Prophets are those who speak the words of God to others. The primary purpose of the prophet is to reveal the will of God to a person or group of people to exhort them to follow Him. Often while speaking the words of God to others, prophets talk about what will happen in the future. Sometimes these predictions are very general, like “I will prepare destroyers against you” (Jer 22:18) Sometimes they are more specific, even including a timeframe for events, like this.
Moreover, I will banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.
- Jeremiah 25:10-12
The basic idea of this prophecy is that God is going to allow Israel to be sent into exile for seventy years. After seventy years, Babylon, the nation that has the superior strength to take Israel into exile, will be brought down for its own sinful idolatry and mistreatment of others. The implication of Babylon’s destruction is Israel’s freedom. With their oppressor powerless, Israel is free to return to the land of the promise (Jer. 29:10). The people of Israel and Judah who trusted YHWH fully expected to be back in their land at the end of seventy years.
The whole action of the book of Ezra is based on this expectancy of a return after seventy years.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing… “[The Lord] has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem” – Ezra 1:1-2
The time when this was occurring? About 70 years after exile. In a very real way, YHWH was bringing Israel back to their land that they might be His people and He might be their God. In another sense, this form of return, where a foreign king sends some Israelites to go to their land and rebuild the temple under his authority, appears to be much less than the escape from exile Jeremiah talked about. That’s true too.
In Daniel 9 when Daniel noticed the seventy years had passed, he wondered about Israel’s return to their land, because despite being exile, Israel didn’t repent. Daniel said “we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth” (Dan 9:13). God responds with news of a delay in Israel’s full return from exile because of their disobedience. It was now no longer seventy years, but 490 years.*
About these 490 years, Daniel is told:
Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks… After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary… And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.
- Daniel 9:24-27
Guess what events happen in the last few decades of this time period? Yeah. Ministry of Jesus, his death, resurrection, and the destruction of the temple in CE 70 also predicted by Jesus in Daniel-like language. With those events are the end of the sacrificial system, the death blow to sin, atonement for iniquity, an everlasting righteousness, and a new covenant made with many. However, there’s a nagging question that remains after reading the Daniel passage. Jeremiah’s prophecy was about Israel’s return from exile in seventy years. Daniel’s prophecy of 490 years doesn’t come across that way. Wouldn’t the time extension from seventy to 490 mean the exile would end just a little later.
It does. The end of exile was always the people of God being free to live where God is and where God reigns. With the sacrificial system and temple gone and sin deceased, there is no need for a centralized location to atone for sin. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is now wherever his people meet and God reigns wherever his people obey him. Home is now wherever the people of God are being the people of God. Jesus not only freed Israel from exile as prophesied by Jeremiah, but Jesus made it impossible for the people of YHWH to ever be in exile again.**
* If you read Daniel 9, it says seventy weeks. It’s a little complex, but the way the book of Daniel as a whole uses days, it’s pretty clear that it uses a day to represent a year (people sometimes call it a “prophetic day”). Seventy weeks is 490 days. 490 days in Daniel represent 490 years.
“Like these good figs, so I will regard the exiles from Judah… I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
But… Like the bag figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and a pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.”
- Jeremiah 24:4-10
There are a lot of interesting things going on in this passage.* One thing that stuck out to me is who YHWH says will have the land He promised to Israel. It is not the ones I would naturally expect to inherit the land. Those who stay in Jerusalem and try to keep it are those very people who will lose it. Those who voluntarily depart from Jerusalem into exile are the people God promises will have the land and God’s blessing. The people who abandon the land are the people who will keep the land.
To be fair, this isn’t some arbitrary decision by God to bless those who leave and let those who stay die, He already warned very clearly that destruction was coming upon the city and that the way out was to surrender to the attackers (Jer 21). Those who believed God’s words are those who are saved. It’s pretty fitting in light of the rest of Scripture. Still, it’s an odd circumstance to think about. Israel is in the land of the promise, but in order to inherit the land of the promise later, they have to abandon it now.
Their abandonment of the land YHWH promised them is actually an act of obedience to Him. Those who left the land are those who cling to God’s words in the presence and not the blessings of the past. Those who choose to remain in Jerusalem are protecting their city, their homes, their families, their lifestyles – God’s blessings. In protecting these blessings from YHWH they are abandoning YHWH. Those who are willing to abandon YHWH’s blessings are protecting their relationship with Him.
What are you protecting? What are you clinging to?
