by Rev. Ian Arnold
We rightly admire and respect a person who, though he or she doesn’t want a job, does it because there is no one else as uniquely equipped as they are to do it. In doing it, too, they do it well, for all that it might involve hardship, sacrifice and thanklessness along the way.
Such a person was Jeremiah. He did not want to be a prophet, but the Lord had marked him out to be one, even from before he was born. (See Chapter 1, verse 5). He saw himself as but an inexperienced youth, unfitted for the task and responsibility. But God would have none of it. (Chapter 1, verse 7).It hurt him dreadfully to say what God called upon him to say. (See Chapter 5, verse 19). He was denied marriage and a family (see Chapter 16, verse 2) when all the indications are that he yearned for them. In his integrity he carried out the Lord’s command to say the most unpalatable things to his people. They abused, hated and mistreated him for it. And yet he remained unswervingly committed to his task.
All of the Old Testament prophets were unusual people. Who would ever have wanted to be one? They deserve our enormous respect and admiration, perhaps Jeremiah most of all.
Jeremiah prophesied over the last 25 years of the kingdom of Judah. By this time the northern kingdom of Israel has long since succumbed to the Assyrians, and its people had been re-settled in another part of the Assyrian empire. Judah, though, had struggled on. At the very time when the Assyrians might have swept down and over-run Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, there seems to have been dynastic disturbances back home and the invading army withdrew.
Struggle along as it did, Judah, however, was mostly incapable of learning important lessons, about how its neglect of its religious and spiritual heritage and values inevitably led to weakening and susceptibility to foreign influence and conquest. The people of Judah were possessed of a smug mind-set that as God’s chosen ones that could never happen to them. God would not allow it. After all, His very own reputation was at stake.
The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.” (Chapter 1, verse 2). The information given is as precise as that.
Whilst only a boy of eight years old when he became King Josiah had, in his eighteenth year, (622 B.C.) ordered a widespread religious reform. This reform did not, however, go far enough, being resisted by those with vested interests in things as they had been and, as Jeremiah highlighted, it was all on the surface only. In their hearts, lives, attitudes and actions, people remained as they previously had been. (See Chapter 5, verses 20 to 31). Here were a people, so proud of their possession of the law of the Lord but who, in their hearts, had rejected it. (See Chapter 8, verses 8 & 9).
It’s this self-certainty, this sureness that Jeremiah tried desperately to get through, to awaken his people to their plight and to the consequences that were looming. They aggressively dismissed him for it, even more so when he identified Babylon as the Lord’s instrument of their coming punishment.
With the decline of Assyria, you see, Babylon had become the dominant power of that part of the world by this time. Like we’ve seen, the people of Judah had, on the whole, set their faces against genuine and heartfelt reform. They welcomed and feted false prophets who spoke the things they wanted to hear. As for the loathed Jeremiah he was at different times beaten and put in stocks (Chapter 20:1,2); threatened with death (Chapter 26:10,11); arrested , beaten and put in a dungeon (Chapter 37: verses 13 to 16); and thrown into a muddy, stinking cistern, to languish there (Chapter 38:6). He would have abandoned his calling yet was defeated by his very own inability to evade it.
What is amazing is his steadfastness and unwavering commitment to whatever the Lord wanted him to say, notwithstanding the awesome cost to himself. Jeremiah prophesied throughout the short reigns of Jehoahaz (609 BC), Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C); Jehoiachin (598-597 B.C); and, last of all, Zedekiah (597-587 B.C). He counseled his people to accept the inevitability and reality of the Babylonian conquest. Even to the bitter end they couldn’t and wouldn’t. It’s astonishing to read how blind, stubborn, self-righteous and unwilling they were to see and accept cause for their predicament as being in themselves.
Jeremiah was relentless in his message and it makes his prophesy, at least in part, heavy and hard-going. People find it such. But the read is worth the effort and repays perseverance. Let yourself be attracted to Jeremiah for his self-sacrificing and unswerving commitment to his call and task, for his courage and his humility and, behind it all, for his great love for his people for whom he “yearned to sound the alarm, and save them from the impending fall.”
As you think about Jeremiah, and come alongside of him, let yourself also think of the Lord; of His great love for the human race; of all the efforts He has made and strategies He has employed down through the ages, “to sound the alarm, and save (His people) from the impending fall”. Think, too, of the thanklessness the Lord met while on earth, the plots to kill Him, the way officialdom moved so sinisterly against him. It has been written of Jeremiah, “those whom he loved hated him”, that, “this prophet of undying hope had to exhibit the fallacy of his people’s hope”. That, “this lover of Judah was by Judah maligned”. (The New Bible Dictionary). It’s just so true, too, concerning the Lord. While we are reading our Bibles we think we are reading about the man Jeremiah, “but in the internal sense the Lord is meant.” (Swedenborg, in “Arcana Caelestia”, paragraph 2838:2).
Now pause a while and see Jeremiah’s prophecy and over-arching message in relation to yourself and your own busy world of thoughts, feelings, duties, responsibilities and diversions. Jeremiah is the Lord’s truth warning and cajoling us, calling and admonishing us, challenging and confronting us. And what do we do with it? We reject it and try to silence it. We disable it by putting it in stocks. We arrest it and accuse it of being out of touch. We dump it down a foul cistern, out of sight, not wanting to know about it.
“Something similar to what was represented by Joseph was also represented by the prophet Jeremiah, who describes what happened to him, as follows,
They took Jeremiah and cast him into the pit which was in the court of the guard, and let Jeremiah down by ropes into the pit where there was no water. Jer.38:6
That is, they cast Divine Truths away among falsities that had no truth at all within them.” (Arcana Caelestia 4728)
What about Jeremiah’s insistence not just on the inevitability of Babylon’s conquest but of the necessity of capitulating to it? Nothing so seem to irk his countrymen than this and for it he was branded – and misunderstood – as a traitor.
Sometimes we have to go through dark and captive states to really come to understand, appreciate, and value the Lord’s will as opposed to our own. We have to be brought down. We won’t listen and it can’t be otherwise. And yet it is in and out of that experience that a new start can – and will – be made.
To get a handle on a book of the Bible you don’t know very well it can be really helpful to read it in a modern translation, say “New International Version”. If it is okay with you, have a highlighter in your hand and mark the passages that comes across strongly to you. The prophecy through Jeremiah has all of 52 chapters in it. See if you can identify one or more message in each of these 52 Chapters which, when you think about it, you can see applies to us, and to our lives, today. In Chapter 1, for instance, it might be verse 5 where we are reminded just how well the Lord knows us. In Chapter 2, it could be about how waywardness sets in, or it might be that as you read verse 13 you find yourself asking “Am I, too, a broken cistern?” Maybe, having read Chapter 3, you are reflecting on how brazen we can be about our failures, sins and shortcomings.
And please, don’t overlook the wonderful gems you can find in Jeremiah. Here are just two of them:
“This is what the LORD says:
‘Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is,
and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.’” (Chapter 6:16)
“This is what the LORD says:
‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
Or the strong man boast of his strength
Or the rich man boast of his riches,
But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me,
That I am the LORD, who
Exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth,
For in these I delight,
Says the LORD.’” (Chapter 10:23, 24)
See, too, Chapter 17:7-7; Chapter 20:9; Chapter 26:13; Chapter 29:13 and the whole of Chapter 31.