It began to wear him down and he speaks to God in his discouragement. Verses 10-14 set the stage for Jeremiah’s complaint. The prophet is feeling so low he wishes he had never been born, v.10. Then v.11 begins with ‘Yahweh said’ and so we have the Lord’s words all the way through to v.14.
There follows a re-emphasis of Jeremiah’s message in v.12: ‘Can one break iron, iron from the north, and bronze?’ The message of judgment cannot be changed. It is like iron. In vv.13,14, Yahweh seems to be speaking to Judah’s people: ‘Your wealth…I will give as plunder; I will make you serve your enemies in a land you do not know’. Judah is going into captivity in Babylon. That is the preface.
I want to take you through Jeremiah’s experience recorded in vv.15-21. We are not prophets like Jeremiah, but there are aspects of his experience that overlap with that of any Christian disciple facing opposition.
Balancing on a paradox, vv.15-17
‘You know, Yahweh. Remember me and care for me and take vengeance for me on my pursuers and do not — due to your longsuffering — take me away. It’s for your sake I have borne abuse. Your words were found and I ate them and your words became to me the joy and delight of my heart, for your name is called over me, O Yahweh, God of Hosts.’
You have two elements here. In v.16 you have Jeremiah’s joy. As he assimilates God’s word Jeremiah finds his highest pleasure. But then notice how this is wrapped around by v.15 and v.17 in the costliness of Yahweh’s call.
He is facing, v.15, both danger from pursuers and ridicule. In 11.18-23 the Lord tells Jeremiah that there is danger from the men of his home town who are plotting against his life. The ridicule is reflected in 20.7-8. Jeremiah had to proclaim destruction, but people ridiculed him because it had not yet happened. ‘Maybe you’re a false prophet, Jeremiah.’ Pashhur placed Jeremiah in the stocks overnight; and when he was freed Jeremiah said: ‘Your name is not Pashhur but Magor-missabib (terror on every side)’. But later, 20.10, the people threw this back at Jeremiah. Whenever the prophet appeared they sneered: ‘Look there. There’s terror on every side!’
In v.17 we note that the costliness also involves isolation. Jeremiah says: ‘I have not sat in the circle of those who party; nor did I celebrate. Because of your hand I sat alone, for you have filled me with indignation’. This isolation is fleshed out in chapter 16. Jeremiah is not to have a wife or children, 16.1-4. In addition the Lord says: ‘No going to funerals, you might be tempted to comfort somebody… and there is no comfort for this people’. Then he says: ‘Do not go to weddings either’. Utter isolation, terrible loneliness. He’s not even allowed to pray for this people, 15.1. It’s too late for prayer.
So you have the joy of Yahweh’s word and the costliness of Yahweh’s call. You are balancing on a paradox.
The composer Haydn was a musical genius with a naturally buoyant spirit. Yet he was married to a woman with whom he was utterly incompatible. She had so little regard for his music that she cut up his manuscripts to use as hair-curler papers! How do you pull that together? That is what you have with Jeremiah and in the normal Christian life. What does knowing Jesus mean? It means to know the power of his resurrection and at the same time the fellowship of his sufferings Philippians 3.10. This is normal Christianity.
Stepping over a line, v.18
Basically I think v.18 goes like this: v.18a is permissible but v.18b is not.
Scripture encourages us to ask questions. You can anguish over God’s timing. For example: ‘How much longer, Yahweh, will you forget me — for ever?’, Psalm 13 (cf. Psalm 10, Psalm 88.9). But you can go too far, as Jeremiah did at the end of v.18. I do not think the text reads as a question here, but rather as a statement: ‘You really are like a deceitful brook to me’. In Israel some brooks might be full of water in the rainy season, but in summer as dry as a bone. You may be there at a transitional time hoping for water but finding none. You are a deceitful brook. Jeremiah is assaulting God’s character. He has stepped over a line.
I think we need to understand that this is possible. In our psycho-slanted age, with its ‘let it all hang out’ attitude, you can step over the line in your complaining to God. In a previous age we may have been overly cautioned about this; in our day we may not be cautioned enough. So bemoan his mysteries. You have that freedom. But do not assault his character. Do not step over the line.
Coming under an ultimatum, v.19
Jeremiah records Yahweh’s response: ‘Therefore, if you return I will restore you. You can stand before me and if you bring forth what is precious rather than what is worthless, you can be as my mouth. They may turn to you, but you must not turn to them’.
The reply hinges on a verb ‘to return’ or ‘to turn’ used four times here. The Lord is saying that Jeremiah can come back. ‘If you return, if you repent, I will restore you. You can go on prophesying again. But it all depends on your response.’
But notice the use of the verb in v.19. ‘They may turn to you, but you must not turn to them.’ They can accept your message if they will, but you must not turn to them. You must not cave in and preach a positive message that I have not given you. You may want to. But you must not do it. The Lord is putting Jeremiah under an ultimatum.
Jeremiah pours out his despair and Yahweh says ‘Repent’. Sometimes the Lord deals directly like that. A.W. Tozer tells of a time in his pastorate in Toronto when an attractive young woman made an appointment to see him. She was troubled about a homosexual relationship with her room mate. She was looking for some kind of reassurance. Instead Tozer faced her squarely and said: ‘Young woman, you are guilty of sodomy and God is not going to give you any approval or comfort until you turn from your known sin and seek his forgiveness’. What was her response? ‘I guess I needed to hear that’, she admitted. Sometimes we need an ultimatum.
Resting in fresh assurance, vv.20-21
But Yahweh does not merely rebuke. He encourages. ‘And I shall make you to this people a fortified bronze wall, and they shall fight against you but they will not get the best of you, for I am with you to save you…’ There is that assurance.
If you go back to Jeremiah’s call in 1.18,19, you get the same bronze wall imagery. That’s important. Yahweh is not telling Jeremiah anything new. He does not have a new secret for the Christian life. This fresh assurance is the old assurance stated once more in a new situation. That is important because that is the way Scripture operates in our lives as well.
Exhausted physically and somewhat depressed, Martyn Lloyd-Jones had the summer of 1949 in Wales hoping to recover. He returned to London in September, but had made little progress. He was to preach the next day at Westminster Chapel, but it was as if the fountain had dried up, there was nothing there and all his concerns were coming back. Lloyd-Jones said he was in his study that Saturday afternoon in near despair, and ‘there came into my mind from Titus 1.2 that phrase God who cannot lie. You remember: “Eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised us long ages ago”’. And he said he was utterly overwhelmed, he was in tears, and the sermon was given to him there and then. But you see it was not some new truth. It was the old truth and the same God, freshly revealed.
Now stand back from Jeremiah 15 and get perspective. Think about what a marvellous miracle it is that folks like Jeremiah, and other servants of Christ, can get the stuffing knocked out of them and yet they can be set to rights and say ‘I will still serve him’.
This article is an edited extract from True Word for Tough Times © 2013, by Dale Ralph Davis, recently published jointly by Bryntirion Press and EP Books (ISBN 978 0 852 349 342, £6.99), and is used with permission. To purchase the book email bridgend email@example.com or phone 01656 665912 or visit http://www.epbooks.org
This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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