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.

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