JUDGMENT DAY TODAY Jeremiah 21–29
“Inquire now of the Lord for us because Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is attacking us” (Jer. 21:2).The scene now shifts to the final years of Judah’s existence. Jeremiah’s predictions were coming true: the land was under siege. These chapters report a series of incidents, in no special chronological order, from Judah’s last frantic months of independence.
Zedekiah was refused divine aid against Babylon (21:1–14), and Jeremiah condemned Judah’s evil kings (22:1–30). In the distant future Messiah will restore a scattered Israel (23:1–8), but the immediate future holds judgment, despite the lies of Judah’s prophets (vv. 9–40). God would bless those who went into Captivity (24:1–10), and in 70 years restore Judah to her land (25:1–14). Later He would punish her pagan persecutors (vv. 15–38). Jeremiah was viewed as a traitor and threatened with death (26:1–24). Yet he did not stop calling on Judah to submit to Babylon and God’s will (27:1–22). His words are authenticated by the predicted death of the false prophet Hananiah (28:1–17), but a letter to Jewish captives already in Babylon sparks a new charge of treason against Jeremiah (29:1–32).
Understanding the Text
“Perhaps the Lord will perform wonders for us” Jer. 21:1–14. With the city under siege, King Zedekiah at last turned to Jeremiah and the Lord for help. Grimly the prophet repeated the message he had given faithfully for so many years. God would not fight for, but against, His people. Jeremiah did offer one hope. Those who left the city of Jerusalem and surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar would survive. Those who stayed in the city to resist him would die. It was this call to surrender that aroused so much fury, and led to accusations of treason against Jeremiah. “My country, may she ever be right; but right or wrong, my country,” was clearly the sentiment in Judah. This popular patriotic slogan is just as wrong today as it was then. In a conflict between right and country, or God and country, we must choose as Jeremiah did. We must take our stand for God and right. “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?” Jer. 22:1–30 The king of this passage is Jehoiakim, who earned Jeremiah’s rebuke by tyrannically forcing unpaid labor to expand his palace while the land groaned under tribute demanded by Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco (cf. 2 Kings 23:34–35). This was a direct violation of Old Testament Law (cf. Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14–15), and marked Jehoiakim as a user, rather than a servant, of his people. Jeremiah’s question, quoted above, focuses our attention on the nature of all spiritual leadership. In his denunciation of Jehoiakim, he contrasted this wicked king with his godly father Josiah. Josiah was a true king: a true servant of his people. This description of Josiah might well serve as a motto and guide for anyone in a position of spiritual leadership: “He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord (vv. 15–16). “I will raise up to David a righteous Branch” Jer. 23:1–8. Wicked Jehoiakim, who abused his power, was to be carried away to Babylon and have the “burial of a donkey” (22:19), without honor or regret. Now the prophet drew the ultimate contrast. One day the deposed king will be replaced by another from David’s royal line, a righteous Person who will “do what is just and right in the land,” and provide a restored Judah with salvation and safety. The Messiah, who we realize today is Jesus Christ, truly stands in contrast with Judah’s flawed kings. In order to provide His people with salvation and safety, King Jesus willingly suffered a criminal’s death. And, in dying, He demonstrated once and for all that what qualifies a person to rule—what marks a person off as a true leader—is the readiness to serve others at personal cost. “They commit adultery and live a lie” Jer. 23:9–40. Once again contrast catapults us into a new but related topic. Judah was filled with prophets: professional religious leaders who claimed to be channels through whom God communicated His word. Unlike Josiah, who was committed to doing good, and unlike the Messiah, who was both righteous and just, these prophets were false prophets. Jeremiah said that these godless men “follow an evil course and use their power unjustly.” What was it that marked them off as false prophets? The same traits that mark off godly from ungodly ministers today. One: “They commit adultery and live a lie” (v. 14). Their personal lives do not display the moral purity that the ministry of the Word of God requires. Two: “They strengthen the hand of evildoers” (v. 14). There is no emphasis on holiness in their ministry: no call to complete commitment to God. Three: “They fill you with false hopes” (v. 16). They preach popular messages; messages that people want to hear. Their promises of peace, health, and prosperity are “visions from their own minds.” Four: “The dreams they tell one another will make My people forget My name” (v. 27). They mouthed God’s name when giving messages that were supposedly from Him. But because the messages are actually only dreams stolen from one another, the result is that their hearers know less and less about God, and thus “forget” His name. We should not judge any modern preacher, or publicly tag any individual with the label “false prophet.” Yet we should use these criteria to evaluate whom to listen to—and whom to support financially. “For twenty-three years . . . I have spoken to you again and again” Jer. 25:1–38. The message of those 23 years was the same: “Turn . . . from your evil practices, and you can stay in the land.” But Judah refused to listen to the words God spoke through His prophet. Twenty-three years! We can appreciate the frustration of the prophet, as again and again he uttered warnings and invitations—and again and again was ignored or persecuted. Twenty-three years. We can understand more of God’s grace, when we realize that it was really He who was ignored and rejected. And when, as the predicted invasion was taking place and Exile was certain, God added another note of promise. The Captivity was to last only for “seventy years.” Then, “when the seventy years are fulfilled,” Babylon will be repaid. Indeed, all the nations that were enemies of God’s people will be punished. Three themes are linked in this chapter. (1) God brings disaster on His own in order to discipline them. (2) Discipline is intended to restore God’s own to right relationship. (3) If God is willing to so punish sin in His own, how will the rest of mankind escape judgment? There is another significance to the prophecy of the 70 years. In Babylon the people of Judah would look back, and in anguish wonder if God had deserted them forever. There they would consider their