The Crisis (Within and Without)
If we could pick one word to describe the human condition since the Fall, it would be crisis, the extent of which can be best understood by what it took to get us out of the crisis: the death of Jesus on the cross. The crisis must be pretty bad; after all, look at the extreme measures needed to solve it.
All through the Bible, many stories took place against the backdrop of one crisis or another. The situation during the time of Jeremiah and his ministry was no different.
God’s people faced many challenges, both from within and from without. Unfortunately, despite the terrible military threat from foreign powers, in many ways the greatest crisis came from within. “Within” meant not just a corrupt leadership and corrupt priesthood, which were bad enough, but “within” was in the sense of people whose hearts had been so hardened and damaged by sin and apostasy that they refused to heed the warnings that God was sending them, warnings that could have spared them from disaster.
Sin is bad enough, but when you refuse to turn away from it—talk about a crisis!
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 10.
When the Israelites had finally entered the Promised Land, after years of wandering in the wilderness, it wasn’t long before troubles began. All it took was for a new generation to arise, one that didn’t “know the Lord” (Judg. 2:10), and a spiritual crisis started that, in many ways, infected the nation all through its history. It’s a problem that, indeed, has infected the Christian church as well.
Verse 11 says: “Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (NIV). Each generation, one after the other, moved one step farther from God until the nation was doing exactly what the Lord had told it not to do. Due to their sin, the Israelites faced one crisis after another, but even then the Lord had not given up on them. He sent them judges (Judg. 2:16) who delivered them from their immediate woes.
After the era of the judges, the nation entered a time of relative peace and prosperity under what has been called “the United Monarchy,” the rule of Saul, David, and Solomon, which lasted about one hundred years. Under David, then Solomon, it grew into a regional power.
The “good” times, though, did not last. After the death of Solomon (about 931 b.c.), the nation split into two factions, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Much of the blame can be placed on the misguided rule of Solomon, who, for all his wisdom, made numerous mistakes. “The tribes had long suffered grievous wrongs under the oppressive measures of their former ruler. The extravagance of Solomon’s reign during his apostasy had led him to tax the people heavily and to require of them much menial service.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 88, 89. Things were never the same again for God’s chosen nation. Everything the Lord had warned them not to do, they did, and thus, they reaped the doleful consequences.
After the division of the nation, things went from bad to worse. In the Northern Kingdom, King Jeroboam made some terrible spiritual choices that had a long-lasting impact for evil.
The king’s introduction of idolatrous worship helped set the nation on a disastrous course. “The apostasy introduced during Jeroboam’s reign became more and more marked, until finally it resulted in the utter ruin of the kingdom of Israel.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 107. In 722 b.c., Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, put an end to the country and deported its inhabitants to different parts of his empire (see 2 Kings 17:1–7). There was no turning back from this exile. For a time, Israel disappeared from history.
Things weren’t as bad in the Southern Kingdom, at least not yet. But they weren’t great either, and, as with the Northern Kingdom, the Lord sought to spare these people from the calamity that the Northern Kingdom faced, only now from the threat of the Babylonians. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, Judah had a series of kings who continued to lead the nation into deeper apostasy.
Despite all the terrible leadership, so many of the prophetic books of the Bible, including Jeremiah, are the words of the prophets whom God sent to His people in an attempt to turn them away from the sin and apostasy that was eating at the heart of the nation. The Lord was not going to give up on His people without giving them ample time and opportunity to turn from their evil ways and be spared the disaster that their sin would, inevitably, bring.
It was against this background that the young Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry. “The word of the Lord” came to him, and he spoke it in hopes that the people, if they would heed these words, would be spared the ruin that otherwise was sure to come.
Even though the nation had experienced some spiritual reform under the leadership of Hezekiah and Josiah, the people reverted to their old ways and fell into worse apostasy. As he did all through his ministry, Jeremiah here spoke in no uncertain terms about what was going on.
