Rebuke and Retribution
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9, ESV).
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9, ESV). Nothing new under the sun? This is especially true when it comes to the lives and work of God’s prophets, who were often called to deliver words of warning and rebuke to those who should have known better. Though seeking to be faithful to their calling, the prophets for the most part faced fervent opposition, even retribution, often from the spiritual leaders, those who should have been the first to listen to them. No wonder Jesus said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets” (Matt. 23:29, 30).
This week we’ll start to look at the trials of Jeremiah, whose ministry seemed to consist of nothing but rebuke and retribution: he giving the rebuke, the leaders giving him retribution.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 24.
From the earliest chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, the Bible presents to us only two options on how to live: we either follow the Lord with all our heart and soul, or we don’t. As Jesus said, in words that many have found troubling, “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23). This is a powerfully unambiguous statement about spiritual realities greater than what appears to the naked eye or than what common sense would seem to tell us. It’s the great controversy theme at its most basic level. And yet, in one sense, Jesus isn’t saying anything new or radical. It’s always been this way.
The immediate context of these words probably reflects Judah’s political dalliances, and the Lord wanted them to understand that their only help was in God, not in political or military powers, a point that they would later learn but only after it was far too late. Though the Lord can and does use other people to help us, in the end we must always put our trust only in Him. We can never know for sure the motives of others; we can always know God’s intentions for us.
With good reason, Jeremiah 17:9 warns about the deceitfulness of the human heart. The Hebrew text says that the heart is more deceitful than “everything.” The horrific physical effects of sin, as bad as they are, aren’t as bad as the moral and spiritual effects. The problem is, because our hearts are already so deceitful, we can’t fully know just how bad they really are. Jeremiah was soon to see for himself how very bad human intentions can be.
Certainly, Jeremiah’s task was not going to be easy. Maybe some people might find perverse pleasure in pointing out people’s sins, but most would find it to be very unappealing work, especially because of the reactions their words would provoke. Though some, when they hear the words of rebuke, might repent and reform, that’s usually not the case, especially when the rebuke itself is very pointed and strong. And indeed, as with all of the prophets, the words of Jeremiah were just that: pointed and strong!
The imagery of the sin engraved on the heart is especially powerful. It shows the depth of the corruption. The idea isn’t just that the sin is written there, as with a pen, but that it is engraved there, etched in with a tool. This all becomes even more powerful when one remembers the words of the Lord to Judah’s ancestors: “If you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 30:10, NIV; compare with Ps. 40:8 and Jer. 31:33). It was out of their hearts that they were to love God and obey His law; now, instead, their sin—the violation of that law (1 John 3:4)—is etched in their hearts.
“Let none who claim to be the depositaries of God’s law flatter themselves that the regard they may outwardly show toward the commandments will preserve them from the exercise of divine justice. Let none refuse to be reproved for evil, nor charge the servants of God with being too zealous in endeavoring to cleanse the camp from evil-doing. A sin-hating God calls upon those who claim to keep His law to depart from all iniquity.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 416.
The sad story of Jeremiah is that the opposition he faced came from the very ones whom, through him, the Lord was trying to save. The Lord wanted to spare them the disaster that was sure to come. The problem, though, is that people often don’t want to hear what they need to hear, because it cuts against their sinful and corrupt desires.
Though in ancient Israel those who falsely prophesied in the name of the Lord could face death, in this case there was no indication that the men of Anathoth thought Jeremiah was speaking falsely. Instead, it seemed that they just wanted him silenced. They didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Though the text doesn’t say how they planned to kill him, some scholars have thought that they might have been thinking of poisoning him.
As we saw, too, Anathoth was Jeremiah’s hometown, and its people were rejecting his message, even to the point of being willing to kill him. This, though, was only the beginning of a much wider rejection by all but a “remnant” of his own nation.
Of course, all of this, including the “lamb led to the slaughter” imagery, evokes the sacrifice of Jesus. In a sense, Jeremiah prefigured Christ, not as a type (like the animal sacrifices), but in that he, like Jesus, faced powerful opposition from the very ones he was trying to help. This situation in Jeremiah’s life definitely calls to mind what Jesus went through early in His ministry as well (Luke 4:14–30).