desolated land and the ruins of the temple, and wonder if by their sin they had forfeited their ancient relationship entirely. Then they would recall Jeremiah’s prediction, that after 70 years a remnant would return. And, in that prophecy, the exiles would find hope. “This man should be sentenced to death” Jer. 26:1–24. This chapter jumps back, near the beginning of Jeremiah’s public ministry. It gives details about the reaction to Jeremiah’s “temple sermon,” which is recorded in chapter 7. It is placed here to demonstrate the consistency of Judah’s response to Jeremiah’s message, from the beginning on through the decades of rejection and frustration. That initial reaction was intense, and the religious leaders were the first to call for Jeremiah’s execution (26:7–12). At that time the royal officers and the people resisted, pointing out that speaking a message in the name of the Lord was not a capital offense (vv. 16–18). It would surely be dangerous to kill a prophet (v. 19). Did Jeremiah’s release after being threatened with death suggest any openness to God’s word? Not at all. It only showed that God was guarding Jeremiah, for another prophet who preached the same message was executed by the reigning king, Jehoiakim (vv. 20–24). Some ignore God’s messages; some react with anger; some believe. Some messengers are protected by God; some are killed by God’s enemies. The only guarantee anyone has when he takes the role of a Jeremiah is that God is sovereign, and that His Word must be heard. “Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live” Jer. 27:1–22. The scene shifts back to the time of Zedekiah, with Babylonian invasion forces threatening the kingdom. Jeremiah announced that God the Creator had chosen to give Judah and the other nations of Syria-Palestine over to the Babylonians. If Zedekiah surrendered the nation to Nebuchadnezzar, he and his people would live. At this time a number of Judah’s best families had already been deported to Babylon, in 605B.C It was then 597B.C, and within a year the Babylonian forces would be outside the city gates. There was no basis for hope, and yet Zedekiah would not listen to Jeremiah. Revelation describes a similar irrational response at history’s end. The earth itself will be rocked by disaster after disaster; so much so that the supernatural origin of the judgments will be plain to all. Observing this in a vision, John said that all mankind “hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ’Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’ ” (Rev. 6:15–17) Even the certainty of judgment cannot turn a man from his sins. Only the message of God’s saving love in Jesus can reach and melt the hardened human heart. Jeremiah was called to proclaim judgment, and his generation was unmoved. You and I are called to share the Gospel’s Good News, and this message is still “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). “I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon” Jer. 28:1–17. Jeremiah was constantly opposed by false prophets, who loudly proclaimed messages that contradicted his own. At the time Jeremiah was urging Zedekiah to surrender to the Babylonians, a false prophet named Hananiah announced that God would free Judah from Babylon’s power and would bring back the captives already in that land. He then broke the wooden yoke Jeremiah wore to symbolize submission to Babylon. Jeremiah was then told to forge a yoke of iron. And to announce that because Hananiah claimed to speak in God’s name when God had not sent him, that Hananiah would die before the year was out. Within two months, Hananiah was dead! In Old Testament times prophets were authenticated as God’s messengers by making predictions that would soon be fulfilled, or by performing some miraculous sign. That way there could be no mistake about who God’s spokesmen really were. Despite the fact that Hananiah died as Jeremiah predicted, the people of Judah still refused to listen to him. Today too there is an authenticating work of God that helps us recognize His spokesmen. This is a work of the Holy Spirit performed within believers. Jesus spoke of this work when He said, “I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me” (John 10:14–15). We need to authenticate modern teachings, first by the objective standard of the Word of God, and then by the subjective standard of the Spirit’s inner voice.
Bad Good News (Jer. 29)
It almost seems a contradiction in terms. “Bad” good news? But this is just what Jeremiah 29 is about. Read the chapter, and you and I can see only good news. It contains a letter that Jeremiah wrote to instruct and encourage the Jews who had already been transported to Babylon. In it Jeremiah encouraged the captives to settle down, build houses, enjoy life, and prosper in that great world capital (vv. 4–9). Jeremiah also conveyed God’s promise to bring His people back to their own land after 70 years. “I know the plans I have for you,” God said through His prophet, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (vv. 10–14). You can hardly imagine better news than that! You’d think the exiles would jump up and down with excitement, or at least settle back with a sigh of relief and thank God. Instead, the leaders in exile sent a missive to Judah’s ruling priest, demanding in God’s name that Jeremiah be put in stocks and neckirons! Jeremiah was a madman, who should be shut up once and for all! To the exiles in Babylon the good news that Jeremiah conveyed seemed to be bad news. They didn’t want to hear it! They wanted to come home, now. The other day I listened to a “Crossfire” program on CNN. The debate was between a little-known media evangelist and a man promoting a book in which he labels every radio and TV preacher a crook. And the very worst charge that the author hurled against the evangelist was, “You believe that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is going to hell, don’t you?” What a case of “bad” good news. The Gospel message is that everyone deserves hell. Yet in love God sent Jesus to die for us, so that through faith in Him human beings might be forgiven and receive eternal life as a free gift. Somehow that critic of evangelists turned the whole message around, and made it appear that God condemned people for not believing in His Son, ignoring the fact that all mankind is lost and condemned without Him. Well, don’t be too surprised if what happened to Jeremiah, and what happened on TV, happens to you sometime. People have an amazing capacity to twist God’s good news and make it appear to be bad news. But if it does happen to you, don’t let your critic succeed. Keep the focus on the “good” of the good news, and rejoice in what the Lord means to you.
Arguing with folks determined to make good news appear bad is about as productive as trying to make hay grow on the moon.