I regularly challenge fellow believers not to ignore the Old Testament. After all, it is part of the Christian Bible, and it in fact comprises 77 per cent of it. Without the OT the NT makes very little sense. As Augustine put it long ago: “The New is in the Old contained, the Old is in the New explained.”
Thus we ignore it at our peril. Here I want to focus on just one important OT book, the Book of Jeremiah. It is a large book (comprised of 52 chapters) and it is a key prophetic book in the OT. It offers so much to believers today, that we dare not overlook it.
A bit of background information needs to be included here. Jeremiah’s long period of prophetic ministry (some 40 years) took place during the decline of Assyrian dominance (Nineveh fell in 612 B.C.) and the rise of Babylonian power. Judah was about to lose its independence and experience the judgment of God by means of exile in Babylon.
While Josiah (640-609 B.C.) has sparked a mini revival in Judah, the final four rulers there went downhill quickly, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the deportation of the Jews to Babylon (around 587/586 B.C.). Egypt was another major player during this period (but defeated in 605 B.C.), and Jeremiah had to remind Judah of its many broken covenant promises, and not to rely on foreign powers to save them.
Jeremiah, who was born around 639 B.C., received his call from Yahweh while still a youth, in around 627 B.C. He, like Moses and others, protested, claiming his inadequacy for the task. But he carried out his role bravely, even though his message was for the most part soundly rejected. He seems to have died in Egypt at an indeterminate age.
He had an unenviable duty to carry out, warning the people of God’s impending judgment. He had to take on both the religious and political establishment of this day, and neither one liked what he had to say. He is known as the weeping prophet, and for good reason. He shared God’s heartbeat over the fate of his people, and grieved over the coming destruction of Judah.
Jeremiah faced so much opposition, persecution and hostility that at times he cried out to God, asking if he has been abandoned by Yahweh. His perseverance in the face of so much hatred and resistance is hard for us to fathom. Consider doing what he was called to do.
He was called to warn a stiff-necked people about their rebellious and sinful ways. And he was even told that they would not listen to him. Now that is not a very appealing job description. Imagine the early days of his warnings. The people might have been a bit concerned then.
But when year after year goes by, and decade after decade, the people just yawn and say, “Oh shut up Jeremiah. We have heard it all before. Nothing has come of it. We are not interested in your foolishness.” Yet Jeremiah kept on faithfully proclaiming the message God had given him, year in and year out.
Plenty of lessons are contained in all this for us today. For example, while all of Judah was targeted by Jeremiah, he was especially concerned about its leadership. When the rulers are failing in godly leadership, then everyone suffers. As J. Andrew Dearman says:
“A fundamental assumption of Jeremiah’s judgmental prophecies is that the leadership of the people had been in the forefront of corporate failure. Monarchy, priesthood, and prophecy all stood against him and diverted the people away from God’s word through the prophet to them.”
Moreover, Jeremiah accepted the fact that his faithful fulfilment of his divine commission would be costly and arduous. He was under no delusions as to the strenuous and unpleasant nature of his appointed task. It would involve rejection, grief and heartache, all in good measure. And this was not just grief about his own suffering, but concern for his people as well.
As John Mackay comments, “Far more than any of those he addressed, he appreciated the extent of the suffering that lay ahead of his people, and was perturbed and aghast at the prospect. In assessing his character we must not underestimate the difficulties he had to face and the severe strain he came under as his pleas for repentance were repeatedly rejected. Even strong men weep when entreaties motivated by love are trampled on, and dire catastrophe engulfs the people whose welfare they have at heart.”
Thus the prophet bore a double, even triple, load of suffering. He not only had his own personal grief to carry, but he shared in God’s suffering, as well as the suffering of God’s people. The so-called confessions of Jeremiah are a clear example of this.
As William Dumbrell says, “The point of these confessions seems to be that Jeremiah is in fact speaking for the people in their corporate agony”. Or as J.A. Thompson put it, “Jeremiah was never a dispassionate observer of his nation’s suffering, but entered into the anguish of the people and suffered with them”.
Craigie, Kelley and Drinkard tie all this together: “In some way the sufferings of the prophet, which resulted in his confessions, also reflected the condition of the community and the suffering of God. . . . His anguish was real, all the more so because it did not arise from his personal suffering alone but was a reflection of the suffering of his people and the suffering of God”.
The true spokesman for God must share his heartbeat, and must identify and relate to his people. Thus there is both a God-ward focus and a people-ward focus. Jeremiah knew of and reflected the heart of God to his people, and he shared with and experienced the hurt of God’s people.
Another related theme to emerge here is that the fulfilment of the heavenly calling will often be difficult, puzzling and frustrating. Jeremiah often squirmed, resisted and questioned his appointed task. He asked hard questions, challenged the divine call, and sometimes rued the day he was born.
He experienced intense spiritual turmoil. He was often depressed, despondent and perhaps even suicidal. One does not have to be a super saint in other words to be used of God. But one does have to be faithful. One does have to persevere, despite all the inner struggles and conflict.
Says John Mackay: “It is vital to note that Jeremiah persists in bringing all his inner turmoil and doubts before the Lord. He cannot deny him nor can he understand his own experience without relating it to the divine purpose in his life. Insistently Jeremiah is a man of faith who recognises that he can only quell his inner anguish by struggling through to assessing his life from the divine perspective. For much of his ministry he shows us that he did not know inner peace; yet he maintained a resolute witness to a degenerate community.”
In Part Two of this article I will explore other key lessons which can be learned from this book and from this prophet: