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Jeremiah at Prayer Part 1
Jeremiah was a man who lived a life of intimacy with the LORD. Called to exercise a difficult and lonely ministry he was strengthened for the task by a close walk with God, a walk that developed and deepened as he grew older. In this life prayer would figure in an important way. Indeed his prayers can at times appear to us to be very daring as he opened his heart to his LORD and expressed himself in very candid terms.
We find examples of Jeremiah speaking to God in several different passages of the book that bears his name. In particular, throughout the intensely personal chapters 11-
Such a life of prayer came out of the furnace of hard service and perhaps this is an indication that if we would enjoy a similar spiritual intimacy with God then we too must be prepared to pay a similar price. This is surely something of a commentary on what is involved if we truly set ourselves to seek first God’s kingdom.
Jeremiah didn’t enter into his ministry as a ready-
Jer.1:6 "Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.""
Jeremiah’s first recorded prayer is an attempt to resist the LORD’s call to service – it is hardly an inspiring beginning. Happily it was only a beginning and Jeremiah would make considerable progress over the ensuing years. Later, for example, when he was told to pronounce a curse on anyone who refused to pay attention to the covenant the LORD had established with his people – a message which was unlikely to be received with any warmth – he responded in a very different manner:
Jer.11:5 "Then I answered, "So be it, LORD.""
May it be true of us all that we grow in spiritual maturity and not stagnate in our faith and the way in which we express it in our prayer lives.
Growing Maturity and Various types of Prayer
Jeremiah did make progress but we should not imagine that it came easily to him. Ministry for him was tough. Yes, he did enjoy the privilege of having the LORD speak clearly and repeatedly to him but he also knew the grief and pain of seeing the messages he passed on being, for the most part, rejected. Viewed superficially Jeremiah’s ministry was a largely fruitless; he did not see what he wanted to see and his advice, even when it was deliberately sought out, went unheeded.
I wonder how we would react in similar circumstances. Would we find it pleasant to serve and to see virtually no positive results for our service? If we find indifference hard to take what about downright hostility? Maybe you have a strong constitution that enables you to deal easily with such a response. As for Jeremiah, he did not find such a situation an easy one to cope with at all.
Jeremiah faithfully transmitted the messages entrusted to him but found that far from being appreciated he was despised because of his faithfulness; he considered himself to be harshly and unfairly treated. And all of this produced such a turmoil in his life that from time to time he would unburden himself to the LORD in prayer. These prayers or complaints were not cool cerebral reflections but the overflow of a passionate heart as he grieved over the spiritual condition of his nation.
Jeremiah gave expression to his grief and sorrow in ebbs and flows of emotion and as he did so he seems to have slipped imperceptibly from a simple expression of his pain to speaking directly to the LORD about it all. His prayers could be shorter or longer but were generally followed by words of comfort and explanation from the LORD. These explanations did not necessarily tell Jeremiah what he wanted to hear but it must nevertheless been a solace to know he was in relationship with his LORD.
In addition to expressing his complaints, which involved implicit requests for the LORD to act or to act in a different, Jeremiah on other occasions made forthright, explicit requests too. It is hardly surprising, given the opposition he encountered as he exercised his ministry, that we should find him praying for help and praying for deliverance from hard places. We also find him faithfully carrying out the commands that the LORD gave him and then asking for further explanations that he might understand just what it was the LORD was about.
If a godly man such as Jeremiah most certainly was could pray for help, deliverance and for an increased understanding then we should have no hesitation in doing the same. And this is a lesson that is explicitly taught to us in the NT where Jesus explained that the Father knows exactly what we need and where Paul, following Jesus’ lead, urged Christians with these words:
Phil.4:6 "do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."
A Surprising and Painful Instruction
We are probably well used to the idea contained in Paul’s exhortation – we know that we can pray about anything and everything – and that is indeed the usual teaching of the Bible but exceptions do however occur to this general rule. One of these exceptions is to be found in Jeremiah’s own life experience: he was told that he was not to pray to the LORD for the people of his own nation! Given his concerns and feelings for his own people this instruction must have been a hard one for Jeremiah to receive and receive it he did on more than one occasion:
Jer.7:16 "As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you."
In the immediate context an explanation was given to Jeremiah concerning this unusual injunction: the people were settled in their idolatrous practices and the LORD was determined to punish them for it. With the LORD determined to discipline his people by means of exile in Babylon it is not for Jeremiah to pray that the LORD not exile them. We should understand this order not to pray not as an absolute, for all time, command, but as an order limited in time and circumstance. And neither does Jeremiah find this easy: he certainly takes no delight in the punishment about to fall upon his nation and neither should we look on with indifference much less delight in the judgment of others.
