Copyright © 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology
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The history of the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in 587 B.C. reveals the consequences of rebellion against God. Often when we read of the events and intrigue in ancient Israel and Judah we see little in common with a culture that is displaced from us by 3000 years of time, several layers of language translation, and a profoundly variant culture. We may find the history of Israel to be little more than stories of unfortunate events, battles won and lost, and in our study search for some spiritual connection.
Such a limited view of the application of these events to our lives ignores one inviolable truth: geography, culture, or time does not change the very basic nature of man. Those who have traveled around the world and lived in a multiple of cultures will testify that, when you meet the every-day people, they still have the same basic needs, wants, and desires. They are given in marriage, raise children whom they love and establish networks of relationships with others. Every culture also recognizes the existence of God. Those who are ignorant of God's word seek God in a variety of ways, and are in need of hearing the gospel. Without exception, all people fall short of God's standard of perfection and struggle with the consequences of sin.
Though the fall of Israel and Judah is chronicled in both biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, Jeremiah offers a perspective on the fall of Judah that is particularly instructive. Jeremiah loves God, and loves the people of Judah. Through his eyes and through his written accounts, we see the events from the position of the people on the street. Though Jeremiah interacted with the kings on occasion, he spent the bulk of his time among the people as he continually proclaimed to them the impending consequences of their continued rebellion against God.
We can separate the people of Israel and Judah from the other nations by one simple, historical fact: God revealed to Abraham and to his ancestors His purpose for man. Through the writings of Moses and the prophets, the people of Judah had the opportunity to know God and to turn to Him in faith. It is in this revelation that we have much in common with ancient Israel and Judah. Not only do we have the writings of Moses and the Prophets, we know of the coming of the Messiah through the birth of Jesus Christ, His ministry, His message, and His sacrifice to pay the debt for sin that is available to all who will place their faith and trust in God.
However, our modern culture, with all of its opportunity to know God, prefers to stand in rebellion to Him. Though the ignorant, pagan, cultures still exist, they are becoming a smaller part of this world's peoples. Many cultures are more like the ancient northern kingdom of Israel that, though having the opportunity to know God, preferred to dedicate itself fully to world culture. The ancient southern nation of Judah is in contrast to Israel in its remnant of faithful believers who maintained a flame of hope through the years. By the time we get to Jeremiah's life, however, that small remnant had no influence in Judean leadership or culture. Israel and Judah had both, as the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, denied the covenant that God made with them that God would give them the land if they would only trust in Him. Israel lost their land and their kingdom before Jeremiah's time.
Jeremiah has witnessed the similar demise of Judah as the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar has overwhelmed Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, taking captive all of its influential people. Though taken captive himself, Jeremiah was released by the Babylonian captain of the Guard. Nebuchadnezzar placed Gedaliah in Mizpah of Judah as governor, ending the reign of Judean kings. The remnant of Judeans have gathered around Mizpah and began planning their escape to Egypt. Jeremiah shared God's word with them, assuring them that God will still protect them if they will stay and be faithful. However the Jewish militants assassinated Gedaliah and led the people to Egypt. Whether by choice or by force, Jeremiah accompanied the remaining Jews to Egypt.
The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the Jews which dwell in the land of Egypt, which dwell at Migdol, and at Tahpanhes, and at Noph, and in the country of Pathros, saying, 2Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Ye have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, and upon all the cities of Judah; and, behold, this day they are a desolation, and no man dwelleth therein, 3Because of their wickedness which they have committed to provoke me to anger, in that they went to burn incense, and to serve other gods, whom they knew not, neither they, ye, nor your fathers. 4Howbeit I sent unto you all my servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, saying, Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate. 5But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear to turn from their wickedness, to burn no incense unto other gods. 6Wherefore my fury and mine anger was poured forth, and was kindled in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; and they are wasted and desolate, as at this day. 7Therefore now thus saith the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel; Wherefore commit ye this great evil against your souls, to cut off from you man and woman, child and suckling, out of Judah, to leave you none to remain;
If the Jewish refugees in Egypt were looking to Jeremiah for confirmation, what they found was not what they hoped. God's call to obedience does not change, so Jeremiah's message to the people has not changed. Jeremiah causes them to look back upon Jerusalem, the once busy center of Jewish life, and in the temple, the "dwelling place" of God. All that remains there is rubble and destruction. Robbed of all of its resources, the city now an uninhabitable pile of stones and rubble. Nothing of value remains in the city. There is nothing left to sustain life. The Temple has been destroyed and the glory of God has departed. The symbol of God's residence is gone.
