The fourth chapter of Jeremiah begins where chapter 3 ended: with a call to return, but Judah did not return, and as we shall see, failure to return brings the warning of disaster from the North. Jeremiah’s response to this situation is one of great anguish and sorrow.
Israel, God’s chosen people are the key to the success of the nations. When God spoke to Abraham he indicated that it would be through Abraham’s physical descendants that the nations would be blessed (see for example Genesis 22:18). In view of this, the Lord appeals for Judah to return, he does so with three ‘if-statements’: If you, Israel, will return, then return to me…If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, 2and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives’. Note that this is an appeal to action; to return, to put idols away and to speak truthfully. We’ve seen the ‘ifs’ what about the ‘then’? ‘Then the nations will invoke blessing by him and in him they will boast.’ Israel is God’s agent on earth to bring about benefits for all nations. Given the immense spiritual battle that has raged over this planet since the fall, perhaps it is not so surprising that the evil one has targeted much of his malignity towards Israel – an attack on Israel is an attack on God’s plans for this world. Who would have thought, after the horrors inflicted on Jews during the second world war, that a mainstream political party in the UK would harbour such hatred for these people – the battle to thwart God’s plans rages to this day.
Jeremiah has more to say to Judah: ‘Break up your unploughed ground and do not sow among thorns.’ One cannot help but be reminded in these words of the parable of the sower. It’s a well-loved story we’ve heard many times since childhood. I have to confess that as I grew up hearing the story, I totally missed the point! You remember – the sower sows the seed and it falls on 4 different types of soil: on the path where people walk, on rocky ground, on soil already filled with weeds and thorns and finally on good soil. Only the seed that falls on good soil returns a healthy crop. I had previously just assumed that this was describing the inevitability of individual people’s response to God’s word (and don’t forget the parable was told to Jews); they were essentially victims of their circumstances, or so I thought. But of course that’s not the point at all! The point is that the people had within themselves the ability to condition the soil of their lives to receive the word of God! It’s all rather obvious – duh! As we return back to Jeremiah’s statement the people have it within themselves to ‘break up your unploughed ground.’ Jeremiah uses another picture to convey this message: ‘circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts.’ Jeremiah would speak more on this later – it seems to be a reference to the coming new covenant. But for now this is a specific instruction. Interestingly this idea of ‘heart circumcision’ (to be softened to God’s word/desires) was not a new concept for Judah; back in Deuteronomy (10:16) we read these words: ‘Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.’ To avoid being ‘stiff-necked’ was within the capability of the people – failure to do this would bring the fire of God’s judgment (v 4).
- Invasion from the North
Disaster was heading in Judah’s direction. Jeremiah warns the people to be ready – there is real urgency in his tone and he calls for four specific actions: sound the trumpet, flee to the fortified cities, raise the signal, flee for safety. Why? Because the Lord says ‘For I am bringing disaster from the north, even terrible destruction.’ The Lord uses a picture of a lion – ‘a lion has come out of his lair, a destroyer of nations has set out.’ This is a reference to king Nebuchadnezzar Babylonian army. In the Mesopotamia section of the British Museum in London they have a panel of glazed bricks showing a ‘pacing, roaring lion’ that was part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room. A lion was an apt description of both the ferocity of the judgment itself and of the particular agency God would use to bring it about! The impact of the judgment would be immense; the towns would lie in ruins and the land itself would be ruined. We recently saw the film ‘Finest Hour’ which tells the story (doubtless with not a little cinematic licence!) of Winston Churchill’s courageous and defiant leadership in the face of Nazi threat to our islands. His leadership saved the day. But not so for Judah, the ruling class would have no response; ‘the king and the officials will lose heart, the priests will be horrified, and the prophets will be appalled.’
In the midst of these difficult circumstances there was an additional danger for Judah: false prophets. False prophets operate by mimicking the truth. They take the truth and adjust it just enough to turn it from life-giving truth to deathly lies. In Jeremiah’s day it seems that the false prophets partly operated by omitting truth, specifically God’s Deuteronomic covenant with Israel (in which God promised curses and exile for disobedience). Since I have no hair on the top of my head, all the wonderful British sunshine has had the effect of disrupting my skin cells – this causes lumps, bumps and defects that can get worse if not treated. The treatment is interesting – it’s a cream containing a drug: 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). The treatment works by tricking the cells to manufacture DNA with 5-FU rather then the natural DNA component thymine. Having tricked the cells, the DNA made with 5-FU causes the cell system to fail and the cells die. I’m happy that this happens as it kills the sun-damaged troublesome cells. See below the chemical structures of 5-FU and natural thymidine – note how similar they are!
This is the way that deception occurred in Jeremiah’s day and occurs in the church today. Take a look at 1 Timothy 4 for some of Paul’s teaching on this. In our day and age there is a dislike of ‘narrow minded’ people who are interested in doctrine and truth. But it is vital that truth is preserved and subtle deception is detected and rejected. Deception of this sort is not easy to spot, but it usually takes two distinct forms, one sort removes from God’s word and the other sort adds to God’s word.
