We are told that Ezekiel receives his introductory vision in the fifth year of the exile of Jehoiachin. Remember, the book of Jeremiah ended with Jehoiachin being released from prison. Though roughly, a contemporary of Jeremiah’s their location, and thus their message will be directed at two very different groups of people. The year of this vision is 593 B.C. and we know that since Ezekiel was near the Chebar Canal, so though already in Exile in the Babylon’s empire, he was not in the city of Babylon itself. This beginning vision is perplexing. To help, remember that Ezekiel speaks about his vision with phrases such as, “looked like”, “like”, and “appeared to be”. That means Ezekiel is doing his best to tell you how this vision struck him, not that he was literally looking at “burning coals” or a “vault” made of crystal. Ezekiel is doing his best to describe the indescribable. Ezekiel is witnessing the glory of God (Ezekiel 1:28) in the midst of a foreign land, far removed from the soon to be destroyed Temple of God. Ezekiel’s extended vision will remind Israel of the glory of the one they have abandoned, but also provide hope that the Lord of the whirlwind is greater than their oppressors. This opening chapter sets the stage for the priestly Ezekiel to emphasize the glory of God and the need to be Holy to approach such a wonderful. God.
That last chapter of Lamentations begins with a list of humiliating experiences God’s people endure in their captivity and exile. This shows the multitude of problems that God has brought on Israel. This list crescendos into one insult, “for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.” (Lamentations 5:18) We can easily miss the point. Mount Zion is God’s holy mountain, the place where King David was to dwell, and God’s rule made known. These insults that God has brought upon Israel, as the writer is inferring, also brings insult upon God. This ending plea for the everlasting God to relent and show favor once again is founded upon the seriousness of the honor due the Lord of the Universe. Lament comes from a heart broken, but like all Bibical prayers, makes petitions based on God’s character. God will not be mocked, and if those who experience mockery due the hand of God see how God’s goodness and name are at stake with the tragedies around them, it makes complete sense to bring this to the Lord’s attention in prayer. When we lament, cry out, or ask God for favor, we ultimately rest our pleas on the scriptural insistence that the glory of the Lord must be honored. So we pray in our evil days, especially for the church that God would see our internal destruction and our external derision and move to purify us from within by the Holy Spirit to display the glory of Jesus. Our days are evil, but we pray, “Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old.” (Lamentations 5:21)
Life is rough when you believe your people would have been better off if fire from the sky had obliterated your city. To suggest that God’s punishment on Judah is greater than that of Sodom is to suggest this very thing (Lamentation 4:6). Images of gentle women boiling their children alive and children not having water to drink certainly lend credence to this claim. There is a greater suffering in a slow, humiliating suffering, than a quick and decisive end. Words cannot easily describe the horrors this writer witnessed. What Lamentations shows is that even horrific suffering need not lead us away from God, though we know God is author of our many afflictions. In fact, turning from God is what caused their trouble in the first place (4:13). God will punish sin, but God will also bring an end to Judah’s suffering. So this writer implicitly invites the readers then and now to turn to God and away from the sin that brought these ultimately brings great suffering. May our suffering, just or seemingly unjust, cause us ever to turn to God and never turn away from the one who suffered in our place!
How could the person who says about God, “Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help” (Lamentations 3:10-11) claim just a few sentences later, ““The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” (Lamentations 3:24) Waiting doesn’t seem like such a good idea if God is going to mangle you like a bear! Occasionally the Psalms will hold both the heavy hand and the graceful hand of God together in tension, but nowhere quite like in Lamentations 3. Also, I don’t know a place in scripture more clear in stating all that is good and bad under the sun happens by the work of the Lord. Add to this how deeply personal these words are, for the writer speaks in the first person both about God’s afflictions and promised blessings. So when we hear the claim, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentation 3:38) we know this is not some disinterested, abstract claim about a distant sovereign. These words come from the mouth of one who has learned to shed tears of anguish when God’s load is heavy, and tears of gladness when God’s favor shines. As I tried to place myself in the shoes of the writer, and read this chapter from inside their eyes, reading that destruction and delight both come from God, I cannot help but me moved to tears in reverence. Whatever God sends may we worship in complete surrender the Lord of all the earth.