Jeremiah reminds them that, though God in His sovereignty allowed this to take place, they brought the disaster upon themselves by turning away from God and following the idols of this world. By so doing, they engaged in relationships with their neighbors; relationships that would degrade to hatred and warfare with their far superior forces. By rejecting God, His hand of protection was removed from them. Even after the destruction of the city and the dissolution of Judah, the remnant was offered protection. The people still rejected God and fled to Egypt, to another land.
Fleeing to a different land meant far more to the ancients than it does to us. They believed that gods held their influence over a geographic region, with Jerusalem the center of that influence for the God of Abraham. They believed that, by leaving the land and entering into another culture, they were entering under the influence of another god. The move to Egypt meant far more than a political decision. It was a decision to fully abandon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It is in this context that Jeremiah refers to this "great evil against your souls". This evil was the utter rejection of God as they seek another. It is the same evil that Jeremiah attributes to their fathers in Verse 3. It is the same evil that today separates people from God as they chase after other things in their life.
All this took place while the people looked and acted religious. They still recognized the Sabbath and gathered regularly for "worship," and until the destruction of the temple, its steps were continually trodden by "worshippers." They sounded religious, acted religious, and claimed to be righteous. However, God was not truly the center of their activities. Gathering together and calling it "worship" does not necessarily make it so. If Jesus Christ is not the center of all that we do, if the Holy Spirit is not the source of the power, and if God is not glorified in it, then it is not worship. When God is not the central focus of our worship, we only worship ourselves our own desires and our own possessions as we play "make believe" church. Like those of Judah, our setting may look like a church and sound like a church, but the fellowship is populated only with death: souls that are separated from the power of the Holy Spirit.
Is it possible for the church today to leave the promised land behind and chase after the territories of this world? There is tremendous pressure on the church to conform to modern cultural mores, accepting sinful behavior as a badge of tolerance, accepting multiple paths to salvation as a badge of enlightenment. Are the words from our pulpits permeated with the power of the Holy Spirit as God's word is preached, or is it characterized by the opinions and philosophies of a worldly orator? Is the church worship experience a vital and powerful expression of our love for God, or has it become a boring and repetitive exercise of our own design? Have we, like the ancient Judeans, left God behind?
We may have the opportunity to witness or take part in true worship when we gather. What happens when the time of worship expires? Does our worship of God continue throughout the remaining days as we celebrate our love for Him in the various activity of our days? Or, do we leave God behind at the doors of the church, keeping Him securely at bay, as we then place ourselves back on the throne of our lives, only to return to the church for a guilt-salve recharge?
If these words sound too harsh, or too familiar, they are indicative of the testimony of Jeremiah. Just as the church left God behind in Jerusalem, the church today is always in danger in leaving God behind either individually as we usurp His throne of Lordship throughout our daily activities, or corporately as we play a spiritually shallow or meaningless game of church our own way, usurping Jesus' Lordship in the congregation.
In that ye provoke me unto wrath with the works of your hands, burning incense unto other gods in the land of Egypt, whither ye be gone to dwell, that ye might cut yourselves off, and that ye might be a curse and a reproach among all the nations of the earth?
With Jerusalem far behind them, the displaced Judeans thought they were safely outside the influence of the God of Abraham, and they were now free to fully embrace the gods of the Egyptians. The ancients fully attributed that which they did not understand to gods. The stark contrast of the destruction of Jerusalem with the peace and fertility of Egypt would leave them with the opinion that these Egyptian gods were preferable to the God who they knew back in Judah.
