to sleep, and she'd cursed God for three hours, cursed him for three hours because of the pain of all these long years after the car crash. And she caught her foot in the rug and fell on the bed and became unconscious. And she woke up in the morning and the sun was straight through the window in her eyes and she thought she'd gone to heaven. And boy, was she afraid; she thought, my last hours on earth were spent cursing God, and then she realised it was the sun shining and she felt her hands and they were still there, so she felt her legs and they were still there and she thought, that's strange, and she got out of bed and she had no more pain and she was running around the bedroom. Then she ran out into the street, she was stopping people in the street to tell them, and then she went to a doctor, and when she went into the surgery, the doctor said, my, you're pretty sprightly this morning. She said yes, Jesus has healed me. And the doctor said, praise the Lord, he was a Christian too. He said, how did he heal you? She said, well I cursed him for three hours. God can take a challenge. Argue with God like Habakkuk did. You will never win the argument; but he likes people to argue with him. He wants to know how you really think and how you really feel; then he patiently and tenderly puts you right. You study Jeremiah's life in all his unhappiness, in all his feeling of being trapped by God into this ministry, in all the isolation and loneliness of having everybody against you - and not being able to have a wife to stand with you. In all that, this man prays to God; he was miserable but he told God he was and he had it out with the Lord; and whenever you feel like that, that you're trapped, you know? Perhaps if you're a preacher and you feel, I never want to preach again if the people treat me like that, then just read Jeremiah's prayers and you'll find yourself going ahead. Well that's the prophet and we'll finish there.