All Quotations are taken from the Revised Version
Jeremiah, the prophet of Judah, is a character who seems to defy description. He has been called the weeping prophet. He has also been described as the young fanatic from Anathoth. If we put just these two together they indicate a life in which feeling and fire were joined. His home was in Anathoth of Benjamin. The son of Hilkiah, he came of a priestly family. It seems clear that the circumstances of his upbringing were unpretentious. When called to the responsibilities of the work of a prophet he showed his reluctance because of a sense of unworthiness. By nature, he has been called the most human and most approachable of all the prophets. So sensitive was he both to the unwillingness of the people to accept his message and to their constant rejection of him, that at one time he was ready to be quiet and retire into silence, Jer. 20. 7-9. We see his tears, and in them we see not an unreasonable pessimism, but a deep tenderness of compassion towards his wayward people. We witness his fiery and fearless presentation of the Word of the Lord, and in this we see, not an obstinacy that willed destruction, but a sincere faithfulness to his calling and commission.
No student of the life and character of Jeremiah can fail to see the similarities to the Person of the Lord Jesus. Jeremiah was of humble origin and came out of obscurity to present his message to the people. He could weep over the nation that rejected his God and His demands. His constant faithfulness brought him into conflict with the priests and rulers of the day. Some of his resultant sufferings are recorded for us. Although he was thus treated, his affection for the people never waned and he chose to end his days in Egypt with them rather than accept an easier pathway. Of Jeremiah as of Christ, it could be rightly said, “his own received him not”, John 1. 11. One has said about him that “he was a character made strong as steel in the furnace of affliction”.
Jeremiah lived in tragic and troublesome days. The ministry of the prophet extended from the thirteenth year of Josiah of Judah until after the carrying of the nation captive to Babylon. Thus from about 626 B.C. to 587 B.C. he was witness to such folly, sin and departure from God that the final judgment fell upon them - judgment that led them into exile. Among the surrounding nations momentous changes were taking place. The power of Assyria and Egypt was waning. The might and dominion of Babylon was growing dramatically. During the long and evil reign of Manasseh, Judah was subservient to Assyrian power. As a vassal of this nation, they became more and more impoverished both in material and spiritual things. With the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C., Assyria as a vital power was overthrown by the armies of the Babylonians and the Medes. In the year 605 B.C., the fourth year of Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar and his forces overthrew the Egyptians at Carchemish, another significant milestone in the rise of Babylon. Gradually the Babylonians gained the ascendancy, so Nebuchadnezzar’s attention was on Jerusalem and in 597 B.C. he moved in and deported to Babylon some of the most important and influential people. In 587 B.C., as Zedekiah refused to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar as Jeremiah continually advised, the final siege and overthrow of Jerusalem took place. The king of Judah saw his sons slain before him in Babylon, and his eyes were put out. Together with the people carried captive, he began the long exile. For 70 years national existence was at an end.
What of the internal conditions of the country during its last days? From 2 Chronicles 33. 1 -20, we learn of the spiritual havoc that the reign of Manasseh brought to Judah. His influence was evil in every sense of the word. Every possible disobedience to the Word of God and His laws for the life and worship of the people was perpetrated. Jeremiah was born towards the end of his reign, and witnessed the evidence of such godless conditions. When Manasseh died, an evil era ended for Judah and for a while good came to the nation, for Josiah came to the throne in about 639 B.C. and for thirty-one years sought to establish the ways of God in the land. It has been said that during the long and changeable history of both Israel and Judah, no such sweeping reforms were ever made as those instituted by Josiah. AH forms of idolatry and godless worship, the shrines and the ceremonies, were comprehensively overthrown. There is no doubt that Jeremiah watched with interest the effects of Josiah’s work. In 622 B.C., while the temple was being repaired, the great discovery of the Book of the Law was found. Scholars mostly agree that this find was the Book of Deuteronomy, or at least part of it. This became a vital factor in the life of king and nation. The reading of it gave impetus to the activities of reform. It has been said that it fell “like the thunderclap of conscience” upon the king, and stirred the whole nation to return to its God. Memorable things happened, including the celebration of the Pass-over at Jerusalem.
Josiah died, seemingly in a foolish manner, at the hands of the Egyptian army; with him, one has said, the hopes of the nation died. The reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah which followed proved definitely that the nation had known reform without repentance. “They flocked to, changed ritual and returned unchanged to their sin and selfishness.” Perhaps the most marked feature of Jeremiah’s message is the way in which he lays bare the hollowness of the nation’s profession in its years of decline and fall; cf. Jeremiah 7. The prophet sums up this period of history in two vital statements which describe the people’s sin and its cause. “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water”, 2. 13. And the cause? Deep in the heart of the individual the evil lay. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and is desperately sick: who can know it?”, 17. 9. Even God could find no remedy for such persistent sinning.
There is much biographical material in Jeremiah’s writings. In the pathos and passion of his utterances, we learn very much concerning his life and personality.
