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.

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