Things have been quiet on this blog recently for several reasons. One is that my wife and I are entertaining a visitor from Italy. Another is that yesterday I had a rare opportunity to preach at my home church, to the traditional evening service with a small congregation of mostly older people.
The passage I was given to preach on was Jeremiah 4:5-31 – quite a challenge for any preacher, I would think. I decided not to mention the election at all as I couldn’t find an easy way to fit it in with this passage. Indeed it was difficult to bring any direct application, but I did bring a few lessons about how prophecy worked and still works now.
Some of the bloggers I read regularly often post their sermons on their blogs. And usually I don’t read those sermons. So I am not really expecting my readers here to do so. But then a few of you might want to read it. Also there might be friends of mine who missed it, and this is a convenient way to let them see what I had to say. So I am posting it here, following the “more” marker (which I don’t often use) for those of you reading the blog front page. I made one small edit to the notes to disguise the name of a congregation member. “Mones” is our vicar who also led the service.
Sermon by Peter Kirk for Meadgate Church, 2nd May 2010 5.30 pm
It’s not an easy thing to speak out God’s word. It wasn’t easy for Jeremiah – here we find him complaining about how God had deceived the people through his prophecies. And it’s not easy for me, especially since Mones has given me such a difficult passage to preach on. Later in his life, as you will find out as this series continues, Jeremiah’s audience thanked him for his message by throwing him into a pit and leaving him to die. At least I hope I can trust you here not to do anything like that to me! So let us pray…
I was originally asked to preach on verses 5 to 31 of this chapter. I asked Mones instead to read from verse 3 for two reasons. One is that there we see the introduction to the Lord’s words reported by Jeremiah, and that they are addressed to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem. But we also see more clearly the context of this prophecy of judgment. In the middle of verse 4 there is an important word “or”. The force of this Hebrew word pen is given better in the King James Version as “lest”, or we might say “or else”. That is, the judgment which follows will come on Judah and Jerusalem if the people do not do what God tells them to do in the preceding verse and a half.
At this point we need some background. These early prophecies of Jeremiah were apparently given in the middle period of the reign of King Josiah of Judah, after his 13th year (about 626 BC) when Jeremiah started to prophesy (1:1), and so after his 12th year when “he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of high places, Asherah poles and idols” (2 Chronicles 34:3). But these prophecies may have been given at about the time, in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign (about 622 BC), when Hilkiah the high priest (who could have been Jeremiah’s father) discovered the Book of the Law in the temple (2 Kings 22). This prompted Josiah to renew the covenant with the Lord and complete the task of cleansing his kingdom from idol worship (2 Kings 23). These may have been the events Jeremiah alluded to in chapter 3 when he describes how the people repented of their unfaithfulness, rejected idolatry and turned to the Lord. One might have expected the prophet to rejoice at this. But instead he sees how shallow it really was.
I know some of you are gardeners. I’m sure you have seen how hard the earth has become during the last month of very little rain, until today. You know that even the best seeds or seedlings will not take root and grow well if you just leave them on top of the hard soil, or among the thistles and other weeds that may have grown there already. First you need to break up that hard ground, with a fork if it’s just your garden, or with a plough if it’s a whole field. And that’s hard work. It seems from verse 3 that Jeremiah recognised that the spiritual equivalent of that hard work had not been done. The repentance was superficial and would not take root. What the people needed to do was break up the hard unploughed ground which, as we see in verse 4, was their own hearts. Jeremiah knew that if they did not do this they would return to their sinful ways and again deserve God’s judgment.
So in verse 5 Jeremiah returns to the theme of one of his first two visions in chapter 1: the boiling pot heralding disaster from the north. At the time the audience probably thought that the threat was from Assyria, the great power to the north-east (modern northern Iraq) which had already taken captive the northern Israelites and had threatened Josiah’s southern kingdom of Judah. By this time Ashurbanipal, the last powerful king of Assyria, was probably dead, leaving a power vacuum which may have made it easier for Josiah to make his reforms.
In fact the decline of Assyria was terminal, and the real threat to Judah was from a new enemy. But it is unlikely that anyone yet realised this – with one exception. Nearly a century earlier the prophet Isaiah had warned King Hezekiah of Judah that the Babylonians would capture Jerusalem and take its people captive (Isaiah 39:6-7). At that time the Babylonians had been weak and dominated by Assyria. But by the time that Jeremiah prophesied their new ruler Nabopolassar had managed to expel the Assyrians from Babylonia (now southern Iraq). About ten years later (612 BC) the Babylonians and their allies the Medes captured Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and the new Babylonian empire became the obvious threat to Judah. After another seven years (605 BC) the threat became a reality, when Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah for the first of three times.
We can only speculate on whether Jeremiah knew at this time who the threat would come from. His earliest prophecies about the Babylonians by name are probably those of chapters 20 and 25, from about the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion. Here in chapter 4 we read only of disaster from the north and a distant land. Like most prophets Jeremiah gives us not so much facts about the coming invasion as images. We have already seen in chapter 1 that he learned to prophesy by interpreting visions he saw, of an almond branch and a boiling pot. Similarly it looks as if chapter 4 is made up of a series of visions and their interpretations, and I will now look at these.