1. His Call. It was in the thirteenth year of Josiah that the call of the Lord came to the young priest at Anathoth. The sovereignty of God is seen in his call, as he is told of a choice which began before his birth. “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee … I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet”, 1. 5. The mission and the man were linked together in the foreknowledge of God. To the sense of unfitness which Jeremiah expressed, the answer is given, “Be not afraid … for I am with thee to deliver thee”, v. 8. The people to whom he is sent and the proclamation to be delivered are joined in the command of God, v. 7. Notice how vital this was to the mission of the prophet - an unchanging and unfailing message to an unresponsive people. Every word of the Lord, spoken as He commissioned His servant, was essential to the understanding of the work to which he was called. With the touch of the Lord upon his lips, he is sent forth to meet the people. We can learn much of the sovereign choice of the Lord in commissioning His servants to His work. His is the choice - and He never makes a mistake. No failure of the prophet, no unresponsiveness of the people, could thwart the final purpose of the Lord.
2. His Commitment. Jeremiah was faithful to the Word of the Lord. It is a useful study to work through the prophecy with this in mind. It is abundantly clear that the Word of his God which he first heard was never forgotten in his ministry. For the days of darkness and departure in which he lived he had one cry, “Hear ye the word of the Lord”, 2. 4. How relevant this is for the demands of our day and generation. Jeremiah enjoyed the Word for himself, 15. 16. Food for the soul, joy to his heart, the inspiration to all his desires - this was how he viewed the Word. He spoke out of the fulness of his heart. He was also faithful to the Word, 23. 28-29. False prophets gave lying messages and the people loved this. Dreamers and wizards traded their arts. The prophet stood firm - he gave a consistent message. He, too, felt the burden of the message. There was the compulsion of fire in his bones, and he could not hold back the Word from the people, 20. 7-9. He felt an earnest obligation to tell the people what he knew. Thus it was that he suffered for his faithfulness. People and kings, priests and rulers, shunned him and tried to shut him up. Jeremiah proved that there can be no true commitment to God without cost. This has great relevance for those who are faithful, even today.
3. His Compassion. There is a unique quality about the spirit of Jeremiah. He could be harsh and condemning in his message, and yet because of his great love for the people he was warm and compassionate. Faithfulness and compassion do not often go easily together. We see Jeremiah weeping over the people he condemned; 8. 18 to 9. 10 is a passage that lays bare the feelings that were in his heart/ “Oh that I could comfort myself against sorrow I my heart is faint within me”, 8. 18. Was there no balm in Gilead - no physician there? He is amazed that there is no healing for the dread moral and spiritual sickness of the nation. “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people”, 9. 1. Could it be that he had caught the very spirit of the Lord who commissioned him? Of the Lord he could say later, “his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness”, Lam. 3. 22-23. So it was that in his compassion for his people Jeremiah found hope for the future. There is a rare beauty about the hopes expressed in chapters 30-31. Jeremiah could speak of restoration and recovery under the terms of the new covenant. He could look forward to a time when it would be true of the sinful nation, “I will remember their sin no more”, 31. 34. Lasting blessing in the land was the ultimate prospect for a nation in exile. Jeremiah truly watered the Word he preached with his tears.
4. His Challenge. The prophecy of Jeremiah presents a stirring challenge. It is a Word spoken from the heart of the prophet to the hearts of God’s people. In this sense it is ageless in its appeal. To hearts that are deceitful and desperately wicked and to lives that are wayward and spiritually wrong he brings a call to repentance and return. “Ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the Lord”, 29. 13-14. How precious this is, and how much of the concern of God it reveals - a God who could remember the first love of His people, 2. 2-3. The Word that he spoke was not only as a hammer to break the rock in pieces. There was the warmth of love which could have melted the hardness of rebellion and brought about reconciliation.
In the spirit of Jeremiah’s faithfulness, we need a faithful restatement of The vital doctrines of our faith. Our worship and witness* so often suffer because of departure from the clear teaching of the Word. We can be guilty, as Judah was, of substituting outward conformity to custom and ordinance without true heart-surrender to the Lord. Our cry can be like theirs - “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”, 7. 4, - placing great emphasis on outward form and associations. Yet our sense of values and priorities proves how empty such profession can be. This is not the warmth of faithful love.
We also need the spirit of care and compassion that was seen in Jeremiah. Even in our faithfulness there can be a harshness that is forbidding. Paul could remind the elders at Ephesus that by the space of three years he ceased not to admonish them day and night with tears, Acts 20. 31. In Jeremiah’s day the people suffered because the shepherds of the flock, the priests and prophets, were corrupt and did not fulfil their charge, Jer. 10. 21. What a challenge this has for us, in a day when true spiritual leadership is sadly lacking. The teaching and the tears go together in the ministry of the true shepherd of the flock.
Faithfulness and compassion! Let us benefit from the portrait of a prophet in whom these were truly found.
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