Most Judeans thought their temple, the largest and most magnificent in the ancient world, was impregnable. The temple mount was a massive citadel, and Jerusalem was well-fortified. Yet Jesus warned his closest disciples that not one stone would be left on another (Mark 13:2), and spoke of a horrible sacrilege that would lead to the temple’s desolation (13:14). Less explicitly, but more publicly, Jesus warned that Israel’s house would be left deslate (Matt 23:38//Luke 13:35).
Most publicly of all, Jesus challenged the temple establishment’s protocols, overturning tables in the outer court of the temple. As he did so, he cried out two texts from earlier prophets (Mark 11:17). First, in light of Isaiah, God’s purpose for the temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations (Isa 56:7). But second, in light of Jeremiah: the temple, having failed its designed purpose, had become a robbers’ den (Jer 7:11). A robber’s den or cave was where robbers felt safe to store the loot from their crimes.
The allusion to Jeremiah should not have been lost on Jesus’s more biblically literate hearers. More than half a millennium earlier, Jeremiah had warned Judah not to take misplaced comfort in the sanctity of their temple. Prophets of his day were prophesying, “Peace, peace”: i.e., “All will be well” (Jer 6:14; 8:11). The people thought that they would be safe because of such a strong religious institution, the temple of the one true God, in their midst (7:4). These prophecies, Jeremiah warned were merely deceptive words. People can use religion as a fantasy to shield us from uncomfortable realities, but that is not the voice of God.
If Judah really wanted peace, God warned, they needed to stop shedding innocent blood, making things hard for immigrants, orphans and widows (i.e., the destitute), and needed to worship the Lord alone (Jer 7:6). They needed to stop ripping others off, committing adultery, disguising lies as truth (7:9); the temple would not protect them from God’s justice. Otherwise God would do to his house what he had earlier done to the sanctuary at Shiloh (7:12), back when Israel trusted in the ark of the covenant rather than righteousness to save them (cf. 1 Sam 4:3, 12-18).
As the Babylonians came up against Jerusalem, Jeremiah continued to warn the people. The Babylonians were God’s righteous judgment against God’s own sinful people, because God’s people should have known better and lived as a pure light to the nations. “Go out to the king of Babylon, and live,” Jeremiah demanded. Prophets normally had “diplomatic immunity,” but Jeremiah’s call to surrender sounded like treason. This led to his arrest and nearly to his death.
All the other, more patriotic, prophets were saying that God would protect and bless his people, and you can well imagine that their message was more popular than Jeremiah’s. But in 586 BC, the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem, just as Jeremiah had warned. Prophetic truth is not determined by a majority vote, even in modern democracies. (Babylon spared Jeremiah, acknowledging him as a true prophet; but his heart remained broken for his people.)
Fast forward to the first century. In the generation following Jesus’s Jeremiah-like prophecies, Jesus’s followers, like Jesus, kept worshiping in Jerusalem’s rebuilt temple. Nationalism rose under the Judean King Agrippa I (41-44 AD). Again strident voices insisted that God would protect his people and that they needed to cast off the yoke of Rome. During the ensuing war, some Judean “prophets” continued assuring the people that God would deliver them, even up to the point that Jerusalem burned around them.
Many of Jesus’s Judean followers got caught up in this spirit of nationalism (cf. Acts 21:20-21). Yet Jesus’s words were clear, and as the war with Rome broke out, true prophets reminded Jesus’s followers of his message. Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem had to abandon their beloved yet doomed city. The tragedy of Jeremiah’s generation was repeated: Jerusalem’s destruction and its people slaughtered or enslaved. Judah rejected Jeremiah; Judea rejected Jesus; and Rome was a new Babylon.
Fast forward a couple millennia, until today. Sometimes we suppose that our generation merits God’s protection. Popular prophets offer soothing words that people like to hear (2 Tim 4:3). But if our land is stained with innocent blood and makes things harder for the needy, pursuing sexual immorality and treating lies as truth, we have no right to protest God’s judgments. If the occasion eventually demands, go out to the king of Babylon and live. Do not trust in deceptive words of “Peace, peace.” Serve the Lord, call for justice, and face with boldness whatever future God has in store for those who really heed his words.
P.S., I am writing this before the 2020 US election. The principles here are not limited to elections, to 2020, or to any one century. But for US readers reading before the election: remember—whoever you vote for—no political party will save us. Only corporate repentance and turning to justice and truth will save us. That turning must begin with us ourselves, who believe that in Scripture we hear God’s summons to justice and truth. So long as the church harbors violence, neglect of the needy, immorality and lies in our own midst, neither God nor anyone else has much reason to heed us.