Jerusalem in Distress
Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of Judah’s kings Josiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, and he witnessed the people of Judah under the rule of the Assyrian empire, the Babylonian empire, with both threats and help from the Egyptian empire, and a few brief moments of Judah’s independence interspersed during some of these years. I hope this one sentence communicates the chaos that this 40 year period of time held for the people living in the land of Judah. It was a time of consistent change, of political turmoil, and of disruption for all of God’s people. As you can imagine, the people responded to this in many ways–some wanted the people of Judah to make alliances with the Egyptians for protection from the Assyrians; others wanted complete independence and were willing to fight for it. And it was in the midst of all of this that Jeremiah lived and prophesied.
At the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, we find that this young man has been called by God for a difficult purpose: “to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Jeremiah was called to give a message to the people of Judah that their time as an empire and nation was coming to an end. And yet, he also was given the purpose of declaring that even though life as they knew it would be forever changed, there was still reason to hope. God still wanted to build and to plant a people who were uniquely able to live and show the world what God intended for all of creation.
Jeremiah’s life was one of constant tension. Tension between the desire to follow God’s call for his life, to be faithful to the message that God has given to him and to be one with his people, to feel sympathy for the people who had been God’s chosen nation for generations. These tensions often caused distress for Jeremiah, personally, but they most often caused distress for the nation of Judah who was nearing the end of their political status as a nation at all (whether serving as a vassal to other more powerful nations like the Babylonians or not).
This kind of tension is one that we can appreciate in a time like our own. A time where we feel tension to live faithfully as individuals who have been called by God to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to live within a culture, society, nation, and an increasingly globalized world. For Jeremiah, this tension was most often resolved by staying true to the message that God had called him to deliver to these people, one in which he consistently delivered bad news to people in powerful situations. And often, the message was one that the people were not prepared to accept, if they were willing to listen at all. Yet, Jeremiah persisted, and he shared the very heart of God with the people who were unable to hear it: “Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord, I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 3:12).
God desired this people to return to him. The prophets that are recorded in Scripture span approximately 150 of Israel and Judah’s most politically turbulent years. And during all of this time, God sends these messengers to a people in distress seeking them.
Too often, we ignore the prophets. Too often, we believe them to be mouthpieces of anger and wrath. Yet, we often fail to see how these prophets served as instruments of God’s heart. That even in the midst of the anger that God feels at a people who have rebelled against him by serving idols and other nations, God still seeks them.
The prophets continue to come and continue to call the people to God. To repentance. To justice. To mercy. To a life devoted to God as God has devoted all of God’s self to us.
In fact, the prophets are a signpost of what is to come in many ways. That even when the people turn their backs on God, even when the worship other gods, and when they serve their own interests or the interests of others at the expense of those whom God loves, God still seeks us.
The prophets and Jeremiah remind us that there can be hope from the midst of tragedy. After all, this is the God who can bring things back to life. This is the God who can defeat the cross. There is life where before there was only death because this God seeks us.