Today we will think about Jeremiah and the way in which God’s judgement is described. Recently I was involved in a conversation discussing the way in which God gives us scripture, and in the context of the conversation how much of that scripture is given in narrative (story). God didn’t give us a 2 page handout consisting of a bible overview and a systematic theology summary. Instead he gave us a book with lots and lots of stories about his dealings with his people. Why? Part of the answer must be that he wants us to engage with the Bible in a way that parallels how we engage with other stories rather than how we engage with text books. He wants us to enter in imaginatively to the world of the Bible, and from it to see what it looks like to live well before God (and be warned about what it is like when we ignore God).
We could have made the same observation about poetry. Much of the bible is written in poetic speech – and this is especially true of the prophets. Reading Jeremiah it often feels like we could just summarise it as “Judah sinned, Yahweh will bring judgment – repent and be part of God’s new start”. But to summarise it like that is not to say all that needs to be said, and not to experience all that needs to be experienced. After the call to repent we had in chapter 3 we now have the description of Yahweh’s judgement to come.
And it is in poetic speech – so there are gaps to ponder, there are images to imagine and there are emotions to feel. We are not, as I remember one influential teacher saying, ‘walking brains’. We read with our hearts engaged. And here is the first part of the warning:
“Raise the signal to go to Zion!
Flee for safety without delay!
For I am bringing disaster from the north,
even terrible destruction.”
A lion has come out of his lair;
a destroyer of nations has set out.
He has left his place to lay waste your land.
Your towns will lie in ruins without inhabitant.
So put on sackcloth, lament and wail,
for the fierce anger of the LORD has not turned away from us.
“In that day,” declares the LORD, “the king and the officials will lose heart, the priests will be horrified, and the prophets will be appalled.””
(Jeremiah 4:6–9 TNIV)
Disaster is coming. Flight is the only option. Disaster from the north – that was the route invaders took, traveling across the fertile crescent from Babylon and down into Israel, and down to Jerusalem. A lion on the prowl. A destroyer. Devastation is on its way. Ruin is to come. Everyone will be appalled.
At this sight we then get an interjection from Jeremiah:
“Then I said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, how completely you have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, ‘You will have peace,’ when the sword is at our throats.””
(Jeremiah 4:10 TNIV)
In this book of Jeremiah there are a number points where Jeremiah, in the midst of reporting Yahweh’s words interjects with his words. Here there is a distinct edge to this word. Elsewhere in Jeremiah he describes false prophets who say ‘peace, peace – but there is no peace’ – and here he seems to put the blame at Yahweh’s door. After all, if Yahweh is sovereign, and people speak in Yahweh’s name declaring peace and Yahweh does nothing to stop them, or make it look like their word won’t come true, then who else is Jeremiah going to blame?
We will learn elsewhere in the Bible of how one of God’s ways of punishing rebellious people is to allow them to have leaders who will not speak truth, and we would perhaps want to nuance Jeremiah’s words here, with that knowledge from elsewhere.
But we also need to sit with the raw edges of Jeremiah’s grief over a sinful people and over a God who seems to have allowed them to be deceived. Jeremiah’s speech may not be as precise as we would want, and it might charge God with deception – but Jeremiah’s speech is describing what he sees. Sometimes that is what we need to do. Say what we see, and allow that saying what we see to be part of the process of how God deals with us, and how we learn more about what God is like. Sometimes we need to say what we know isn’t quite right by the standards of the theology textbook because we need to come to a deeper understanding that only come through a process that involves raw honesty and the tearing apart of our safe illusions.
So sit with Jeremiah as he sees the unfolding of God’s judgement on a people who have been lulled by false prophets into a sense of false security in their sin. And as you sit see and feel the pain of the true prophet “who stands against the tide, armed only with the knowledge that his eyes are open wide” (to quote a song…)
The horror continues to unfold:
“At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”
Look! He advances like the clouds,
his chariots come like a whirlwind,
his horses are swifter than eagles.
