- Romans 13:1-7,
- Jeremiah 29:1-19
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
There is a story about what happened in the Native American culture to train a young men bravery:
On the night of a boy’s thirteenth birthday, he was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. Until then he had never been away from the security of his family and tribe. But on this night he was blindfolded and taken miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of thick woods. By himself. All night long. Terrifying! How out of his element the young brave must have felt. How very un-brave, in fact.
Every time a twig snapped, he probably visualised a wild animal ready to pounce. Every time an animal howled, he imagined a wolf leaping out of the darkness. Every time the wind blew, he wondered what more sinister sound it masked. No doubt it was a terrifying night for many.
After what must have seemed like an eternity, the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw flowers, trees, and the outline of the path. Then, to his utter astonishment, he beheld the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was the boy’s father. He had been there all night long. It is a lesson in bravery and independence. But it is an important lesson in dependence as well. Tribe and family matter. You aren’t alone, even when you are most lonely.
In exile—a slave in a foreign land
Jeremiah truly loved his people, but he loved God more. God made it clear to them that the people were beyond redemption. God commanded Jeremiah not to intercede for his people anymore.
The counter-message of the false prophets was peace. Yes, maybe a bit of political upheaval here and there, but surely, God will definitely not abandon the temple.
The third-last king of Judah was Jehoiakim, which we met last time. He burned the prophecies of God through Jeremiah. He was a vassal king: His superior was king Neco of Egypt after Egypt became the dominant political power of the south when the Syrian Empire in the north in 610 B.C. But, at Charcemish in 605B.C. the Egyptians too fell under Nebuchadnezzar. Jehoiakim then became a vassal of Babylon for three years. Then, in 601 B.C., King Neco of Egypt tried to cast off the Babylonian yoke. Siding with Egypt, Jehoiakim saw his chance and revolted against Babylon. In-between these events, the false prophets were still telling the people that things will politically stabilise. After all, the battle is between the two big dogs, and as the smaller dog, they will get the bone. God will see to it!
Nebuchadnezzar did not fully quash the revolt of 601. Three years later, he sent his armies to Jerusalem to punish them, because Jehoiakim had stopped paying his tributes to Nebuchadnezzar. In 598 Babylon invaded Judah and deported several thousand of Judah’s best-skilled citizens. This no doubt crippled the economy and left Judah virtually leaderless. In one of these events, Jehoiakim died as Jeremiah prophesied:
They shall not lament for him, saying, ‘Ah, lord!’ or ‘Ah, his majesty!’ With the burial of a donkey, he shall be buried, dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem.” (Jeremiah 22:18–19, ESV)
His son, Jehoiachin, succeeded him. He ruled for only 3 months and 10 days before he was deported to Babylon, and along with them some objects of the temple and more government officials, army officers, and craftsmen.
Zedekiah then became king and ruled for 11 years. During this time, the false prophets filled the city with false optimism. They confidently expected that the deportation of the leading citizens would be only temporary.
Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem again for almost two and a half years. It started during the winter months of 588 -587 B.C. Jeremiah wrote of this period:
The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them…. Her leaders were purer than snow, whiter than milk .… now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognised in the streets… Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger .… The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction… The kings of the earth did not believe… that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem. (Lamentations 4:4–12, ESV)
Zedekiah and his officials tried to escape by breaking through the city wall, but the Babylonian army captured them near Jericho. They took him to Nebuchadnezzar where they murdered his sons with him looking on. They gouged his eyes out, shackled him in bronze chains and took him to Babylon (2Kings 25:6-7, Jeremiah 52:7-11)
Then, just a month later in July 586 B.C, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and set it on fire. Only the helpless and the poor were left while the rest were taken as slaves. Jeremiah survived and stayed behind.
Still, false prophets were guaranteeing that Babylon’s power would be broken within two years. Yet, Jeremiah said it would be seventy years.
Has God forgotten us?
A letter from the heart of God
Our chapter this morning, chapter 29, records a letter which Jeremiah wrote to those lost souls in Babylon. One would not exaggerate likening them to the American native boy in the forest: scared, lonely, forlorn, hardly anyone they knew, broken families, slaves in the dark world of paganism with just the clothes on their backs. There was no temple to worship; and besides, their God the God of Israel, as they thought, was confined to the borders of the Promised Land. Talk about post-traumatic stress disorder! They experienced it all.
