Jeremiah 49:23-50:46

Beginning in chapter 50, God foretells the fall of Babylon, a fall that will be so loud it will make the “earth tremble” and be heard among the nations. He describes Babylon as a “rich pastureland” and himself as a lion coming up from the thickets to feed. No one will be able to challenge him or stand against him, “he will completely destroy their pasture,” 50:44-45.

Though Babylon was the most powerful nation at the time of Jeremiah, the nation God used to judge many others, including his own, she will become “…the least of the nations–a wilderness, a dry land, a desert. Because of the Lord’s anger she will not be inhabited but will be completely desolate…No one will live in it; both men and animals will flee away.” 50:3, 44-46. True to his word, no one lives in Babylon today. More than 2400 years later, it still lies in ruins.

What happened? We know that after Nebuchadnezzar died, the king of Persia, Cyrus II attacked and beat Babylon, which had grown as large as modern day Chicago, Roos, (history.howstuffworks.com). Persia was the prophesied “nation from the north” of chapter 50, that would “lay waste her land.” It was Cyrus II who would later allow the Jews brought to Babylon to return to Jerusalem. He also footed the bill to rebuild God’s temple.

The question keeps rattling around in my head, so maybe it’s time to write it down. If Babylon was God’s instrument of judgment against all the nations it conquered, why did God bring the Persians in to destroy it? Wasn’t Nebuchadnezzar just doing what God wanted him to do?

God must have anticipated that question, because he gives answers to it in chapter 50. For one thing, Babylon had a number of gods that it worshipped. Marduk, also known as Bel, was the nation’s patron god, but there was a whole line-up under him. There were gods of weather, the arts, wisdom, war, love and earth. There were 13 gods in the list of “important Babylonian gods” on http://bible-history.com, but it wasn’t exhaustive, though I’m thinking that worshiping them all surely had to be.

Marduk

Just like the other nations who were judged for their idolatry and brought down by Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, too, was brought down for its idolatry. Nebuchadnezzar’s magnificent temple to Marduk was world famous in his day. He was also known for rebuilding temples to other gods. He prided himself on his “spirituality,” saying he was “the one who set in the mouth of the people reverence for the great gods,” Saggs, (http://britannica.com/biography/Nebuchadnezzar-II).

But God said that “Babylon will be captured; Bel will be put to shame, Marduk filled with terror…For it is a land of idols, idols that will go mad with terror,” 50:3, 38. God gives these gods an emotional IQ only so he can highlight their powerlessness before him. If they have any feelings at all, they’re feelings of shame and terror. They cannot save Babylon. After all, they’re only dumb pieces of metal, wood, and stone.

Did God expect pagan people to worship him and judge them for not doing so? Sounds like it. This was one of three reasons why he punished Judah’s enemy neighbors, Moab, Ammon, and Edom in yesterday’s reading (see “Jeremiah” section of the October 25 post). God’s invitation to worship him is open to all. There were many laws that gave equal standing to foreigners in Israel because of a person’s faith despite their nationality or race. Judging them for not taking advantage of his offer would be arrogant only if God weren’t truly the God-of-the-Universe. But since he is and his generous offer is open to all, it makes sense that he holds everyone alive accountable.

Idolatry is offensive to God. It’s a slap in the face of the one who made the hand that slaps, the mouth that speaks, the eyes that see God’s handiwork everywhere. Idolatry says to God, “All these worthless trinkets mean more to me than you do. Not only do I not honor you, I don’t even acknowledge you. You mean less than these idol dummies. You don’t even make their line-up. You are less than nothing to me.”

Besides idolatry as a reason for judgment, Babylon is also proud and has defied God. Pride was a second reason God judged other nations, and it’s the same reason he judges Babylon, “‘You were found and captured because you defied the Lord, the Holy One of Israel…See I am against you, O arrogant one,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘for your day has come, the time for you to be punished. The arrogant one will stumble and fall and no one will help her up,'” 50:24, 29, 31.

There was a lot for Babylon to feel proud about. It was a world power for two centuries. There were influential rulers even before Nebuchadnezzar whose shoulders he stood on. Nebuchadnezzar had military might and a mind that knew how to use it. Besides conquering other nations, he distinguished himself by building up Babylon to a grandness no other nation had achieved before this time, a grandness he intended as an offering to the idol, Marduk, Roos, (history.howstuffworks.com). The name Babylon has become synonymous with luxury and licention, indulgence and dissipation. [I just googled to find out if I’d spelled licention correctly. The website it referred me to was http://www.babylon-software.com. 😳]

Nebuchadnezzar was also the king who built a statue of gold and required everyone to bow down to it or be thrown in a fiery furnace, Daniel 3. He thought nothing of demanding who and how others worshipped. In his mind, his word was God’s and was to be obeyed absolutely.

