Background: Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, the priest credited with finding the book of law in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah in Judah. (2 Chron 34: 14) This time in history is interesting. The kingdom of Judah has degenerated. The Temple is a mess, and the book of law has been lost to even the priests. The king, Josiah, commits himself to follow God’s laws and the people seemingly obey him, but as soon as he is dead, they return to their ungodly ways indicating that there was not a change of heart and their commitment to following God was likely one of convenience, self-serving etc since there was pressure from their king to do so.
Huldah, the prophetess, informs the people that God is going to judge them, but, for the sake of the godly king Josiah and his obedience, the judgement is to be delayed until after his reign. Jeremiah unfortunately (for him) outlives Josiah.
Jeremiah is from the tribe of Benjamin, where his father, a priest, is living. Benjamin is a part of Judah, but is a tiny part as previously Benjamin had some issues with sin and the tribe was almost wiped out by the other tribes of Israel. Jeremiah is a Levite, not a Benjaminite, as he is from a line of priests. Every tribe was to set aside land within their tribe for the Levites (the priests), who were not to have their own tribal lands, so that the word of God could be taught to all.
His name means ‘loftiness of the Lord,’ or ‘exalting the Lord.’ (It is a common practice in this culture to name your child something that can double as a prayer, or praise, to God so that every time you call your child, you also say a prayer. This is why there are so many Mary’s in the New Testament, as its root, Mara, means bitterness and weeping, and the Jewish people of this time were trying to draw God’s attention onto their suffering so the Lord would save them from Roman persecution.)
Jeremiah performed no recorded miracles during his ministry.
The message: The message of Jeremiah is clear- turn back to God by following His laws or go into captivity (and past a certain point turning back to God will only lessen your captivity, not eliminate it). So what does this mean for us today? That our actions matter. They speak of our heart and how strong our commitment to God really is. We have a choice- follow God’s laws or be oppressed by others who are ungodly. Unfortunately, like Jeremiah, we are part of a group, and when the group messes up, sometimes the godly go along for the ride into captivity as well. (This is why we have a duty to be an influential and respected member of our society.) Fortunately, the book of Jeremiah also teaches us how to behave in captivity. We are to work in the best interests of those around us and prosper where God plants us. Oppression is not an excuse to misbehave or give up, as much as we would like it to be.
God begins with a legal complaint. He is the Lord, and in this society that means He has sovereignty over the people of Israel. What you need to understand, that we often miss since we do not make these types of contracts in modern times, is that the Israelites have entered into a Lord/vassal style relationship with God twice. The first was at Mount Sinai, when the law was given to Moses. Moses brought two tablets up the mountain so there would be two copies, one for the Lord and one for His subjects. Both were kept in the ark as God was to be there with His people. At that time God had freed the people from slavery and performed many miracles. In addition to the ten commandments, the oral law was also given to Moses as it is recorded in Leviticus. The second ‘contract’ is contained in the book of Deuteronomy. Ancient contracts of this type were written as narratives. In Deuteronomy, God reviews everything He has done for Israel. God’s laws are also reviewed as well as the blessings and curses for obeying, or disobeying. The covenant is renewed before the Israelites go into the promised land. This is why Joshua says, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ While the covenant is for the nation, it is also a choice each individual must make, and we will see individual as well as national punishments in scripture for disobedience to the law.
To void this contract, the people must be able to prove that the Lord has not fulfilled His obligations to His people. So God points out that He took care of Israel in the wilderness, in a land where people do not live due to harsh conditions, proving His ability to provide and protect His people and then led them into a land where food was plentiful and life was good, and instead of being grateful they left Him for other gods, who are not even gods. God points out that even the pagans do not change gods, despite the fact that they do nothing even close to what God has done for the Israelites.
So how does this speak to us today?
On a personal level we may ask ourselves (based on God’s complaints regarding the Israelites): Are we grateful to God when life is good? Do we grumble and complain over minor inconveniences? Are we embarrassed to speak about God? Do we pretend to believe as our neighbors do, or incorporate behaviors we know to be ungodly into our lives so that we avoid controversy with our neighbors? Are we as in love with God as we were when we first believed, or for those who were saved young, when we really began to understand the power of our relationship with God and what it truly meant? Going through the first chapter of Jeremiah (as well as many other places in scripture where God lists evidence that one is not with Him) and seeing how God’s complaints apply to your life is a humbling, but necessary thing to do. But, God does warn us in these passages that people like to ignore their sins and believe they have done nothing wrong, so if you read through this section and find no fault in yourself, pray and then read through it again just to be sure…. I recently read a book, fiction and not by a Christian author, that included a scene where people were lined up to enter Hell. A woman in the line was getting out of line and complaining loudly that she was in the wrong line. The demon assured her that this was not the case. She explained that she ‘believed’ and therefore should be in heaven. The demon explained that she was a mean, nasty person and was right where she belonged. This commentary regarding how this author saw Christianity made me sad. Unfortunately, it is too often true and one must ask themselves when their works do not line up with what God has called us to do, do we truly believe?
Theologian Andreas Bodenstein Von Karlstadt translates Jeremiah a little differently and has God stating ‘those who kept my commandments and knew me and did not ask for me’ in referring to the priesthood where as others speak of ‘those who handle the law and did not know me.’ Karlstadt’s translation talks of those, like the pharisees, who follow God’s law, but have not a real relationship with God. Karlstadt speaks of being a theologian and realizing that he loves exploring God’s Word, but rarely speaks to God. He asks, ‘How can one handle and keep God’s law when one does not know God or ask for Him?’ Just something to think about.