33. Jeremiah: Coming Destruction
This lesson is the first of three that highlight the Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. The order of the lessons is chronological and thematic. This first covers Jeremiah’s word about the coming judgment of the Lord against Judah and Jerusalem. The second will cover the fall of Jerusalem and the Book of Lamentations. The final lesson will return to Jeremiah and look at his teaching of the New Covenant.
No prophet had a tougher assignment than Jeremiah, for it fell to him to proclaim and oversee the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem; and although the opposition against him and his message was unrelenting, he stayed on message for over 40 years. His prophetic vision saw the coming of terrors and horrors beyond imagining. When vision became reality, he witnessed those terrors and horrors. Throughout it all, he was the soldier who stood his post in disciplined obedience, pressing on even when he wanted to quit. He went the distance with no compensation, but having done the will of God.
Jeremiah lived in chaotic times, and the compilation of his book reflects them. A quick scan of Jeremiah chapters 21-39, which takes note of the names of the kings and other chronology clues, shows that the arrangement of these chapters is not chronological. Among the possible reasons for this are that the arrangement came from those who collected and assembled Jeremiah’s scrolls and messages during the confusing time following the fall of Jerusalem. A small bit of evidence for this view comes from noting that the Massoretic text and the Septuagint are different in arrangement and content. The Septuagint contains just 80% of the material that the Massoretic text contains, and it has a different arrangement of that material.315 Perhaps this was due to a Babylonian vs. Egyptian compilation. After the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah and some of the exiles traveled south to Egypt while the main body of exiles traveled north and east to Babylon. One can imagine that Jeremiah’s material underwent different treatment in the two places. What is noteworthy is that there is no contradictory material in the two. In any case, it seems that Jeremiah’s times and his book were chaotic.
On the large-scale, the book does have a discernable structure. The first 19 chapters contain messages of judgment that progress with increasing intensity. Chapter 20 relates a personal crisis in the life and ministry of Jeremiah. Chapters 21-44 contain messages of judgment and of hope. Chapters 45-51 contain messages to other nations. Chapter 52 is a near repeat of 2 Kings 24:18-25:30. Only chapters 21-44 and 52 contain chronology clues.
Jeremiah’s prophetic career spanned the reigns of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoaichin, and Zedekiah. Like the structure of the book, the line of kings speaks of the chaos and growing confusion of the times as four of the five kings had short reigns.
- Josiah reigned for 31 years, but died at the young age of 39.
- Jehoahaz reigned for 3 months before the King of Egypt captured him.
- Jehoiakim reigned for 11 years before he died at the age of 36. Early in his reign, Nebuchadnezzar took captive many in the court (Daniel 1:1).
- Jehoiachin, the son of Jehoiakim, reigned for 3 months before he was captured by Nebuchadnezzar. He and some 10,000 others were transported to Babylon. These were mostly craftsmen and smiths (2 Kings 24:16).
- Zedekiah, the brother of Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, then reigned for 11 years. His reign ended with the capture and destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:6).
Since Jeremiah’s career began in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign and continued for an unspecified period beyond the fall of Jerusalem, we can infer a career lasting for more than 40 years.
The Failure of Josiah’s Reforms
One of the keys to understanding the Book of Jeremiah is to see that the reforms of Josiah failed to permeate the general population. This was not from lack of effort or zeal on Josiah’s part. No king prior to Josiah did as much to rid the land of its places of idol worship. As recorded in 2 Kings 23:25:
Before him there was no king like him who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.316
However, right from the beginning, the Word of the Lord, through Huldah, indicated that the reforms would have little redeeming effect. This is recorded in 2 Kings when Josiah sent emissaries to ask Huldah about the book found in the temple:
So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter); and they spoke to her.
She said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, thus says the Lord, “Behold, I bring evil on this place and on its inhabitants, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods that they might provoke Me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore My wrath burns against this place, and it shall not be quenched’”
“But to the king of Judah who sent you to inquire of the Lord thus shall you say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “Regarding the words which you have heard, because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you,” declares the Lord. “Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes will not see all the evil which I will bring on this place.”‘” So they brought back word to the king (2 Kings 22:14-20).
