So far, we’ve been working through the recorded history of the downfall of Judah by Babylon and the prophecy of Babylon’s future overthrow from the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s words in chapter 51 end with a flashback story of an event that happened *55 years before the fall of Babylon and 7 years before the destruction of Judah.
The backstory of the flashback story (sorry, hang with me) is that Nebuchadnezzar has gotten wind of Zedekiah’s meeting with neighboring kings, plotting how they will stop sending tribute to Babylon, and he sends for Zedekiah, maybe to explain himself. Jeremiah 27 tells of the kings’ powwow in Judah and God’s message to them to submit to Babylon, “Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, famine and plague with which the Lord has threatened any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?” 27:12-13.
Zedekiah, if you’ll remember, is the young king Nebuchadnezzar has placed on the throne in place of Jehoachin, the rightful heir of the line of David, who reigned only three months before he was taken away to Babylon and put in prison. [Jehoiachin comes back into the story later, so tuck him in the corner of your mind for a few.] Zedekiah has been king four years by this time and has never ruled any of them except from under Nebuchadnezzar’s thumb.
In the flashback story of chapter 51, Jeremiah gives instructions to Seraiah, who is planning to go with King Zedekiah to Babylon for what is likely the showdown regarding his intended treachery.
Jeremiah has made all the prophecies concerning the defeat of Babylon by this time, and he’s eager to get the news to Babylon. He gives a copy of his scroll to Seraiah to read aloud when he gets there, and he instructs Seraiah to tie a stone to it afterwards and to throw it into the Euphrates River. Then he tells Seraiah to pray, “O Lord, you have said you will destroy this place, so that neither man nor animal will live in it; it will be desolate forever.” Seraiah then must say to everyone listening, “So will Babylon sink to rise no more because of the disaster I will bring upon her. And her people will fall,” 51:59-64.
It’s a bold assignment. Reading doomsday details of the most powerful nation on earth to its king would have been a daunting task for anyone. These are not words Nebuchadnezzar has asked for, nor would they be welcome ones. He’s likely angry about the news of Zedekiah and the neighborhood association meeting he hosted. Seraiah’s job is to read the rantings of Judah’s Loony-Toon prophet to a grumpy king and his high ranking officials while visiting in their country, the ones who allow him his livelihood. He is also speaking in front of his own king and the officials he works with everyday. This was no small request that Jeremiah has made of Seraiah.
And I wonder who Seraiah was that he would be entrusted with such a task and be expected to carry it out. And then would actually do it.
Seraiah was Zedekiah’s quartermaster, in charge of the King’s accommodations on the road. He would have been already going along on this trip to Babylon, with or without Jeremiah’s mission. Seraiah is a grandson of Hilkiah, who was high priest during the time of King Josiah and found the Book of the Law in the temple. Seraiah himself was grandfather to the high priest when the exiles returned to Judah. He was also the brother of Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, and was likely well known by Jeremiah, (Kidner, Feinberg, and Ryken enduringword.com/bible-commentary/jeremiah-51/). Given that he is from the line of high priest, and given Jeremiah’s trust in him, it’s likely that this man was one of true faith.
It’s precisely at this time, when Jeremiah is counseling Zedekiah to submit to Babylon, that he’s also predicting Babylon’s destruction, a time as yet unknown to anyone. I wonder if part of the reason Zedekiah chooses to ignore Jeremiah’s counsel is because he’s heard him speak of Babylon’s future downfall and thinks he can get away with ignoring Nebuchadnezzar in his present day situation.
It’s a risky business for Zedekiah, plotting to throw off Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, but picking and choosing which of God’s words he will and won’t hear is just plain stupid. As it turns out, he chooses to ignore all of them pertaining to himself and suffers the agonizing consequences–along with the rest of his kingdom–when Nebuchadnezzar lays siege and destroys it.
Nebuchadnezzar, too, chooses to ignore God’s words of Babylon’s coming judgment. Had he bothered to listen, he would have learned that his idolatry, pride, and abuse of God’s people are the reasons his nation will be judged and overthrown (for the “rest of the story,” see iwantmore.blog/2020/10/26). I’m guessing that what Seraiah read to him would have amused him at best, maybe eliciting a smirk and a wink at Nebuzaradan.
When Seraiah dramatically tosses the weighted scroll into the Euphrates, Nebuchadnezzar’s thoughts might have been, “Perfect. Just what I’d have done! That’s exactly where those words belong.” Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t ask for anyone to retrieve them so that he can study and understand them. Nebuchadnezzar is content to let them sink to the bottom where he believes they’ll be lost and forgotten. “Good riddance!”
Nebuchadnezzar deliberately misses their message. And he misses something else he can’t foresee: the irony that the words of this sunken scroll will not be destroyed by the mud of the Euphrates, but will bide their time until the truth of them comes roaring to life and the river itself becomes the highway their judgment rides in on.
Worse than missing the words of Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar misses the God behind them. Nebuchadnezzar’s only experience with gods is with ones he has invented and imagined, so it’s outside of his experience and ability to understand that God Almighty can–and does–orchestrate events that Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t approve. Nebuchadnezzar’s gods are puppets on his hands. He’s the one who gives them words and ways. He can just as easily take them off and ignore them.
But God Almighty is no one’s puppet. And ignoring him is disastrous. God’s words at the bottom of the Euphrates cannot be stopped because God himself has spoken them, and God cannot be stopped.
