A lot has happened, so here’s the backstory from Jeremiah 41: Gedaliah, the man chosen to govern Judah by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, has been assassinated along with the rest of his men in Mizpah by a band of rogues. They are led by Ishmael, who is backed by the Ammonites. Mizpah was chosen as the governing city of Judah since Jerusalem has been sacked and burned.
Besides the newly established government, Ishmael and his men also murder 80 travelers, who had come to sacrifice offerings in the makeshift temple in Mizpah. The bodies of at least 100 men have been thrown together in a cistern that “Ishamael son of Nethaniah filled…with the dead,” 41:1-9.
The murderers round up the rest of the Jews left in Mizpah–men, women and children, including King Zedekiah’s daughters and Jeremiah–intending to take them captive to the Ammonites. A separate group hears of Ishamel’s crimes and sets out to recover the captives, which they do, while Ishmael and his men get away, 41:10-15.
The rescuers are Jewish military men led by Johanan, who’d been fighting outside of Jerusalem against the Babylonians and had avoided being captured. Johanan changes direction with the captives and puts them on the road to Egypt. They’re all afraid that when the Babylonians hear what’s happened in Mizpah, they’ll be held responsible, so they can’t go back, 41:16-18.
The Jews have a romantic notion of Egypt, that it’s a safe place of abundance for them, despite their slavery there more than 400 years before. They’ve repeatedly tried to go back to Egypt during times of trouble, though God’s said not to go back–that he’s their safe place–but to no avail. The legend of Mother-Egypt continues.
The whole group of leaders and former captives approaches Jeremiah to ask him to pray to “the Lord your God” to find out where they should go and what they should do. Jeremiah says he will pray to the Lord their God for them and let them know what he says, to which they reply, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God,” 42:1-6.
This sounds like a good attitude on their part. After all that’s happened in the hostile takeover of Babylon, I’d expect them to have turned over a new leaf, finally ready to listen and obey whatever God says. At the least, I’d assume they’ve left their idols behind in Mizpah, since idol worship is what’s caused all the ruckus.
Let’s think about who these Jews would’ve been, who are traveling together, displaced and afraid. A few are recent transplants from Jerusalem, who’ve lived through the siege and Babylonian take over, like Jeremiah and Zedekiah’s daughters. Others are likely the local Jews of Mizpah, who haven’t witnessed the atrocities of Jerusalem under siege. Some are those who’d gotten out of Jerusalem before the siege and lived in neighboring countries and returned to Judah to start over. Along with them are the army officers and soldiers led by Johanan, who also hadn’t witness the destruction of Jerusalem, since they were fighting elsewhere in Judah.
All that to say, while they’ve all heard the reports, I’m guessing that none of them had been reduced to eating one another to survive as many had done during the siege, Jeremiah 19:9. Though understandably afraid of the Babylonians, the majority of these folks haven’t faced the kind of fear and desperation that the Jerusalem Jews knew, where they’ve gotten to the end of their spiritual ropes and repented.
God for them is “Jeremiah’s God,” after all, not “our God.” Repentance might’ve been at the heart of many who died of starvation in Jerusalem, but these outliers are likely coming to Jeremiah more as a sort of Rick Steves with a Google Map, not as who he really was: God’s man-of-the-hour, who wore himself out warning them and perfectly predicted what finally happened.
Ten days after they asked Jeremiah to pray, God’s word came to Jeremiah, and he gathered everyone to hear it. God said not to go to Egypt and not to be afraid of the king of Babylon, but to stay in Judah. God’s grieved over the disaster he’s brought on them and will “build you up and not tear you down…I will show you compassion so that [the king] will have compassion on you and restore you to your land,” 42:7-12.
However, Jeremiah reports, if they go ahead to Egypt where they think they’ll “not see war or hear the trumpet or be hungry for bread,” God will pursue them there with the sword, famine, and plague, just as he did in Jerusalem. They will become “an object of cursing and horror, of condemnation and reproach,” and every one of them will die there, 13-18.
Unbelievably, considering their prior claim that whatever God said, they would do, the leaders accuse Jeremiah of lying and being in cahoots with the enemy who wants to carry the rest of them off to Babylon, and they refuse to obey, 43:1-3.