Though Lamentations 2 describes the Babylonian invasion and exile, you will not find Babylon mentioned. Why is this? The entire perspective of this lament is that God is the active agent bringing the grief and desolation of Judah. The Lord even gives the altar into Babylon’s hands that these enemies might celebrate in the house of the Lord (Lamentations 2:7). If one takes times to read this lament, and consider from the eyes that view children gasping for breath in the city streets and the elderly crying to the heavens for mercy, we might share in the writer’s weeping (Lamentation 2:11). Yesterday, I noted that biblical lament includes recognition of sin. I would also add that Biblical lament acknowledges God’s agency and hand in all that happens under the sun, fortunate or destruction. This lament doesn’t have a simplistic theology that teaches, “This isn’t what God wanted.” In fact, this is exactly what God is doing and the writer is coming to terms with this truth. The chapter ends with an accusation against God that the Lord struck down the loved ones of this writer. It is clear that God is the one treating Judah like this (Lamentations 2:20). When God’s ways hurt us, anger, bitterness, and hopelessness are emotions that attend . We see hints of all three emotions in this passage. We do well to read, and reread this chapter to learn how to sit and talk to God in times of disappointment and disillusionment.
Though the author of Lamentations is believed by many to be Jeremiah, we cannot be 100% certain who wrote this book. Whoever wrote it, their first chapter is often written from the perspective of Judah, personified as an individual. Judah laments what has been lost. The city of Jerusalem’s desolation is compared to the experience of a widow, and going from being a queen to a slave (Lamentation 1:1). Biblical lamentation doesn’t just lament what has been lost, but also the reason for such loss. There are several allusions to the sins of Judah. We see her “lovers” (Lamentations 1:2) mentioned, which are idols of foreign nations. Also the link between exile and transgressions is plain in several places (e.g. Lamentations 1:5,7,8). It is not only sin that this lamentation acknowledges, but also God’s supreme righteousness in keeping faithfulness while Judah rebelled (Lamentation 1:18). Lamentations gives us a voice when much has been lost. We do well to lament in times of grief. Additionally, Lamentations shows we also do well to grieve sin’s power to undo what is good. When we lament, the Bible shows part of our lament should rage at sin like is done this first chapter, even if it is one’s own. Sin, the sins of others, or own sins, and ultimately the power that is called sin in scripture has ruined many good things. So when we lament what is lost, we lament the continuing presence of sin in life.
The Old Testament is full of high and low points. The lowest point of not only Jeremiah’s book, but perhaps the entire Old Testament is found in Jeremiah’s last chapter. After many years where kings in David’s line reject God’s call upon their lives, Zedekiah ends that reign in humiliation. His sons are cut down before his very eyes, before his eyes are cut out as well. Solomon’s Temple, the glory of Israel, that years earlier had been built of the best material, in meticulous fashion, is destroyed in reckless ways. Judah’s nobles are deposed, and the city is desolate. However, we end Jeremiah reading that Jehoiachin, the king first exiled by Babylon is shown kindness by his captors. This is an intentional contrast to Zedekiah, Babylon’s appointed King that is humiliated. Beyond this contrast serving as a measure of vindication of Jeremiah’s prophetic witness against Zedekiah and for cooperating with Babylon, there is more at stake with Jehoiachin's release. The hope implicit in the final verses is clear. Even after Babylon defeats Judah, it is still possible King will come to rule over Israel and restore peace even after Babylonian destruction. Even in our lowest points, as long as God rules, there is still hope, and we must cling to this hope even when we cannot see reason for such confidence.
Before the book of Jeremiah ends with Babylon defeating Jerusalem, God promises Babylon’s destruction. This will take place less than 100 years after Babylon is victorious over Jerusalem. Why will God punish Babylon, the destroyer who has been used by God to render justice to Judah? We are told God will do this for “vengeance for his temple” (Jeremiah 51:11). Though Babylon has been God’s instrument, we find that they have been evil in how they destroyed God’s people and city. This makes plain one of the paradoxes in scripture. God is control of nations, individuals, and everything taking place in the universe. We often describe this as God’s sovereignty. At the same time, we are genuinely responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take, because they are actually ours. How can we reconcile that God controls everything and that we are both responsible for what we do? Simply, we recognize that the way God controls events, space, and time as one who sees all moments as now and has infinite knowledge and power is very different than how we as finite, time-bound, dying, and weak creatures control anything. In short, it is mysterious to us because we cannot conceive how to explain such grand mysteries. We then can trust that “the secret things belong to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 29:29) and believe the plain meaning of Holy scripture.
Babylon is God’s instrument of judgement on Judah. Now God promises Babylon will be defeated by armies from the north. When this happens the people of Judah will make their way back to Jerusalem. If nations rise up, only to fall, why do we invest so much in civilizations, governments, and ordering our lives in societies? God is not against nations or civilizations because they are inherently evil, but because civilizations and nations show a tendency, especially in times of victory and dominance to work evil and ignore God. So it is not against civilization, government, and nation-building that we should invest our energies, but rather that gradual tendency individuals and peoples have to neglect such a great God along with such a great salvation. As the church, we have the special responsibility of guarding the truth about God and the Gospel. May our focus remain preserving the truth of and proclamation about the Gospel. That is the best contribution we can make to whatever nation or civilization to which we belong.