Pride is offensive to God, too. It says, “I am the source of my own life, not God. I bow to no one, and certainly not to him.” Pride was the reason for Satan’s downfall from heaven: he was proud of his beauty and splendor, a God-given beauty and splendor. Pride defies God and replaces him with self. It says, “I owe God nothing. I answer to no one. I am my own God.” Ezekiel 28:17.

Pride is a lie that requires a reality check.

Babylon is also judged for their over-destroying Jerusalem and for oppressing God’s people. While God takes full credit for bringing Babylon against Judah and Jerusalem in the first place, he never intended for them to bring the kind of destruction they inflicted or to celebrate afterwards. He’s particularly grieved over the complete destruction of his temple, 50:11, 28.

What’s more, Babylon has made slaves of God’s people. “The people of Israel are oppressed, and the people of Judah as well. All their captors hold them fast, refusing to let them go. Yet their Redeemer is strong; the Lord Almighty is his name. He will vigorously defend their cause so that he may bring rest to their land but unrest to those who live in Babylon.” God says he will repay Babylon and do to her what she has done, 50:29, 33-34.

Somewhere along the way, Babylon has believed the lie that its might and glory are of its own making. Rather than being humbled by its honored position as God’s instrument of judgment, it’s become proud of that position, patting itself on the back. With rampant idolatry, it’s failed to acknowledge God as Lord of all.

But probably the greatest evil of Babylon in God’s eyes is the enslavement of his people who are greatly mistreated after they’re taken captive to Babylon. Because it’s here in verse 35 that God delivers a dismal description of their punishment: nine times he says he will bring a sword against everyone in Babylon: its government, its wise men, its military, its wealth, and its water. Even the horses and chariots are included as are the foreigners who fight for them.

Idolatry. Pride. Oppression. These are great evils in God’s eyes. These are qualifications for a nation’s downfall–or an individual’s. They’re the qualifications for any kind of slide, from corporation to litigation, Wall Street to mainstreet, wealth to health, marriage to friendship. God says the only cure is worship, the sincere and fervent love of God from a heart that overflows with love of others. Love is what is foundational for our homes and communities and country and cosmos.

But whew, God. This is a lot of head knowledge. And my heart is cold today. I can’t strike the spark. I need it struck so that it breaks wide open with love, so that I’m set on fire for you. I want to be an agent of peace in my home and community and country. But I can’t do it without you. Help me to see more of you.

What else do I learn in this chapter–besides that you’re “a lion coming up from Jordan’s thickets” who will devour your enemy? I look again.

I found something. In a tender passage about his people who suffer and seek God like lost sheep without a shepherd, God says they’ve “‘wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place…for they sinned against the Lord, their true pasture, the Lord, the hope of their fathers.'” Whereas earlier in this chapter God was a lion and Babylon was the pasture he would consume, here he turns that metaphor around and says his people are the sheep, and he’s the pasture where they graze and find rest, 6-7, 19.

My heart softens. Why does Babylon get a raging lion but Judah gets a spa day with snacks?

I look again. And I think I find the answer in the earlier verse: “…their Redeemer is strong; the Lord Almighty is his name. He will vigorously defend their cause so that he may being rest…,” 34.

Ah…the Redeemer, Jesus. He “vigorously” defended us at Calvary. [I’d say dying-and-rising were pretty vigorous.] He brings us rest and peace. He gives us the day off at the spa. We don’t have to work to be good enough because God’s “attaboy” and “attagirl” have been bought with Christ’s blood and don’t expire. We get to go into God’s pasture through the Jesus-gate and get exactly what we sheep need: Sweet grass. Living water. A little rub behind the ears. Delightful rest for our weary souls. All the work to connect me with God, to make me his daughter-that-he-delights-in, has already been done.

My heart breaks. This is what I came for today.

And it gets better. I looked one last time to make sure I’d found everything, and here’s maybe the best part (for me). My sins aren’t just forgiven, they’re gone. “‘In those days, at that time…search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare,” 20. I don’t know about you, but I let regret and shame kick me around a lot. This verse says, throw that sh*t down. The guilt is gone.

Titus 1

Paul writes to Titus, who’s been left behind on the island of Crete to finish some church planting he’s helped Paul do. Elders need electing, and Paul gives him a long list of qualifications to look for. I’m thinking it’s going to be tough to find folks that measure up, since a few verses later, Paul let’s it slip about the locals, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons.” As you might imagine, none of these qualities are on Paul’s list. Poor Titus.

But Paul’s not worried. He expects more of these Cretans than what an island slogan says about them. He knows the murderer he’s been and the missionary he is now because of Jesus and the power of the gospel in his life. He also thinks some of the Cretans have true faith, since he tells Titus to “rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and pay no attention to…those who reject the truth,” 13-14. You can’t make someone sound in the faith who has none.