Particularly interesting are his words in Jeremiah 2:13. The people had committed two evils: they forsook the Lord, the fountain of living waters, and as a result, hewed out for themselves broken cisterns that, of course, could not hold any water at all. In other words, having abandoned the Lord, they had lost everything. These words become even more meaningful in light of what Jesus said in John 4:10.
In Jeremiah 2:5, the Lord said that the people had gone after “worthlessness,” and as a result they had become “worthless” (ESV). The Hebrew words for both terms come from the same Hebrew word (hbl) that is often translated “vanity.” It also means “a vapor” or “breath.” How does going after worthless things make us “worthless”? What does that mean? How does this concept help us to understand those who, at times, feel as if their lives are meaningless or worthless? What is the answer for them?
The background to the political events that shaped the ministry of Jeremiah are, to some degree, lost to history. That is, many of the details are not available. But we do have in the Bible (with the help of archaeological finds) more than enough information to have a general picture of what took place. Though from a human perspective it probably seemed that no one was in control as these nations battled it out for land, power, and hegemony, the Bible teaches us differently.
The little kingdom of Judah had, in the early years of Jeremiah’s ministry, found itself caught up in the military battles between Babylon, Egypt, and the waning power of Assyria. With the decline of the Assyrian Empire in the late seventh century b.c., Egypt sought to regain power and dominance in the region. However, at the battle of Carchemish in 605 b.c., Egypt was crushed and Babylon became the new world power.
This new power made Judah its vassal state. Jehoiakim, king of Judah, could stabilize the country only by swearing allegiance to the Babylonian king. Many in the country, however, didn’t want to be loyal to Babylon; they wanted to fight and free themselves from the Babylonians, even though that wasn’t what the Lord intended for them to do. On the contrary, God was using Babylon specifically as a vehicle to punish the nation for its apostasy.
Again and again, Jeremiah warned the people about what would happen because of their sin, and time and again many of the political and religious leaders refused to heed the warnings, believing instead what they wanted to believe, which is that the Lord would spare them. After all, were they not God’s specially called people?
In Jeremiah 5:1, the Lord tells the people to run through the streets and see “if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her [Jerusalem]” (ESV). This brings to mind two stories. One is from an ancient Greek philosopher of the fourth century b.c. named Diogenes, who, according to legend, used to walk around in the marketplace in the daytime, claiming that he was looking for an honest man. The other story, of course, one that we know is true, is that of God speaking to Abraham, telling him that if He could find 50 righteous men (soon reduced to 10), He would not destroy the city.
The point, though, in the Lord’s words through Jeremiah, was to reveal just how widespread the apostasy and sin had become among His people. Was there no one who did justice and sought truth?
These verses bring up a point that appears all through the book. No matter how deeply fallen the nation had become, many of the people believed that they were still faithfully following the Lord! They were uttering His name, but they were doing it “falsely” instead of “in truth, in justice, and in righteousness” (Jer. 4:2, ESV) as the Lord had commanded them. They did not listen to the warning coming from God, but they went on in their lives and religious practices as if everything were all right between them and God, when in fact almost nothing was right between them.
The depth of their deception can be seen in Jeremiah 7:4 when the people would take a false comfort in these words, hekhal yhwh hekhal yhwh hekhal yhwh hemma! (“This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”), as if having the temple there was all that they needed in order to ensure that all would go well with them. It’s one thing to know you’re in a crisis; but when you are in one and don’t know it, that’s an even worse situation.
Further Thought: “Ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8). “When thou shalt hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep all his commandments which I command thee this day, to do that which is right in the eyes of the Lord thy God” (Deut. 13:18). “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6, 21:25).
There’s a crucially important contrast presented in these verses, especially in this day and age when many people revolt against the idea of being told by an outside authority what to do, or being told what is right and wrong. Yet, we can see here a clear distinction between these two worldviews. In one, people do whatever they think is “right” in their own eyes; in another, people are to do what is right in the “eyes of the Lord thy God.” The problem with the first position is that, so often in history, what is “right” in someone’s own eyes is often wrong in God’s. That’s why we have to submit everything, even our own conscience, to the Word of God.