Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jeremiah 46-52: Prophecies against Other Nations

What's interesting to me about the prophets is that they have prophecies to other nations (that is, besides Israel and Judah) at all.  After all, Israel and Judah are the nations God sent them to.  So I think in a way these prophecies were for their benefit, to show them that God wasn't just picking on them, and also that the nations around them who were corrupt or whatever would get punished too.  Also there are asides in some of these that are directly for the Jews - for instance, at the end of the prophecy against Egypt God tells his own people that even though he's going to destroy Egypt, he's going to save the nation of Israel - they're going to be punished, but not wiped out completely.

The other interesting thing to me about these prophesies are that sometimes God says he's going to completely destroy a nation - such as Kedar and Hazor and Babylon - but with some of the other nations, God promises eventual restoration.  He says, "I will restore the fortunes of _____" sometime in the future, and he says it of Moab, Ammon, and Elam.  I have no idea who Elam is, but Moab and Ammon were the sons of Lot's daughters (and also of Lot . . . eww), so they were kind of cousins to the Israelites.  So that's kind of neat I guess.

In the prophecy against Babylon, God promises to return Judah to the promised land and that in those days "search will be made for the iniquity of Israel, but there will be none; and for the sins of Judah, but they will not be found; for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant."

The wording at the end of that sentence is very important for Christians, I think - "for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant."  I have been reflecting recently on the difference between a pardon and an exoneration in legal terminology.  When a defendant is exonerated, it means that it is officially declared they did not commit the crime and therefore cannot be charged for it; they are innocent.  A pardon is when a person who has already been convicted of a crime is forgiven of that crime.  It's still understood that they were guilty of the crime, but they no longer have to serve the consequences of doing it (jail time or whatever it is).

When we are saved, we are not exonerated.  God, for whatever reason, doesn't remove our pasts and make it so that we never sinned.  He also doesn't pretend like we never sinned (God doesn't pretend, I don't think). Instead he gives us a pardon: he says "yes, you did these crimes against me, but you are no longer responsible for the punishment - I'll take care of that."  He frees us from our prisons and lets us live again.  And it's not because we deserved it.

Some people might think it's unjust of God to pardon criminals, especially if they don't do anything to deserve that pardon.  God is just - he does require that the debt be paid - but it was paid by Jesus when he shed his innocent blood in our place.  God is just, but he is also merciful, and he loves us so much that he made a way to come to us when we lacked the strength to go to him.  The great thing about God is, and Jeremiah 51 makes this point, nobody can tell God he did the wrong thing and get him in trouble for it.  When I was in college, my history professor was the chair of the history department.  He would cancel class from time to time when he was going to visit his grandchildren out of state or something like that.  And nobody could tell him not to, because he was the head of his department (I guess the dean or vice president or president could've told him not to, but on the other hand he'd been there longer than any of them put together so they pretty much let him do things the way he wanted).  There's nobody above God.  He gets to make the rules.  That would be a scary thought if you didn't trust God.  If you believe that God is good and just, then it's a comfort.

In chapter 52, the fall of Jerusalem is described again, including the blinding of Zedekiah and the murder of his sons (not in that order).  But at the very end it says that Jehoiachin, who was the king of Judah before Pharaoh put Zedekiah up, finds favor with the king of Babylon (this is after Nebuchadnezzar), and the king restores him to his former title, although he stays in Babylon, and he gets to eat at the king's table the rest of his life.  I don't really know why the king of Babylon did that or what affect it had on Jehoiachin or the people of Judah, but I think it's a nice note to end such a depressing book on.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jeremiah 39-45: Consequences of Disobedience

We've now reached the part of the story where it all hits the fan, and a lot of the stuff Jeremiah has been warning and prophesying about, happens.

First, the wall of Jerusalem is finally breached after a siege that lasted over a year.  Nebuchadnezzar's men overtake the city; King Zedekiah and his whole army try to sneak out, but the Chaldeans capture them.

Now let's review what Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to do: give yourself to the King of Babylon, basically surrender, and you'll be okay.  Zedekiah did not do that.  So now what happens is actually worse, I think, than just dying would have been: Nebuchadnezzar kills Zedekiah's sons right in front of him, and then blinds Zedekiah.  Imagine that - the last thing he saw was his children being brutally slaughtered.  That is harsh.  And Zedekiah is chained up and carried into captivity with just about everybody else.  Then the walls of Jerusalem are broken down and the city is burned.

Jeremiah, for some reason, is treated differently.  Nebuchadnezzar tells Nebuzaradan, the captain of his bodyguard, to do to Jeremiah whatever Jeremiah says he should.  So Jeremiah asks to remain in Jerusalem with the new governor-type guy of Judah that Nebuchadnezzar has appointed.  His name is Gedaliah.

Now I think Gedaliah is an okay guy.  He tells the Israelites what Jeremiah was telling them all along: don't be afraid of being under the Chaldeans (that's Babylon, remember); just stay here (the few who were not taken into exile) and things will go well for you.  So a bunch of Jews who had run off actually returned to the land.