There is a difference in the sin that is demonstrated by these Jews when contrasted with their behavior in Judah. While in Judah their apostasy came out of their hypocrisy as they claimed to be righteous, sanctified by their status as the chosen people of God, and demonstrated by their veneration of the Temple. Now that they have left God behind, their hypocrisy is also gone. They are now freed of any allegiance to their old God and old traditions as they pursue their new life.
This pattern of behavior is not lost on the ancients. As a university professor I have watched literally thousands of young people experience their emancipation from the authority of their parents and from the church of their youth as they arrive on the college campus. The college dorm becomes their Egypt where they think they are free to experience the similar self-gratifying idols that are found there. Unlike Egypt, however, each campus seems to always have its faithful remnant that serve the community and can be a safe haven to those who choose not to leave God behind.
Some of the words used by Jeremiah are indicative of modern apostasy. the "works of your hands" is an idiom that points to what one is doing with their time and energy: the things that we DO. Would we be comfortable with Jesus by our side as we take part in some activities, or do we go places and do things that we know that Jesus would not approve of? "Burning incense" to other gods simply refers to giving authority and veneration to anything other than God. We can fashion gods out of our possessions, or out of the satiation of our own desires. When we do this, we have "gone to dwell" away from God by our own choice, and by so doing have separated ourselves from God, though we may blame Him for the consequences of that choice. The result of such behavior is to be "a curse and a reproach," literally to be crushed by the circumstances of our choices. When suffering we cry, "why does God let this happen to me?" The experience of the Judeans illuminates an answer to that question. We stand tall in our choices, but find ourselves profoundly humbled when our world comes crashing down around us.
Have ye forgotten the wickedness of your fathers, and the wickedness of the kings of Judah, and the wickedness of their wives, and your own wickedness, and the wickedness of your wives, which they have committed in the land of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem? 10They are not humbled even unto this day, neither have they feared, nor walked in my law, nor in my statutes, that I set before you and before your fathers.
Certainly, the history of the Jews was well-recorded. From the time of the Exodus from Egypt, the ancestors of Abraham engaged in idolatry and suffered for their rebellion against God. Against God's will they took wives from foreign and pagan cultures, wives who introduced and enticed the nation to engage in pagan practices. The children of Israel embraced the godless culture of the world, and their rejection of God was so complete that they did not consider Him with either fear or respect.
Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will set my face against you for evil, and to cut off all Judah. 12And I will take the remnant of Judah, that have set their faces to go into the land of Egypt to sojourn there, and they shall all be consumed, and fall in the land of Egypt; they shall even be consumed by the sword and by the famine: they shall die, from the least even unto the greatest, by the sword and by the famine: and they shall be an execration, and an astonishment, and a curse, and a reproach. 13For I will punish them that dwell in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence: 14So that none of the remnant of Judah, which are gone into the land of Egypt to sojourn there, shall escape or remain, that they should return into the land of Judah, to the which they have a desire to return to dwell there: for none shall return but such as shall escape.
What are the consequences of leaving God behind? It may be interesting to note that the experience of the Judeans will take place in God's sovereignty, but will still come directly from their choices. By turning their backs on God, they are taking on for themselves the consequences of their choice. They have chosen to leave behind them the promise of God's protection and face the dangers of pagan Egypt. These are a godless and brutal people who are continually engaged in warfare. Their propensity to war diminishes their productivity in agriculture, leaving them susceptible to changes in weather and climate that would adversely affect their crops. They will experience war and famine, and draw the Judeans along with them. Also, as foreigners, the Judeans would never attain status in the nation, and would only be considered interlopers. The Jews would find themselves objects of bigotry and hatred.