In the earliest chapters of Jeremiah, the Lord had warned his servant that his work as a prophet was not going to be easy. At the time of his calling, Jeremiah was told that Judah’s princes, kings, priests, and people would “fight against [him]” (Jer. 1:19). Although he was told that the Lord would sustain him and that his opponents would not “prevail against [him]” (Jer. 1:19), no doubt the warning that most of his own people were going to fight him wasn’t welcome news. Jeremiah, though, didn’t yet know the half of it, and when trials came, he was understandably angry and hurt.
Jeremiah 12:1 is filled with Old Testament legal language: the Hebrew words for “righteous,” “bring a case,” and “justice” (NIV) all appear in legal settings. The prophet, so upset over what he has been facing, is bringing a “lawsuit” (see Deut. 25:1) against the Lord. His complaint, of course, is a common one: why do evil people always seem to prosper?
We can see, too, Jeremiah’s humanity exhibited. He wants those who have done evil to him to be punished. He’s not speaking here as a theologian; he’s speaking as a fallen human being in need of grace who, like Job and like many of God’s faithful people, doesn’t understand why these things are happening to him. Why should Jeremiah, God’s servant, called to declare God’s truth to a rebellious people, be subjected to the treacherous plots of his own village? Jeremiah trusted in the Lord, but he surely didn’t understand why things were happening as they were.
Drought struck all of the land; every city, town, and village suffered. The poor and the rich suffered together. Not even the wildlife could bear the lack of water. The aristocrats waited for their servants at the city gates, hoping they had found water, but the springs had dried up. There was no water, and without water, life could not continue. Their misery grew from day to day. The people put on mourning clothes, and walked with their eyes downcast. Then they would suddenly kneel and cry out in desperate prayer.
At the time of such a natural catastrophe, it was the custom to visit the temple of Jerusalem (Joel 1:13, 14; 2:15–17) to fast and to make special offerings to God.
Jeremiah saw the eagerness of the people, but he knew well that they didn’t seek the Lord, only the water. This saddened the prophet further. Jeremiah was also praying, not for water but for the mercy and presence of God.
Jeremiah understood, too, that this was only the beginning of the trials to come. God saw the hearts of the people and knew that if He were to remove the drought, then the repentance would also disappear. The people did everything to try to change their situation, including going to Jerusalem, praying, fasting, putting on sackcloth, and making offerings, but they forgot one thing: true conversion, true repentance. They were looking only to remove the results of the problem, not the problem itself, which was their sin and disobedience.
“Do not pray for this people, for their good,” God told Jeremiah, even though Jeremiah presented earlier a great example of intercessory prayer: “O Lord, though our iniquities testify against us, do it for Your name’s sake” (Jer. 14:7, NKJV). Though we are told to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), in this case the Lord, who knows everything from beginning to end, is revealing to Jeremiah just how corrupt and fallen these people are. Of course, God knows people’s hearts, and God knows the future; we don’t. Hence, the New Testament admonition to pray, even for our enemies, doesn’t lose any of its force here.
Further Thought: Jeremiah struggled with a question that we all do: How do we make sense of evil? But maybe that’s the problem, trying to make sense of what’s not sensible, what could even be deemed as “nonsense.”
In this regard, Ellen G. White wrote: “It is impossible to explain the origin of sin so as to give a reason for its existence. . . . Sin is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it is to defend it. Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 492, 493. Replace the word sin with evil and the statement works just as well: It is impossible to explain the origin of evil so as to give a reason for its existence. . . . Evil is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it is to defend it. Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be evil.
When tragedy strikes, we hear people say, or we ourselves think: I don’t understand this. It doesn’t make sense. Well, there’s a good reason that we don’t understand it: it’s not understandable. If we could understand it, if it made sense, if it fit into some logical and rational plan, then it wouldn’t be that evil; it wouldn’t be that tragic because it serves a rational purpose. How crucial it is that we remember that evil, like sin, cannot often be explained. What we do have, however, is the reality of the Cross, which shows us the love and goodness of God despite the inexplicable evil caused by sin.