March 27, 2005 6(4)
© 2005, J.W. Carter
Prideful self-will is one of the most powerful forces in human culture. We look at the "rich and famous" and find people who have positively channeled powerful personalities and attained great success. We expect confidence and pride to be the driving characteristic of our political leaders. We expect our leaders to be in total control as they stay on course without flinching, and without distraction. Our successful businesses and corporations find success in confident and willful leadership who set the agenda and direction of the company as they lead it in the path of their choosing.
What happens when one who is driven by pride and self-will comes to faith in God? True faith in God involves surrendering control to Him. This can be very difficult for one who defines himself/herself as being the one "in charge." Though such an individual has the skill-set to be a dynamic leader in this world culture, if that pride and self-will are not brought under the control of the Holy Spirit, the results can be disastrous for the kingdom of God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated a well-known prophesy, "the meek shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). Our modern language tends to interpret "meek" as "weak." However, this is not at all what the word used for "meek" implies. This is the word that is used to describe the breaking of a wild horse, and brining its power and strength under the control of its master. Once trained, the horse is not weakened. In fact, once brought under control by its master, its strength is focused and great work is accomplished. Bringing one's will under God's control is much like the taming of the wild horse. When that dynamic of confidence, pride, and self-will is surrendered to God, the talents and skill-set that made the individual a dynamic force in world culture can also become a dynamic force for the kingdom of God. We might look at the life of the Apostle Paul as an example of such a transformation.
Unfortunately, as simple as this truth may be, it is not uncommon for those who come into the family of faith to miss its message. It is not uncommon for church members to exercise the same prideful self-will in the church body without realizing that they are in contrast to God's will. If such a leadership style is allowed to run unchecked, the result is a flesh-led body that is essentially undistinguishable from the world. The body becomes a worldly social club with a Christian theme. Then, whenever an individual enters the body and attempts to speak the truth, conflict arises.
Ancient Judah, following the reign of King Josiah who attempted to bring the nation back to faith in God, was led by kings and religious leaders who were driven by their own pride and self-will. Rather than submitting themselves to God, they were fully engaged in the culture of the world though they claimed to be "children of God" based upon their ancestry and their keeping of what they interpreted as the law of Moses.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, 2Hear ye the words of this covenant, and speak unto the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem; 3And say thou unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel; Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant, 4Which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you: so shall ye be my people, and I will be your God: 5That I may perform the oath which I have sworn unto your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as it is this day. Then answered I, and said, So be it, O LORD.
The original covenant that God made with Israel was accomplished when He brought the nation out of Egyptian bondage. God promised the land of "milk and honey" (Ex. 3:8,17) if the people would obey him. This was a conditional covenant, so their disobedience would result in the loss of the land. Though the people may have deserved God's wrath, He still sent His word to them through the prophet Jeremiah. Would the people listen to him?
Chapter seven records Jeremiah's words as he proclaimed God's will to the people in the Jerusalem temple. Jeremiah came to the temple from Anathoth where a school of prophets had descended from Abaiathar, the high priest under King David. Solomon banished Abaiathar to Anathoth for his disloyalty to David, and replaced him with Zadok and his line. Consequently, the priests in Jerusalem rejected Jeremiah for his heritage and youth. At the same time, the priests of Anathoth rejected Jeremiah because of his insistence that God is to be worshipped in the Jerusalem temple. Though speaking God's word to the people, his words created only conflict among those who wanted things to remain just as they were.
In his prophesy Jeremiah repeats God's declaration: "Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant." One can only imagine the response of the pompous religious leadership who would debate from sunup to sundown on how their adherence to the law was a demonstration of their uncompromised righteousness. "Who does this Jeremiah think he is, implying that we are disobedient?" "Who is he to bring curses upon us?" One of the characteristics of flesh-led leadership is their astonishing ignorance of God's will. Their pride cannot accept any thought of humility. They have built up walls of rationalization to protect themselves against the truth. The walls of rationalization built by the religious leadership of Judea were so firm that they openly practiced idolatry in the name of religion. It may be amazing to us that they could burn incense to Baal and participate in the sexual prostitution of Asherah and still maintain their piety.