Jeremiah actually wrote this letter a few years earlier, just after Zedekiah became king, and entrusted it to two God-fearing men, Elasah and Gemariah. They were present when King Jehoiakim had burned the prophecies of Jeremiah.
Introduction to the letter
“This is what the Lord, Almighty, the God is Israel says.”
Lord: This is God’s covenantal Name, JHWH, the Name by which He revealed Himself to Moses as the God who IS, the God who has seen the mystery of his people who promised to rescue them from slavery.
Almighty: This name directly points to God’s rulership over the entire universe. He continually rules, but at times he directly intervenes to secure his own victory and ensure the direction of history for the salvation of his people. In Amos 4:13 it is associated with God’s ability to control nature (Amos 5:8ff, 9:5ff). He is Master over every force; He alone secures peace.
God of Israel: Of all gods, He is God.
God says: He is not silent. He has not forgotten his covenant. Although He punished them for their covenant-breaking, He remains faithful. Jeremiah sings:
Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22–23, NIV)
All of this must have been as if new to the exiles. But then it perhaps got a new meaning to them. Our God is the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Israel. There is no such god in Babylon—or anywhere else!
Arise above your circumstances
Exile is not the end, and Babylon is not your final destination. However, at least one or two generations will live in that foreign land.
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. (Jeremiah 29:5–6, NIV)
Seize the day, arise above and utilise your circumstances. Look at what has happened as an act of God.
Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7, NIV)
Deportation, exile and slavery is no accident. The people might have lost everything they held dear, there might have been so many questions without answers in their minds, but God is still in control. Yes, the false prophets misled them, their hearts and minds were confused. Who could they trust? Well, trust God’s Word and trust the God of the Word.
We cannot give up. Though we sometimes feel we are in the dark forest with no-one to watch over us, our Father is there; He keeps watch. Out of the shambles of the circumstances, for which we need to take the blame, Almighty God will execute his unshakable decree.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37–39, NIV)
Pray for the godless world around you
We are not from this world, but we are in this world. As Christians, we must keep our minds from the ruler of this world, but we should never go in hiding out of this world. Peter writes:
I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11–12, NIV)
We are the salt and light of this world, and we are called to let our light shine before men that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). There are many godless matters happening around us so that we want to stop the word and get off! The unborn are killed, marriage is trampled upon, social injustice abounds, moral corruption proliferates, evil is called good and good is called evil. The Name of our Lord is disgraced and his church is belittled. Yet, we are part of this world. It needs our good deeds of mercy; it needs our stance on the truth, justice and prayers. Just as we would love to prosper, so this world is in need of prosperity, yet primarily, spiritual prosperity. Just as anyone else needs to live by the truth, so we need to make sure that we are not taken captive by false theology and unbiblical teaching. Just as we need the Gospel of Christ, so the world is in need of the same Gospel.
This world is not our home
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10, NIV)
In New Testament language, let’s say: Christ is coming back to rescue us from the crooked spiritual Babylon captivity, and He will take us home! This world is not our home.
God’s sovereign plan will succeed
A popular verse in prosperity church circles also comes from the letter of Jeremiah to the exiles.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)
The “you” here is in the plural. It is meant for the exiles. It is addressed to folk who had no reason to expect material prosperity. The promise in this verse is a promise for restoration. While they were in Babylon, God would bless them to bless others, but they would be restored to their own land. Daniel was one of the exiles. He and his friends refused to bow before the foreign gods. Daniel openly proclaim God as the only God. The same Nebuchadnezzar then declared:
I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:34-35, 37, NIV)
God knows his plans, and He carries out what He decrees. Even kings and rulers in our time might fall to worship God because of the witness of his church.
Is Jeremiah 29:11 verse mean for me as an individual? Not if I have great wealth, material and general success in mind; only if I know I am a member of the family of God of which Christ is the Head this applies to me. It is only in Him that the world is blessed. Only in Him do we have hope for the future. Don’t be misled by pop-psychology masquerading as cheap theology. On the contrary, God’s blessing might come in the form of hardship as you testify to the greatness of our only Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Just ask Paul and thousands of others who went to the stake for the sake of God’s glory.
Only, don’t stop praying for the world!
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 17 November 2019