Jeremiah replies, “O remnant of Judah, the Lord has told you, ‘Don’t go to Egypt.’ Be sure of this: I warn you today that you made a fatal mistake when you sent me to the Lord your God and said, ‘Pray…for us; tell us everything he says and we will do it.’ I have told you today, but you still haven’t obeyed the Lord your God in all he sent me to tell you,” 42:19-21.
So the leaders lead this ragtag bunch to Egypt anyway, with Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch going right along with them. Once there, God speaks to Jeremiah again and says that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, will come to Egypt and destroy its temples, bringing the death, captivity, and sword they think they’re escaping, right to their door, 43:1-13
Jeremiah reminds the group that what’s happened to Jerusalem and all of Judah has been because of the rampant idolatry that up to the present moment, still has not stopped. And I’m stunned.
But it’s true. These refugees are already burning incense to the Queen of Heaven in Egypt. No one has repented. God says he will bring judgment on them and wipe them out just as he judged Jerusalem; “none will return [to Judah] except a few fugitives,” 44:1-14.
The men whose wives have been worshiping at the local temples say defiantly, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord!…We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem.” They further claim they had plenty to eat and were well off and safe back then. They think the trouble started when they stopped worshipping the Queen of Heaven, 44:15-18.
Blame shifting their guilt to their husbands, the women who’ve worshipped those other gods here, there, and everywhere, say in effect, “Don’t blame us for what happened in Judah! Our husbands knew what we were doing!” 44:19.
I’d laugh if I didn’t feel so sad writing this.
Jeremiah responds with the truth of what’s really happened: God’s judged them for their idolatry. It’s not because they’d stopped worshipping their idols that they’ve been uprooted from their homes and had to flee. It’s because they wouldn’t stop, and they’re still doing it! The disaster that’s coming next is because they’re stubbornly disobedient and unrepentant, 44:20-23.
I’m dumbfounded by the willful ignorance of these people. Here they’ve lived through an ancient apocalypse, and they haven’t learned a thing. They choose instead to cling to their invented version of why things have happened as they have, the lie that it’s because they’d stopped their idol worship, when the truth is the exact opposite.
Jeremiah has been telling it straight for over 40 years: repent of your idolatry or be punished. And even after all that’s gone down, after everything he’s said has come true, they still hang onto their unbelief. God is “Jeremiah’s God,” not “our God.” The pronoun placement is telling.
Are these just really primitive, neanderthal sorts of ancient people? Possibly. But I don’t think so. I think this is just what people are like. They refuse to listen; they make up their own reality; they blame others for their choices; they believe their own lies; they listen to what they want to hear; they don’t recognize the truth, even when it’s right in front of them.
What’s disturbing to me is the delusion the Jews lived under: they thought they were following God. After all, they said the right words, “We’ll do whatever God says.” But when he said something they didn’t like, they condemned the messenger and refused the message.
I wish it didn’t. I wish I could say I don’t do the exact same thing.
At their core, they want to live by their own rules.
At my core, I do, too.
God, it’s hard to live your way: worshiping you alone and not my children and grandchildren, my home, my reputation, my finances, my culture’s idea of what’s cool. Moderation in eating and drinking, sexual purity, fidelity in marriage are even harder. The list goes on and on of how you say I should live.
I say I want to live your way, until your way bumps into my “gotta haves” and “wannas,” and then, I’m not so sure. I begin to feel confused. I rationalize. I listen to my own lies. And I’m tempted by the enemy and his lies.
It’s a throwback to the serpent in the garden who said, “Did God really say?” Does he really say I can’t indulge in this? Did he really say I can’t have a friendship with that person? Does he really mean delighting in him more than in redecorating my house or the trip we have planned next summer? Does it really matter that I didn’t report all my income on my tax return last year, didn’t give any money away, don’t care what happens to the poor?
It’s easy to see how ridiculous the ancient Jews are in their foolishness and rebellion: they’re on the run; they’re hiding in the very place that enslaved them; they’re still worshipping false gods. They believe that an absence of idolatry has brought the Babylonians breathing down their scrawny necks rather than the active idolatry that still oozes from their filthy hearts.
It’s easy to think, “Wow! They’re messed up!”
