Lesson 42: “I Will Write It in Their Hearts”
This lesson from 1952, from a book used by the seminary (Roy A. Welker, Spiritual Values of the Old Testament), covers the same ground as our current lesson from Jeremiah.
Courage to Face the Darkest Hour: Jeremiah
The Man. How deep in oblivion many places would lie were it not that some famed character, born within their borders, brings them out to the attention of men. Such a place was the village of Anathoth, three or four miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was the birthplace of Jeremiah. Today the site of it is in question. In Jeremiah’s day it was unattractive, gloomy, dark and slimy when the heavy storms of the rainy season fell upon it. yet because such a great man dwelt there, it has come to be known to many who read of him. There is a similarity between the atmosphere that so characterized this gloomy little town and the mournful nature of its famed son. yet it would be unjust to Jeremiah’s great character to maintain, as some scholars do, that he was largely influenced by the dreary environment of his birthplace. He was too important for that. It took greater and more significant influences to affect the life of such a man.
From a retiring youth, he grew into a retiring man, for he seems to have underestimated his own capabilities. Yet in spite of that he was a manly man, persistently determined in his work and in the tasks he had to perform. His loyalty to God and country was firm and true. The obstacles he was called upon to face were often disheartening, but he met them with fortitude and courage. He was devoted to the cause he represented and faithfully discharged his duties to his fellow men, though their response to his efforts were often discouraging. He was a man of intense feelings. He loved Jerusalem passionately and brooded upon her fate. He was a man of sorrows, yet bore them bravely. He faced death frequently and was more than once condemned to die, but composedly faced death, regarding not himself when the word of God needed to be spoken or the welfare of his people served. He said to enemies who sought his life:
As for me, behold I am in your hand: do with me as seemeth good and meet unto you: But know ye for certain, that, if ye put me to death, ye shall surely bring innocent blood upon yourselves, and upon this city, and upon the inhabitants thereof; for of a truth the Lord hath sent me unto you to speak all these words in your ears. [Jeremiah 26:14-15]
Though he loved Jerusalem, he loved the Lord still more. Determined to do God’s will, to emulate God’s character, his own character became unimpeachable.
Jeremiah is more intimately known to us than any other of the ancient prophets. This is due, in large measure, to the care he exercised in recording his feelings, impulses and thoughts. From such a record, we may judge his nature more perfectly than from any recorded facts respecting his life.
Jeremiah and other prophets. Compared with other prophets, Jeremiah was both similar and dissimilar. Like Isaiah he was a great prophet, seer and poet. Isaiah is generally ranked first among the ancient prophets; Jeremiah second. Yet in the matter of intensity of feeling, Jeremiah excelled all others. None surpassed him in loyalty and devotion to God. Isaiah belonged to the royalty of Jerusalem; Jeremiah the plain folk of a village. Both rose above provincial circumstances and influences and thought and spoke in terms of spiritual and universal relationships. Isaiah was nearly always a favorite at the royal court; Jeremiah seldom, if ever, enjoyed that distinction. Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel and some others were emotionally unaffected by the opinions of others; Jeremiah was greatly affected by them. He permitted his emotions to exercise free play and their intensity often caused him grief and sorrow. In this respect he was similar to job, uttering words much like those of that famed sage:
I am in derision daily, Every one mocketh me. Cursed be the day wherein I was born: Let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. [Jeremiah 20: 7, 14]
One cannot think of Isaiah or, for that matter, most of the other prophets, permitting such abject expressions to escape their lips. Nevertheless it must be said of Jeremiah that he went about his tasks never wavering no matter what the state of his emotions. Only a faithful and courageous man could do that, and Jeremiah must ever be regarded as one of the most faithful and courageous. What he endured and overcame, both in his personal life and his public ministry, to further righteousness among men and God’s purposes in the earth, will forever stand as a glowing example to those whose lot is to suffer for righteousness.
Conditions during Jeremiah’s time. The political, social, religious and moral conditions that prevailed during the lifetime of Jeremiah could do nothing else than irritate his sensitive nature. Degeneracy in national and religious affairs had been gradually developing from the commencement of the reign of King Manasseh. One writer commenting upon the sad state says: “Idolatry had been the fashionable religion for nearly seventy years, and the Law was nearly forgotten. The corruption of the priesthood and of the great body of the prophets kept pace with the degeneracy of the people.” [John Lord, Jewish Heroes and Prophets, p. 332.]