Josiah tore down altars and defiled them. He renewed and repaired the temple. He celebrated a great Passover. Yet, it seems that this had little impact on the people. Consider, for example, that Jeremiah began speaking the Word of the Lord some five years before Josiah’s reforms began. Then consider that these reforms continued for 13 years. Yet, not one word of these reforms occupies the pages of Jeremiah. The people of Judah were deeply committed to their gods. To be sure, they worshiped the Lord, but not Him alone. He was just another entity in the pantheon to be served. Jeremiah must, then, be understood against a backdrop of extreme and heartfelt apostasy, which I will now describe.
There were idols in the Temple of the Lord.
They have turned their back to Me and not their face; though I taught them, teaching again and again, they would not listen and receive instruction. But they put their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it (Jeremiah 32:33, 34).
There is a detailed description of the idols placed within the temple recorded by Ezekiel in a vision that he received. What he records is chilling and must be remembered as you read Jeremiah and the words of judgment it contains:
It came about in the sixth year, on the fifth day of the sixth month, as I was sitting in my house with the elders of Judah sitting before me, that the hand of the Lord God fell on me there. Then I looked, and behold, a likeness as the appearance of a man; from His loins and downward there was the appearance of fire, and from His loins and upward the appearance of brightness, like the appearance of glowing metal. He stretched out the form of a hand and caught me by a lock of my head; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the idol of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy, was located. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the appearance which I saw in the plain.
Then He said to me, “Son of man, raise your eyes now toward the north.” So I raised my eyes toward the north, and behold, to the north of the altar gate was this idol of jealousy at the entrance. And He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, so that I would be far from My sanctuary? But yet you will see still greater abominations.”
Then He brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig through the wall.” So I dug through the wall, and behold, an entrance. And He said to me, “Go in and see the wicked abominations that they are committing here.” So I entered and looked, and behold, every form of creeping things and beasts and detestable things, with all the idols of the house of Israel, were carved on the wall all around. Standing in front of them were seventy elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them, each man with his censer in his hand and the fragrance of the cloud of incense rising. Then He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” And He said to me, “Yet you will see still greater abominations which they are committing.”
Then He brought me to the entrance of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and behold, women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz. He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? Yet you will see still greater abominations than these.”
Then He brought me into the inner court of the Lord’s house. And behold, at the entrance to the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs to the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east; and they were prostrating themselves eastward toward the sun. He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they have committed here, that they have filled the land with violence and provoked Me repeatedly? For behold, they are putting the twig to their nose. Therefore, I indeed will deal in wrath. My eye will have no pity nor will I spare; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, yet I will not listen to them” (Ezekiel 8).
The worship of idols involved child sacrifice.
They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin (Jeremiah 32:35).
The Lord was just one of several gods to be worshiped and appeased.
Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ – that you may do all these abominations? (Jeremiah 7:8-11)
The people had a persistent and deep emotional attachment to their gods and goddesses.
As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you! But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths, by burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, just as we ourselves, our forefathers, our kings and our princes did in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food and were well off and saw no misfortune (Jeremiah 44:16, 17).
What is significant about these words is that they were spoken in Egypt after Jerusalem had been destroyed. In spite of the events, the people carried a deep attachment to their idols as a source of protection and prosperity. Had this not been the case, these people would have listened to Jeremiah and remained in Judah where they may well have greatly prospered.
So the spiritual state in Judah and Jerusalem was very bad. The Lord God had made a place for His Name, but that place was full of imposters. He had sought a covenant relationship with His people, but they had no regard or love to return for His. Although Jeremiah mentions other evil activities, the one charge that he makes over and over again is that God’s people had turned away and did not desire to return. To understand how completely was this state of affairs is to understand why Jeremiah spoke of coming judgment: there was no reasonable expectation of repentance or change.
There are four components to Jeremiah’s call as a prophet of the Lord. The first component is a mission statement, the second is internal spiritual fortification to carry out the mission, the third places an important restriction on Jeremiah’s ministry to the people, and finally there is instruction regarding the taking on of a wife.
Jeremiah’s call had a mission.
See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10).
What an awesome matter it was to be the Lord’s Prophet! Jeremiah had a ministry of words, and yet those words meant the plucking up and dislocation of people, the breaking down of culture and society, the destruction of cities, the overthrow of kings, the building of new communities, and the planting of new hope. His ministry was to speak the Word of the Lord, and in speaking, release Spiritual activity that moved events along a God-directed course. The Lord God could not bring about His judgment without His messenger explaining what was to happen and why. To do otherwise would be unjust.
His call required internal fortification.
