More Woes for the Prophet
One thing anyone who has followed the Lord for any length of time will learn is that being a believer in Jesus and seeking to do His will do not guarantee an easy passage through life. After all, as we have been told, “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12, NKJV). This is a truth that Jeremiah was surely learning for himself.
At the same time, however, what our faith can do for us in times of trial is give us a broader understanding upon which we can steady ourselves amid our struggles. That is, when unfair and unjust sufferings and trials come (and no question, so many of them are unfair and unjust), we don’t have to be left alone with a sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness that people who don’t know the Lord often feel. We can know something of the big picture, and the ultimate hope God offers us, no matter how dismal the present is, and from this knowledge— and hope—we can draw strength. Jeremiah knew something of this context, though at times he seemed to forget it and instead focused only on his woes.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 31.
Removed as we are by more than two thousand years chronologically from Judah, and perhaps even further removed culturally and socially, it’s hard for us to understand all that was going on in the time of Jeremiah. When reading the Bible, especially the harsh warnings and threats that God uttered against the people, many people think that the Lord is portrayed here as harsh, mean, and vindictive. This, however, is a false understanding, based only on a superficial reading of the texts. Instead, what the Old Testament reveals is what the New Testament does as well: God loves humanity and wants it saved, but He does not force our choice. If we want to do wrong, even despite His pleas to us, we are free to do so. We just have to remember not only the consequences but that we were warned about them beforehand.
The litany of evils presented here is just a small sampling of what God’s people had fallen into. Both the priests and prophets were “godless,” an incredible irony considering that the priests were to be representatives of God, and the prophets to be spokesmen for Him. And this is just the beginning of the problems Jeremiah confronted.
The evils presented here come under a variety of types. There is the apostasy of the spiritual leaders; they also lead others to do evil “so that no one turns back from his wickedness” (Jer. 23:14, NKJV). Even when the Lord warns about coming judgment, the prophets tell them that it won’t come. Meanwhile, as far as they were from God, they had forgotten the admonition about taking care of the orphans and about defending the poor (Jer. 5:28). In every way, the nation had fallen from the Lord. So much of the Bible, at least among the prophetic books of the Old Testament, records the Lord seeking to call His wayward people back. That is, despite all these evils, and more, He was willing to forgive them, heal them, and even restore them. But if they refused, what else could be done?
The job of the prophets has always been to convey God’s message, not to count how many people accept or reject it. Generally, the number of those who accept what the prophets preach at the time they are preaching it is low. For example, though we don’t know how many were alive at the time of Noah, we can reasonably assume that the majority was not very receptive, given the small number that got into the ark. All through sacred history, this seems to be the pattern.
To gain a better understanding of what was going on here, it’s best to read just what the words were that Jeremiah had prophesied, the words that got him in trouble with such a high official. In Jeremiah 19, we have some of that prophecy: God will bring “evil upon this place” (Jer. 19:3), He will cause the people to fall by the sword and their bodies to be eaten by birds and animals (Jer. 19:7), and He will cause the Judeans to cannibalize each other (Jer. 19:9).
Though no one would have been too happy to be the focus of such a prophecy, as a leader, Pashur was especially offended. As with most people, his initial reaction was to reject the message; after all, who would want to believe something that horrible? More than that, using his position, Pashur made the mistake of punishing the messenger. He had Jeremiah beaten according to the law (Deut. 25:1–3) and locked him up in stocks. Though Pashur released him the next day, this painful and humiliating experience didn’t stop Jeremiah from continuing to give his prophecy, this time not just against Judea but specifically against Pashur and his own family. Before long, the fate of Pashur and his family would be a horrifying example to all who would see them in the chains of captivity. This is also the first place in the book of Jeremiah in which Babylon is mentioned as the place of exile. (The chapters, and even sections of the chapters, are not in chronological order.)
Jeremiah’s harsh words to Pashur and the nation (Jer. 20:4–6) weren’t his own; they were not uttered out of his anger at having been locked in the stocks for a day. They were the Lord’s words to him for the people.
What comes after, though, comes directly from Jeremiah’s own heart, written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is the heartfelt cry of a human being who simply doesn’t like the situation he is in and is crying out about it.