After his death, the decline was rapid. A great reaction set in, and faction was accompanied with violence. The heathen party triumphed over the orthodox party. The passions which had been suppressed since the death of Manasseh burst out with all the frenzy and savage hatred which have ever marked the Jews in their religious contentions, and these were unrestrained by the four kings who succeeded Josiah, The people were devoured by … animosities, and split up into hostile factions. [Ibid., p. 339.]
Under the reign of Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, things went from bad to worse. In all respects, he seemed to be the opposite of his father. Jeremiah was a thorn in his side. He sought to kill him. “He headed a movement to restore paganism; altars were erected on every hill to heathen deities, so that there were more gods in Judah than there were towns. Even the sacred animals of Egypt were worshiped in the dark chambers beneath the temple. In the most sacred places of the temple itself idolatrous priests worshiped the rising sun, and the obscene rites of Phoenician idolatry were performed in private houses. The decline in morals kept pace with the decline of spiritual religion. There was no vice that was not rampant throughout the land – adultery, oppression of foreigners, venality in judges, falsehood, dishonesty in trade, usury, cruelty to debtors, robbery and murder, the loosing of the ties of kindred, general suspicions of neighbors – all the crimes enumerated by the Apostle Paul among the Romans. Judah in reality had become an idolatrous nation like Tyre and Syria and Egypt, with only here and there a witness to the truth, like Jeremiah, the prophetess Huldah, and Barush the scribe.” [Ibid., pp. 341-342.]
Added to these evils were the threatened calamities posed by Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. The rising power of the latter at last brought success to its arms and the final subjection of Judah to its will. Jerusalem was overcome and the great Babylonian captivity effected.
Into such corrupt conditions within and threatening calamities without, Jeremiah was born. In the midst of them he grew up and died. His ministry of forty years or more was a stern and vigorous struggle against existing evils. A weaker character than he scarcely could have survived under such a weight and strain as he bore. The burden of his woes is forcefully illustrated in one at least of his sad utterances:
Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughters of my people1 O that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people, and go from them! for they be all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men. And they bend their tongues like their bows for lies; but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth: for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the Lord. [Jer. 9:1-3.]
His call.”Of what may be called the call to work of its heroes the Bible is wonderfully communicative: it describes with fulness how they were led to abandon private life and come forward as public witnesses for God. These scenes are among the most remarkable passages of the Divine record.” [J. Hastings, The Greater Men and Women of the Bible, Vol. 4, p. 230.] This is the impression made upon the mind of a scholar and a lover of the Bible. Many of us, no doubt, are similarly moved by the stories of God’s divine call of his prophets. There is the call of Moses at the burning bush; that of Samuel in the temple while training with Eli; the one of Isaiah when he saw in the temple the Lord in majesty; Ezekiel’s call when he was in captivity in a foreign land; Paul’s wondrous call on the road to Damascus where he was going to persecute the saints; and the call of Jeremiah amidst the corruption and spiritual degeneracy of his countrymen.
The callings of Isaiah and Jeremiah stand greatly in contrast. When the Lord made known His needs for a faithful servant to bear his word to backsliding Israel, Isaiah eagerly exclaimed, “here am I, send me.” When the Lord called Jeremiah, He first announced the unique character of the prophet in these striking words:
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
Because of such a designation by God Himself we might expect Jeremiah would have eagerly responded to his call. Instead he manifested a reticence and hesitancy like that of Moses when the Lord laid upon his shoulders the responsibility of leading His children out of bondage. Jeremiah replied and the Lord made answer:
Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child. But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child; for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I shall command thee thou shall speak. Be not afraid of their faces; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord,
yet for all this, it appears that Jeremiah needed still further assurances for he said:
Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, And the Lord said unto me, Behold I have put my words in thy mouth. See I have this day set thee over the nation, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build and to plant. [Jer. 1:5-10]
Jeremiah was no ordinary man for the Lord to trust so thoroughly. He was surely the type the Lord would choose, even before he was born, to do the mighty work he was chosen to do. His shyness, reticency and hesitancy were incidental to his character and soon were smothered by his faith, loyalty, devotion, courage and love for the work of the Lord. No prophet ever took his responsibilities more seriously and none was more persistent in executing them. His call stands out as evidence of the doctrine of the pre-existence of spirits, not generally accepted at the time of Jeremiah, though so important to the religious philosophy of Christianity. it is good to know that it was realized by him in that ancient day.
