- A ruined waistcoat
The England football team returned from the Russia World cup a couple of days ago (as I write in mid July 2018). The team performed better than the most optimistic of optimists! One of the talking points during the tournament was the manager’s waistcoat! He wore it to every game – even in the sultry heat when the team defeated Sweden in Samara. Apparently online sales of M&S waistcoats doubled during the world cup! Jeremiah was asked by the Lord to wear a linen belt – perhaps if he had been sent to speak to the English people it would have been a waistcoat!
This was the second in a series of symbolic acts that Jeremiah was asked to play out to the people of Judah. ‘Go and buy a linen belt and put it round your waist, but do not let it touch water’ (verse 1), said the Lord. So Jeremiah bought the belt and wore it around his waist. Presumably Jeremiah had word the belt as he spoke to the people on behalf of the Lord and perhaps it became as well associated with him as Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat became. Since linen was a specific fabric worn by priests, perhaps there was a symbolic aspect to the fabric itself. The Lord then spoke to Jeremiah a second time: ‘take the belt you bought and are wearing round your waist, and go now to Perath and hide it there in a crevice in the rocks.’ It seems best to understand the word translated in the NIV as Perath, as the Euphrates. Now this was not close-by, in fact it would require a journey of some 350 miles to take the belt to the Euphrates , hide it in the rocks. Jeremiah would take several weeks to get to the Euphrates and return minus his belt. Imagine if Gareth Southgate went off for a few months and on his next England international match turned up without the waistcoat. Questions would be asked! But there was more to follow for Jeremiah.
It was after ‘many days,’ that the Lord instructed Jeremiah to go back to the Euphrates (another 700 mile round trip) and retrieve the belt. Not surprisingly the belt was in a bad way: ‘it was ruined and completely useless.’ We are not told, but I suspect that Jeremiah wore the ruined belt as he spoke to the people. Now he had their attention! But what was the point?
The message was uncompromising: ‘In the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem’ (verse 9). What exactly was the pride of Jerusalem? The temple: the magnificent structure built by king Solomon and refurbished by king Josiah. As for the people they will be like the belt too – they will be ‘completely useless.’ Why? Because they refused to listen to the Lord’s words, they were stubborn and replaced the true God with false gods. This sounds depressingly familiar. The people of our country stubbornly refuse to listen to God’s words and they too have replaced God with all sorts of false beliefs.
For Israel in general and the people of Judah in particular the picture of the ruined linen belt was all the more tragic as it was a reminder of what God had intended for them: ‘For as a belt is bound round the waist, so I bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me,” declares the Lord, “to be my people for my renown and praise and honour. But they have not listened.”’ Israel had been given a special place in God’s plans, a place close to the Lord, but they had not listened.
- Ruined wine vessels
I have noticed with interest the various phrases used in different cultures at the start of a meal. The French of course say ‘bon appetit,’ in Germany it’s ‘guten appetit,’ in Switzerland it’s ‘en guete’ even the American’s will say ‘enjoy your meal,’ in British English the best we seem to have is the somewhat agricultural ‘dig in!’ It seems that back in Jeremiah’s time there was a phrase associated with drinking wine and it translates to: ‘every wineskin should be filled with wine!’ As we will see in a moment, the word translated ‘wineskin’ should probably be better translated wine jar. Jeremiah was to repeat this phrase to the Judeans. They would then reply ‘Don’t we know that every wineskin should be filled with wine?’ Perhaps this was the response that effectively said ‘let’s get on and drink then!’ Jeremiah was to tell them what the Lord said: ‘I am going to fill with drunkenness all who live in this land, including the kings who sit on David’s throne, the priests, the prophets and all those living in Jerusalem.’ Drunkenness is never presented favourably in the bible – and here it seems to indicate that everyone in the country from the least to the greatest would be rendered incapable of resisting God’s coming judgment. Whether the people lived in the land or the city or whether they were part of the ruling elite or not, they would all be included: ‘14 I will smash them one against the other, fathers and sons alike, declares the Lord.’ The people are the wineskins (or better wine jars) that are smashed into one another – fathers and sons alike – it is a chaotic and destructive picture. There would be neither mercy nor compassion on God’s part. This reminds us of the conditions of the Mosaic covenant that there would be curses for failing to do what was right (Deuteronomy 27).
- Hear and see
Judah had exhausted God’s patience. There would be judgment, there would be exile and there would be terrible suffering and difficulty. One therefore wonders why did Jeremiah bother to continue to speak to the people? Indeed why did God continue to ask Jeremiah to convey his message? Wasn’t it too late? It seems that it was indeed too late to avert the coming judgment. But it is was not too late to turn back to God! We know that at least some people still retained faith in God in that dreadful period in Judah’s history. One of them was Daniel whom God used in a most remarkable way during his exile in Babylon.