I went to the island of Crete with my parents after college and was captivated by the legend of the Minotaur, who was said to have been kept locked up in King Minos’ labyrinth in a dungeon beneath his palace. We were told by our tour guide that some believed the legend had its basis in truth.

King Minos was thought to have had a crazy kid–maybe the truth was that he was only handicapped in some way–and kept him inside, away from the public eye. Maybe he really was locked up, or maybe he was just protected? The Greek legend of the half man-half beast that lived in a labyrinth could have sprung from real life. And it could have sparked tales of beastly offspring that became the basis of the Cretan slogan.

Regardless of where it came from and whether or not it was true, Paul knows that God’s power is displayed in turning all kinds of Minotaurs into men of faith and truth, men qualified to lead their homes and God’s church. Because of God’s word and his Spirit, men and women can be made brand new. It’s a powerful thing to witness, and even more powerful to experience.

What Titus has to watch out for aren’t Cretans per se. It’s people whose “minds and consciences are corrupted and don’t believe…They claim to know God but by their actions deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good,” 16. The criterion is faith, not non-Cretan. Unbelief can’t be hidden.

So what kind of character does a man who is “sound in the faith” have? He is…

-blameless,
-the husband of one wife,
-the father of believing children who aren’t rebellious and wild,
-not controlling,
-not easily angered,
-not a drunk,
-not violent,
-not a crook,
-hospitable,
-one who loves what’s good,
-self controlled,
-upright,
-holy,
-disciplined,
-understands and believes the gospel well,
-encourages others by sound doctrine,
-refutes those who oppose sound doctrine

I’m thinking Titus has his work cut out for him if he’s got to find all of these qualifications in the leadership, right off the bat in a brand new church. I wonder if it’s more of a list for the leadership to aim for going forward, not necessarily a checklist-for-now. If it’s a list to aim for, then it would be helpful for new believers who want to become sound in their faith. If it’s a checklist-for-now, Titus might be working solo for a while.

I’m interested to see that good behavior then is still considered to be good behavior now, 2000+ years later. Wife beating and road rage and robbing banks are still wrong today. That’s a relief. But we’ve drifted away from this long list of qualities as a nation. And I wonder, what can one person do in the face of so much that’s wrong in the world?

When I think about the leadership of our country, from board rooms to ballfields, and these leadership qualities for the church, I feel overwhelmed by the disparity. It’s so easy to focus on our society’s sins but fail to feel the prick of conscience about my own. It’s easy to tsk-tsk about the rudeness of presidential debates and fail to see the way I just spoke to my son about his chores.

And I realize that the best thing I can do for world peace happens right here in my heart, in my relationship with you. Thanks for this reminder. Thank you that world peace is your job and that mine is to worship. When I think about the Israelites, I realize that if every person had truly loved you best, they’d have found peace with one another. Everything good in life flows out of hearts that worship you.

Psalms 97-98

There’s more rejoicing in Psalm 98, like there was yesterday in 96, and for the same reason: the Lord is coming to judge the earth. I’m still remembering why it felt so joyful to realize yesterday that God is the judge. The pressure’s off to be judge myself, for one thing, but it’s also off to pretend I’m getting it all right.

The judge has already said, “I have called you by name. You’re mine.” What is there left to prove? I’m already in. God’s not adding up my good deeds and subtracting the bad ones. I’m not biting my nails hoping there are more good than bad. I already know there aren’t. But I’m OK. I’ve got the Redeemer. And God said in Jeremiah today that I get to feed and rest in him. Jesus has done all the “vigorous” work, so I get to worship and adore. Such relief for a get ‘er done girl. Isaiah 43:1.

Paul, too, focuses on faith and what it looks like and doesn’t look like. It’s relieving to know that no matter what my background is, my life of faith is a brand new do-over. I’m glad to know that the truest thing about me isn’t my past. It’s you.

The joy of the psalmist’s description of judgment day feels relieving as well. It focuses me on the celebration of that time, not on fear and tears. Because of my Redeemer, I’m ready.

The end of Psalm 98 is almost identical to 96, except here the rivers “clap their hands” and “the mountains sing together for joy.” Yesterday, it was just the trees that sang. I have a feeling that creation is going to be rockin’ it that day.

C. S. Lewis imagined that animals would talk. Tolkein thought trees would walk. I’m thinking they’re both right. If mountains can sing and rivers can clap, why not?

My take away today is rest and relief. In Jeremiah, I was relieved that God’s plan is a simple one, to give his people what they need. He’s not a God of detached judgment; he’s a Father who corrects us to keep us close. He’s the pasture; we’re the sheep. He gives us the strong Redeemer who lets us enter. He forgives and forgets. What he most wants are hearts on fire for him.

Thank you, God, for the rest you give. Thank you that the work to make me righteous has already been done. Thank you that what you want from me is my heart full of love, not my chores done.

I didn’t know rivers had hands.

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