When we step outside of God's will, we enter very dangerous territory. Though Satan is powerless when confronted with the power of the Holy Spirit, he is empowered when the Holy Spirit is left behind. When we step out of God's will, we invite Satan in. He can surround us with rationalized comfort and a sense of well-being that holds us up to the point when the hammer falls, the point when we must experience the consequence of our action or account for the cost of the sin. Egypt was a very dangerous place for the Judeans to run to, and their choice would be their demise. None who went to Egypt would return to Judah, nor would they be heard from again. Jeremiah's prophecy reveals that they would die there, both young and old, from the violence and famine they would find. God was still working both with His remnant that was scattered, and with His remnant who was in captivity in Babylon. This is the period of time that Daniel prophesied in Babylon and when the events in the life of Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego were recorded. The return to Jerusalem would come after about 70 years, and would come from Babylon, not from Egypt.
Then all the men which knew that their wives had burned incense unto other gods, and all the women that stood by, a great multitude, even all the people that dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Pathros, answered Jeremiah, saying, 16As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the LORD, we will not hearken unto thee. 17But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. 18But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine. 19And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour out drink offerings unto her, without our men?
Note how the people associated the consequence of their behavior with the comfort of their living. They had "plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil" when they were burning incense unto the queen of heaven (Asherah, the consort of Baal.) when they lived in Judea. People naturally tend to think that God is blessing them when things are going well and punishing them when things are not. This false teaching leads to no limit of poor choices. A better understanding might be that God shares in our joy when we experience His blessing, and He shares in our grief and supports us in times of trouble.
Because of this rationalization, the people clearly told Jeremiah of their intention of doing exactly what they wanted to do without regard to God's word. This is the testimony of the world culture in which the faithful remnant is immersed. This is the testimony of our media: our news, movies, television, music and stage entertainment. It is the testimony of the world that our church is immersed in, and a testimony that entices its faithful away from the core of their faith. The church is forced to defend its choice of obedience to God to a wicked world that considers the church ignorant and irrelevant. Those of influence in the American government have succeeded in the "separation of church and state" to the point of leaving God out of the definition of who we are as a nation. It seems to be an easy thing to leave God out of our culture.
When this spirit of worldly liberty enters the church body, similar conflict arises. I recall one church announcing their intention to abolish all prayer in order that those who are not comfortable with prayer might not be offended. Some churches have replaced the gospel with philosophy, and replaced the Lordship of Christ with religion. The only authority in the church is Jesus Christ, yet many push Him aside to exercise their own authority. Sometimes the church organization becomes the authority, sometimes it is the pastor. Sometimes it is a lay leader in the church who stands as the "Lord" of the church. These are churches who have left God out, and like the Jews, are heading into dangerous territory where God's hand of protection is abandoned.
Then Jeremiah said unto all the people, to the men, and to the women, and to all the people which had given him that answer, saying, 21The incense that ye burned in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, ye, and your fathers, your kings, and your princes, and the people of the land, did not the LORD remember them, and came it not into his mind? 22So that the LORD could no longer bear, because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which ye have committed; therefore is your land a desolation, and an astonishment, and a curse, without an inhabitant, as at this day. 23Because ye have burned incense, and because ye have sinned against the LORD, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD, nor walked in his law, nor in his statutes, nor in his testimonies; therefore this evil is happened unto you, as at this day.
Whatever rationalizations we use to justify our failure to put God first in our life, God's message does not change. Jeremiah did not answer the specifics of the people's declaration, nor did he try to argue with them. Instead, Jeremiah simply stated God's word, His desire for them, and the consequences of their protracted apostasy. Likewise, as much as we try to rationalize away our behaviors, our responsibility for their consequences does not change.
We do not experience the consequences of our sin because God is beating on us. We experience the consequence of our sin because we have left Him behind, and removed ourselves from his protection. If I choose to follow a foolish idea and lay myself down on a railroad track as the engine is bearing down on me, who's fault is it when I am killed? Did God strike me dead? God is sovereign, yet in His sovereignty he allows me to suffer the consequences of my actions that I might grow and learn, and that I would turn to Him in faith.
The dangers of leaving God behind are real, and to do so is to leave behind the peace and comfort of fellowship with God. To do so is to place ourselves under the influence of a pagan and evil world that seeks only our destruction. Is it time to return from Egypt, and return to the waiting arms of God? If so, why wait?