CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

We Need More Jeremiahs

Aug 20, 2018

How should the Christian relate to the world around him? What should our attitude and mindset be? It seems we can get some solid answers to these questions by looking at the life of Jeremiah. He of course was called to be a prophet, and while all of us may not have a similar calling, the way he lived his life offers a good example for all of us.

In the book of Jeremiah there are a number of his confessions, or complaints, or laments. Most are found amongst chapters 11-20, where I was reading again today. Often Jeremiah is discouraged, disappointed and frustrated. Despite his divine calling, he gets nothing but opposition from God’s people, and at times it seems like he is getting opposition from Yahweh as well.

There are several themes that I wish to focus on here, gleaned from this morning’s reading in these chapters. First, let me say a bit more about his complaints. One lesson from them should be clear: there will be discouragement in the life of the believer, and there is a place for God’s people to offer a lament, to complain, and to ask hard questions. Jeremiah did it. Job did it. David did it. Even Jesus did it while hanging on the cross.

As J. Daniel Hayes says about Jer. 15:10-21:

The ministry of Jeremiah and his times of discouragement point out to us dramatically that serving the Lord faithfully does not always lead to popularity and success (from a human perspective). Often today those in ministry can get discouraged or have feelings of inadequacy if their ministry flounders or moves very slowly. It is important for us to remember that almost no one ever really listened to the message that Jeremiah preached. Humanly speaking, his ministry of reconciliation and his call to repentance were basically a flop. Yet he was carrying out the work that God had assigned to him. This underscores a very important lesson from Jeremiah. Sometimes God calls people to a service or ministry that will not be successful in human terms. . . . Obedience to the task that God has called us to is the measure of our success or failure.

Another thing that stands out here is the need to stand apart from a dark and dying culture, even while trying to reach it. This may seem to be a contradiction, but it is what Jeremiah was all about. While trying to reach his own people, he knew he had to do this while not becoming too much a part of the surrounding evil culture. In Jer. 15:17 we find the following:

I did not sit in the company of revelers,
nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because your hand was upon me,
for you had filled me with indignation.

One immediately thinks of a similar passage found in the psalter: Psalm 1:1:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers.

With his calling Jeremiah had to be distinct, even a loner. That was his fate. It was not one of his own choosing, but it was part and parcel of his prophetic calling. In their commentary on Jeremiah, Craigie, Kelley and Drinkard remind us of what this isolation really entailed:

Jeremiah’s complaint “I sat alone” brings to mind the requirement that lepers should sit (dwell) alone, outside the camp (Lev 13:46). Jeremiah had become a social leper, an outcast among his own people. He lived apart from his people not because he enjoyed doing so but because they excluded him from their company.

Or as F. B. Huey puts it in his commentary, “There is often a price to pay for leadership. It may be the price of loneliness, misunderstanding, or separation from human associations. Jeremiah was so identified with God’s thoughts that he experienced the same indignation that God felt for the people’s sins.”

Sometimes in this dark world we must be like Jeremiah. We must be willing to stand alone, aloof, and rejected. We will never really be close friends with the world. How can we be? Jesus told us the world would hate us just as it hated him.

Another major theme worth looking at is this: Jeremiah knew about the need to proclaim God’s truth regardless of the negative and angry responses. Several things in these chapters have to do with God’s word. In Jer. 15:16 we read this:

Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.

And in Jer. 20:9 we find these words:

If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

As to the first passage Philip Graham Ryken says this: “Like the prophet Ezekiel, he gobbled up God’s Word (Ezekiel 3:3). He understood that the Word of God is more than just hors d’oeuvres. When God spoke, Jeremiah bellied up to the banqueting table and started packing it in.”

The second passage however has a rather different slant. Says Ryken, “This is another familiar text from Jeremiah that is usually taken out of context.” He explains:

When Jeremiah spoke about the fire in his bones, however, he was not speaking about the pleasures of ministry. He was not testifying to the delights of preaching in the Holy Spirit. He was not saying that his heart was aflame with the gospel. Rather, his heart burned with judgment. The fiery word in his bones was law rather than grace. He was not eager to preach but reluctant, for he knew that judgment would pour out as soon as he opened his mouth. Jeremiah would have given anything to have a mute ministry, but the Word of God would not allow him to remain silent. The fire in his bones inevitably blazed forth from his lips.

