April 3, 2015

A Glimpse From The Bottom, Part III: Paradox of the Beaten Down

The conclusion of my study of Jeremiah, Chapter 38. It is lengthy but I am trying to tie a lot of theological ideas together.

Lack of Conviction Leads To Apostasy

Jeremiah 38:14-16 Then King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah the prophet and had him brought to the third entrance to the temple of the Lord. “I am going to ask you something,” the king said to Jeremiah. “Do not hide anything from me.” 15 Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I give you an answer, will you not kill me? Even if I did give you counsel, you would not listen to me.” 16 But King Zedekiah swore this oath secretly to Jeremiah: “As surely as the Lord lives, who has given us breath, I will neither kill you nor hand you over to those who want to kill you.”

Verse 14 and 15 says that Jeremiah feared for his life for telling the truth. Jeremiah had hidden nothing from Zedekiah all along and look at what he had gotten in return: prison, beatings, and the polluted cistern. He risks the same punishments for the truth by telling it again...which is exactly what he does. To Jeremiah telling the truths of God (the Gospel for us) is more important than living comfortably.

It tells us today that it will be costly to stick to the truth. As Jesus said, people that follow Him (in righteousness or for righteousness' sake) will face persecution. It is then that Jeremiah then tells the King that he must surrender and submit to his enemy that God sent against him because of disobedience.

Jeremiah 38:17-19 Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. 18 But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be given into the hands of the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from them.’” 19 King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Jews who have gone over to the Babylonians, for the Babylonians may hand me over to them and they will mistreat me.”

In fairness to King Zedekiah it is obvious (and ironic) that he is afraid of the exact same type or treatment that Jeremiah himself has just endured. By God allowing Jeremiah to counsel the king, God has allowed the perfect counselor for the king. A counselor that would have full empathy for the king's plight and fears. A person that had gone through nearly the same type of circumstances that the King faces in uncertainty. In Jeremiah’s counsel we see the king slightly comforted and encouraged to do the right thing. Sadly, due to Zedekiah's oscillation and lack of faith it is easy to see that he would not inevitably listen to Jeremiah. His lack of faith and fear would rule his actions.

Had the king obeyed he would have avoided the negative consequences of disobedience. The irony is that the mistreatment Jeremiah endured was at the hands of this very king’s ambivalence. Even more ironic is that Jeremiah was being faithful and obedient to God when he was mistreated unlike the king he currently speaks to. Up until this point the King Zedekiah was being rebellious to God and mistreating one of God’s prophets poorly through apathy to the situation...even though Jeremiah was telling him the truth.

So, in Jeremiah we see grace to forgive an atrocious wrong and in the king’s temporary acquiescence to Jeremiah’s counsel we see a willingness to humble oneself to gain wisdom from God’s prophet. In the King we also the willingness to admit a wrong (if only in temporarily and in secret [v.16]). Unfortunately, in the long-run the King does not do as he's told in obedience and only selfishly shows concern for himself.

Jeremiah 38:20-22 “They will not hand you over,” Jeremiah replied. “Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared. 21 But if you refuse to surrender, this is what the Lord has revealed to me: 22 All the women left in the palace of the king of Judah will be brought out to the officials of the king of Babylon. Those women will say to you:“They misled you and overcame you—those trusted friends of yours. Your feet are sunk in the mud; your friends have deserted you.’

In verse 22 we again see the parallels between Jeremiah’s predicament that he has just been extricated from and the predicament the king would soon find himself in for disobedience. The king's feet would be sunk (as would his people’s) in mud just as Jeremiah’s had been in the bottom of a dry cistern. The cistern I believe is a metaphor for the dried-up spiritual condition of the nation. I also believe Jeremiah’s trial was a foreshadowing of the plight of the king and nation encapsulated. This of course would be similar to the play-acting Ezekiel did with miniature models of Jerusalem, feces, nakedness and scales. God chose to use Jeremiah as an embodiment of Judah. Furthermore Jeremiah says that the king’s friends deserted just as Jeremiah’s fellow countrymen and other prophets had done to him when he was dumped in the cistern.