But now there's this guy named Ishmael.  I don't know who he is, but some guy named Johanan confides in Gedaliah that Ishmael is planning to assassinate him (Gedaliah), but Gedaliah thinks it's a lie so he doesn't do anything about it.  And sure enough, Ishmael goes and kills him a short time later.  He also kills a bunch of other people and takes captive all the people who are left in Jerusalem and starts to take them to Ammon.  I have no idea why.  Was Ishmael an Ammonite, or just really screwed up?  But Johanan, the guy who had warned Gedaliah, takes some men and chases after Ishmael and gets all the captives back.  So that's good at least.

But now the people who are still in Judah are a little freaked out at what's happening.  They think it will be a really good idea to go to the one country that's been their ally for quite some time, Egypt (isn't that ironic after Exodus?).  And when you think about it, that does sound like a good idea.  Jerusalem has been burned; there's basically nothing and almost nobody left in the whole country, and the ones who are there are poor and helpless and now leaderless because their king has been exiled and the leader left to replace him has just been murdered, and who knows who's going to lead them now.  Egypt is rich and prosperous and they figure they can hide out there until things are going better in Judah and they can return.

So they ask Jeremiah if this is a good idea, and promise - actually they vow - to do whatever God says they ought to do, whether it's what they want to do or not.  Kind of weird that now they say they're going to listen to God.  What I find interesting about the exchange between the Israelites and Jeremiah is that they petition him to ask "the LORD your God," as if He's not their God too, and Jeremiah replies that he will pray to "the LORD your God," as if he's reminding them that He is.  I don't know if that's the reason for the "yours" or if that's just the way they happened to say it, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

God's response to the go-to-Egypt scheme is, don't do it.  Stay where you are and I'll take care of you, but if you go to Egypt, the enemies of Egypt will invade and you're going to die.  That is a pretty straightforward answer.  Now remember that oath the Jews just took to do whatever God said?  Yeah, they totally ignore that and say they're going to do what they want to do, because they think the reason all this bad stuff has happened is because they stopped sacrificing to pagan gods.  So they go down to Egypt anyway, and Jeremiah goes with them, and while in Egypt, Jeremiah prophesies the conquest of Egypt and destruction for the Jews who are there.  The only person whose promised life is Baruch, the guy who wrote Jeremiah's prophesies down a few chapters ago.  But that's about all he's going to get.

In light of what happened to Zedekiah and Jerusalem, you'd think the people would listen to Jeremiah.  After all, he's been right so far.  And I think they go to him for help because deep down they know he's right.  The trouble is, sometimes when we've made up our minds to do something, it doesn't matter whether we know we're right or wrong; we're going to do what we want to do and nothing can stop us.  I'm starting to think this is a bad attitude to have.

The other thing I learned from this story is, sometimes God calls us into dangerous and unpleasant situations.  It made sense to go to Egypt.  It would seem, from a practical standpoint, like the wise, prudent, and safe thing to do.  But God's wisdom confounds ours, and sometimes the things He wants us to do seem like foolishness to us and those around us.  Apparently God's not concerned with whether His ideas pass our test of "this makes sense."  He wants our obedience whether obedience makes sense or not, and whether it seems like a good idea or not.  The consequences of obedience may not be fame and prosperity and riches - they certainly weren't for Jeremiah and Baruch.  But the consequences of disobedience are far, far worse.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jeremiah 30-38: More of the Same

There are two main points to this passage: 1) the future deliverance of Israel and Judah, and 2) Jeremiah gets in trouble for telling people that Babylon is going to conquer Jerusalem.  It's kind of a recurring theme in this book, if you haven't noticed.

I really like this one passage in chapter 30 though.  Check this out:
"For thus says the LORD, 'Your wound is incurable, And your injury is serious.  There is no one to plead your cause; No healing for your sore, No recovery for you. . . . Why do you cry out over your injury? Your pain is incurable. Because your iniquity is great And your sins are numerous, I have done these things to you. . . .  I will restore you to health, And I will heal you of your wounds,' declares the LORD" (30:12-13, 15, 17a).

Basically every religion or philosophy in the history of religion has treated sin/evil as a problem that we need to overcome in order to be acceptable to God.  A lot of them treat it as something caused by something external to us - pleasure, society, ignorance, lack of resources, etc., and if we could just eliminate those things, we would be perfect.  But that's really wishful thinking.  Sin is a problem that is inside of us, inside of me.  I can remove myself from situations that tempt me to sin, but I cannot remove sin from within me.  In short, I can't make myself perfect.  Neither can you.  You can try all you want, but I promise you'll never succeed.  And here the Bible says this problem, this "wound," is incurable.  That's depressing, right?  But then it says that God will heal us, will remove the sickness.  Christianity - true Christianity - is the one religion in which it is God who makes man acceptable, not man who cleans himself up for God.  God chose to meet us where we are - not halfway or three-fourths of the way or almost there - He came all the way to where we are, broken and bleeding and utterly sick inside, touched us as we were in that state, and took the plague on Himself so we could be free of it.  That's the gospel.