The church today is not insulated from this same problem. Entire congregations can be led by prideful people who receive their need for significance from their authority in the church body. These will insist on their own way, a "my way or the highway" mentality. They will dictate the way everything is done in the church, and the church body will equally sin by allowing them to do it. Jesus is not the Lord in this body any more than God was the Lord of ancient Judah in the time of Jeremiah. The position of "Lord of the church" has been usurped by its leadership. In some congregations the Lord may be the pastor. In some congregations the Lord may be the elders or deacons. In many congregations the Lord is a church member from an influential family. In all of these, the congregation is engaged in the egregious sin of disobedience as they have exchanged the Lordship of God for the Lordship of prideful men (or women.)
Then the LORD said unto me, Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying, Hear ye the words of this covenant, and do them.
Admitting disobedience is exceedingly difficult for the prideful. Surrendering the position of power is like tearing one's heart out, and those in power will fight to keep it. God called upon Jeremiah to confront the prideful leadership with the truth of their disobedience. In this statement Jeremiah does not literally condemn the religious leaders for their sin, but certainly implies it as he calls upon them to remember the covenant that Israel made with God and hold to it. Such a declaration clearly implies that they need to hold to a covenant that they have broken.
Recall that, at the time of these events, Jeremiah is not an old, wizened, prophet from a line of respected priests. He is a young man who lacks the traditional credentials of a prophet, and who comes from a line of despised priests. Yet, because of his confidence in the truth of God's message, he cannot turn from God's call to proclaim the truth. What does it take to stand against a flesh-led church leadership? Many Christians who have a desire to be part of a congregation where Jesus is Lord will not stand up against the status quo when it is easier to simply depart and search for another congregation. One might liken this to Jeremiah's departure from Jerusalem rather than staying to proclaim the message. We might liken this to Jonah's departure in a ship to Tarsus in order to avoid taking the same message to Nineveh. Not all Christians have the courage to take a stand. Some simply become so discouraged that they do not believe that they can make a difference. As we come to get to know Jeremiah it is encouraging to find that he experienced all of these feelings. God called upon Jeremiah to bring the truth to a disobedient nation, bringing that message all the way to the kings and the highest religious leadership.
We might cower in fear of the persecution and rejection we would receive when taking a stand against flesh-led leadership. We often see this fear in the heart of Jeremiah. However, when we realize that Satan is the author of fear, and God is the author of the truth we are called upon to proclaim, God can give us the power to overcome that fear as we step out in faith. This is a step of courage that finds its strength only in the power of God. Early in the book we see how God promised that he would protect Jeremiah and give him the words to say as he would proclaim the truth. It was only through his trust in God that Jeremiah could proclaim this controversial message.
For I earnestly protested unto your fathers in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice. 8Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart: therefore I will bring upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do; but they did them not.
The ancient Judeans, like those of the northern kingdom of Israel, all traced their ancestry to Abraham and defined themselves based upon that ancestry. Furthermore, they defined who they were based upon their adherence to the Mosaic law, given to Israel "in the day" that they were brought out of Egypt, the time when God gave the ten commandments to the people at Mt. Sinai, and Moses recorded the law that surrounded it. The people made an oath to be obedient to the One True God who delivered them. Yet, they did not maintain their submission to God in their heart. Their identification with God became in name only as their hearts turned to the culture of the world. The temple still stood tall, and their "worship services" continued. People still brought sacrifices, and the temple rituals continued. However, they were only following empty tradition as their hearts burned instead with that which stimulated their own imagination. They were doing a good job "going through the motions," but their actions lacked true worship and they did not express a true love for God in their hearts.
The imagination of the evil heart that Jeremiah exposes is certainly a credible problem in the church today. When people come together to worship, how much worship actually takes place? Many come to be entertained, and complain when the music is not to their liking, or the preacher's message did not agree with their own sensibilities. As a worship leader I have often been given the line "we don't like ..." or "they think that ..." as people criticize a song choice or complain about one of the events that take place during the worship service. I want to scream out, "what are you here for?" The only message I hear is what the critic wants with no regard for what God wants: to be worshipped. I have seen families leave the church body when the taking of the offering was moved in the order of service from one place to another. "We'll come back when you move the offering back to where it was." Like the ancient Judeans, we have sometimes lost the very purpose of our existence as a church: to be obedient to God and to Him alone, a God who communicates to the body through the Holy Spirit. We forget that the Holy Spirit speaks through the hearts of those who are submitted to Him. Instead we tend to listen to those who lead like the world leads, and by so doing the voice of God is all but silenced.