Now behold, I have made you today as a fortified city and as a pillar of iron and as walls of bronze against the whole land, to the kings of Judah, to its princes, to its priests and to the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you,’ declares the Lord (Jeremiah 1:18, 19).
Jeremiah’s audience would be hostile, but his message had to carry on till the end. Therefore, Jeremiah could neither give up nor die. Although Jeremiah is rightly called the weeping prophet, we must also understand that he was as tough as nails. He was strong and unrelenting in his message. He delivered it year in and year out without compromise and under great pressure to give up. Even when he was down and wanted to quit, the Lord would burst through:
O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived; you have overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long.
But if I say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,” then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.
For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror on every side! Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!” All my trusted friends, watching for my fall, say: “Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him and take our revenge on him.”
But the Lord is with me like a dread champion; therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed, with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten (Jeremiah 20:7-11).
Part of the strength in Jeremiah was the strength of the message to burst out of him even when he would have preferred to remain quiet. Jeremiah knew that each time he spoke, he was in for trouble. And on some days, he would have liked to stay out of trouble. But the message in him burned like a fire until he could not help but speak.
His call had a restriction.
The Old Testament records times when Israel’s leaders interceded with a God on the verge of wrath and destruction. The most well known of these was between the Lord and Moses:
They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’”? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.”
So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people (Exodus 32:8-14).
Moses and others interceded with the Lord on behalf of His people to turn away from judgment and show mercy.
It is of great significance, then, that the Lord commanded Jeremiah not to do this! Jeremiah was not to intercede, for Judah and Jerusalem, that the Lord would relent from the calamity that He had planned. Look at these verses:
As for you, do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you (Jeremiah 7:16).
Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not listen when they call to Me because of their disaster (Jeremiah 11:14).
So the Lord said to me, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence” (Jeremiah 14:11,12).
Then the Lord said to me, “Even though Moses and Samuel were to stand before Me, My heart would not be with this people; send them away from My presence and let them go!” (Jeremiah 15:1)
This restriction reveals that the coming judgment was on an irrevocable course. This was underscored, with amazing effect, when the Lord informed Jeremiah that even the likes of Moses and Samuel would not be able, through intercession, to stay the hand of the coming wrath.
Jeremiah was not to take a wife.
The families of the prophets often carried some of the prophet’s message. The Lord commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute. He instructed Hosea and Isaiah regarding what names to give their children, names that contained core themes of His message. For Jeremiah, the word from the Lord was,
You shall not take a wife for yourself nor have sons or daughters in this place. For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters born in this place, and concerning their mothers who bear them, and their fathers who beget them in this land: They will die of deadly diseases, they will not be lamented or buried; they will be as dung on the surface of the ground and come to an end by sword and famine, and their carcasses will become food for the birds of the sky and for the beasts of the earth (Jeremiah 16:2-4).
Have you not heard people say that they do not want to bring children into the current world? Most of the time the fear is unfounded, but in Jeremiah’s day having a family would have reduced the effectiveness of his message and brought him great heartache.
Jeremiah is a large book, and it is impossible to convey everything in an overview. Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s prophetic call gives a handle by which we can glean his “core message.” This is the message that occupied the bulk of his 40-plus years of ministry. “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).
To pluck up, break down, destroy, and overthrow. Much of Jeremiah’s message brought charges against the nation of Judah and its people. This is especially true in the first 19 chapters. Along with the charges, Jeremiah also pronounced the sentence for the guilt that the nation bore.
To build and plant. The sentence on Judah and Jerusalem was their destruction and deportation of its people. During the critical last days, Jeremiah spoke a message by which the godly within the besieged walls of Jerusalem could escape. He also wrote letters, encouragement, and instruction to those carried into exile with Jehoiachin. Most significantly, Jeremiah proclaimed a future New Covenant that did not have the weakness of the first.
Core Message: To Bring Charges Against the People of Judah and Jerusalem
There are several reasons why the Lord might bring suffering into our lives. In one case, He may bring suffering to discipline us and bring us to maturity. In another case, He sends trials and tribulations our way so that we can stand as His witnesses on the earth. These situations have a compensating good that we can expect to receive for our pain. We can consider such troubles as cause for joy, as James 1:2-4 tells us. But when He bares His arm in wrath, there is no cause for joy. The Lord’s wrath comes when He needs to remove a cancer from His creation. It is the terrible state of being where the only response of the soul is to say, “Woe is me!” As the Lord said through Huldah:
Behold, I bring evil on this place and on its inhabitants, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read. “Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods that they might provoke Me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore My wrath burns against this place, and it shall not be quenched” (2 Kings 22:16-17).