- A destroying lion (vv.7-9): Wild lions were a real and literal threat to the people of Judah, but here the lion is clearly a symbol for an invading king who will metaphorically devour everyone.
- A scorching wind (vv.11-12): It’s hard for us in England to understand this image. Some of us have experienced hot tropical winds. But here we are talking about the kind of wind which scorches plants and blows up sandstorms. The prophet makes clear that this is not something which will cleanse by blowing away what is bad, but a destructive wind which will blow everything away.
- Clouds, a whirlwind and eagles (v.13): This may be a continuation of the same vision, but now the scorching wind has blown up a swirling dust cloud, much more than horses and chariots would normally stir up, and speeding ahead of it are the eagles or vultures – the same word in Hebrew. The interpretation is made explicit: a huge invading army.
- People guarding a field (v.17): The point of this image is that Judah will be surrounded and there will be no way out.
- A reversal of creation (vv.23-28): At this point the imagery becomes apocalyptic. First we have to realise that the same Hebrew word means “earth” and “land”. The translation moves from one word to the other, using “land” about the literal invasion and “earth” to describe Jeremiah’s vision. For what he sees here is very much a reversal of the creation story as given in Genesis 1. This is clearly signalled by the use of “formless and empty” in v.23, a pair of words tohu wavohu found together in the Hebrew Bible only here and in Genesis 1:2 and Isaiah 34:11. We see how each of the six days of creation has been reversed: no people, no birds, no heavenly lights, no vegetation, no mountains and no light. Jeremiah’s vision may have been of this happening to the whole earth, but prophetically it applies only to the land of Judah, at least at this stage. And the Lord does make it clear (v.27) that although there is a return to the primeval chaos the destruction will not be complete.
- A scarlet woman (v.30): The image here seems to be of Jerusalem, known as the Daughter of Zion, dressing herself up as a prostitute and trying to gain the favour of her lovers, who are the invading nation and its gods – the idols she was accused of adultery with in chapter 3. But the invaders don’t want prostitutes, they want blood.
- A woman in labour (v.31): The image then moves on to the Daughter of Zion as a woman in labour. I think Lydia P****t would have understood this image last weekend as she went through 39 hours of labour for her first child. For her this time of pain ended up with the birth of a beautiful baby, who probably made the agony feel worthwhile. Jeremiah offers no such promise to Jerusalem. But perhaps he deliberately leaves the matter open: will the Daughter of Zion die, or will she bring forth new life? There is still hope if Judah and Jerusalem will repent from the depth of their hearts.
So what are the lessons here for us? Is the situation in our country similar enough to that of Judah that we can expect the same response from God? Of course there are similarities: in our country too there is deep-seated idolatry and wickedness sometimes covered up by a display of godliness. But we cannot simply apply these warnings to ourselves. God may want to send judgment on our nation, but, when he sends it, it may not be in the form of an invading army.
However, there are lessons we can learn from this passage, which are more about prophecy and the prophet’s response.
- The first lesson we have already seen, that prophecy often starts with some kind of vision – not necessarily supernatural, it could be something that we see with our natural eyes and God brings to our attention. Then God gives us an interpretation of that vision which we are to share with others, or perhaps it is just for ourselves.
- Secondly, prophecy touches the prophet’s heart, or it should do. Note Jeremiah’s response to the harsh message he had to give. He was not a stern preacher of judgment, condemning others while self-righteously confident that he would avoid God’s punishment on himself. Rather he realised that the judgment was on the whole nation, including himself, irrespective of personal guilt. And rather than rejoicing at the expected downfall of the guilty he wept and writhed in pain for what would come on the whole nation (vv.18-19).
- The third lesson is that prophecy is conditional. Jeremiah complained (v.10) that God had promised peace but it did not come. One explanation here is that the prophecies of peace were in fact false ones. Another is that the promise was for the distant future, and, as Mones reminded us last Sunday morning, we need to have patience for the time God wants to bring the fulfilment, even if it takes 400 years. But it seems likely to me that genuine prophecies of peace had been given but had been separated from the conditions which went with them. That is sadly a danger with prophecies that are circulated today. We hear every now and again that God has promised a revival in this land – but we prefer to forget the conditions, especially if they include costly repentance and devotion to prayer, and so not surprisingly we are disappointed.
Just as the promises of peace were conditional, so were the prophecies of judgment – at least concerning timing. The prophecy of Jonah that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days (Jonah 3:4) was not fulfilled because the king and the people repented and turned to God – although Nineveh was overthrown much later, in fact in Jeremiah’s time. And then at about the same time as Jeremiah was giving these prophecies of chapter 4, the prophetess Huldah gave a rather similar prophecy of judgment (2 Kings 22:15-20) but also promised that it would be delayed until after Josiah’s death because of his personal repentance and openness to God – and that is what happened. Similarly there was a real chance in Jeremiah’s time that the people would repent deeply and sincerely this time, and the catastrophe would be avoided. Sadly, as we will see over the next few weeks, this did not happen. May our hearts not be similarly hard against God’s prophetic word. Let us pray…