Thursday, November 30, 2006

Living as a Remnant: Jeremiah 40

Jeremiah 40

The following few chapters tell an intriguing story of destruction, prosperity, trust and betrayal.  After the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the majority of the people, a remnant is left and Nebuchadnezzar puts Gedaliah in charge of what remains in Judah.  For the most part, those who are left are the poorest of the poor and a few bands of guerilla soldiers who escaped the hand of Babylon.  When they gather together, Gedaliah addresses the motley crowd and tells them to farm, ranch, and rebuild their culture.  He will govern and deal with the Babylonians—all they need to do is reestablish their lives.

The result is another glimpse into what I think is one of the core lessons in the book of Jeremiah.  As they are faithful to Gedeliah’s directive, God shows them his grace and goodness.  I love the fact that through the destruction of a rebellious and obstinate culture, God makes the poorest of the poor the wealthy land owners.

“[T]hen all the Judeans returned from all the places to which they had been driven and came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah. And they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance.” (vs. 12)

But all is not well within the remnant.  One of the military commanders, Johanan warns Gedaliah that another commander, Ishmael, struck a deal with a neighboring king to assassinate him.  For whatever reason, Gedaliah does not believe Johanan, has Ishmael over for dinner, and at the table Ishmael rises up and kills Gedaliah.  Ishmael, in what turns out to be raging evil, proceeds to slaughter seventy pilgrims on their way to mourn the destruction of the Temple, and then takes the remnant into captivity and prepares to take them into exile into Amon.  Ishmael takes his own people captive!  Ishmael was not satisfied with the state of things under Gedaliah, and forced control from his hands through treachery and conspiracy.

Ishmael’s evil is the end of the prosperity under Gedaliah, and as we discover in further chapters, this group of Judeans never returns to the Promised Land to live there.

The remnant was small and at the mercy of the Babylonians.  They could either choose to be faithful to God in their land or rebel and try and take control of their situation again.  Gedaliah represents one response, Ishmael the other.  When you are a remnant, you learn an important lesson: God is in control.  When we try to take control, the results are disastrous.

God’s people are rarely the powerful majority.  More often than not, God’s people are one among many voices heard in any given culture, and they are rarely the single, dominant voice.  In fact, God chose the nation of Israel exactly because they were small, and Paul picks up this theme in Romans 11:1-5 when he describes God’s use of the church.

Because the church of Jesus Christ is a remnant, we need to learn that God is in control.  Our aim should be to be faithful to God in everything, not to take control.  Don’t mistake me--I believe a faithful lifestyle will extend to absolutely every aspect of a believer’s life and hence will salt and season every aspect of our culture.  But our goal is faithfulness, not control.  The example of Gedaliah is the right lifestyle for Christians living as a remnant, and it requires a great deal of self-discipline and trust to avoid Ishmael’s error and to let God control the things we can’t but wish we could.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Trusting In God: Jeremiah 39:11-18

Jeremiah 39:11-18

The events in Jeremiah 39 are bleak to say the least. Jerusalem, and hence the nation of Judah, finally falls to Babylon, Zedekiah meets his fate, and the people are taken into exile. But the story is not all about endings. The second half of the chapter tells the stories of two people God spared and the care he showed them in the midst of a nightmare.

The first comes as no surprise; God spares Jeremiah in dramatic fashion. It is not the case that Jeremiah happens to slip through the nets of the Babylonians to live out his days in his homeland. The command to protect Jeremiah and allow him to stay in Judah comes directly from the top of the Babylonian empire.

“Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon gave command concerning Jeremiah…’Take him, look after him well, and do him no harm.’” (vs. 11, 12)

How is it Jeremiah receives this attention? It is entirely possible that Nebuchadnezzar has heard of Jeremiah through the Judeans who have already fled the city and surrendered to them (39:9). It is also possible that Nebuchadnezzar has already been influenced by another one of God’s people who has been in his court for a couple of years now. Daniel has already caught Nebuchadnezzar’s attention and respect, and it is possible that by now he has an admiration for God’s true prophets. Daniel’s exile not only serves God’s purposes for Daniel and his immediate surroundings, it quite possibly saves the life of Jeremiah a couple of years later in a land hundreds of miles away.