There is no hope in these words. The Lord is not moving to discipline His people. He is not bringing tribulation their way. Rather, he is going to demolish the nation and leave it an ash heap.
For the Lord to be just, He must communicate the charges before carrying out the sentence. This was a significant part of Jeremiah’s message. Alongside the failure, as noted above, of Josiah’s reforms to remove rampant idolatry and child sacrifice from Judah, Jeremiah brought these charges:
There were very few God-seeking people in the land. One of the reasons for wrath over discipline for Judah and Jerusalem was the extreme rarity of godly people. On one occasion, the said:
Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, if you can find a man, if there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, then I will pardon her. And although they say, ‘As the Lord lives,’ surely they swear falsely (Jeremiah 5:1, 2).
Jeremiah goes on to describe how he searched among the common people and then among the court. On that day, at least, he could find no one. The people in Judah and Jerusalem had not the slightest inclination to know the Lord and His paths. Jeremiah described their attitude this way:
To whom shall I speak and give warning that they may hear? Behold, their ears are closed and they cannot listen. Behold, the word of the Lord has become a reproach to them; they have no delight in it” (Jeremiah 6:10).
Indeed, beyond a lack of interest, the Word was treated with disdain and derision. Jeremiah wrote,
Thus says the Lord, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” But they said, “We will not walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16).
Moral decline reached its heights. When the nation rejected God and His Scriptures, its general moral state also declined. At the same time, it maintained some external religious affectations. Combined, they were a great insult to the Holy God:
Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered!” — that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:9-11).
These are the charges that Jeremiah brought against the nation. It would seem as if the nation as a whole, not in part, was guilty of:
- Love of other gods, which included child sacrifice
- No love for the truth
- False prophets
- Kings and princes who do not seek justice
- Adultery, theft, and murder among the people
- Exploitation of the poor.
For such charges to have meaning, there must be a legal code on which they are based. That code, of course, is the Law of Moses, which was more than just a legal code, but was a covenant document. It spelled out responsibilities to both parties of the covenant. If the children of Israel obeyed, there would be the blessings of prosperity, health, and safety. If they disobeyed, there would be the curse of poverty, sickness, and terror. All this was clearly spelled out in Deuteronomy 28. So, along with the charges came the expectation of the consequences written in the covenant.
Core Message: To Pronounce the Sentence
And so Jeremiah, the Prophet of the Lord, had to speak the sentence of the curse:
And it shall be that when they say to you, “Where should we go?” then you are to tell them, Thus says the Lord: “Those destined for death, to death; And those destined for the sword, to the sword; And those destined for famine, to famine; And those destined for captivity, to captivity.” I will appoint over them four kinds of doom,” declares the Lord: “the sword to slay, the dogs to drag off, and the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy” (Jeremiah 15:2, 3).
On at least 15 occasions, Jeremiah spoke of “famine, pestilence, and sword.” These are the terrors that Jeremiah saw coming and over which he anguished,
My soul, my soul! I am in anguish! Oh, my heart! My heart is pounding in me; I cannot be silent, because you have heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster on disaster is proclaimed, for the whole land is devastated; suddenly my tents are devastated, my curtains in an instant. How long must I see the standard and hear the sound of the trumpet? For my people are foolish, they know me not; they are stupid children and have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil, but to do good they do not know (Jeremiah 4:19-22). 317
At one point, Jeremiah compared the coming destruction to the undoing of the Creation:
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord, before His fierce anger. For thus says the Lord, “The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this the earth shall mourn and the heavens above be dark, because I have spoken, I have purposed, and I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it” (Jeremiah 4:23-28).
The deaths of many would symbolize the failure of Judah and Jerusalem’s gods to save them:
At that time, declares the Lord, they will bring out the bones of the kings of Judah and the bones of its princes, and the bones of the priests and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem from their graves. They will spread them out to the sun, the moon and to all the host of heaven, which they have loved and which they have served, and which they have gone after and which they have sought, and which they have worshiped. They will not be gathered or buried; they will be as dung on the face of the ground (Jeremiah 8: 1, 2).
Out of the covenant that promised both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience comes the sentence for the nation’s great apostasy. The curses of the covenant must surely come, as would have come the blessings, if the nation had maintained its love for the Lord alone.