The people were thus asked to ‘hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken.’ These are such important words! Everyone can hear and everyone can pay attention. I’ve heard some well meaning Christians say that because we are ‘dead in sin’ we are like a lifeless corpse and thus unable to respond to truth. The Judeans of Jeremiah’s time had turned their backs on God and had followed sinful practices in a very deliberate way: if any group of individuals could be described as being dead in sin surely they were! And yet, here’s Jeremiah asking them to ‘hear and pay attention.’ Whatever our sinful condition, we retain a capacity to hear and respond to God – this is good news!
What prevents us hearing and paying attention? It seems that arrogance gets in the way. The definition of arrogant is ‘having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one's own importance or abilities.’ No doubt the Judeans thought that they knew what was best for themselves – they were above the old ways and narrow mindedness of the past! How familiar this sounds to us today! To simply listen and hear what God has to say is within the reach of all of us, but how often does arrogance get in the way? Some people consider themselves too big for God! It was the same in Jesus’ day, he said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ The thinking of many people today is that science has replaced the need for God, that the bible is a work of fiction, man can explain everything and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. This is arrogance!
Jeremiah encourages the people to ‘give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness.’ The apostle Paul wrote about these very things in his letter to the Romans. Failure to acknowledge God and his place as creator, brings darkness and God’s judgment. Having shown that God’s eternal power is completely obvious in nature, Paul says that in spite of this, people did not glorify God and did not give thanks to him – as a result their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened. If people don’t acknowledge God as creator they have no basis for morality, the result is moral degradation and God gives such people ‘over to shameful lusts.’
When Christians speak about what is right and seek to live by such standards they are portrayed as bigoted, narrow minded and ‘phobic’. What would Jeremiah’s response be if the people did not listen: ‘If you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the Lord’s flock will be taken captive.’ Just as Judah was too proud to acknowledge God, so the general trend in our society is the same. People today march in the streets to demonstrate pride in their sinful living – this should bring sorrow to our hearts and tears to our eyes.
How would the rulers of Judah respond to Jeremiah’s call to listen and give glory to God? Verse 18: ‘Say to the king and to the queen mother, ‘Come down from your thrones, for your glorious crowns will fall from your heads.’ This is indeed what happened to king Jehoiachin and his mother Nehushta. Jehoiachin became king at the age of 18, he ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (2 Kings 24:9). His reign lasted only 3 months. When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, Jehoiachin surrendered and he, his mother, his wives and his officials were taken as captives to Babylon. They did not pay attention, they did not listen, they did not give glory to the Lord: the crowns fell from their heads.
Not only were the Judeans to listen, they were to look! ‘ Look up and see those who are coming from the north’ (verse 20). The invading Babylonians were on their way – like the pot of scalding liquid that Jeremiah saw when God called him to his thankless task (chapter 1). The experience for Judah would not be pleasant: ‘Will not pain grip you like that of a woman in labour? (verse 21b)’ Now I’ve never experienced labour pains, but I’ve observed someone who has and it certainly doesn’t look like a lot of fun. As some of you may know I experienced the pain of a small kidney stone recently and I’m sorry to report that my ‘man-pain’ threshold is disappointingly low! Judah would not only experience physical pain at the hands of the Babylonians, they would be humiliated: ‘I will pull up your skirts over your face that your shame may be seen—27 your adulteries and lustful neighings, your shameless prostitution!’ (verses 26 & 27). When one thinks of Israel’s unique relationship with the Lord and their role to be a light for the Gentiles, this is a sorry state of affairs. This came about because they had forgotten the Lord and trusted in false gods. Consistent with God’s promises to Israel, they would suffer consequences for this: ‘woe to you, Jerusalem! (verse 27b).’ The final comment in chapter 13 is this: ‘How long will you be unclean?’ How long indeed, but there is a tiny piece of hope contained in this question – the current situation of idol worship and disobedience to God’s law would not last forever. How can we be sure? Because God had said that there would be a day when the people would return to him. Deuteronomy 30: 2-3, ‘when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.’ Notice that this is not ‘if’ you return, but ‘when’ you return. We await that day today with the same certainty that Jeremiah waited in his day. Why? Because faith is believing what God says.
In the midst of Jeremiah’s despair and tears for his disobedient people he had grounds for hope because his faith was in the faithful God, so should we.