God’s cup, especially when mentioned by the prophets, represents God’s wrath against wickedness. The imagery conveys God has been holding back deserved action against sin, like a cup holds wine, until God refuses to relent any longer. So at appointed times, God’s wrath overflows and is poured out on transgressors. It seems God, when addressing Edom, acknowledges some imperfection in the justice of this cup when the Lord says, ““If those who do not deserve to drink the cup must drink it, why should you go unpunished?” (Jeremiah 49:12) This question presupposes that some will taste God’s wrath even though they don’t deserve it, at least in the way God’s opponents deserve wrath. Truthfully, this world is not a fair place, and there is a sense in which sin, as a power, causes trouble for everyone simultaneously, the wicked and the righteous. We cannot escape all the problems of the fall, the cheating of large businesses, the dishonesty of government officials, or an abusive parent. That is, some of us face consequences in life that cannot be fairly traced to our particular misdeeds or sins. That doesn’t negate that we are all transgressors and have lived without proper regard to God as creator and Lord. Nor do I mean that all of your negative circumstances can be properly called God’s wrath. Rather, I am pointing out that we understand how someone consequences due the evil of another can impact us greatly. So when God pours out wrath on wicked people, some that haven’t deserved such wrath will also experience consequences. God’s justice will prevail, for no wrath in the short-term compares to God’s wrath against evil and the perfect justice that will be given to all at the end of time. In the meantime, we can trust that our circumstances, fair or unfair are not decisive. We can leave recompense in the hands of God, who is gracious and does not give us what we deserve, but gives us inconceivably great blessings in Jesus, through faith.
Perhaps you are weary of reading about God’s judgement on Israel and the nations. Even our author seems to relate when he says, ““‘Alas, sword of the Lord, how long till you rest? Return to your sheath; cease and be still.’ (Jeremiah 47:6) Now why is Jeremiah so concerned that God relent? After all, these are former or current enemies of Israel God is judging. Jeremiah realizes that God’s judgement on all the earth doesn’t exclude Israel simply because of God’s choice to set them apart for blessings. Jeremiah has learned the hard way that the justice of God will not overlooks any nation’s evil. So Jeremiah realizes that his people are more like Egypt, the Philistines, Babylon, and others in deserving God’s just cleansing for sins. Everyone, all nations are indicted in the great evils of humanity. Jeremiah isn’t simply pleading for others, but for all those like him, that is all under the power of sin, irrespective of geographical boundaries. Still, Jeremiah understands that God’s justice cannot ignore evil, and acknowledges that the “sword of the Lord”, a metaphor for God’s protecting and purifying works, will finish God’s work (Jeremiah 47:6). If we groan against the judgement of the Lord, let us groan all the more through prayer that God would undo the power of sin in our world!
Occasionally when God speaks judgement against nations, it sound like taunting. This is especially the effect of Jeremiah 46:3-12. At first, this section seems to be encouraging Egypt to prepare for battle (Jeremiah 46:3-4) only to show how rising up for war will merely spell defeat. Egypt is ridiculed for her pride and told to charge into a battle that they will lose at the hands of God, the Lord Almighty (Jeremiah 46:9-10). This rhetoric is deserved as we find that Egypt had been a nation to taunt other nations, believing they would, “rise and cover the earth” and “destroy their cities” (Jeremiah 46:8). God will never overlook pride, bullying, or meanness on the earth. Even the greatest superpowers, and the largest forces of darkness will be laid low below the might arm of God. Such judgement is good news for the vulnerable and defeated of this world. May we delight in the God that can protect the mistreated.
Who is the “Queen of Heaven?” Most scholars believe she is “Ishtar” the goddess of fertility. This fertility goddess seems to have had great appeal for women judging by how they were first and loudest to dismiss Jeremiah. However, fertility doesn’t just refer to human reproduction, but also fertility from the earth, that is agriculture. So the men in Jeremiah’s day also bowed before this goddess, even if in smaller numbers. The argument Jeremiah’s opponents makes is that they were doing just fine when they prayed to Ishtar, but when they stopped, that is when the Babylonians took them captive. Though Jeremiah had been warning of God’s judgement due injustice and idolatry for sometime, the people refused to ascribe their predicament to God’s hand. In response, Jeremiah informs that when Egypt is conquered by Babylon like Judah is conquered, they will know that God is the one who has subjected them to slavery and defeat. At that point it will be too late. Jeremiah’s book has been tragic, so tragic in fact that we see Baruch, though loved by God, should not hope for great things, but only to have his life spared (Jeremiah 45:5). Such are the consequences of being faithful in evil days. Still the consequences for being faithless at whatever time is always greater. So we pray, “Father take these scripture and call forth our fidelity to you, our Lord and King, in every face of our lives. Amen.”