Jeremiah goes on to give more pictures of the coming destruction, it will not just be like a lion, it will be like a scorching wind, clouds in a whirlwind and horses speedier than eagles. The Judeans would have been used to harnessing the wind for productive purposes – when threshing cereal crops the wind would helpfully blow the husks away to leave the useful grain, but the wind that was coming would be a scorching wind of destruction. Having described the coming judgment with these pictures, Jeremiah now becomes specific in his prophecy – there would be no room for doubt: ‘A besieging army is coming from a distant land, raising a war cry against the cities of Judah. 17 They surround her like men guarding a field, because she has rebelled against me.’ To protect a flock of sheep from an attack, armed men would stand around the field facing outwards against the predators. The picture drawn by Jeremiah is of men encircling the sheep facing inwards: not to protect but to attack!
Was this coming judgment just some inevitable event in God’s plan? Did the Judeans have any choice – or were they merely actors playing out a part? Verse 18 clarifies the moral responsibility of the people: ‘Your own conduct and actions have brought this on you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!’
- Jeremiah’s pain
Every parent knows the pain of watching a child do the wrong thing and suffer the consequences. Don’t touch that hot plate! Don’t go there! Don’t spend time with them! Parents can see the hurt that will follow before it happens! So it was for Jeremiah (verse 19): ‘Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry. 20 Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins.’ With his prophetic eye, Jeremiah could see the disaster that was coming and it affected him greatly. He states that in an instant the tents are destroyed and ‘my shelter in a moment.’ This seems to refer to the amazing Temple built by Solomon and restored by King Josiah: disaster would indeed follow disaster.
Meanwhile the people went from bad to worse: ‘They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.’ I think in many ways Jeremiah’s heart is a reflection of God’s heart – how it must grieve him to see us choose the wrong thing and wander away from his light and protective hand. But as for the people they are described as ‘fools.’ What Jeremiah saw in his day seems to resonate with our observations in the UK today – our institutions and places of learning were once shaped by Christian thinking but now they are shaped by atheistic materialism – there is no God, thus there is no absolute right and wrong. The results are plain for all to see.
- Devastation and Ruin
Jeremiah now speaks of the extent of the devastation: ‘I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone.’ If that sounds familiar that’s because it is! Here’s Geneses 1:2: ‘Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep.’ Jeremiah looks to the future and sees a level of destruction that has not been known since creation. This has been well described as ‘de-creation’ by some commentators! There is no doubt that Jeremiah was looking towards the coming judgment of God through the agency of the Babylonians. But the language is so extreme that one wonders if Jeremiah might have overstated his case – would it really be this bad? There are occasions in the Old Testament prophets in which they see two future events as one and in which the element of time seems to be missing. Jesus himself seemed to do this when he spoke of the destruction of the Temple – an event that took place some 40 years after his death and resurrection. But when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple he also looked forward to the days before his return – two events are foreseen at the same time. Jeremiah seems to have been looking ahead to the judgment of the Babylonians and the exile that would follow, but with his prophet’s view he seemed also to look into the distant future to a time that remains future for us too – a time of much greater judgment and impact, a time that Jesus spoke of at the end of his ministry a time that is often referred to the Day of the Lord. Jeremiah will later talk of this day and he will describe it as the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble.’
All this talk (by Jeremiah and Jesus) of days of terrible judgment and disaster have made some Christians fear for the coming of the Lord. I remember our Christian physics teacher at High school – he was a believer but was somewhat given to radical ideas! He foresaw days of disaster and told all believers to start preparing by stocking up food and learning self-defence techniques. Is this the right thing to do? Should we stockpile food and prepare in this way? The simple way to interpret the bible is always to ask who is speaking and to whom and under what circumstances. Jeremiah was speaking to Judeans (and Israel), Jesus spoke to Jews, - they do have a difficult time to go through in the future (more of this later in Jeremiah) but what about believers today? We need to look to Paul’s teaching which was given to the church – for sure Paul sees some difficult days ahead but his tone is completely different from that of Jeremiah – the coming of the Lord is not something to be feared but something to be cheered by. Read what he tells the Thessalonians in chapter 4 and 5 of his first letter in which he specifically says that ‘God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ‘God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The overall message is one of encouragement and comfort. Why the difference? The solution lies in the sequence of events that make up the Lord’s return, first for the church and then Israel goes through the terrible time of ‘Jacob’s trouble’ (read more of this in the book of Revelation) then Israel’s repentance comes and finally the Lord will come to set up his kingdom on earth.
For now, there would be few words of comfort or hope for Judah: ‘All the towns are deserted; no one lives in them.’ Remarkably in the midst of this message of disaster the is a glint of light: ‘The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely.’ One would have imagined that having heard Jeremiah’s terrible message (and the grain of hope) that the people would turn from their wicked ways and seek God’s forgiveness. Did they? Not at all. They were of the ‘we know best’ sort. They would charm the Babylonians and thus avert disaster! ‘What are you doing, you devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold? Why highlight your eyes with makeup? You adorn yourself in vain. Your lovers despise you; they want to kill you.’
Chapter 4 ends with the ‘Daughter of Zion’ gasping for breath as life is given over to murderers. What a depressing passage of the bible. A people who should have known better are heading for judgment and they are in denial. I think there is a lesson here for us – will we be so tuned-in to the world’s thinking that we will miss the truth – as the Judeans had it within themselves to make the right choices so do we. How will we live?