But when I look inside my own idolatry-oozing-heart, suddenly there’s a lot of fog. Confusion. Smoke and mirrors. Collusion. “Did God really say?” is a trick from the pit, as old as Eve in the Garden with that snake. I don’t like the truth either. Not really. I don’t want to look at my rebellion and how I justify it. I want to believe that all is well. I want to believe that I’ll obey you no matter what.
But if I’m honest, I have to say, I don’t obey.
I’m still prone to wander my own way, God, even after all your goodness to me.
Lift my fog. Root out my rebellion. Give me clearness of sight and pureness of heart. Expose my lies and foolishness. Help me to repent and feel your love and forgiveness. Let my life pour out offerings of love and devotion to you, not offerings to the idols of my heart.
2 Timothy 2:1-21
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained,” 8-9.
Paul is in chains in Rome because he refused to stop preaching the gospel in Jerusalem. He was arrested there and sent to Rome because he appealed to Caesar as a Roman citizen. Now in Rome, he’s locked up, awaiting his audience with Ceasar and writing letters to the churches he’s planted throughout Asia. This one is to Timothy, one of the pastors of the churches.
This is the shortest description of the gospel I’ve ever read: “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.”
In nine words, Paul’s gotten to the heart of what the gospel is all about: Jesus’ life and death and resurrection for all who believe. Jesus, a descendant of David, is the promised Messiah who fulfills the prophecy that David would never fail to have a king on the throne.
Paul says this is the gospel he’s suffering for sharing, suffering to the point of being locked up and chained like a criminal. But he’s not forlorn, because “God’s word is not chained.” Despite his chains, the gospel is unchained. The gospel is still going out; Paul sends it out with every letter he writes.
I’m reminded of the scroll-slicing Jehoiakim did as he listened to God’s words read aloud (for that story, see Jeremiah section of “October 21” post). He burned the scroll one piece at a time, but God had Jeremiah write another scroll, just like the one Jehoiakim burned.
God’s word can’t be destroyed. God protects his words. The gospel is the bottom line for God’s words, but he also writes them in the heavens, and on human hearts, and with pen-and-ink on paper. Not only are God’s words unchained, they’re active and alive. They burrow into hearts, turn keys in locks, let captives walk (Psalm 19, Ro 2:15, Heb 4:12, Luke 4:18).
God’s words don’t come back void, but accomplish everything he sends them out to do. They’re sharper than two edged swords, dividing our thoughts and intentions, reading our minds and motives. They wound and heal; they bind up and blast; they judge and comfort, chide and cheer. Like fire and hammer, God’s word burns with passion, breaks up rocks (Is 55:11, Heb 4:12, Jer 23:29).
Reading them isn’t like reading any other book with words on a page. It’s having the words on the page read you. They’re a mirror that reflects the heart that peers inside them, and then sets about to clean it up and shoot off fireworks of delight (James 1:23, Jer 15:16).
Myths and tales get at the idea of them–the wicked queen’s “mirror, mirror on the wall,” Narcissus’ reflecting pool, true-love’s kiss, Harry’s mirror of Erised. Even “bibbity bobbity boo.” The Fairy Godmother conjures up constant good and right with her words; God’s words, too, are always and only good and right.
I’m grateful for your words, God, unchained and free, protected and pouring forth for anyone who gathers them, who hears, who believes. Thank you for tuning my heart’s antennae to pick them up, for placing them in my hands in a book, for making them more dear every time I open them. Open my heart to your words and your words to my heart. Unstop my ears in the places where I don’t hear them. For Jesus’ sake.
I shouldn’t be surprised but I often am, how one passage of the One Year Bible dovetails with what I read in another.
Psalm 93 is a short psalm that praises God for his majesty and the stability he provides the world. It also affirms that God is mightier than the turbulent seas. Like he and his throne, his word stands firm and his holiness makes him beautiful “for endless days.” I like the dovetailing of words about God’s words.
This psalm is a comfort today when so much around me is shifty and unstable.
“The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed in majesty
and is armed with strength.
The world is firmly established;
it cannot be moved.
Your throne was established long ago;
you are from all eternity.
The seas have lifted up, O Lord,
the seas have lifted up their voice;
the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea–
the Lord on high is mighty.
Your *statues stand firm;
holiness adorns your house
for endless days, O Lord.”