Just the name of Egypt and the humiliation of going back to the place where God’s people were enslaved 400 years would make many a proud person prefer death over such a fate. Instead, our story tells us that God’s people were too proud to trust God and more than willing to enter the land of their former slavery. The Bible isn’t bashful about declaring our willingness to endure slavery, not to mention pestilence and sword rather than enjoy the liberation that comes from trusting God’s wisdom and leadership. Sadly, Johanan and Judah’s remnant could have stayed in the land of promise even while many of their brothers and sisters were exiled if they would have just trusted God’s voice like they promised Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 42:1-5). When first reading about Jeremiah’s words of promise, there is a glimmer of hope that the people will listen. However, Jeremiah immediately warns about the punishment they will receive for doing what is in their hearts, thus the reader learns in advance what these people will do. Even after promising blessings, the Lord knows the intentions of Jeremiah’s audience. Through Jeremiah God warns of grave problems, literally, these people will face by continuing according to plan. Let this be a word of challenge to us today if we are operating in any facet of our lives according to our plans while ignoring God’s wisdom. Living like this is like choosing slavery and the sword.
God metes out His wrath against Zedekiah and Judah through the Babylonians, who capture Zedekiah and kill his sons. It is easy to overlook, but justice also comes for those in Judah who were mistreated under Zedekiah’s reign. For example, Nebuzaradan not only left the poor in Jerusalem, but also gave them vineyards and fields to tend (Jeremiah 39:10). Jeremiah and Ebed-Melek (the king’s Cushite servant) are also protected and treated with better kindness by the Babylonian captors.
The narrative point is clear: God is intentionally using the Babylonians as instruments of wrath and justice to reveal God’s immediate will for Judah. Like grace and mercy are not completely distinct but complementary, so God in His wrath against evil also works justice to address wrongs and maintain rights. This is key for Jewish interpretation of the events surrounding the Babylonian exile. Unlike other nations in defeat, the Jewish people did not believe the gods of their enemies won, but rather that Israel’s God is working through the enemy Babylon to purify and protect, as well as punish. The story also indicates that God, irrespective of our situations, always turns a compassionate eye to the broken, mistreated, and vulnerable. More than this, God will rectify all evils and enact justice on those who do wrong (Romans 12:19).
Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern while King Zedekiah refuses to stop the attackers. To the king’s shame, his servant Ebed-Melek, whose name means “king’s servant” in Hebrew, proves to be much more faithful to God’s messenger than Judah’s leader is. Add to this, we are told that this servant is a Cushite, someone from the region that corresponds to modern-day Ethiopia. This Cushite’s righteous protection of God’s spokesperson, while a king in the line of David lets the mob do as they will, sheds light on just how far those in the biological line of Israel have fallen. At the same time, we also see in this Cushite a thematic link to people like Rahab the prostitute, the Queen of Sheba, and even Melchizedek, who were not biological children of Abraham. However, through faith they were truer to God’s righteous call than many people in the line of Jacob.
Many view the Old Testament as an account of God blessing one ethnic people to the exclusion of others. Instances like this point to the continuity between the Testaments, making obvious God’s delight to welcome followers from every nation, tribe, and tongue. This also prepares the way for what Paul will elaborate years later: true children of Abraham are made by faith (Galatians 3:7-9, Romans 4:9-23), not primarily by biological descent. Paul’s message doesn’t reveal God’s new purposes on this side of the cross. Rather, Paul sees that Jesus’s cross uniquely draws all peoples to God, fulfills the Jewish sacrificial system and so makes a global church possible, and reveals the righteousness of God in way Israel and her kings never could. Praise God that representatives from the nations delighted in God’s righteous character before the cross, disproving any notions that God changes in character.
Kings, especially kings in David’s line, should protect as they lead. As the scribe Baruch delivers Jeremiah’s words of warning by way of the Lord, many of Judah’s officials are shaken by the message. Jehoiakim, King of Judah does not share their concern. As Jehoiakim listens to the words of the scroll, he symbolically clips them into the fire, acting as if those words had never been spoken. This king seals not only his fate, but also the fate of the thousands trusting him to heed the word of God. Though he destroyed God’s word with fire, God simply has the same words written on a different scroll. Jehoiakim however, will only be remembered for his foolishness and the great harm he caused Judah, when he could have been used as instrument to bring God’s mercy.
