Against the grain—the prophet Jeremiah

Many people thought that Jeremiah was a stick in the mud, a contrarian, and certainly unpatriotic. He went against the mood of his culture. Jeremiah was summoning Judah back to the values of God’s covenant with them, but they didn’t think that they had strayed. Most of the common people couldn’t read Scripture, so they depended on what their preachers taught them.

And most of their preachers assured them that God was with them. After all, they were his chosen people, and they alone of all peoples worshiped God. These preachers remembered part of the covenant message. But over generations they had also adapted it—keeping up with the times, so to speak. Jeremiah likewise recognized that some particulars of God’s message might vary from one generation to another depending on the setting of God’s people: that’s why judgment was sometimes the right message. But the leaders’ “progressive” adjustments rested not on what God was really saying but on what seemed good to them, which was shaped by generations of tradition and by the climate of public opinion. They could overlook some immorality; after all, God loved his people and some of the supposed immoralities were being committed by the preachers themselves.

Yet God told Jeremiah, “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council, then they would have announced My words to My people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds” (Jer 23:21-22, NASB).

It was like a century earlier, when the more openly idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel could cry out, “My God, we of Israel know you!” (Hos 8:2)—even while continuing to honor golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Now, in Jeremiah’s day, priests and prophets were still telling God’s people how much God delighted in them without warning them of judgment to come.

It was indeed true that God loved them. But the God who loves us comes to transform us and invite us into relationship with him, not to leave us wallowing in de facto rebellion against him. Judgments on societies are sometimes wakeup calls because God loves us too much to let us continue to be deceived. They come when more direct means of admonition have failed—when people do not listen to God’s message through the prophets, or when the prophets fail to speak the full truth of God’s message.

The prophets of Jeremiah’s day fixed on the covenant blessings, and took encouragement from one another’s prophecies (cf. 23:30) that they were saying the right thing. Who was Jeremiah to think that he alone was hearing from God? (Still, he may have had some sympathizers at some point. The extrabiblical Lachish letters from this time may suggest that some Judahite prophets were not being as “patriotic” and encouraging of the war effort as Judahite military leaders thought they should be.) How could Jeremiah dare to prophesy one thing when everybody else was prophesying something different? And something that nobody wanted to hear! Yet the majority of the prophets proved wrong about the big picture.

Jeremiah was often discouraged about his mission. To whom could he speak, when the people were closed to his message (Jer 6:10)? Yet he was full of God’s wrath; he could not hold it inside any longer, and had to speak (6:11). The prophets and priests had healed his people’s wound only superficially, promising them well-being (6:14); but they needed to return to the ancient covenant, to God’s Word that he had given long ago (6:16). Listening to the consensus of preachers is no substitute for going back to the Scriptures ourselves. Most Judahites were illiterate and lacked this option, but no one who’s able to read this post has such an excuse.

God explained that his people did not know him (8:7), despite their insistence: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us,’ when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what wisdom is in them?” (8:8-9, NRSV). From prophet to priest, eager for popularity, the leaders had been assuring God’s people that all would be well, but it was not what God was saying (8:10-11).

How could Jeremiah challenge the consensus of the appointed leaders of his people? Yet God’s word within him could not remain silent. His voice for God incurred his rivals’ hatred. “Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth,a man with whom the whole land strives and contends!I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me” (15:10, NIV). “I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails” (15:17-18 NIV). God did not even allow Jeremiah to have a family—and in his case it was mercy, to protect him from the coming grief (16:1-3). Jeremiah was not allowed to join others in mourning or feasting (16:5-9); God had set him apart to show his people what was coming.

In some spheres, it looks like everything will be well. And maybe in those spheres it really will be well for a time. Readers of these blogs live in many nations and many situations. When the consensus is all one direction, it is easy to regard one’s own spiritual sense as unduly shaped by natural optimism or natural pessimism, and we must be open to that possibility too. What matters, though, is not our natural disposition but what we are hearing from God when we listen, and especially when we go back to God’s heart in Scripture and weigh popular opinion by that.

Granted, we know in part and prophesy in part (1 Cor 13:9), so different ones of us may hear different parts of God’s message. But if the word of the Lord that we hear consistently and urgently calls God’s people to awaken, to turn more wholeheartedly to him, how can we hold that inside? May God grant us both courage and wisdom to serve and shepherd his people wisely.

Jeremiah’s generation didn’t listen to him, but his message turned out to be true. And while Jeremiah himself did not live to see it in this life, the next generation affirmed his message (2 Chron 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Dan 9:2). Together with the exile, Jeremiah’s message from God ultimately brought a paradigm shift among his people. God’s time is not our time, but he calls us to be faithful even in the face of opposition. It is not what our culture thinks. It is not whatever seems good in our own eyes. It is the word of the Lord to which we must look.

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