A few chapters later the same command is issued:
Jer.11:14 ""Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble."
Once again this command does not come without further explanation. Once again the major problem is that of idolatry only this time it is compounded by the stubborn refusal of the people to pay attention to the words the LORD has addressed to them. They have persisted in seeking the help of others gods and the true God will not hear prayer for them.
A third example is also to be found:
Jer.14:11 "The LORD said to me: "Do not pray for the welfare of this people."
This time the context is somewhat different. The LORD had given a message to Jeremiah concerning the sorry state of the people of Judah and Jeremiah had responded with a prayer in which he aligned himself with his people:
The exchange continued as the LORD further explained just how firmly Judah was attached to its sin:
Jer.14:10 "Thus says the LORD concerning this people: "They have loved to wander thus; they have not restrained their feet; therefore the LORD does not accept them; now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins."
This was the reason at that moment in time why the LORD told Jeremiah not to pray for the welfare of the people.
But still Jeremiah tried to intervene and to find a reason for excusing the people. He is not rebuked for this which surely must affect the way we understand the LORD’s commands not to pray for Judah. Basically Jeremiah pleads that his people have been led astray by false prophets who deceived them:
Jer.14:13 "Then I said: "Ah, Lord GOD, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’"
It is to no avail. The false prophets had not been sent by the LORD and it was then time for judgment to be carried out upon a disobedient people.
And still Jeremiah returns to the LORD with his questions. He simply refuses to easily take no for an answer. Are there shades of Abraham here? Do you remember how he interceded on and on for the faithless cities of Sodom and Gomorrah?
What passion and serious feeling Jeremiah expresses in the words he addresses to the LORD as he prays:
This is no mild request for information but a strong plea for the One True Living God to act graciously towards his people – Jeremiah knows that none other can help them.
But it is still to no avail:
Jer.15:1 "Then the LORD said to me, "Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go!"
Much later in Jeremiah’s ministry (ch.42) we again find him praying for the people. The circumstances are different – the leaders of the people have been taken away into exile in Babylon leaving just the poorest to stay on in Judah. The Babylonian ruler allowed Jeremiah to chose where he wanted to live and he chose to stay on in Judah.
When the Babylonians overran Judah destroying the temple they set up a man named Gedaliah to govern on their behalf but he was subsequently murdered and once again the situation was perilous for the people still living in Judah as they feared reprisals.
And so Jeremiah was approached. Would he pray for to the LORD for them? They needed to know what course of behaviour to follow. They swore to Jeremiah that whatever the LORD said they would do!
Jeremiah complied with the request and set himself to pray. It was not the prayer of a moment – the answer did not come for ten days and that probably means that Jeremiah prayed throughout that period! How he loved his people and longed for them to walk in the light of the LORD.
The answer did not however concord with the desires of the people. They were afraid and wanted to flee to Egypt for safety and they longed to have a sign of divine approval upon the decision that had already determined to take. The answer the LORD gave through Jeremiah was that they should stay where they were and he would take care of them. On the other if they persisted in their determination of taking refuge in fleeing to Egypt then they should know that the punishment that had already been inflicted upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem would fall upon them in Egypt.
The only thanks Jeremiah received for acceding to the request to pray for the people and to faithfully pass on the word of the LORD to them was to be treated once more as a liar! His faithfulness was "rewarded" by being taken against his will out of the Promised Land to Egypt where we hear no more of him.
What are we to make of this? Are we to write Jeremiah off because he prayed when told not to? The LORD didn’t seem to do that so we must be careful what conclusions we draw.
There are some lessons that are underscored here in a dramatic manner.
Repeated rejection of the LORD and his word leads to the heart being hardened. It may be that the heart becomes so hard that there is no point in praying any more. There are times it would seem when God gives up on men and women who remain so stubbornly attached to their love of sinning – judgment and loss will be the only future for such.
The apostle John writes of this in his first letter while he encourages Christians to pray for a brother who falls into sin:
1Jn.5:16 "There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that."
But while we must never be quick to write people off this remains a clear warning concerning the seriousness of sin and the danger of stubborn sin.
Let us also be careful that we understand the context and the reasons for commands that are issued. If we don’t do that we may well end up misapplying Scripture in the name of Scripture!
May God teach us more and more about prayer as we develop and mature in our relationship with him through Jesus Christ.