We’re back into the prophets this week – this time, the prophets who prophesy during Josiah’s reign. We’ll have to learn to hold the tension between the patience of God and the justice of God. We’ll hear about a lot of idolatry and injustice this week. I’ve been helped by Andy Crouch’s definitions of these terms from his book Playing God. Idolatry is worshipping false gods; injustice is an attempt to play god in someone else’s life. Here’s the quote: “God hates idolatry and injustice because they are the same thing: the introduction into God’s very good world of false images, images that destroy the true images God himself placed in the world to declare his character and voice his praise. Whether making false gods (idolatry) or playing false gods (injustice) the result is identical – the true image of God is lost, and not just lost but replace by something that purports, often very persuasively, to represent the ultimate truth about reality.”
Zephaniah is prophesying during the days of Josiah – during the great reforms after the dreadful reigns of Manasseh and Amon. Interestingly, Zephaniah is also a descendant of Hezekiah, which makes him Josiah’s distant cousin. Zephaniah focuses much of his attention on “the Day of the Lord”. It is a day of both judgment and salvation that comes both to Judah and Judah’s enemies. However, it will also produce an amazing reversal of the Tower of Babel when the nations babbling is turned to purse speech and they all call upon the name of the Lord rather than trying to make names for themselves.
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because he wrote a lot of sad things – including Lamentations. But check it out: he’s the son of the priest who found the book of the Law which led to Josiah’s reforms. You can imagine how awful it would be to live through such significant reforms and then see your neighbors taken into captivity by the Babylonians. We learn that the Lord is attending to his word, watching over it to perform it. That’s comforting. But, when the word actually comes in 1:13-2:5, it’s unflinchingly honest. That’s challenging because God knows it all and sees it all. Yet, he invites us to come to him, to admit our wrongs and find comfort so that he can cast our sins away and remember them no more.
These chapters feature colorful metaphors, so read with an eye towards appreciating Jeremiah’s poetry. In 4:1-4, he finishes his plea for Judah to repent and then prophesies disaster from the North (Babylon). Notice, though, that God is still after Israel’s heart: “remove the foreskin of your hearts”, “wash your heart from evil”, “this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart”. Disaster is meant to lead God’s people to repentance. But this destruction coming upon Israel will revert the creation back to the beginning when it was “without form and void” (4:23). God is undoing creation to do a new work of creative restoration. He will create a new covenant people from the remnant of Israel.
Chapter 7 has to be one of the saddest chapters in the Bible as it recount the Lord’s faithfulness to Israel in the face of their blatant disregard for his goodness to them. They refuse to follow the ten commandments in 7:8 and then you really see God’s heart in 7:22 when he says, “I didn’t give you laws and rules when I saved you… I just asked you to follow my voice.” The final two chapters of the day presents the Lord’s description of Judah’s sin followed by Jeremiah’s grief for his kinsmen.
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah also takes the idol-makers and idol-worshipers to task. After he finishes with them, the Lord finally declares that his covenant with Israel is broken and the covenant curses are coming swiftly…but judgment is not the final word. You might think it should be (I certainly would’ve cleansed my hands of Israel by now), but the Lord’s anger is not like our anger. His anger has a compassionate underbelly. The final chapter highlights two “living parables” Jeremiah portrayed and then followed up by explaining with the threat of exile. If you’re reading closely, you can see Jeremiah foreshadow the pattern of Jesus’ “seven signs and seven statements” in the gospel of John.
The first two chapters present the wrestling of Jeremiah with the coming disaster he predicts. He knows what he’s saying and it’s not good for anyone in Judah, but the Lord promises to guard him. Pay attention to 16:14-21 – the Lord says that there will be a new and better redemption for the people of Israel – even better than the Exodus from Egypt. When we get to chapter 17, it’s a nice break because it’s got several familiar themes from other places in the Bible. You’ll hear echoes of Psalm 1 and Exodus and Deuteronomy and the promises made to David. Don’t let the familiarity lull you to sleep. The reminder about the deceitfulness of our hearts is important, especially in an age where we put great stock in “following your heart.”
If the living parables weren’t enough, the Lord now gives Jeremiah and object lesson about his sovereign plan and agency to as he wills (ch. 18). Next, he takes Jeremiah’s experience and asks him to do the same for the elders of Israel (ch. 19). These object lessons earn Jeremiah some persecution and a night’s sleep in the stocks, which cause him to bring his troubles before the Lord while also affirming God’s protection. Chapter 22, then, brings all the weight of Deuteronomy 28 onto Israel. The things God declared before they entered the promised land have come to pass. He has set before them life and death – but they chose death when they chose idolatry and injustice.