We sure do need watchmen, even though they are unwanted:
Because natural disasters can always break out, we have in place various early warning systems to alert us to possible dangers and catastrophes such as tornados, avalanches, earthquakes or tsunamis. If these systems work well and provide sufficient advanced warning, and if people take heed of these warnings and take appropriate steps to avoid impending disaster, then they are wonderful tools indeed.
But both components need to be working effectively: the warning systems need to detect coming emergencies and do so beforehand; and the people must listen and act upon such alerts. You can have all the best systems in place, but if folks refuse to listen to them, or take them seriously, then they are all rather useless.
It is just the same in the spiritual realm. God has his early warning devices in place. They are called prophets and watchmen. We read all about them in the Old Testament. And we can think of modern-day examples of them as well: Christian warriors such as Leonard Ravenhill and A. W. Tozer.
But just as in the physical world when the alerts can go unheeded, so too in the spiritual world: prophets can speak, preach, and warn – but they can be ignored and rejected. The watchmen can be spurned and reviled. Since I am once again reading through the book of Jeremiah, I see this so very often. Let me feature just some of these passages from the opening chapters of the book:
Jeremiah 2:29-30 “Why do you contend with me?
You have all transgressed against me,
declares the Lord.
In vain have I struck your children;
they took no correction;
your own sword devoured your prophets
like a ravening lion.
Jeremiah 4:19-22 My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent,
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.
Crash follows hard on crash;
the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are laid waste,
my curtains in a moment.
How long must I see the standard
and hear the sound of the trumpet?
“For my people are foolish;
they know me not;
they are stupid children;
they have no understanding.
They are ‘wise’—in doing evil!
But how to do good they know not.”
Jeremiah 6:10 To whom shall I speak and give warning,
that they may hear?
Behold, their ears are uncircumcised,
they cannot listen;
behold, the word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
they take no pleasure in it.
Jeremiah 6:16-19 Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
I set watchmen over you, saying,
‘Pay attention to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not pay attention.’
Therefore hear, O nations,
and know, O congregation, what will happen to them.
Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people,
the fruit of their devices,
because they have not paid attention to my words;
and as for my law, they have rejected it.
Jeremiah 7:24-27 But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers. So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you.
Jeremiah 8:12 Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Wow. Those verses are worth reading again – and deeply meditating on. As mentioned, they are not just texts that are only relevant for Old Testament times. We always need such prophetic voices. Both church and nation need to hear these sorts of warnings today.
But sadly watchmen and prophets get the same treatment now as they did thousands of years ago: they are spurned, rejected, ignored, and laughed at. The only prophets the people love to listen to are the false prophets. They are always popular and well received.
True watchmen on the wall however will find very few avid listeners and keen followers. I do know a little bit about this, since it seems I do have a watchman on the wall sort of ministry – a prophetic type of calling. I of course make no claim to being divinely inspired and infallible in my pronouncements. The Old Testament prophets and watchmen certainly were – but I am in an altogether different category in this regard.
We all can learn from what Jeremiah wrote about and experienced. There is present day application that can be found here. To help in his process, let me finish with some quotes from two commentators. First, Michael Brown looks at Jer. 4 and discusses the heart of the prophet:
For Jeremiah the pain is unbearable. Long before the judgment comes, he already experiences its reality in prophetic vision….
There is no grief like that of the prophets. Heschel notes that they were often compelled to proclaim the opposite of what their hearts desired: “Indeed, this was a part of the complexity of the prophet’s inner existence. He was a person overwhelmed by sympathy for God and sympathy for man. Standing before the people he pleaded for God; standing before God he pleaded for his people. The prediction of doom was contrary to his own feelings.” Speaking of Jeremiah, Heschel writes: “The tension of being caught, heart and soul, in two opposing currents of violent emotion, was more than a human being could bear.” It is therefore completely understandable that Jeremiah can hardly find words to describe his agony. He is in the throes of terrible labor, with his heart ready to burst out of his skin.
Second, J. Andrew Dearman looks at Jer. 4-6 and says the following about how we might appropriate all this for today:
Jeremiah’s words raise the question of prophetic activity on the part of the church and by individual Christians who seek to follow the Lord. (1) Prophetic activity is in obedience to the revealed word of God. Jeremiah’s “call” in chapter 1 sets the power of God’s spoken message at the center of the prophet’s work. In 5:14 Jeremiah’s words of judgment are like fire that consumes wood. Prophetic activity brings the word of the Lord to bear on circumstances and reveals God’s assessment of them. A contemporary application of Jeremiah’s words means first of all that Christians have assessed a situation in light of God’s standards of judgment. This is not an easy task; prophetic activity is easily misunderstood, and it may expect to get a prophet’s reward (Matt. 5:11–12). So it was for Jeremiah, as other texts will make clear. The depiction of Jeremiah as a “tester of metals” (6:27–30) underscores prophetic activity as the refining of character and motives, as a means of exposing God’s truth among differing options, and as a way to weigh and assess the value of human commitments.
(2) Jeremiah’s dialogue with the Lord (4:10; 5:4) implies that a prophetic response to sin is active. The prophet seeks the Lord’s leading so that sinfulness is not just named for what it is and judgment is not simply announced for what it is, but a prophet searches for ways to end the evil activity and its evil consequences.
(3) Prophetic activity is prayerful engagement with God about the nature and purpose of judgment. So it was with Jeremiah, and so it must be for the church. One may denounce evil and march for justice and the amelioration of societal ills; but unless one also prays that God’s temporal judgments become a means to discipline and to transform evildoers, denunciation and marching are not prophetic activities according to Jeremiah’s example.
In one sense we all can share in the prophetic task today. We can seek to get God’s heart on what is happening in the church and the world and seek to speak into those situations with biblical truth. But it will be a painful and often thankless task.
When we grieve over what God grieves over, and when we let our hearts be broken with what breaks the heart of God, that is no easy path. And when we try to share our concerns with those who need to hear God’s words, we will likely be rejected, treated with contempt, laughed at, and told to get lost.
The role of the watchman is not something I would wish on anyone. Yet some are called to just that very task – that very crucial ministry. At the very least, we should pray for those whom God has called to perform this important role. These folks certainly need all the prayers that they can get.