- Jeremiah 36:1-26
- 1 Peter 1:22-2:3
During the so-called political struggle for a one-man-one-vote political system in South Africa, one of the major spokes-persons returned from an internal trip, drumming up support for the process. He was a church leader. His theology had all the hallmarks of Liberation Theology which treated political structures as sinful, and not human nature. A supporter in the airport terminal shouted, “We are praying for you!” He reply was, “I don’t need prayer right now, I need weapons.” This is a blatant example of the blurring of lines between State and Church.
We don’t live in a theocracy like old Israel, and we should not expect our politicians to intrude in the sphere of the church to combat spiritual dilemmas. We take pride in the principle of keep State and Church apart, and so it should be. Whenever the authorities of State and church become intertwined, the Church either loses its voice, or the State oversteps its God-appointed jurisdiction. This is precisely what happened in the time just before the Kingdom of Judah fell into the hands of the Babylonians.
Blurring the lines when clarity was mostly needed
The temple prophets in the time of Jeremiah became so subservient to the political powers that they were nothing but the official mouthpieces of the king. They interchanged the Word of God for a message which served the political aspirations of the powers of the day. The result was that everyone tried to solve the spiritual problems, which were clearly behind the mess the nation found themselves in, by means of political programs and manoeuvres.
We have to go back in time to get the picture.
During the time of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Middle-East was in the grip of the Assyrian Empire. Their capital was Ashur, with Nineveh the next city of importance. The godlessness of God’s people then provoked the anger of God who used the Assyrians against them. A large part of the Old Testament prophets aimed their prophecies against the spiritual decay of the people then. That kingdom fell into the hands of the Assyrians in 722 B.C. They took God’s people into exile and slavery.
In 705 B.C. the Assyrians moved further south with the aim of taking Jerusalem. King Hezekiah allied with Egypt against Assyria. He sought the face of God in repentance and God showed mercy to his people. The Assyrians retreated and Jerusalem was spared.
This happened, not because of military power, but because of God’s grace. He temple prophets took this to interpret that Jerusalem and the temple will never fall. God is on their side, irrespective of circumstances.
The Assyrian Empire crumbled in 612 B.C. The upcoming Empire was that of the Babylonians.
This is what happened in the north. But in the south, while all the uproar between Babylon and Assyria was going on, Egypt tried to get into the act and marched northwards. Josiah, the king in Judah thought it was a bad idea and marched out against the Egyptian king. Josiah died in the battle of Megiddo. The Egyptian king made Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, king, but Judah lost its sovereignty to Egypt.
Jehoiakim, the king of the chapter we read from Jeremiah today, put everything in place to restore the sovereignty of Israel. His big mistake was to overlook the godlessness of the people in favour of regaining political restoration. The popular message of the patriotic of the temple prophets was to serve the aspirations of their young king. The restoration of the people would come, not through spiritual reform, but through political and military means.
However, God’s prophet, Jeremiah, appeared on the scene and made it clear that God will use Babylon to purge the Promised Land from their rebellion. God sent Jeremiah with this message:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ (Jeremiah 23:16–17, NIV)
They accused Jeremiah of demoralising the people. Instead of resisting the marching powers of Babylon the with patriot pride, they were encouraged to start packing their bags and living under the region of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.
True the calling of God, Jeremiah, at that stage under arrest, wrote all the messages God had given him on a scroll. To help him, he employed the assistance of a friend called Baruch.
Then, something interesting happened. The leaders called a day of fasting. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? The people from every corner of the land attended this solemn occasion. The city overflowed with people who most probably wanted a solution for the national dilemma they found themselves in.
Jeremiah asked Baruch to use the opportunity. He took the scroll with God’s messages to Jeremiah to the temple. Why?
Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.” (Jeremiah 36:3, NIV)
The gracious long-suffering of God was still offering grace and restoration to his people.