The Judeans, in their disobedience, insisted on their self-righteousness under the law. God's response to them is to hold them responsible for "all of the words of the covenant:" the whole law. Self-righteousness cannot stand against the law, for no sane person can proclaim themselves righteous and sinless. If we are held to every tenet of the law, we will find that we have failed at some point, and by so doing are law-breakers and subject to God's condemnation. Jeremiah is bringing the self-righteous under the examination of the whole law, a scrutiny that no one can overcome.
And the LORD said unto me, A conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 10They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which refused to hear my words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers.
The word used for "conspiracy" has in recent years come to represent an occult political action brought by a group who are in agreement with one another. Another way of understanding this Hebrew word is as a "silent revolution." A conspiracy or revolution does not typically occur spontaneously, but rather forms over time. As the people turned their hearts to the world culture, they turned away from God and by so doing broke the covenant with God. By chasing its own dogma and refusing to take a stand against this secular world, the church can also fall victim to this same conspiracy. When outside of the walls of the sanctuary there is no appreciable difference between these people and the pagans. Their occasional visits to the temple serve only to fulfill their tradition and appease their conscience as their attendance forms some sort of penance. They do not attend the temple for the purpose of true worship because their true allegiance is to this world and the sensual pleasures it offers. So, though they appear at the temple on the Sabbath, the covenant is broken and their "worship" is not approved of by God who sees through their hypocrisy.
Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.
God's condemnation upon the people is both deserved, hard and rational. When one looks at the events that would transpire to bring down the nation, it is evident that the people brought this upon themselves. The northern nation of Israel fully rejected God and embraced the intrigue of its wars with its neighbors, neighbors who would ultimately overrun them. Had they maintained their love for and allegiance to God rather than to their ungodly kings, such events would have never been relevant. They would not have had kings to lead them away from God and into war with their neighbors.
When confronted by the hordes of Assyrians, Israel was not able to escape. Judah lasted longer when a few of its kings attempted to bring the nation to obedience to God. However, by this time the Judean kings had made alliances with Egypt and Babylon, again engaging in political intrigue rather than turning to God. Even Josiah set the current events in motion when he took it upon himself to attack Neco and the Egyptian army at Megiddo, thinking he could defeat this threat on his own. His death resulted in Judah's subjection to Egypt, and ultimately to Babylon.
Where was God all this time? It was God's will that the people would turn from their wicked ways and turn back to Him. Even Jeremiah was sent to them as a last-minute effort by God to have them turn back. We can see that God was gravely concerned with the state of the nation and its people. However, even though they may cry out to Him finally in their upcoming crisis, it would not be within God's character to save those who refuse to be obedient to Him. God will not be able to save Judah any more than He can save Satan from the lake of fire and still be God.
"I will not harken to them." What will the people be crying for that God will not answer? In this case, their cry will be for their rescue from the Babylonians, a very specific request. God's purpose is far greater than that which the Babylonians or any other political power can effect: God's purpose is to ultimately save people from the consequences of this disobedience through the coming of the Messiah. God will "harken to them", but simply not in the manner that the people think. The people are suffering the consequences of their own rebellious decisions. God does not stand in the way of those consequences.
Then shall the cities of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem go, and cry unto the gods unto whom they offer incense: but they shall not save them at all in the time of their trouble. 13For according to the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal.
We find that the cries that go out from the people are not all lifted up to God. Their entire world-view is secular, and in time of crisis, they will fall back on their secular beliefs for their strength. If we were to imagine a religious denomination today that is entirely secular, to whom would it cry out in time of crisis? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not even on their horizon. Though they might nail the words of Moses on their doorposts, many of the Jews have abandoned God and become totally immersed in the secular world. Believing in the power of the gods of this world, it is to these that they turn in time of crisis, only to find that these gods are powerless to save. Jeremiah reveals that the number of gods to whom the Judeans turned numbered as many as their cities. That is, each city group had its own little pagan culture, and the Judeans had become fully part of it, worshipping the same pagan gods and taking part in the same secular lifestyle. The altars to these pagan gods were everywhere, visible on every street. The most egregious pagan rituals were offered to the gods of Baal and Asherah (the Greek Diana), and worship to them was evident even in the streets of Jerusalem. We may recall that King Ahab, under the influence of his pagan wife, Delilah, brought worship to these deities into the temple itself.
Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up a cry or prayer for them: for I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble.
It is one thing to hear of God's rejection of the pleas of those who have rejected Him. It is quite another for Jeremiah to be instructed not to pray for the people. The message to Jeremiah is actually one of encouragement: the judgment upon the people is going to come, and no manner of Jeremiah's pleading can change it. God did not call Jeremiah to deliver the people as He had sometimes done with the Judges. Jeremiah was called to clarify to the people the nature of their sin, so that they would understand why the judgment was coming to pass. Jeremiah was called by God to proclaim to the people the nature of their sinful state, a people who were convinced of their own righteousness. How would the kings, the priests, and the people respond to such a message? Even at the time of this prophesy, the people were living in relative peace. Though they were paying tribute to foreign nations from the temple and from their taxes, they had found a balance of allegiance that kept them from war. They thought everything was going quite to their liking.
What hath my beloved to do in mine house, seeing she hath wrought lewdness with many, and the holy flesh is passed from thee? when thou doest evil, then thou rejoicest.
However, what was to the liking of the people certainly was not what God had desired for them, and their sin was an open sore. God points out that they have no business even entering the temple, a place that is supposed to be holy and treated with reverent respect as, at least in their understanding, the house of God. Instead of coming to the temple to worship, they bring in all of the sin and lewdness of the world culture. The worship of the people has become so perverted that even in the evil of their godless rites they rejoice, thinking they are being righteous and religious. That can be a sobering example when we take a good look at worship today. It would be instructive to take a look at our own hearts as we enter the "house of God" and examine what manner of secular and pagan lewdness we bring in with us. We may bring with us something as simple as a grudge against someone else in the church, and instead of coming to worship God, we are distracted by our lack of love for another. We may bring with us the spirit of the pagan god Bacchus (a god similar to Baal who is celebrated at Mardi Gras), as we seek to be entertained by the music, and to be "blessed" by a stirring emotional experience, only to be disappointed if the service did not meet our level of demand or expectation. We do evil in the house of the Lord when we fail to worship him.
The LORD called thy name, A green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken. 17For the LORD of hosts, that planted thee, hath pronounced evil against thee, for the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done against themselves to provoke me to anger in offering incense unto Baal.
Most of Jeremiah's writing is in the form of Hebrew poetry that rhymes and processes ideas rather than sounds. He makes use of allusion and metaphor as he writes. Sometimes this literary form makes it a little more difficult to follow, necessitating an understanding of the context of the writing. These two verses might illustrate this difficulty, and the statement made in these two verses should not be overlooked.
Olive trees were common in the region, and its fruit was highly valued. God is referring to Jeremiah as an olive tree that stands at the gate of the temple, bearing good fruit. However, a great tumult of the people has arisen with the intent of its destruction. The tree is set on fire, and its branches are broken down. Jeremiah is this tree, and it is Jeremiah who will experience the persecution that this prophesy describes. Though Jeremiah has been fruitful and planted by God himself, he will become subjected to the evil that has overwhelmed both Israel and Judah, an evil that they chose for themselves.
And the LORD hath given me knowledge of it, and I know it: then thou showedst me their doings. 19But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered.
When one takes a stand for the truth persecution will follow. Standing for the truth against a flesh-led church takes courage and determination. It also sets one against the pride-led leadership who will recognize the threat to their authority and respond with their full arsenal of offense. A godly man, motivated by love, is at a tactical disadvantage against an adversary who is motivated by hate. The self-righteous leadership can rationalize into application any of a myriad of methods of counterattack, methods a godly man will not employ. Consequently, the olive tree gets ravaged and burned. Its limbs get broken.
The persecution that Jeremiah will experience will not go unnoticed by God. In fact, the very act of persecution against Jeremiah stands as a judgment against them as he "showedst me their doings." One can know that when the attack comes from members of the church body, God is quite aware of the events.
The lack of offense taken by Jeremiah against his persecutors is described as a lamb or an ox taken to the slaughter. One thinks of a lamb as helpless and weak. However, the ox was considered the opposite of the lamb, self capable and powerful.