Core Message: To Provide Escape for the Godly
But not all within the city and countryside were apostate, and surely, there were some who would listen to Jeremiah. What was to happen to them? Were they to also come under the wrath of God? Did their faith not commend some mercy from His hand? As Abraham once asked the Lord before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23)
There was good news here. Anyone who knew the Lord and knew Jeremiah to be His spokesman had options that led to safety during those trying times. This is not to say that safety meant life as usual, or that it did not mean suffering. There was still loss, and great at that. But the path of safety led to hope and a future. Jeremiah set it out this way:
You shall also say to this people, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who dwells in this city will die by the sword and by famine and by pestilence; but he who goes out and falls away to the Chaldeans who are besieging you will live, and he will have his own life as booty. For I have set My face against this city for harm and not for good,’” declares the Lord. “It will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon and he will burn it with fire” (Jeremiah 21:8-10).
Anyone who believed this message had freedom to leave the city and become the captives of the Chaldeans. This, of course, meant exile and the loss of home. But it was the path of hope for those who took it.
If the King of Judah had listened to such words, he could have saved the entire city. Jeremiah told him:
Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “Thus says the Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. But if you will not go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand’” (Jeremiah 38:17; 18).
And so we see that those who knew the Lord could escape His wrath. This is a principle first illustrated when the Lord God removed Lot and his family from Sodom. God’s wrath is against the wicked, but He will preserve the righteous. Even more so, He lets the presence of the righteous preserve the wicked. I will cover this topic more later on, but it is important for us to understand that the Lord prefers to show mercy. In His own words, He is:
“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6b, 7).
To be sure, He will punish the guilty, but look at the preponderance of mercy and wrath in this proclamation.
The bottom line in Jerusalem was that nobody had to suffer the sword, the famine, or the pestilence. Those who could hear the Word of the Lord through Jeremiah had the God-given freedom to leave nation and home. Such words branded Jeremiah as a traitor, and several tried to take his life. And those who left took word to Nebuchadnezzar about this man in the city telling people to leave. For this, Nebuchadnezzar treated Jeremiah favorably. The charge of treason was just one more thing that Jeremiah had to bear in his ministry.
Core Message: To Encourage the First Two Groups of Exiles
Two times before the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar took captives from Jerusalem and Judah. The Lord used these first two waves to prepare homes and a reception for the final devastated group at the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s Jerusalem campaign.
The first exile occurred during the third year of Jehoiakim. At this time, Nebuchadnezzar carried off the best and brightest of the young men in the royal court in Jerusalem. Among those taken were Daniel and his friends. These young people were likely the beneficiaries of Josiah’s reforms, because they were full of faith and godly wisdom. And by them, the Lord established godly instructors and overseers in high places prior to the fall of Jerusalem. You need only to think of Daniel’s rise in Nebuchadnezzar’s court to see how the Lord was preparing a governmental covering for His people who would lose their homes in later years.
The second exile occurred at the end of Jehoiachin’s short three-month reign as King of Judah. In this group were the likes of Ezekiel. The important elements in this group were craftsmen and smiths, who upon arriving in Babylon began to build communities for the Jewish people. Thus the Lord created an infrastructure to receive the last and final wave of exiles. Ezekiel provided for their instruction.
Jeremiah’s word to these exiles was in stark contrast to his words to the citizens of Judah and Jerusalem. He did not speak to them directly, but rather wrote letters. These letters were full of hope, promise, and encouragement. Here are the words from his letter to the exiles:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.
For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
For thus says the Lord, “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:4-14).
Think again about those in the city that Jeremiah told to leave. To leave was to come under the hope and promise of these words Jeremiah had for the exiles. To stay was to face sword, famine, and pestilence. To leave was to build homes, marry, have children, grow, and prosper. As the Lord surely brought His wrath to Judah and Jerusalem, He prepared a place for those who escaped through obedience to Jeremiah’s word. Because of the previous exiles, the Lord had created a place for the ones who came during and after the devastating times. It is imperative that we see the how the Lord moved in mercy to the fullest extent.
