Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) Jeremiah 8:19
The professor who taught Old Testament studies would take a biblical text and work through it step by step. He would explain what was going on in the history of the time. He would explain why God spoke in this particular way to this particular situation. He would explain how the text had reached readers now in its present form, what bits had been edited, what bits had had additional comments added to them on the way down through the years. What might otherwise have seemed like strange words from long ago suddenly sprang to life.
At the very heart of understanding the Old Testament, and understanding what God might be saying to the present time, were the days of Jeremiah. The days described in today’s lesson are days of sadness and disaster.
The high point in the history of God’s people was the rule of David. Flawed as he was, David was seen as an ideal king compared with what was to follow in later centuries. To understand the pain and grief of Jeremiah it is necessary to understand the process that led to Jeremiah’s times.
David became king around about 3,000 years ago, about 1,000 BC. He reigned over the united kingdom of Israel and Judah until 961 B.C. and was succeeded by Solomon who reigned until 922 B.C. From that year on things began to decline. Israel and Judah split into two separate kingdoms. In 721 Israel, the northern kingdom, fell to Assyrian invaders and Judah continued alone. There was a bright point in the days of Judah during the reign of Josiah, who was king from 640-609 B.C., the Book of the Law which had somehow been lost was found and there seemed a real prospect that the people would reform. Unfortunately the good times did not last and Judah continued its downward slide.
The worse things got the more people clung on to their belief that God would always be on their side. Jerusalem and the Temple were at the heart of what they believed. As long as they held the Holy City then nothing could destroy them.
Poor Jeremiah comes into the middle of this situation charged with telling the people of Judah a few home truths. The people were angry at Jeremiah, they did not want to believe that what was happening was God’s judgement on their disobedience.
Judah was a small and weak kingdom and in the year 597 B.C. the Babylonians come sweeping into the place. They raided the Temple, looted its treasures and carried Jehoiachin the king off into exile. This did not fit into people’s idea of God or of their own place in history. They were angry when they were told that they had deserved this.
The people believed that Jeremiah was guilty of blasphemy to dare to suggest that God’s promises to David would not be kept and that there would not always be a king to follow in the line of David.
Jeremiah, for his part, was convinced that they had failed to keep their obligations and that the promises would not be fulfilled.
The events of 597 were bad enough, but Jeremiah told people that this was not the end, that there was worse to come. Jeremiah was persecuted for his words. He was hated, jeered at, ostracised, continually harassed, and suffered a number of attempts on his life. Jeremiah suffered greatly, mentally as well as physically, for speaking the truth.
Jeremiah’s words of warning were fulfilled in 587 when the Babylonians returned, destroying both Jerusalem and the Temple and carrying the whole of the leadership of Jewish society into exile in Babylon. Judah had been given chance after chance, they were given warning after warning, but they persisted in their belief that nothing could go wrong.
Reading Jeremiah’s forewarnings of doom from 26 centuries ago, what relevance can there be for today?
Jeremiah is saying that there are no guarantees, that God makes his own decisions. A nation is like clay in God’s hand, if he chooses to crush it and re-form it, then he will do so.
Why would God destroy a nation he has made? Because it will not repent of its evil ways. The people of Judah were impeccable in their conduct of the life of the Temple, everything was done according to the letter of the law. The problem was that their lives did not match their religious ceremonies.
Reading through Jeremiah now we can be amazed at the arrogance of the people. How could they refuse to accept what God was saying to them?
To understand the days of Jeremiah, people need only look around. Given the opportunity to build new and prosperous societies, the powerful and the wealthy instead chose to become richer and richer. Despite massive the material wealth of countries, the gap between the rich and the poor was allowed to grow wider and wider. Personal wealth came before national justice. Private interests came before any concern for the life of the community or of the wider society. People became angry and we saw the rise of extremist political groups on the Right and on the Left.
Jeremiah would have been forthright in his condemnation of the excess, waste and the plain injustice in modern society. Jeremiah is a warning to anyone who assumes success automatically follows success, he is a warning to a society where people believe they are under no obligation to anyone.
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” asks God. God is warning people of his anger at that time The warning remains. Jeremiah is a warning to current societies.