We might question the fairness of one person having such a say in the fate of so many. The truth is, their fate had been sealed long ago, from a human standpoint. However, we have already seen God decree the death of Hezekiah during the days of Isaiah, only to show kindness at Hezekiah’s petitions. Judah did not have the sort of king who had learned to bow to God in the days of Jeremiah. So, off the people of God go to exile when they were formed to radiate God’s saving power to the nations. This story warns us as God’s people both to choose our leaders wisely and to recognize we are ultimately creatures of God’s word. We may ignore it, but like Jehoiakim, we are nothing without it.
When God gives the law to Moses in Exodus, God first gives the so-called ten commandments (better named “ten words”). Secondly God instructs about idolatry and alters, then follows that with strict rules against indefinite slavery for fellow Hebrews. When Jeremiah calls upon Judah to repent, King Zedekiah calls upon Judah’s people to release fellow Jewish slaves who had been kept in bondage for some time. Obviously, God’s people had been ignoring the covenant before Jeremiah’s prophetic denunciation of the practice. Unfortunately, soon after doing the right thing by releasing brothers and sisters in slavery, former slave owners changed their minds, bringing their former slaves back into captivity. Jeremiah’s harsh words reiterate that because God brought the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt they were never to repeat practices that enslaved.
Since God’s people didn’t want to enjoy the freedom God gives, including the freedom to take care of the family of God, God will give these people a new freedom. This freedom is conveyed with a sarcastic bite, for Jeremiah promises a freedom to, “‘fall by the sword, plague and famine” (Jeremiah 34:17). God offers us similar freedom, to enjoy freedom that comes from loving God and neighbor in faith (Galatians 5:1-6) or the freedom to be enslaved by idols or by the power of the law to condemn (Galatians 4:8-11).
True freedom must liberate us to fulfill our God-given purposes. False freedom invites us to try and enjoy liberation apart from God’s purposes, only to offer us freedom to enjoy the destructive consequences of refusing to be true image bearers of God on earth. Freedom can be ours, but it comes as God’s gift, through God’s will being embraced.
Symbolic gestures have been commonplace in Jeremiah’s ministry. Consider the yoke he carried representing the rule of Babylon, the potter’s clay, or the linen belt that was ruined. God communicates through word but also communicates to the eyes the message we should hear. So what should Jeremiah’s audience hear when he purchases the field from his cousin Hanamel? It would seem foolish to buy a field under Jewish law when the Babylonians would soon establish their reign.
God wants Jeremiah’s audience to, as one Old Testament writer puts it, “hear with their eyes” God’s promises that “I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety” (Jeremiah 32:37). The Bible is full of words about images God uses to convey meaning (e.g., baptism, Lord’s supper, and even the cross) that affect our thoughts and imaginations in ways that simple descriptions cannot. As ministers (yes, all of us) of the Gospel, we do well to consider how we can take the stuff of our world, art or even symbols derived from scriptures, to explain truths from God. For example, imagine teaching children the idea that for a “kernel of wheat to give birth, first it must die” (John 12:24) and connecting that with the cross; we could easily bring a seed of any plant, along with the plant it grows, to show how soil transforms the seed (transformation is what Jesus means when he speaks of seeds dying, for Jesus wasn’t giving a scientific explanation). This brings to life the idea that Jesus must die to transform into the resurrected king who will transform His followers into in the likeness of His image (Philippians 3:21).
As a pastor, Jeremiah’s ministry is a challenge to me to use illustrations and even sometimes living illustrations to help people hear with their eyes the word of God.
God promises to restore Israel and make a new covenant. This covenant will differ from the first. Instead of a law written on tablets, God will make this covenant with a people whose hearts have been inscribed with God’s statutes. Also, this new covenant will mean more widespread knowledge of God’s character.
God promises that this new covenant will secure the fate of “the offspring of Israel” (Jeremiah 31:36). In the book of Hebrews, these new covenant promises are plainly connected to the sufficiency of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. In Hebrews, we are told that Jesus’ work to bring this new covenant exists because “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). Notice how that works: Jesus has already made perfect those whom Jesus is still in the process of making holy. The sacrifice Jesus made at Calvary has the power to inaugurate a new covenant, make us perfect, and yet in ongoing and renewing fashion, make us holy.
Just as we cannot measure the heavens above (Jeremiah 31:37), we cannot measure the breadth and value of Jesus’ death for our rescue. Though we can never exhaust investigation or explanation of Jesus’ death, we can say with thanksgiving that our sins and iniquities will be remembered no more (Jeremiah 31:34).