(*statutes are another word for God’s words, as are decrees, precepts, commands, and laws. See Psalm 119.)
“The Lord reigns.” God’s in charge on earth and in the heavens–not Washington, not presidential election results, not Isis or Covid or Black-and-White-Lives-that-all-Matter. Not the insiders or outsiders, haters or hermits, millennials or boomers, climate change or landfills, the bank or the boardroom. GOD reigns. This is my Father’s world. I can relax and trust that because he’s in charge and I’m his child, I’m OK. Deep cleansing breath.
“He is robed in majesty and armed with strength.” God’s got what it takes to reign (see above). He’s got the chops, the power, the know-how, the plan, and the resources of an entire universe at his disposal to bring about all that he has in mind, and he promises that all of it is good for me, Psalm 16:5-11.
“The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Love this, God. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and have the trees floating in the sky. Gravity holds. The sky stays where it is. Air will be here tomorrow as will food and water. The sun will rise and set. The stars will come out. You have firmly established the world and it’s not moving, no matter how much we keep screwing it up. I don’t have to be afraid that I will wake up to chaos outside my window. As long as the earth remains, there will be seasons and weather and sunshine. You’ve promised, Genesis 8:22. And here in this psalm, I learn that the physical world can’t turn inside out and upside down. I’m grateful. I’m a big fan of gravity.
“Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.” You’re not some flash-in-the-pan God. You’re the real deal, the One who’s been around since before time began. “From all eternity” means since forever and always. There’s never been a moment or an eon when you haven’t been both inside and outside it, holding it in your hands, holding us together. Here’s that word established again. There’s a lot of safety and security in established. The world is said to be “firmly established” and now I find out your throne was “established” before that. Thanks for telling us how secure you and our world are. Help me to believe it. I think it would be relieving to really believe it.
“The Lord on high is mighty.” Mightier than the breakers of the ocean, mightier than their pounding, you are mighty. I’m thinking there’s nothing on earth more powerful than ocean water. No one can tame it. It’s wildly violent and mesmerizingly beautiful all at once. The writer says you’re mightier than the ocean seas. This news is also comforting. There’s nothing you can’t handle, nothing that out powers you, nothing that comes in my life that you can’t calm and still. I feel the peace of that roll over me and across my shoulders.
“Your statutes stand firm.” Besides your throne and world being established, and your mighty strength outmighty-ing the wildest waves, your words are firm and secure, sturdy, dependable. This, too, grounds me and gives me a firm place to stand. Your words are truth, strong enough to hold me up and build my life on. With so much that is nebulous and shifty, from gender roles to Cheerio choices, I’m thankful that there’s a place I can go to find what’s forever and always true and trustworthy: your words. Like you, they do not change. In this day and time, this truth is magically delicious.
“Holiness adorns your house for endless days.” Where do you live, God? In heaven? Yes. But also in my heart. My heart is the temple of your Holy Spirit who lives inside me. If “holiness adorns your house,” I’m thinking it’s what you bring to my heart, because it’s what you are, holy and pure, without defect, perfect. And because Jesus’ blood has washed me, you and your holiness can reside in me. I’m glad you bring the holy with you. Bring lysol, too (1 Cor 6:19, Deut 13:4, Rev 7:14).
I can feel the rising of the waves and the pounding of their breakers in this psalm. The writer repeats words like “lifted up” and “mightier than,” piling them up like waves on top of one another. God could have used anyone to write his words, but I’m especially glad his writers had talent.
My take away today is hooray for your words that teach me your ways! Thank you for your words off-the-chain, spoken today by Paul and Jeremiah and the poet-psalmist, protected through all the thousands of years since they wrote them, so they can be served up for me today. They scour me and encourage me and keep me from my delusional, “Did God really say?” (Well, let’s just see…)
Thank you for making them stand firm forever, God, which makes sense when I think about it. You stand firm forever, so of course what you say will, too. I can get really turned around and upside down when I try to find security in the world around me, and it’s tempting, what with all the hollering going on everytime I step out the door or pick up my phone. But when I read your words, life slows down, my breathing changes, and I remember that my security is only found-and-firm in you. Another deep cleansing breath.
“Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal,” Isaiah 26:4.
Thank you for being the Rock that holds me up, no matter what.