His words at first seem almost blasphemous. One wonders, though, why he would say that the Lord had deceived him when, right from the start, the Lord had warned him that he was going to face fierce opposition. Nevertheless, he complains, “Whenever I speak, all I am speaking is ‘violence and destruction.’ No wonder people are against me.”
He would have liked to have given up and stopped preaching, but God’s word was like a fire in his heart and a fire in his bones. What a powerful metaphor of someone who knew his calling and, despite the personal pain, was going to follow that calling no matter what. (We find similar thoughts written in Amos 3:8 and 1 Corinthians 9:16.)
All through these verses, we see the struggle Jeremiah faces; we can see the great controversy raging both outside and inside him. One minute he’s praising God for rescuing the needy from the wicked; the next (as we will see tomorrow), he’s cursing the day he was born.
Even the harshest critics of the Bible would have to concede a major point: the Bible does not gloss over human foibles and weaknesses. With the exception of the spotless and sinless Son of God, few Bible characters whose lives are presented in any detail in the Bible come away without their weaknesses and faults exposed. This goes even for the prophets. As stated before, the God these prophets served is perfect; the prophets who served Him were not. They, like the rest of us, were sinners in need of the righteousness of Christ to be credited to them by faith (see Rom. 3:22). From Noah to Peter, and everyone in between, all were sin-damaged creatures whose only hope was, as Ellen G. White says, to go before the Lord and say: “I have no merit or goodness whereby I may claim salvation, but I present before God the all-atoning blood of the spotless Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is my only plea. The name of Jesus gives me access to the Father. His ear, His heart, is open to my faintest pleading, and He supplies my deepest necessities.”—Faith and Works, p. 106.
His words here, of course, remind us of Job’s, whose situation was much worse than Jeremiah’s (see Job 3). Though Jeremiah had the assurance that he was doing God’s will and the assurance that the Lord was with him, at this point the pain of his present situation consumed him. Whatever his intellectual understanding of what the truth was, for now it was overshadowed by his own sorrows.
At times, many people might find themselves in a similar situation: they might intellectually know all the promises of God, but they are so overwhelmed by sorrow and pain that these promises are pushed into the background, and all they can focus on is their immediate suffering. This is an understandable reaction; it doesn’t mean it’s a correct one, but it is understandable. What we see here again is the humanity of Jeremiah, which is similar to the humanity of us all.
Despite all the evil, the Lord was still willing to give people a chance to repent. Hence, here, too, we see the grace of God being offered to those who will accept it. Even now, they still had time to turn around, despite all that they had done.
In these verses, too, we can see the conditionality of many prophecies: God says that He will do something, which is often to bring punishment. But if the people repent, He will not do what He said He would do. What He will do is conditional, depending upon how the people respond. Why would God do anything else? He would not admonish the people to turn from their evil ways and then still bring punishment upon them if they repented and turned from their evil ways. In such cases, He won’t punish, and He explicitly says so in these texts.
How utterly frustrated Jeremiah must have felt to be condemned by people who attacked him because, they said, they wanted to save the “teaching of the law,” the “counsels of the wise,” and “the word from the prophets.” How self-deceptive the heart really can be!
Further Thought: In Jeremiah 18:11–17, we find the Lord telling His people to stop doing the things that they are doing. Verse 11 says: “So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions” (NIV). Verse 12 basically has the Lord saying that He already knows they won’t listen to His warnings and pleas but that they will continue to walk in the “stubbornness of [their] evil hearts” (vs. 12, NIV). The Lord then tells what He will do because of their disobedience. This is one of many places in the Bible that show that God’s foreknowledge of our free choices in no way infringes upon those free choices. After all, why would the Lord have pleaded with them to turn from their evil if they didn’t have the freedom to obey or disobey Him? Then, too, why would He punish them for not obeying if they didn’t have the freedom to obey? What’s clear is that the Lord knew exactly what their free choices would be even before they made them. This crucial truth is also seen, for instance, in Deuteronomy 31:16–21. Even before the children of Israel enter the Promised Land, the Lord tells Moses that He knows they will “turn to other gods and worship them” (Deut. 31:20, NIV). Here is more evidence that God’s foreknowledge of our choices does not impinge on the freedom we have to make those choices.