Jeremiah’s message: A tough sell
I am going through Jeremiah again, and I find it easy to see why the Jews of his day didn’t listen. You will doubtless recall that in the seventh and sixth centuries before Christ, Israel boasted whole companies of prophets. It was apparently nice work if you could get it, and the vast majority of them had the good sense to foretell prosperity and success. A repugnance for false gods seldom entered into it. So why bet on a loser?
In reality, though, Jeremiah was one of those authentic spokesmen for God who try very hard to avoid letting the Divine Spirit loose. They are not eager to speak, but in the end they find they simply cannot hold it in. It is a sad fact of human life that this behavior pattern is not always easily distinguished from self-righteousness. The self-righteous are also frequently heard to say they are reluctant to speak, but that their virtue makes silence an impermissible luxury.
The core of prophetic success is simply this: Those who hear must care enough to forget the prophet’s annoying personality—and to ignore for the moment the promised consequences—in order to undertake a serious self-examination. In the end, a prophetic denunciation is really designed to assist us in honestly accusing ourselves.
In any case, since the sins were not only widespread but unlamented in Jeremiah’s day, Almighty God was not pleased. He failed to grasp the highly-touted similarity between Himself and the man-made objects that were so often worshipped, if only to cover all the bases. (Most of us find our own ways to hedge our bets even today.) So God commissioned Jeremiah to announce bad tidings of great woe—with no expectation that His prophet would succeed in getting the people to repent.
Indeed, God was pretty frank about this with Jeremiah. He was already harnessing the energy of King Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon (alternatively called Nebuchadnezzar, both names being used in the sacred text) to conquer Jerusalem and to carry a good many of the Jews into what we now know as the Babylonian Captivity. (For obvious reasons, this is sometimes confused with the Avignon Papacy, but that was still nearly two thousand years in the future.)
Anatomy of a Thankless Task
We are all aware that Nebuchadnezzar was the son and heir of Nabopolassar. With names like that, people ought to have paid close attention. Yet for his troubles, Jeremiah was intensely disliked, treated with extreme contempt, and threatened more than once with death. As he himself put it: “Give heed to me, O Lord, and listen to my plea. Is evil a recompense for good? Yet they have dug a pit for my life. Remember how I stood before you to speak good for them, to turn away your wrath from them” (Jer 18:19-20).
In experiencing this rejection, like many prophets before him, Jeremiah could not understand the Lord’s forbearance: “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” (12:1-2, emphasis added). If nothing else, this has a highly contemporary ring. Lip service is cheaper than ever.
Eventually, though, God set denunciation aside and gave Jeremiah an opportunity bring comfort to the exiles. Such occasions were rare but powerful:
Thus says the Lord: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from afar. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!...For there shall be a day when watchmen will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God’.” [31:2-4; 6]
God explained through Jeremiah that “the fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind. In the latter days you will understand this. ‘At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel and they shall be my people’ ” (30:24-31:1).
And what about us?
The prophetic books of the Bible very often recapitulate the larger drama of salvation history through the particular experience of the Jewish people. On this specific occasion, in fact, God actually used Jeremiah to announce the New Covenant:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…not like the covenant I made with their fathers…which they broke…. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts…. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” [31:31-34]
But all this is in the future. It did not stop Jeremiah from being hated enough to be tossed into a cistern and left to die—clearly an early variant on shooting the messenger. I am pretty sure we tend to do the same thing today. Precise moral thinking has always been perceived by sinners as an assault; today it is considered a violation of their rights. The problem lies in our tendency to judge everything instantly by how it fits in with our own habits, perceptions, attachments and plans.
What is the bottom line? What is the take away? It is that prophets, for all their vision, can only do so much. And the main thing they cannot do is the one thing we all want them to do: To make things easy. It requires a painful denial of self to form the habit of testing everything and retaining what is good (1 Thes 5:21). We all prefer the deadly assumption that, being truthful by nature, we will always see things clearly.
That was the problem in Jeremiah’s day, too. Unconscious of our own blindness, we typically fail to recognize truth whenever it comes from an unexpected source. We were warned that this would be the case, even if someone should rise from the dead.
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