The second character saved is Ebed-Melech. We first read of him in chapter 38 when he saves Jeremiah’s life. It is a great story of courage and faithfulness as this Ethiopian slave confronts the Judean king to receive permission to pull Jeremiah out of the cistern where he was left to die. Then here, in chapter 39, God reassures him that even though he sees the nation crumbling around him his life would be saved. In fact, God repeats that assurance in five consecutive, nearly synonymous, phrases (vs. 17-18).

The keystone to this chapter is why God saved Ebed-Melech. He is a great character because of what he does to honor God and save Jeremiah. But when God tells him why he is being saved, he says, “I will surely save you…because you have put your trust in me.” (vs. 18) God does not save Ebed for what he did, but for whom he trusted.

Ebed put his trust in God. In a time of great distress he did not trust king Zedekiah, the armies of Judah or his own craftiness to save his life. My trust in God should not be left on a fuzzy, uncommitted level, but should be as specific and tangible as Ebed’s was. Do I trust God financially? Do I consider my work and my savings to be what will take care of me as time goes on, or is God my only source? Do I trust God emotionally? Do I lay unreasonable burdens on other people in my life to be my constant harbor in a storm, or is God my final source of emotional strength? Do I trust God spiritually? Do I put the unreasonable burden on a few people to be the perfect example of Christ in this world, or are my eyes on Christ alone? When I fail to trust God in these kinds of tangible ways, bad things happen and I can find myself growing bitter against God and his church when it was me who was untrusting all along.

It is always safe to trust in God—even when the world is crumbling around you, God is great enough and good enough to keep you secure in the midst of all things.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Patience and the Judgment of God: Jeremiah 39:1-10

Jeremiah 39:1-10

In this chapter we watch the end of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah unfold before our eyes. Jeremiah warned king Zedekiah several times that the Babylonians were going to seize control of Jerusalem unless he repented and turned back to God, but we note here that not only did Zedekiah not believe his repentance would accomplish anything, he did believe he could escape from the hands of his enemies.

The fate of the city and the fate of the king are almost overwhelming. After a year and a half of siege, the Babylonians break through the walls and the foreign princes set up their court in the gate of the city, thus demonstrating that they were now in charge. We should, at this point, remind ourselves of what siege warfare was like for the people in the streets of Jerusalem. In Lamentations, Jeremiah records this moment in history, and in chapter 4 the images are stark:

"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. Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps….Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people." (vs. 4-5, 9-10)

This is what Zedekiah watched happen to his people for over a year, and yet he fled at night through a hole in the wall. Zedekiah’s failing is not so much that he is an evil and brutal king, but that he is a fool. He lacks the strength of character to confront the moment, he does not have enough virtue to do the right thing when necessary, and his sycophant advisors easily sway him. God told Zedekiah exactly what was coming, exactly what to do to avoid it, and exactly what the consequences would be.

We also need to note that Zedekiah had more than just his fate in his hands. In the conversation recorded in Jeremiah 38:17-23, Jeremiah tells him in no uncertain terms that his obedience will mean peace and safety for thousands and his rebellion will mean their death. With the fate of thousands of people hinging on his reaction to God’s call of grace (and after watching them die slowly and horribly for 18 months), Zedekiah finally and ultimately turns against God and tries to escape. As a result, the city is burned, the nation is taken into exile, Zedekiah’s family and advisors are slaughtered before his very eyes, and he is blinded. The last thing Zedekiah beheld—indeed, the only thing he saw for the rest of his life—was the execution of his sons.

Judgment fell, not because God was capricious or evil, but because Zedekiah refused to listen to the gracious and loving calls of his God. The book of Jeremiah is not about a judgmental God; it is about a loving God reaching out to rebellious and obstinate people. And in this story, we learn that our refusal to be reconciled to God in our behavior as well as our beliefs has dire consequences far beyond ourselves. You may not be in a position to influence thousands, or even hundreds, but do not deceive yourself into thinking that you can live to yourself. “As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone I can do what I please,” is a powerful, but completely false, moral and spiritual placebo.

Today, take advantage of the patience and grace of our God. God’s patience and kindness toward you is “meant to lead you to repentance,” and a life of abundance in His Son.