Baruch took the scroll and stood in the house of the Lord. From the room of Gemariah, possibly one the the better leaders, Baruch announced God’s Word. Gemariah’s son, Micaiah, heard it and was quick to report it to the other officials. They commandeered a certain Yehudi, to go and get Baruch to read it to the king’s officials. Fear overcame them—why we are not certain. Were they struck by the words of God and filled with remorse to seek forgiveness? Were they filled with fear that the people will give up the will to defend their land and so restore their independence?
They decided to have the king listen to the words of Jeremiah. It was winter, and in one of the apartments of the palace, the king was sitting near a fireplace to warm himself. Baruch read God’s word to him. Perhaps! After all, it is a special time of fasting.
The Bible records:
The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. (Jeremiah 36:24, NIV)
On the contrary,
Whenever Yehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. (Jeremiah 36:23)
He issued a command to have Baruch and Jeremiah arrested. God removed them from harms way, or king Jehoiakim would have defat with them as he did with Uriah, who he killed.
The king rejected the very and only solution to the redemption of his people. The false prophets supported him. God had the last say over his life:
He will have no one to sit on the throne of David; his body will be thrown out and exposed to the heat by day and the frost by night. I will punish him and his children and his attendants for their wickedness; I will bring on them and those living in Jerusalem and the people of Judah every disaster I pronounced against them, because they have not listened.’ ” (Jeremiah 36:30–31, NIV)
Jeremiah and Baruch recomposed the scroll — God has the last say, and his Word will stand in spite of worldly opposition.
What was the cause of Jehoiakim’s death? Spiritual anorexia. His soul was not nurtured by the bread of life. The lamp for his feet was out. Like the anorexia we know, he was starving. He looked into the mirror and could not see the desperate state he was in. He had the feeling of being full, while he was fading away. He concentrated on distorted perceptions, while he suffered from miscommunication between his brain, heart and soul. He lost the inability to distinguish emotions from the sensations from his soul. He became obsessive compulsive, irrational and totally absorbed within his own world. He shut his heart to the life impulses coming from the voice of God.
See, men shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3). Jehoiakim tried to survive on bread alone.
Years later, Jesus told his the disciples,
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. (John 6:63, NIV)
They discovered this truth: “To whom shall we go,? You have the words of life.” (John 6:68)
The apostle Peter understood this very well. So he wrote:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23, NIV)
…the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the Word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:25, NIV)
To complete the logical spiritual progress then,
Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2–3, NIV)
Every Christian life will be stunted if we do not live by the Word (Corinthians 3:2). We cannot remain spiritual babies; we need to grow to maturity. The Word warns:
Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. (Hebrews 5:13, NIV)
Paul exhorts the elders of Ephesus:
“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32, NIV)
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2, NIV)
If anorexia is not treated, those who suffer from it can die of malnutrition. The same applies to our spiritual lives. It was true in the life of king Jehoiakim, and it is true today.
Western society ridicules God’s Word as an obsolete man-made book. Just a bit of useful information here: Under the leadership of a certain J.L. Starkey in 1931, excavations at the Biblical city of Lachish led to very interesting discoveries. Jeremiah 34:7 tells us that this city was one of the last fortified cities left in Judah before the fall of Judah in 586. The excavations at Lachish had inscriptions referring to the fall of the other city, Azekah. On another, the name of Coniah, son of Elnathan, is mentioned. These names are found in Jeremiah and are connected with the life of Jeremiah. Another letter referred to the prophet.
An absolute man-made book? No, it is the timeless, true and inspired Word of God. And this Word proclaims life and forgiveness through the Word of God in flesh, Jesus Christ. Whoever comes to Him has life; He is light, but without Him, there is darkness.
My dear friend, I with all my heart I pray that you are not suffering from spiritual anorexia. Have good look at yourself, but not through your own mirror. Have the light of God shine on your life to expose the shortcomings and spiritual sickness which might harbour in your soul as a result of spiritual anorexia.
May our God be gracious to us all.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 3 November 2019