In this complaint Jeremiah felt hemmed in on all sides. He did not want to proclaim those words of judgment, and he did not like all the hatred and resistance he got from the people. But he also felt that God was almost forcing him to speak – how could he stay silent?

In his 2006 book Like Fire in the Bones, Walter Brueggemann put it this way: “Jeremiah is in every way a man of intense dispute. His calling, his passion, his moral-political judgements, his poetic imaginative power all set him on a course of inevitable dispute.” He says there are at least four areas of dispute. He is in conflict with:
-the royal apparatus
-his prophetic counterparts
-his own family and kinspeople
-and even Yahweh himself

The previous verses in ch. 20 deal with the prophet’s dispute with God. Because of all the grief he experiences in delivering the divine word, he considers NOT sharing it. But he loses either way. Tremper Longman comments:

In what may be one of his most famous statements, Jeremiah acknowledges that he contemplated not delivering the divine message. However, though tormented, he admits that he could not help himself. God’s word is like a fire in his innermost person (my heart and my bones). It is harder for him not to speak than to speak, a classic case of being “between a rock and a hard place.”

And we too can feel the tension. Sometimes we just have to speak out, although we know it will be costly, and it will be unwelcomed. Proclaiming the truth that God wants us to share will never come easy, especially when it is unwelcomed truth.

But it is far worse to refuse the heavenly calling. We all have a prophetic role to play in delivering the words of God to a hostile and uncaring audience – both without and within the church. It will not win us any awards or popularity contests.

It will mean facing more rejection and opposition. It will mean getting more enemies and losing more friends. It may well result in isolation, ostracisation and seclusion. But far better to endure the wrath and enmity of men than that of God. Jeremiah knew all about this, and we need to know about it as well.

Truth-speaking always involves paying a price. We appreciate it when a Jeremiah or Isaiah pays the price, but we shrink back when considering our own responsibilities here. As Vance Havner once wrote, “There has never been a rush to wear the prophet’s mantle.”

Or as Paul Washer has put it, “We honor the old prophets, we honor the Tozers and Spurgeons but we don’t want to pay the price they paid, and they paid the price by being men who walked alone who lived with God and who loved His word.”

But we are in desperate need of such prophets. Who will be our next Jeremiah?

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7 Responses to We Need More Jeremiahs

  • Bill it seems Jeremiah was treated in a shocking way by the hands of his own unrepentant people and treated kindly by Judah’s enemies. Today such a person would be viewed with suspicion and perhaps seen as plant or spy (think Obama). It seems to be the way our own once Christian based nation Australia as hostilities are rising against the ‘people of the book’.

    Also Jeremiah is a prophet with a unique brief as outlined in Ch1:10 ‘To root out and pull down’ To destroy and throw down, To build and to plant’. The uniqueness is in the final line of his brief from Father God, ‘To build and to Plant’. I don’t know any other prophet that was given this ministry of ‘building and planting’ (apart from Jesus Christ) so what did Jeremiah build and plant? It is clear he was there to see the end of Judea and he oversaw the demise of its kingly reign which fulfilled the first part but it still leaves the question what did he build and plant?

  • The difficulty in trying to speak out the truth of God’s word, is trying to reconcile the New Testament command of ‘speaking the truth in love’. When we speak out passionately against what is blatantly contradictory to God’s word, we are seen as being unloving, causing disunity, and bringing the name of Jesus into shame by not obeying John 13:35. I know you have written much about the fact that speaking the truth in love sometimes means rebuking, but the most effective way of doing this is through relationships that have been built up in trust and mutual respect, where the words of rebuke will be valued. Even then, we are seen as being legalistic and unloving. Sometimes I question whether it is God prompting me to speak out, or if it is part of my naturally judgmental personality. Of course He can use my natural character for his purposes, but I need to keep a check on my heart as to the motive in speaking out. Is it truly zeal for God’s word and His ways, or is it just part of me wanting to ‘get things right’?