I happened to be preparing this lesson on September 11, 2001. This is one of those dates, like December 7, 1941, that will be part of our national consciousness for decades, and perhaps centuries, to come. As I watched, live, the towers burn and collapse, my head was full of Jeremiah. The combination was chilling. The question that I had to ask was, “Is the USA in line for God’s judgment?” As part of my preparation, I had read Francis Schaeffer’s Death in the City, wherein he writes:
We do not have to guess what God would say about this because there was a period of history, biblical history, which greatly parallels our day. That is the day of Jeremiah. The Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations show how God looks at a culture which knew Him and deliberately turned away. But this is not just the character of Jeremiah’s day of apostasy. It’s my day. It’s our day. And if we are going to help our own generation, our perspective must be that of Jeremiah, that weeping prophet Rembrandt so magnificently pictured weeping over Jerusalem, yet in the midst of his tears speaking without mitigating his message of judgment to a people who had had so much yet turned away.318
To this, I could add a contemporary saying, “If God does not judge America, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” There seem to be many voices telling us that judgment is near.
Are we living in days similar to Jeremiah’s? Is there wisdom to be gained from matching idolatry with secularism, child sacrifice with abortion, adultery with adultery, and so forth, and conclude that God’s wrath is imminent and that the destruction of the World Trade Towers is its beginning?
I think not! He may be bringing discipline our way. He may be bringing some measure of tribulation our way. But His wrath is not to be expected at this time. He is full of mercy, and He is concerned for His people. He is not eager to pour out His wrath, but willingly delays it until all hope for a change is gone. The following chart compares the things of Jeremiah’s day with our day:
Of course, we also have ungodly leaders, and we have a solid population of unbelievers. I will even grant that we, as a nation, are sliding downhill. But that does not place us, as a nation, in Jeremiah’s day. If I were to place us, I would say more like the times of Isaiah. God’s discipline often comes in our lives and the lives of nations, but discipline is not wrath. God’s people are often persecuted and then shine like a beacon calling others to faith, but persecution is not wrath. God’s wrath is a cutting away of a cancer about to overwhelm and bring death. It is extreme, and it is rare. The Lord God is not eager to show His wrath. There can be joy in discipline and persecution. There is no joy in wrath.
Along these lines, let us remember the discussion Abraham had with the Lord over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the Lord.
Abraham came near and said, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.”
And Abraham replied, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, will You destroy the whole city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.”
He spoke to Him yet again and said, “Suppose forty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it on account of the forty.”
Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak; suppose thirty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
And he said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the twenty.”
Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.”
As soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the Lord departed, and Abraham returned to his place (Genesis 18:22-33).
Compare this episode with Jeremiah 5:1b:
“If you can find a man, if there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, then I will pardon her.”
There is a principle here that says that the presence of the righteous has a preserving effect on the wicked, because the Lord does not want to break forth in wrath against the righteous. As Abraham said, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)
The proof of this principle is that in the case of Sodom, two angels removed Lot and his family from the city before its destruction came. In the case of Jerusalem, Jeremiah instructed the righteous to leave, and the Lord had already prepared a place in Babylon for them to remove to. So let us give thanks to the Lord for His mercy and renew our efforts at renewing and reforming the nation in which we live. Now is not the time to proclaim wrath, but to continue to proclaim the gospel that is the essence of His mercy.
This counterpoint of judgment/wrath and mercy is illustrated in 2 Peter 2:4-9:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:4-9).
It would seem that for every outpouring of wrath on men, there is a remnant that is rescued.
So through Jeremiah, we witness a time of God’s judgment declared and executed. We also see the workings of His mercy. In the next two lessons, we will go deeper into the fall of Jerusalem and its expression in Lamentations. Then we will return to Jeremiah to see the promise of a New Covenant to replace the Old.
314 This is the edited manuscript delivered by Donald E. Curtis at Community Bible Chapel on September 23, 2001. Don is an elder at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, Georgia. You can e-mail comments and questions to /email.asp?email=curtis.
315 Gleason L. Archer, “The Relationship Between the Septuagint Translation and the Massoretic Text in Jeremiah,” Trin 12:2 (Fall 1991): 139-50.
316 All Scripture is taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1965 Update.
317 In these verses, the speaker is ambiguous. In the beginning it seems as if Jeremiah must be speaking, but suddenly it reads, “For my people are foolish, they know me not.” This sounds like it is the Lord speaking, for it seems irrelevant for Jeremiah to complain that the people “know him not.” On the other hand, it is hard to picture the Lord saying, “My soul, my soul! I am in anguish.” The ambiguity tells me that the Lord also feels grief over the coming destruction.
318 Francis A. Schaeffer, Death in the City (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), p. 16.