Jeremiah had nothing on us.
Jeremiah is the classic prophet of doom in the Old Testament. He also promised relief in return for repentance and an ultimate restoration of Israel, but since almost nobody paid attention to his prophecies of the destruction of Israel for its sins, Jeremiah had very little opportunity to talk about the good times to come. All of this happened about 2,600 years ago, at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. But here is news for today: Jeremiah had nothing on us.
Why? Because Jeremiah’s biggest adversaries were the acknowledged priests and prophets of his time. They had nothing but good to say about the future of Jerusalem and Judah. They always told their political leaders what they wanted to hear, and in consequence their political leaders—along with the media of the day—made sure to favor them. When Jeremiah got into political trouble, it was always for saying what the elites of Jewish society did not want to hear. For example, when King Zedekiah put Jeremiah in prison, the King demanded: “Why do you prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I am giving this city into the hand of the King of Babylon’?” (Jer 32:3ff)
And all Jeremiah could say was: “The word of the LORD came to me.”
A Litany of Complaints
No wonder Jeremiah more or less continually complained:
Righteous are you, O LORD, when I complain to you;
yet I would plead my case before you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root;
they grow and bring forth fruit;
You are near in their mouth
and far from their heart. [Jer 12:1-2]
Near in their mouth and far from their heart! This is true today, and our own pain is of the very same kind. Jeremiah steadfastly predicted that the Jews would be taken captive to Babylon and that Jerusalem would be destroyed if they did not repent. But he was more or less continually ignored during his lifetime, even when his predictions came true. He was regarded as a troublemaker, a traitor, a pariah:
Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me. So let it be, O LORD, if I have not entreated you for their good, if I have not pleaded with you on behalf of the enemy in the time of trouble and in the time of distress! [15:10-11]
At one point the priest Pashhur “who was chief officer in the house of the LORD”, upon hearing Jeremiah prophesying, had him beaten and put in the stocks. When he was released, Jeremiah uttered another prophesy against the priest, but then he turned once more to God:
O LORD, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
You are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
every one mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long. [20:7-8]
Yes, and if we are doing as we should, we can say exactly the same thing. Yet seemingly in vain did Jeremiah faithfully speak God’s Word even against the innumerable false prophets of his day, a day so like our own, of which the LORD said:
Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to every one who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, “No evil shall come upon you.” [23:16-17]
In a telling passage, the LORD continued: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat?” (23:28).
Even when Jeremiah told the Jews they must free their Hebrew slaves to win the LORD’s favor, it worked out against him. At first the people complied, and experienced relief from their troubles. But as soon as they experienced this relief, they forced their ex-slaves into bondage once again. The priests and prophets even threatened Jeremiah with death, though some of the nobles feared the consequences and protected him. But later, when God told Jeremiah to write all His words on a scroll and give it to King Johaiakim, the King cut up the scroll as it was being read and burned it (ch 36). At one point, Jeremiah was even thrown into an unused cistern and left for dead, sinking into the mire. Fortunately, a friend lowered ropes and hauled him out in the nick of time (ch 38).
The Jews were exiled to Babylon in waves, so Jeremiah also wrote letters to encourage the captives. Despite the verifiable truth of his prophecies, however, there was no repentance in Jerusalem, and so even Jerusalem was taken, and even more were exiled. After this, the few survivors asked Jeremiah for advice, urging him not to fear to speak the LORD’s will frankly, especially as to whether they should seek safety in Egypt. But after consulting the LORD, Jeremiah told them that going to Egypt was contrary to God’s will, and they would not be safe there. So of course they accused Jeremiah of betraying them. They set out immediately for Egypt (where they came to a bad end).
For its part, Jerusalem was plundered and burned. Thus, apart from Jeremiah’s prophecies of a future restoration (which has as yet come only partially in Christ, and not with any earthly assurance), Jeremiah’s mission was a total failure. Even worse for him, he was constantly aware that it was a failure. As we have seen, he complained about this often.
Yet in the verse which immediately follows the last complaint I quoted above (ending in “reproach and derision all day long”), the prophet explained why he could never abandon that mission, no matter how much he wished to do so:
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
There is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
And I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot. [20:9]
We know that there is faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:13). Yet in Baptism we are anointed not only priests and kings but prophets, so I expect we also know Jeremiah’s reason. We know a prompting of the Holy Spirit that simply will not be ignored. Like Jeremiah, we may grow weary of holding it in. And like Jeremiah, we cannot.
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