There's a lot in this passage about God restoring Israel, about His faithfulness to her, including the famous verse "I have loved you with an everlasting love" (31:3a).  God promises to make a new covenant with His people, putting His laws within them in their hearts, and forgiving all their sins.  Once again, the problem of sin is addressed - God gave people the Law, but they didn't follow it.  Was there something wrong with the Law?  No, the problem was with the people.  The Law was outside them, and in their hearts they were still lawless.  We don't need more laws or new laws, we need new hearts.  That is what God gives us when we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Now, this is the part where it switches gears.  In chapter 32, King Zedekiah gets really fed up with Jeremiah and imprisons him, probably because Jeremiah was telling everybody that Nebuchadnezzar would conquer them and they should surrender, and now Jerusalem is under seige.  Jeremiah calls out to God, and God responds by telling him again what He is going to do - Nebuchadnezzar is going to capture the city and burn it, this is a punishment for all the sin of Judah, there is going to be a remnant preserved, and God will restore them to the promised land and set up a righteous King over Judah (pretty sure He means Jesus).  But in the mean time, he tells Jeremiah to tell Zedekiah what's in store for him: he's going to be captured, but not killed by Nebuchadnezzar (although honestly, what happens to him is probably worse than dying).

Oh, there's an interesting story in here that I want to mention.  God tells Jeremiah to invite some people over and serve them wine.  Jeremiah does so, but they say they can't drink wine because their whole family from generations back is under an oath not to drink wine or live in houses or grow vineyards, and they've all kept it.  God blesses these people (they're called Rechabites) for their obedience and uses them as a foil, of sorts, of Israel.  Here you have a bunch of people whose ancestors gave an oath to their father not to do some arbitrary stuff that isn't even wrong to do, and they've kept it all these years.  Israel, on the other hand, took a similar oath to obey God, and not do stuff that was actually bad, and they haven't kept it all no matter how hard God has tried to steer them back on track.  It's not like it was impossible to follow God's laws - the Rechabites have illustrated that it is possible to keep an oath your ancestors made - they just didn't do it.

So then there's another run-in with Zedekiah.  Jeremiah has this other guy named Baruch (Baruch is one of the few Hebrew words I know; it means "bless" or "blessed") write all his prophecies in a scroll, take it to the temple, and read it.  Some officials overhear him and want to take the message to the king, but they tell Baruch to hide while they take the scroll to Zedekiah.  It's a good thing they told him to do this, because when Zedekiah hears the scroll read, he cuts it up and throws it into the fire and gives orders to seize Baruch and Jeremiah.  Luckily they stay hidden.

I wonder if the officials who heard Baruch really thought Zedekiah would listen to the scroll?  After all, he had just thrown Jeremiah in prison.

Later, Jeremiah is trying to take a trip, and he's captured because a guard thinks he's defecting to the Chaldeans (that's Babylon).  They put him in jail, but King Zedekiah sends for him.  This is where things get interesting.  Zedekiah is the guy who threw Jeremiah in prison and burned up his scroll, but now it starts to seem like Zedekiah actually wants to listen to Jeremiah.  The two men talk, and Zedekiah gives Jeremiah a little bit more freedom (confines him to the guardhouse) and commands him to be given a ration of bread for as long as there's any bread in Jerusalem.  Then later, some guys hear Jeremiah preaching and throw him into a cistern, which is basically a well that's gone dry (well, mostly dry).  But some guy finds out and reports it to Zedekiah, and Zedekiah orders him to be taken out of the well and has another interview with him.  We find out that Zedekiah is really just afraid of the Jews.  Some of them have gone over to the Chaldeans and Zedekiah is afraid that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, he's going to be turned over to them.  Jeremiah tells him that won't happen and that it'll be in his best interests to surrender now.  Zedekiah sounds like he believes him, but he makes Jeremiah promise not to tell anybody what they've talked about, and he doesn't follow Jeremiah's instructions because he's afraid of his officials.

I think I know what's going on here.  See, Zedekiah is not actually the rightful king of Judah.  He was set up by Nebuchadnezzar in place of Josiah's son Jehoiachin, but Jehoiachin is still alive.  I think Zedekiah is worried that if he does anything to upset the delicate balance that is Jerusalem right now, he's going to get fired, either by Nebuchadnezzar or by his own people.  I think he's worried that the people haven't fully embraced him as the real king and that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar that will be even more proof of weakness.  I think that is why he's acting like this.

The trouble is, decisions that are motivated by fear are rarely wise, especially if you know that they aren't the right decisions.  I'm pretty sure Zedekiah knew Jeremiah was right, based on what I read in this passage.  But he was afraid to do the right thing, and to me, that means he was a weak king and didn't deserve his throne.  Doing the right thing is usually very difficult and sometimes brings about lots of opposition.  Sometimes our circumstances are such that it's also risky to do the right thing.  But easy or not, safe or not, wise or not, God calls us to obedience, and God blesses obedience like he blessed the Rechabites.  Maybe if Zedekiah had more faith in God, he would've had the courage to obey Him.