Jeremiah 38:23-28 “All your wives and children will be brought out to the Babylonians. You yourself will not escape from their hands but will be captured by the king of Babylon; and this city will be burned down.” 24 Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. 25 If the officials hear that I talked with you, and they come to you and say, ‘Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us or we will kill you,’ 26 then tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.’” 27 All the officials did come to Jeremiah and question him, and he told them everything the king had ordered him to say. So they said no more to him, for no one had heard his conversation with the king. 28 And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard until the day Jerusalem was captured.

Those who King Zedekiah had thought were his close friends were not friends at all but acted as enemies. As a matter of fact, the closest friend King Zedekiah would ever have was the prophet which he had treated with such negligent indecision...Jeremiah. The king had taken Jeremiah's (and God's) love for him for granted. The king was going to sink in the mire or quicksand of his own indecisiveness. Jeremiah pleaded for the safety of the King's own family that he obey God. It is sad irony that Jeremiah was a man who had yearned for a family of his own but had surrendered it for the higher call...just as he had done for his nation and was thrown in a cistern because of it. 

In Zedekiah and the nation of Judah we see the result of weak and vacillating leadership. America could learn a significant lesson from this story. As a judgment on a nation God often sends weak "leaders" to them that lack conviction and are hesitant to lead in strength for fear of "offending" someone. Being morally ambiguous in leadership usually leads a nation deeper into apostasy and farther afield from God because of a refusal to make firm moral decisions. John F Kennedy once put it this way:
"For in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, 'hold office'; everyone of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve." John F. Kennedy ~ Profiles In Courage, pp.265
Judah was not a democracy so it is clear that it was God that gave them the weak king that they deserved. It was clear that this would be Zedekiah’s last-stand to save the city, the nation and its people. All he had to do was trust God through His prophet and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldean armies (which was the same as surrendering to God). Zedekiah instead of fearing God, feared the mere opinions of men. This is quite similar to many modern leaders inside and outside the church. Due to the fear of the political repercussions, he was frozen into inaction. In so doing he chose a spiritually suicidal route instead of obeying God. This led to seeing his sons put to death, then subsequently having his own eyes put out. He was then put in chains and carried into Babylonian captivity (2 Kings 25:1-7; 2 Chronicles 36:12; Jeremiah 32:4,-5; 34:2-3; 39:1-7; 52:4-11; Ezekiel 12:13), where he remained a lowly prisoner (essentially to his sin) until his death. 

Between Jeremiah Chapter 37 and 38 we see repeated opportunities for King Zedekiah to essentially repent and obey God. Sometimes hope and renewal can only happen by wiping the slate clean and starting over. Sin can be so hard to let go of sometimes. As we have seen all throughout the history of Israel and Judah, stubborn refusal to hear the truth, accept it and obey it leads to certain death. I emphatically state that we see the same today both in our government, the secular culture and even in much of the church. In Zedekiah we see a failure to live up to Joshua's statement of conviction centuries earlier. 

Joshua 24:15 ~ But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Invariably we see this entire episode of Zedekiah's failure to heed Jeremiah's warning as a painful and awkward instruction to all believers. We need to be open to God's corrective word and corrective actions even if they seem harsh and unloving at times. God will call all to accountability at some point whether it be in this life or the next. Sometimes these corrective actions might seem painful, but by enduring them, we avoid a greater punishment. God is both love and wrath. Sometimes the route to His love requires walking directly through the refining flame of His wrath. 

We must submit to God's chastisement sometimes even when it makes no sense to us or lasts what seems like forever. The king's safety (or ours) will not be found in avoiding God's commands but observing and obeying them. Safety lies in the divine will. We might lose nearly everything but we will at least live another day to give thanks to God if we stay in His will. Sinners most often cause their own suffering (therefore God's wrath) by their own sin. As we know from Bible narrative and history itself, a brighter day will come. A new covenant was coming. Jesus was coming...and He will come again. Until that day we will need to live in faith with perseverance, conviction and courage. Just as Jeremiah did. Just as Zedekiah did not.

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