  • Thanks Lucy. Yes we must keep checking out our motivations, and so on. And yes I have dealt with various issues you raise elsewhere. For example in one piece I put it this way:

    The Christian demonstrates his love by offering much-needed warnings. Sure, we seek to do this in a gracious and caring fashion, but we must do it nonetheless. And sometimes such warning has to be made to complete strangers, and on the run.

    The ideal is always to have a relationship with someone before you share warnings and rebukes. But that is not always possible; sometimes you just have to speak – instantly. If you are driving along and notice a house on fire, you don’t waltz up to the place, introduce yourself to the homeowner, and start a leisurely conversation.

    No, you tell the stranger that he is in danger and he must act at once. Sometimes that is how it is with spiritual and moral warnings as well. We may not always have a lot of time to develop a working relationship with a person. Jesus often spoke words of warning to complete strangers, as did the early disciples.

    If you can build a friendship with someone first, fine. But if not, we still have an obligation to warn and alert others about various threats and dangers. That is love in action. We are to speak truth to others, even if it may hurt or cause offence.

    The drug addict may not like to be warned about his dangerous addiction. The homosexual may well take offence when you lovingly warn him about his dangerous lifestyle. But that is our duty as believers. Failure to warn others indicates we do not really love others.

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/11/19/to-warn-is-to-love/

  • I was surprised how very encouraging your piece and bonus piece to Lucy are. Good on you.

  • For a Christian culture that claims ‘Christ is enough’, ‘Christ is all’, ‘in Christ I move, I live and have my being’…well, I find it really disheartening to hear people explain their need to be politically correct prior to speaking the truth. As a Christian I am commanded to love my neighbor, but what love is evidenced if I only speak the truth through the filter of another persons heathen paradigm? Will they then just ‘add Jesus’ to their already godless understanding of truth? Isn’t that how ‘cults’ are planted? Where does the prayer heart of Daniel enter in, the humility of Gideon, the crippled strength of Sampson or the timidity of Timothy have their place? Why isn’t it enough to just Speak the truth and allow God to govern the response? Aren’t we called to be ‘sheep for the slaughter’ in the name of the Lord? Why do I need to ‘qualify’ and ‘parse’ ever social interaction or the hearts of my listeners? People don’t even know their own hearts, how is the listener going to perceive the hearts of his hearer’s? If such ‘perception’ is really needful, and not an excuse for cowardice, then how come did the Apostle Paul end up being stoned so many times….ending up being slaughtered in Rome? Paul, the ready pen of the Lord, used to write a multitude of NT letters. Jeremiah, a man such as ourselves, but a man willing to stand up when all others sought comfort and how best not to offend. Christ is an offense. Ask the Syrian Christians or the Nigerian Christians or the Chinese Christians…..Jesus is an offense from man’s ‘Point of View’. In Humanism there is NO ROOM for Christ…. It’s more than just ‘No Room’ in the Manger, but that baby boy who was sent to die still can only find rejection in the hearts of humanity until God opens their eyes. Those who preach Christ and Christ alone will be rejected, except by those who embrace Jesus. sigh…. Be Blessed, Preach Jesus!

  • Once in a while someone will ask me about how many people are converted when we preach in public here in the Philippines. I’m not aware of any since we have been in Davao City. But we believe God still wants us to do it.
    No one responded to Noah’s preaching.
    Adonirah Judson preached in Burma for several years before he had one convert.
    On at least one occasion, Jesus lost a lot of people when he preached.
    We plant the seeds and we trust God for the results.
    Besides, it stirs up the fire in the hearts of the saints, which alone is a great reason to do it.

  • Thanks Bill! Just what I needed to read today. What a wonderful man he was. Lately I’ve been thoroughly blessed by his precious gems of joy in between his sad, sombre prophecies. So despite being a social outcast in his time, little could he know how wonderfully encouraging his words would be to us all these thousands of years later!

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