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Jeremiah 11:18-12:6

February 20, 2017

In this section Jeremiah has to contend with death threats and his own questions about God’s justice.

Jeremiah is from the town of Anathoth (1:1) which is just a few miles from Jerusalem. He comes from a family of priests. But his kinsmen from Anathoth have turned against him and threaten to kill him in order to stop his prophetic speeches. What is it that they are so angry about? These passages don’t tell us, but there are two good possibilities.

First, it may be that Jeremiah is proclaiming that Jerusalem is the only place where the Lord may be worshiped. During the reign of Josiah a scroll was found in the temple that caused a reformation. Scholars today think that scroll was Deuteronomy–a book that centralizes worship in Jerusalem and condemns worship anywhere else. Jeremiah is a proponent of this reform; he wants to close all the local hilltop shrines where Judah’s worship of the Lord has been mixed with Baal and Asherah worship. Perhaps Anathoth itself had one of these local shrines. Perhaps Jeremiah’s preaching is putting his own priestly relatives out of business!

But Jeremiah doesn’t just preach against the local shrines; he eventually preaches against the supposed inviolability of the Jerusalem temple itself. So it may be that his priestly relatives are incensed by his pronouncements that the temple in Jerusalem is doomed. This may have seemed to them like an act of both national and religious treason!

Whatever the reason, his kinsmen in Anathoth threaten to kill him if he doesn’t stop prophesying. Would death threats from our own relatives silence us?

Jeremiah’s response to death threats is to want revenge. In 11:20 he says, “Let me see your retribution upon them.” He believes God will do this. At the end of verse 23 God says, “I will bring disaster upon the people of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” This doesn’t make Jeremiah sound very charitable toward his enemies; but prophetic writers and the authors of the Psalms are always refreshingly uninhibited with their honest feelings. Nonetheless, one thing is clear throughout scripture: God is more merciful than we are.

The pressure on Jeremiah is tremendous. He almost caves in to the pressure. In 12:5-6 God challenges Jeremiah to become more courageous. Rather than comforting Jeremiah, God pushes him. God, in a sense, is saying to him: “If you think this is bad, wait till you see how it gets worse! If you can’t run against these runners, how will you compete in a horse race! If you’re scared in a safe land, how are you going to cope when it really gets dangerous! If you fall down in the plains, how are you going to make it through the jungles! Beware of everyone–even family members who speak friendly to you!”

Sometimes, in the face of adversity, we need comfort, but sometimes we need a challenging pep talk. God gives him the tough pep talk; and it works; he continues his prophetic ministry.

Have we compromised our service to God in the face of opposition, out of fear, or out of a desire to please others and fit in?

Jeremiah continues with his prophetic ministry, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t battered by questions and confusion about God. In 12:1-4 he, in a sense, puts God on trial. He is sure that God, ultimately, must be in the right, but he still needs to lay out his case against God. What it mostly boils down to is this: why do the guilty prosper? This is the age-old question for those who believe God is good and all things originate from God. If that is so, then where does evil come from, and why does a good God allow so much evil to happen? How can God be good and just when there is so much evident injustice in the world?

Christians typically answer by saying that evil is the result of free will, and without free will there is also no love and loyalty. Freedom, responsibility, virtue and commitment all require the potential of evil. I suppose that’s true when it comes to human choices, though it does not adequately account for the accidents and tragedies of nature. And regardless of what intellectual answers we come up with, they are rarely very convincing when we are in the midst of unbearable pain. In the end, we either trust that behind all of reality is an abiding grace, or we do not. If we trust in such grace, and if we trust that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, then we are empowered to live extraordinary lives.

Notice, there is no response by God to the case Jeremiah lays out. There never really is–not even in the Book of Job. We must live by faith.

In 12:4 Jeremiah links the people’s sin with the withering of the land. We no longer believe that human sin causes natural disaster. On the other hand, we should. Because now, for the first time in history, our selfishness and exploitation of nature is indeed threatening to wither the land. Global warming is a very real slow motion crisis. Nuclear apocalypse is an all-too real possibility. We may well already be in the midst of one of the biggest mass extinctions in earth’s history. We had better stop our sinning, or we will face ecological disaster.

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From → Jeremiah

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