*References to other parts of the book abound in this little section: This passage directly references uprooting, planting, tearing, and building which are all a part of the section on the first chapter in Jeremiah we discussed. Told you it was one of the “broader themes of the book.” The prophet warned Israel not to go to Egypt and told them they would be safe if they left the city in peace of their own free will. The two groups who didn’t listen to this are specifically singled out as bad figs due to their insistence on rejecting God’s words spoken through this sections. The true people of God are those who hear and obey, and thus even amongst the Israelites YHWH distinguishes between his people and those who have rejected Him. Like so many other parts of this prophecy, we see God through Jeremiah talking about the increased culpability of those who have power.
I really hope some of you are reading through the book of Jeremiah with me. It’s pretty powerful stuff, and I found chapter 23 to be particularly rich.
“Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multipy. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord. Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
- Jeremiah 23:2-6
The sins of Israel and Judah were going to bring them into exile. YHWH made it very clear that Jerusalem’s self-destruction was going to be manifested in the complete obliteration of the city and the departure of its people into a foreign land. That was going to go down, but when God deals with evil, He doesn’t just end the destruction, He brings back the good. The great hope of exiled Israel was a glorious return to their own land where they no longer had fear or dismay and where none were still exiled. Their great hope was to be led by a good shepherd who would direct their paths and guide their interactions with YHWH. The great hope of the exiled people of God was to have a descendant of David back on the throne, his wise rule bringing justice and peace to the kingdom of YHWH. Israel’s great hope is that the Lord would be their righteousness.
Because of the faithfulness of YHWH, our people’s greatest hopes have become our reality. Jesus has brought the promises of God to fulfillment. The good shepherd has come, he is guiding us into all righteousness, is set on keeping us close to Himself, and he is the Love who sets us free from fear. All who were once in exile are back in the kingdom of YHWH, for wherever the Shepherd King is, His kingdom reigns. The righteous Branch of David has come: he walked into Jerusalem, declared Himself King, and took his throne. He brought justice and righteousness by taking all the injustice unrighteousness the world could throw at him and putting it to death. Jesus is alone in truly deserving the name, “The Lord is our righteousness.” We live in a reality that was once our people’s greatest hope.
Still, in a world where the kingdom of God has come in part and is coming in full, we can still live in exile. We can still live in fear. We can still be dismayed. We still experience and enact injustice. Yet, our reality is one of hope fulfilled.
All of these things have been taken care of ultimately and are being taken care of day by day. They are all passing away. The fulfiller of promises has shown he will stop at nothing to set the world to rights. He has removed all the roadblocks on the way home. Jesus has defeated injustice with forgiveness. He has overcome all barriers to relationship to be close enough to encourage us until the dismay dissipates and he will hold us until love has replaced all fear. We live in a time of hope fulfilled. Let us live with our hope filled full.
I am married. The state of WI declares that I am legally married. The state’s declaration that I am married has nothing at all to do with me actually being married. I am married because before God and siblings I entered into a mutual commitment with my wife to be with her alone until death. Whatever the state, feds, or UN says about my marital status has absolutely no impact on whether or not I’m actually married. Being married is about a commitment leading to unity between two individuals that is much bigger than a government organization.
The point of two people getting married legally has to do with money and responsibility for each other. Getting married means potential tax breaks. Getting married means mutual ownership of property. Legal marriage means responsibility for the other’s debt. Being legally married means making decisions for the other when they can’t make decisions for themselves. Being legally married probably does a lot of things I don’t know about too. I don’t know much about the topic.
I do know that everything a marriage does can be done with a contract between two people and perhaps a small change in tax code wording. People can decide to make a contract with each other that combines possessions, incomes, assets, debts, and has them function as one entity when it comes to certain legal circumstances, including taxes. Why not eliminate government’s involvement in marriage altogether and use contract law to do what a marriage does legally without the government officially declaring a particular type of relationship a marriage? People keep talking about who should and should have a right to marry, but why are we acting like the government has any right or ability to decide who is married and who isn’t? The government merely assigns a legal status.
If the government’s role in marriage is simply a legal one, then let’s figure out how to do all the legal things a marriage does without calling it a marriage. Doesn’t this solve the problem? People would then have the same ability to file taxes jointly and have mutual ownership of property with someone of the same sex or someone of the opposite sex. Problem 1 solved. Those who oppose gay marriage and are concerned about maintaining their integrity can support people of the same sex having the same legal relationship as those of the opposite sex without supporting gay marriage. Problem 2 solved.
I have this thing that I believe about people that almost everyone agrees with. The weird thing is, when we actually start talking in depth, we come to this place where it seems we agree in principle but disagree when it comes to specific situations. I believe people have the capacity to make decisions about their actions. I believe people even have the ability to make really difficult choices. At this point, I’m assuming most of you are with me. I hope by the end of this some of you will disagree with me so I can gain a better understanding of why what I’m saying is disagreeable to others.
I think the ability of humans to choose was a deliberate design decision. God was particularly concerned with creating humans with options, the ability to choose different options, and more than that, the ability to examine decisions before making them. First man’s world was so simple, but God was sure to set it up with one complexity, an option with pros and cons depending on what was chosen. Eat and be filled with the knowledge of good and evil, satisfy curiousity, and die? Or refuse to eat and live, without knowing intimately the knowledge the fruit would provide? Choosing is central to being human, and, I suspect, a part of what it means to bear the image of God.
I was recently reminded of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago. He asked, “Why do you think that person is overweight?” I responded simply with an answer I still believe is quite true, “They consume more calories than they burn.” My friend went on to talk about how he thought this person’s past affected their self-perception and so they ate to blame their self-perception on their weight instead of their past. I’ve never been all that convinced one’s personal past is the problem. The problem with this way of thinking is it pushes back the problem to something that really isn’t the cause. The problem is not what occurred to someone in that past, their experiences never forced them to consume more calories, their daily decisions resulted in their weight gain. I believe that whatever someone’s past, they still have the capacity to make their own choices about their life. That’s one issue regarding choice I sometimes find myself in disagreement with others on.
Addiction is another issue regarding choice me and others don’t always see eye-to-eye on. I don’t know what the medical definition of addiction is. My functional definition of addiction is being addicted means it’s really hard for someone to stop engaging in a behavior. Sometimes we throw the label “addict” on someone and give them a free pass on their behavior as if they can’t stop. We also undermine their power over their own decisions. And it’s kind of silly when we act like an addict is unable to stop.
Let’s use a common example: Alcoholism. Alcoholics have a very difficult time quitting, but they are perfectly capable of doing so. After an alcoholic quits, starting up again is not some inevitability because they are addicted. It’s a series of choices: choosing to get the keys to the car, choosing to leave the house, enter the car, drive to a place with alcohol, grab some alcohol, pull out one’s wallet and purchase the alcohol, choosing to drive somewhere to drink the alcohol, opening the alcohol, drinking it, and then choosing to continue to drink it to excess. These behaviors don’t happen because someone is addicted, they happen because someone makes decisions they have control over. An alcoholic does not get drunk because they are an alcoholic, they get drunk because they choose to get drunk.
This way of thinking about choice is like a lot of things in the kingdom, beautiful and difficult. It’s difficult because every individual, including you and I, become completely responsible for our own actions and their effects. The problem with us is not that we can’t stop drinking, manipulating others, smoking, overreacting, eating, watching tv, looking at porn, etc, etc, the problem is we choose not to stop. We have no excuses. It’s a beautiful way of thinking about choice because in His love, YHWH has given us the power to make choices over our lives. We have power to break the negative cycles of behavior we are in. We have hope, which is far better than any excuse.
For the follower of Jesus, changing one’s behavior so that it honors YHWH is good start, but it’s not the end goal. The end goal is loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The goal is to have all of ourselves in full obedience to YHWH, wanting what Jesus wants, feeling like Jesus feels, thinking how Jesus thinks, and doing what Jesus does. The ultimate goal is complete transformation so right behavior is a natural outpouring of our new self. However, even when right behavior seems to come unnaturally, it is still worth choosing obedience to our King.
In Jeremiah 22, the young man speaks a prophecy that is at this point quite familiar to readers of the book. It’s a simple call for those with power over others to be just toward others.
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice,
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing,
and does not give him his wages,
who says, ‘I will build myself a great house
with spacious upper rooms,’
who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar
and painting it with vermilion.
Do you think you are a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
declares the Lord.
But you have eyes and heart
only for your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.”
- Jeremiah 22:13-17
The subject matter of this prophecy is characteristic of much of Jeremiah. A brief summary of the sin issues Jeremiah is speaking into in this passage: 1. People are acquiring and gaining wealth by using their power to force weaker people to work without compensation. They are growing wealth through injustice. 2. People are building opulent shit because they think they are big shit. They are taking pride in their own wealth and power. To make it worse, it is wealth and power acquired through coercion. 3. Because of their wealth and power, they have a responsibility to be justice bringers to the poor and needy. Instead of bringing justice, they are guilty of violent oppression.
