As a teenager, I was delighted when my pastor started a series of sermons on prophecy. I hadn't been a Christian very long, and I had the impression that the Bible was a mysterious book that spoke about the future. I suppose at that time you could say that I put the Bible, Edgar Casey and the works of Nostradmus in the same category.
My pastor brought some cold water to my youthful fancy. I learned that the future the prophets spoke about wasn't primarily some distant utopia that had to be deciphered by hocus-pocus and hidden wisdom. Instead, the prophets of the Old Testament were only partly concerned with the future. Their primary focus was on calling God's people back to faithful obedience and worship. When the prophets spoke of the future, they did so to let Israel know that they could expect defeat at the hands of their enemies if they didn't repent.
This was not at all what I expected. As my pastor developed the series, the prophets seemed to me to be strange characters wandering around thundering the message of an angry God to people who refused to obey him. After that series, I wasn't so eager to talk about prophecy anymore. I wasn't sure I liked the prophets or their message.
Eventually I got back to the prophets in my personal study. I was convinced that if the prophets were in the Scriptures, then I needed to study them. What I discovered at that time was that, yes, many of the prophets did strange things and proclaimed lots of wrath. What was off in my understanding, however, was the impression I got of God.
The thundering message of judgment came not because God is a short-tempered despot shouting angry curses at people who break his rules, but because he is so intensely caring for those he gave himself to. In and through the message of the prophets as they proclaimed the coming judgment is a message of love. I like the way the prophet Jeremiah says it: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness" (Jer 31:3).
In this book you will find the prophet Jeremiah behaving strangely—proclaiming wrath and impending destruction. Jeremiah lived and wrote in a dark time. For over 250 years God had been sending prophets to warn his people to change their ways. And for over 250 years the prophets were ignored, persecuted or killed. As Jeremiah began his ministry somewhere around 620 B.C., God had already sent the northern half of the kingdom into exile a hundred years previously. For the southern kingdom, Jeremiah was their last messenger, their very last chance to turn things around. God and Jeremiah knew that it wouldn't work, but they rebuked and proclaimed anyway.
Studying the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah, you will get a glimpse of what it is like to have a personal relationship with God. God called Jeremiah to a painful ministry. But with that great burden, he gave Jeremiah a great gift, the gift of himself. When you study Jeremiah you get a glimpse of what it can be like for God and a human to be together. You will see a message of love that grows from a relationship of love—a hard love, a demanding love, but love nevertheless. What you will also discover, if you pay attention, is how you can grow in your own personal relationship to God. You will be stronger and more deeply open to the love of God than you were before.
The Shape of the Study
The book of Jeremiah is challenging. It is the second longest of all the prophetic works, with 52 chapters. There are three major sections:
- Jeremiah 1-20: The Impending Judgment
- Jeremiah 21-45: Living in the Midst of God's Judgment
- Jeremiah 46-52: Oracles of International Judgment
One of the ways that Jeremiah sought to get his message across was through the use of symbols. At one time he stands at the door of the temple and uses it as a backdrop. At another time he uses a linen belt, another time a potter's house, then a clay jar, later a basket of figs and then a yoke. We will look at these symbols and the messages that accompany them.
As we ponder the symbols of Jeremiah, we will touch on the major themes of his ministry:
- The defamation of the temple and the practice of false religion
- The breaking of the covenant bond with God
- The right of God to judge Judah for their sin
- Judah's spiritual adultery with false gods
- The failure of Judah's spiritual leaders
- God's promised blessing for the captives
- God's judgment of all the nations
- Jeremiah's experience of opposition from the false prophets
- God's promise to restore people to the land after the period of judgment
Through all the symbols and themes and the proclamations of judgment there is a commitment of love. Through Jeremiah, God says:
I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.
This is what the LORD says: As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them. (Jer 32:40-42)
When you stop to think about it, the prophets do speak of the future. God promised Israel a future on the other side of judgment and sin. It will be a time of peace, love and prosperity. A time of joy beyond which we can hardly imagine. The good news is that he invites those who have joined his people through faith in his son, Jesus Christ, to that future as well.