Jeremiah – The Man and his Message
We have looked in early weeks at the man Jeremiah and thought about how God called him to service as a prophet even though he did not think of himself as at all suited to this task. We have seen that for Jeremiah to serve faithfully as a prophet was a costly business which brought him a great deal of painful and unwanted suffering into his life. We have thought about his prayer life and looked at how he both carried his complaints to God in prayer and also his praises. We have considered his ministry casting a passing glance at what he had to say but focusing more upon the way in which he carried out his ministry.
Now this evening, for a final time we will think a little more about the message or messages that Jeremiah was called upon to pronounce to his own people.
The Problem to be Addressed
The spiritual condition of the people of Judah was dire and in the early chapters of his book Jeremiah returns to this theme again and again and in a wide variety of different ways. Sometimes his descriptions of Judah’s failures are simple and straight forward and sometimes they are wrapped up in strong imagery:
Jer.9:5 "Everyone deceives his neighbour, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity."
cf. Jer.22:9 "Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and worshiped other gods and served them."
As Judah turned away from following the LORD and his commands so the nation began to disintegrate on the moral front. Turning their back on the LORD did not mean turning their back upon religion however as Judah replaced the worship of the One True Living God with the Idolatrous worship of the surrounding nations. Judah was no longer characterised by faithfulness to the LORD but by the pursuit of false gods – it was a shocking ‘fall from grace’ and one which Jeremiah described at some length in chapter 10 where he contrasted the LORD with the worthless inability of the idols:
Jeremiah’s critique is short but devastating. Idols are merely the work of men’s hands and:
they cannot speak
they cannot walk
they cannot do evil
neither is it in them to do good
they are dead, worthless and delusory
And yet they exert an influence upon all those foolish enough to serve them with the result that the leaders of the people cease to seek the LORD and instead swallow all kinds of falsehood. This had a profound effect upon the nation:
Jer.10:21 "For the shepherds are stupid and do not inquire of the LORD; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered."
But the tragedy in all this is the perverse blindness of the nation as a whole – they not only don’t object but actually like it like this!
Jer.14:10 "They have loved to wander thus; they have not restrained their feet;"
But such deliberate turning aside from the truth and the God of Truth is not a safe option!
Jer.14:10 continues "therefore the LORD does not accept them; now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins."
And yet the people of Judah simple refuse to face up to the fact that they have done anything wrong. Instead of reflecting and repenting they arrogantly reject any suggestion of their own guilt and responsibility:
Jer.16:10 "‘Why has the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is the sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?"
They simply don’t think the LORD can have anything against them – they fail to see that they:
have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them,
have forsaken the LORD and have not kept his law,
have done worse than their fathers
each follow his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to the LORD
The Inability of the Hearers to Resolve the Problem
Sinful men and women underestimate the gravity of their sinful rebellion against God – we just never want to admit how serious the matter really is. And consequently even when we have been brought to think about sin as a problem we have a strong natural tendency to imagine that we could deal with it – if only we were to put our mind to it.
The population of Judah during the time of Jeremiah was like that and nothing of significance has changed with humanity since. And Jeremiah was faced with the task not merely of telling his people about their sin and what detrimental effects it was having upon them but also of encouraging to look in the right place for a solution big enough to meet their problem.
In trying to get his message of human inability across Jeremiah came up with a highly memorable statement in the form of a rhetorical question:
Jer.13:23a "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?"
And just in case his hearers didn’t see the relevance of the question Jeremiah continued with:
Jer.13:23b "Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil."
Earlier in his book we find the prophet expressing his own opinion on the subject to the LORD in prayer:
Jer.10:23 "I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps."
In other words, men and women need help from outside themselves and the only one able to bring them that help is the LORD himself!
Warnings and Promises
The majority of the prophetic ministry which Jeremiah was called upon to proclaim focused upon the sin of the nation. Jeremiah’s primary task was to show the people their sin, to let them know how serious in the sight of God it was and to call upon them to change their ways.
As Jeremiah sought to do this he repeatedly told his people what lay ahead for them if they were to persist in paying no heed to what the LORD said through him. The sin, to which they were so wedded, had put the nation on that broad path that leads to destruction! Persisting in their sin of turning away from the LORD and they would suffer great loss and experience exile far from home:
And the warnings Jeremiah gave concerning exile were frequent:
Jer.13:7 "But if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the LORD’s flock has been taken captive."
Jer.13:19 "all Judah is taken into exile, wholly taken into exile."
Jer.15:2 "Thus says the LORD: ‘Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine, and those who are for captivity, to captivity.’"
While warnings tend to dominate in Jeremiah’s prophecy he yet had the immense privilege of transmitting some wonderful promises from the LORD as well.
Exile lay ahead but, after that severe and painful discipline, exile would be followed by a return to the land and to a restoration within the land.
While the truth of the inability of man to solve his own problems with the help of other men was upheld the LORD would provide the very help that man needed. Jeremiah put this in clear parallel statements which call to mind the opening Psalm of the Psalter:
Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
On the other hand:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream,
(it) does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green,
(it) is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.
Man who is incapable of solving his own problems finds that the LORD is not incapable of providing the help needed not is he unable to make man willing and able to receive his help!
The problem, as Jeremiah had declared it, was so great that a great change would need to be wrought in man and this Jeremiah also declared was exactly what the LORD God promised to do for his people.
Unique amongst the authors of the OT Jeremiah was privileged to reveal the specific promise of a new covenant. Of course this was picked up and the term employed on seven different occasions. The new covenant is bound up with the death of our Lord Jesus Christ and is closely associated with the Lord’s Supper both by Jesus himself and the apostle Paul after him.
But it is the writer to the Hebrews who refers to it most often quoting directly from Jeremiah as he does so.
Do you see how this new covenant meets the exact needs of God’s people at the time of Jeremiah?
Although Judah had been in a covenant relationship with God – a close intimate relationship as was highlighted by Jeremiah’s acted parable of a ruined, polluted loincloth which is found in ch.13:1-
This old covenant was good but the recipients of it weren’t and they by their disobedience rendered the covenant useless and ineffective. Because man was a fallen rebellious sinner he needed a different sort of covenant that would work not from the outside in but from the inside out – fallen Judah if it was to have any hope at all needed a new covenant to be established.
And this is precisely what the LORD promised he would do through his favoured prophet Jeremiah. It came with the glorious and wonderful promise that the LORD would never again call to mind their sin!
How striking that is in the context of a book where Jeremiah had to constantly lay before the people a whole range of their sinful rebellion and failure!!
So in the midst of a long ministry, a largely rejected ministry and a ministry that was lonely and in the main fruitless, Jeremiah was giving this privilege of seeing into the future unfolding of the LORD’s plan of salvation and to declare the establishing of a new covenant which would prove to be not only effective but also everlasting in extent!
Jeremiah longed to see his own people saved and walking in intimate fellowship with the LORD but Jeremiah’s desire is but a pale reflection of the LORD’s own desire for the salvation of sinners then and for the salvation of sinners now!
Praise his Name!