When Jeremiah was speaking out against oppressors, he did so in a very specific context. He was living amongst the people of YHWH, who together formed the nation of God, who had a king whose function was to keep the people of God following the Law of YHWH and worshipping Him only. Jeremiah’s prophecy was primarily designed to get the people of God to turn from their ways of arrogance, idolatry, and oppressive use of power. As the people of YHWH, Israel is charged with representing YHWH to the world and so is held more responsible than other nations for their distortions and destructions of His image.
Because Jeremiah is speaking into such a specific context, I wonder how much of his prophetic ministry should be replicated by followers of Jesus. Certainly there are prophets in our Jesus communities. Certainly there are people being oppressed by those with power and people simply using their power to take wealth from others in order to increase their own wealth and power. Our world contains tremendous conspicuous consumption and many with hubris regarding their power and possessions. What does a prophet do about it?
Who are those oppressing others? Who are the oppressed? Should the prophet call only those who claim Jesus to repent or also speak against the pagan world? Does this include speaking against the pagan political world where coercion against weaker people is the rule? What would being a prophetic voice calling for things to be set right and proclaiming that things will be set right look like? What would be the most effective way to do this? Any other thoughts on being a prophetic voice for our present world?
In the last chapter we discussed in Jeremiah, chapter 20, Jeremiah had a rough go of things. He was arrested, beaten, and thrown into stocks for a day by Pashhur the priest, son of Immer. Understandably, being beaten and publically humiliated for preaching the word of YHWH was pretty frustrating for Jeremiah. After being released, he laments over his isolation, embarrassment, having many enemies, and being stuck in his circumstances, all while declaring that God is trustworthy and will prevail. Despite being shunned for his words, Jeremiah was the one right person in the midst of an ignorant nation.
In the beginning of chapter 21, we see, at least in part, an answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur the son of Malchiah and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, saying “Inquire of the Lord for us, for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is making war against us. Perhaps the Lord will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds and will make him withdraw from us.”
- Jeremiah 21:1-2
Do you see it? Jeremiah went from being in stocks for his prophecies, to praying, to having a king request Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jeremiah transitioned from laughingstock to the counselor of a king over the course of a chapter. Why are things changing for Jeremiah? Because his prophecies are beginning to be manifested in reality. Jeremiah is vindicated soon after his expression of His frustation before the Lord.
In the text, I believe Pashhur performing the action in chapter 20 and Passhur (different Passhur) performing the action in chapter 21 is important to notice. These individuals represent the completely different ways the leaders of Judah, specifically the religious leaders of Judah, respond to Jeremiah. Passhur once engaged in beating, seizing, and publically humiliating the prophet for his words. Now, because of those same words, Passhur is requesting the help of Jeremiah at the behest of the king! I suspect the placement of two Passhurs in the text so close to each other whose responses so obviously contrast with one another’s is a deliberate literary move highlighing the shift in responses to the prophet (albeit not a permanent shift). Attitudes and actions towards the prophet shift when the prophets words that once seemed insane turn out to be true.
Jeremiah’s plight as a prophet is probably the plight of most prophets. When things are going well and the prophet warns of Babylon’s future destruction of Jerusalem, no one listens to or believes the words of Jeremiah. But when it looks like Babylon is indeed preparing to attack Jerusalem, who can anyone, even the king, turn to for answers but the person who saw this coming all along? Prophets are frustrating fools when they are warning about future results of sin and preaching repentance, but they are sought-out sages when sin bears its fruit and death is at the door.
What do we (I) take from this? Three things. 1. Jeremiah’s prayer of frustration, expressed desire for vindication, and request to see YHWH do what He said he would was answered. He prayed in chapter 20, YHWH vindicated in chapter 21. In the middle of a story about a nation, YHWH is still looking out for the individual. 2. Speaking truth into wickedness can be a real bitch in the short term. But perhaps when words become reality, those who once rejected the truth-teller will come back for wisdom and aid. Keep speaking truth in love. 3. It is possible that Jeremiah’s public humiliation is part of the reason king Zedekiah even knew who Jeremiah was. Maybe being nationally known as a laughingstock and a famous fool was the tool YHWH used to bring Jeremiah’s words before the king. Even beatings and public humiliation can be used for God’s glory and His glorification of us.
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