His message. 1. Jeremiah seems not to have had the same political interest in the affairs of his country that Isaiah had. Nevertheless he could not escape some concern regarding such. he noted the growing power and ambitions of the Babylonian empire and its intent to overthrow its rivals and rule supreme. His keen prophetic insight led him to the conviction that Judah must ally herself with Babylonia instead of Egypt. He tried with such powers as he possessed to persuade the king to cast his lot with Babylonia, yet, at the same time, he realized that the king would not do so. He saw, therefore, the doom that must overtake his country for its failure to see its proper course. Under such circumstances he did the only thing left for him to do, namely to declare the doom that awaited Judah at Babylonian hands. Unmistakingly specific and with burning pen, he records this doleful pronouncement:
The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, that was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon: The which Jeremiah the prophet spake unto the people of Judah, and to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, From the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah even unto this day, that is the three an twentieth year, the word of the Lord hath come unto me, and I have spoken unto you, rising early and speaking; but ye have not hearkened. And the Lord hath sent unto you all his servants the prophets, rising early and sending them; but ye have not hearkened, not inclined your ear to hear. They said, turn ye again now every one from his evil way, and from the evil of your doings, and dwell in the land that the Lord hath given unto you and to your fathers for ever and ever; And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship then, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the Lord; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.
Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the Lord, and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations. Moreover I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones, and the light of the candle. And this whole land shall be desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. [Jer. 25;1-11.]
This was the price Jerusalem, Judah and allied nations must pay for choosing to worship idols and to commit numberless other sins against God and righteousness. And the price was fully paid for no prophecy was ever more completely, and with greater detail, fulfilled. such was a part of Jeremiah’s message to Judah.
2. Although Jeremiah knew this prophecy might be fulfilled, he never ceased to furnish his people with an opportunity have it averted. Such opportunity lay in his constant call to repentance. he understood full well the value of repentance. By it, humbleness grows; by it, man may come to enjoy the power and spirit of God;
turn to more righteous living for Judah and Israel, in their restoration, but a new heart for them, a heart that would be the means of unfolding and establishing a new covenant between them and God. In this covenant we see revealed a new era for God’s chosen people. We see them also lifted to a higher plane of relationship with Him; we see a greater worth in man and a deeper concept of the meaning of religion. Among the rarest and choicest of the gems of religious expression in the Old Testament, this one of Jeremiah’s must be placed. He says:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord; but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the House of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. [Jer. 31:29-30.]
6. Along with this new covenant Jeremiah saw personal responsibility accompany it. It is true that it had been seen before, though neglected and in a measure forgotten. Jeremiah brought it back forcefully to the attention of his countrymen. Whereas some before him had taught that the community must be responsible for the acts of one of its members, Jeremiah was teaching that everyone must be responsible for his own. he declares:
In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge. [Jer. 31:29-30.]
This great truth has become almost a commonplace in the religious thinking of our day which but heightens our appreciation for Jeremiah’s expression of it. Where this doctrine prevails man can never be a mere cog in the wheel of humanity; he will be a responsible personality cooperatively working with a sympathetic Providence. Through Jeremiah’s emphasis upon this important principle that which may be called personal religion, came into its own and the prophet’s contribution of revealed truth was deeply enriched.
7. Accompanying the concepts of the new covenant and personal religion is that of free agency. Jeremiah uses a powerful figure to illustrate this principle and to impress it upon the minds of men. It could appropriately be titled “The Potter and the Clay.” Yet not only is the lesson of the freedom of the will implicit in this saying, but also the one that teaches the importance of how the will is exercised. Jeremiah was directed by the Lord to go to the house of the potter to observe his work in moulding vessels from the clay he used. Jeremiah says:
Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. [Jer. 18:5-10.]
Here also is illustrated the truth that although man has his free agency, he is still accountable to God, and cannot ignore Him and His word with impunity.
As we contemplate Jeremiah, one of the greatest of God’s prophets, we become aware that his life, his character, his surroundings and environment, the condition of the times in which he lived, his divine calling and his message, were all extremely impressive.
His tender, yet lonely, heart arouses our deep sympathy, his unsullied character is a perennial example of righteous living, his devotion and ceaseless labors, together with his humbleness and faithfulness in all things are a constant inspiration. Like others who are great in their lives, he belongs to all time. his influence, through the type of life he led, and the messages he had, was small in his own day, but profitable to the generations who came after him. Those who acquaint themselves with him and his message, through his writings, can never forget him. His impression upon the heart and the mind alike is lasting. From the human interest point of view, we should like to know more concerning the closing days of his life – of them there is only tradition and surmise. Yet to know of them is far less consequential than that which we do know about him, his life, his work and message.
Questions and Problems
1. What, in the character of Jeremiah, is responsible for his appeal to so many classes of people over the centuries?
2. Could Jeremiah be regarded as contemporary with our day? If so, why?
3. Do you think the book of Jeremiah may be recognized as an example of continuous revelation? Why?