Woe to us! We are ruined!
Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved.
How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?
A voice is announcing from Dan,
proclaiming disaster from the hills of Ephraim.
“Tell this to the nations, proclaim concerning Jerusalem:
‘A besieging army is coming from a distant land,
raising a war cry against the cities of Judah.
They surround her like people guarding a field,
because she has rebelled against me,’”
declares the LORD. “Your own conduct and actions have brought this on you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!””
(Jeremiah 4:11–18 TNIV)
Judgement comes, by this army coming down from the north – like a storm coming. Not a mild storm like we have here in the UK, where we sit inside our comfortable houses and watch the wind shake the trees a little and howl down the chimney as we sip our tea. No, this is a storm coming that threatens life. A whirlwind that destroys houses. This the hurricane heading up the Atlantic coast of the US, after sweeping out several islands on the way.
Ruin has come, and it is all Judah’s fault. Babylon, the invading army, is doing this for their own purposes, for the glory of their king and their gods. Yet behind all that idolatry and political greed stands the sovereign God, using it for his purposes of judgement and deliverance.
“Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain.
Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me,
I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet;
I have heard the battle cry.
Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins.
In an instant my tents are destroyed, my shelter in a moment.
How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?
“My people are fools; they do not know me.
They are senseless children; they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”
I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens, and their light was gone.
I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying. I looked,
and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.”
(Jeremiah 4:19–26 TNIV)
Now we get a view which is not so much direct speech from God, except for the middle section. Most of these verses are Jeremiah’s impression of the vision he sees. He sees the vision of judgement on God’s rebellious people and he feels anguish. Is that us? When we hear and read of God’s judgment to come do we have this anguish?
Jeremiah sees the battle laid out before him. He sees the ruin, and then he hears the divine voice giving the reason for this. God’s people are fools. Senseless. Lacking understanding. And yet skilled. Clever fools. Skilled in doing evil. It seems an appropriate description for us to. So clever. So able to do so much with technology and with power and with money. So able to make and shape – and yet so foolish with it all.
True of the world around. Sadly so often true of us in church. So clever. So able to put on great events, so able to make ourselves look good – and yet so foolish in trusting and seeking God.
Jeremiah looks again and he sees utter ruin. The land is formless and empty – the exact words of the description of creation in Genesis 1:1 before God speaks. The earth is falling apart because of God’s judgement. Prosaically this is the Babylonian conquest foreseen – but the poetic language speaks of cosmic turmoil, because for the people involved it is their whole life come apart before the fierce judgement of God on his rebellious people.
“This is what the LORD says:
“The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely.
Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.””
(Jeremiah 4:27–28 TNIV)
The verdict is stark. Yahweh has spoken and he will not relent. Ruin is coming. Judah will be taken captive. Once more the language of cosmic turmoil is used to describe events in human history.
This happens throughout the Bible – it helps make sense of books like Revelation. Revelation uses the language of OT prophets to speak of what will happen throughout human history as God speaks to a world determined to oppose him. God stands calling people back to himself. God stands breaking down our clever systems we create to give us the illusion of security.
God stands in the midst of his people warning us that we stand in the midst of a cosmic battle. That as we go about our daily business we are playing our part in God’s redemption of the world. We live as signposts of his kingdom to a broken land.
When we see our politics falling apart. When we see that politicians cannot be civil to opponents. When we see that there is no vision, only broken promises and lies, lies and spin. When we see the weak destroyed for someone else gain.
When we see the church mirroring this in its structures. When we see those who should speak of God and his ways speaking only “peace, peace” to a church and a world that needs to know and see reality.
When all these things happen, when the earth mourns and the heavens grow dark, still then we trust in God. Still then we pray that, as he has before, so once more God might remember mercy and draw many back to him. And as we stand in the night, as we stand at a time when we do not know what will happen next, then we stand trusting him.
As another prophet put it at the end of another graphic vision of God’s appearing:
“I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.”
(Habakkuk 3:15–19 TNIV)