There is no limit to the hatred expressed by Jeremiah's enemies. Unmarried, Jeremiah's death would end his line, and in their culture this would terminate his remembrance. The intent of the persecutors is to kill Jeremiah. The persecution of Jeremiah simply fits the age-old pattern where the self-righteous leadership is so self-absorbed and self-defined that it can even rationalize murder and declare it as a righteous act. They would kill the prophets, and ultimately would kill Jesus, Himself.
Note that God did not tell Jeremiah that he would not be burned. God prophesied that the branches would break. God does stand beside Jeremiah and give him encouragement and strength against the attack. However, God does not stop the attack. Evil will express itself, and will pay the ultimate price for its arrogance. God will not lift Satan out of the lake of fire.
But, O LORD of hosts, that judgest righteously, that triest the reins and the heart, let me see thy vengeance on them: for unto thee have I revealed my cause.
It is very difficult in such a time of persecution to maintain integrity. Even Jeremiah, who is well aware of the intense danger of his situation cries out to God for some remedy. If he is going to suffer at the hands of the persecutors and experience the pain and rejection, what will be his recompense? At the very least Jeremiah desires to know that the persecutors will be judged for their acts. Part of the courage that is mustered when taking a stand for God involves trusting in His righteous judgment and knowing that, though we may not see the ultimate judgment that God will exact, such judgment will take place. I am reminded of James' advice that "not many should seek to be teachers (or rabbis, etc.) for theirs is the greater judgment" (James 3:1).
Therefore thus saith the LORD of the men of Anathoth, that seek thy life, saying, Prophesy not in the name of the LORD, that thou die not by our hand:
One might think that Jeremiah's persecution was coming only from the Jerusalem leadership. However, the priests of Anathoth were no less forgiving of Jeremiah's ministry. They had always resented the priesthood of Zadok in Jerusalem and hated their exile from the temple. Jeremiah was calling for the restoration of the worship of God in the temple, a stand that also placed him against Anathoth. We can see that the priesthood of Abaiathar that evolved in Anathoth was as wicked as that of Zadok in Jerusalem. We may be reminded of Jesus' words that a prophet is not without honor except in his own town (Matt. 13:57). Jeremiah could not look to those closest to him for support. They were also calling for his death.
Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, Behold, I will punish them: the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine: 23And there shall be no remnant of them: for I will bring evil upon the men of Anathoth, even the year of their visitation.
This chapter ends with God's proclamation to Jeremiah that those who are persecuting him will not escape the judgment to come. When Babylon attacked Judah, Nebuchadnezzar took many of its leadership captive. As outcasts, those in Anathoth were largely ignored, and left behind to suffer the results of the ravaging Babylonian assault. The young men died in the battle, and with the national infrastructure destroyed, their children were subject to famine. Many in Judah fled to Egypt during this period to escape the disaster.
Though we do hear of descendents from Anathoth in later scripture, the dissolution of the town will be complete. There would be no "remnant" from the town to survive. The remnant are those faithful few who always hold strong during times of opposition. No such individuals would be numbered among the survivors of Anathoth.
Jeremiah may be encouraged to know that God's judgment will prevail. However, while enduring persecution, it is still difficult to maintain courage and confidence. Through Jeremiah's experience, God never left his side, and true to His promise, Jeremiah would not be tragically injured. Yes, he would suffer burns and broken branches, but in the end he would still stand. Likewise, when one takes a stand against flesh-led church leadership, one will suffer burns and broken branches. Many churches are so abusive of their remnant that the faithful "burn out" after extended periods of persecution and move on. The average tenure of a pastor in a congregational-led church is less than three years, a sign that many of our churches are in serious trouble today.
Our study of Jeremiah's experience can be a call to all of us to take a good look at our church, and our own motives. Are we driven by pride and self-will, demanding that all that takes place be done "our way"? Do we attend together to worship God, or do we attend solely to meet our own needs for social interaction?
If we are immersed in a social, flesh-led church, do we have the courage to stand for the truth? Are we willing to be burned by self-centered and prideful church leaders who would rather fight than allow God to be in control of the church body?
The experience of Judah and Israel can be instructive to us. If the Jeremiah's in the midst of today's church have the courage to stand for God's Word, maybe some of the consequences of our sin may be avoided.