Our God is a consuming fire. He is the God of the heavens who harnesses the clouds and rides the wind; whose chariot is carried by cherubim in whirlwind; whose army is tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; who speaks like the roar of waterfalls, so loud trees crack and the ground shakes; and in a voice so still and small, hard hearts break. Mt 13:15, Heb 4:12, 12:29, Ps 18:10, 29:9, 99:1, 104:3, Is 55:11, 66:15, Ez 1:24, 1 Kings 19:11-18.
I wonder about all the disasters that might have been averted had people heeded God’s words, disasters of families and institutions and nations, torn apart by infidelity and dishonesty, hatred and strife, corruption and greed, all the vices directly opposed to God’s written words.
Ignoring God’s words today is just as disastrous as it was in Jeremiah’s day. When will we take them to heart and really hear them? When will we love them and live by them? When will we get them down off the shelf and open them up and read them until we feel them inside–feeding us, counseling us, changing us?
God promises “great reward” to the ones who do. I’m banking that the God of Glory, and of this glorious creation outside my window, and of the grand boys I adore, and of everything in life that I deeply love has ideas for what “great rewards” are beyond my imagining. To tell you the truth, I’m counting on God to knock-my-socks-off on a regular basis.
“The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward,” Ps 19:9-11. If ice cream is just an everyday sort of reward in this life, what might “great reward” mean from the God who gave it? I can only imagine.
I’ve been wondering why Jeremiah ends his book with the scroll-sunk-in-the-Euphrates story? It’s out of chronological order with the rest of his book. I think Jeremiah’s scribe and editor, Baruch, is the one who put it there for much the same reason he “misplaced” another story in Jeremiah’s book, for emphasis, to highlight a point he wanted to make about God, (for “the rest of the story,” see iwantmore.blog/2020/10/24).
In Seraiah’s story, he points out the enduring nature of God’s word, that its truth cannot be destroyed, regardless of what happens to the ink and parchment it’s lettered on. Had Nebuchadnezzar listened and taken it to heart, Babylon might have had an ending other than devastation. God has purposes for his word and for his people, far beyond our ability to imagine. Will we trust him and take his word to heart?
And then there’s chapter 52, the very last chapter of Jeremiah. Baruch is believed to have authored it. His writing style is sparse and terse, very different from Jeremiah’s. He doesn’t flesh out the facts or share his feelings about them the way Jeremiah does. It reads something like a dispassionate inventory of events, not a living of those events. Reading between the lines, we see that everything Baruch tells has come in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies. Baruch is giving us the epilogue.
Against the mechanical nature of Baruch’s narrative, the last story he tells pops with simple kindness and grace.
Remember Jehoiachin, Judah’s exiled king that you’ve tucked in a corner of your brain for later? In the 37th year of his exile, the new king of Babylon, Evil-Merodach, releases him from prison and invites him to his table. Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he was taken captive to Babylon, so he would be 55 at the time of this story.
There’s no mention in the Bible of what happened during those 37 years as a prisoner, but I’m guessing there weren’t three hot meals a day or a memory foam mattress waiting for him when he got to Babylon. He was likely held in a cell of stone and iron, without heat and without basic care, certainly without a toilet and hot shower. Jehoiachin has no doubt suffered. Had he suffered enough to repent and cry out to God? Had God answered his prayer by moving in Evil-Merodach to set him free?
Baruch doesn’t give us these details, but the ones he does give are all we need, “[The king] spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. Day by day the king of Babylon gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived, till the day of his death,” 52:32-34.
As Jeremiah’s scribe and editor, I wonder why Baruch placed this story here, at the end of Jeremiah and at the end of his own last chapter? It would have been understandable for Baruch to end Jeremiah with his toast to the courageous prophet. But he leaves us with a Jehoiachin story, not a Jeremiah story. Why?
Reading it again, I realize this isn’t a Jehoiachin story at all. It’s a God story, a story of good news after all the trauma, a hopeful take away from this long tale of prophecy, hard heartedness, and exile. The tone of Jeremiah has been consistently plaintive and dismal all along. And now God’s people are in a foreign land, reeling over the devastation they left behind, the loved ones they lost, the homes that have burned, their beloved temple turned to dust.
They need a good word. Baruch doesn’t want to leave them looking at Jeremiah and his list of I-told-you-so’s. He knows they need to see a glimpse of God’s goodness in their darkest hour. While they should have listened to Jeremiah, ruminating in regret won’t take them forward. They need a light ahead and a hand to hold on the way.
Baruch gives them a light and a hand in the dark, a little taste of God and his merciful kindness. It’s a 3-verse, happy-ever-after story of someone who didn’t deserve it from the hand of his enemy.
Jehoiachin is freed and treated like an honored guest at the king’s daily table. All his needs are provided for; he’s given spending money for the rest of his life. No doubt there’s lively conversation around this table. There are other conquered kings who’ve found their place in Babylon’s palace, too. Maybe Jehoiachin makes friends with these former leaders of nations? Maybe they have poker nights? Maybe they do CrossFit? He’s hardly in their league since he only reigned 3 months before he was sent to Babylon, and yet he’s honored more than they.
Why is that?
I think Baruch tells this true story to show the Jews, if an enemy king can be this kind, what of our God? He says to them, “This is a picture of who we have waiting for our return. This is who our God is. Look at him! Believe him! Take his words to heart! We can trust a God this good and kind and true. After all we’ve done against him, he’s still for us. He still wants us around his table. He’s heartbreakingly kind, forgiving, and generous. He longs to take care of us. He longs to honor us. Will we repent and go home to him?”
At the end of this long book of warning with its scathing words of judgment and despair, Jeremiah ends with a tender story of God and his unrelenting goodness. For the exiles in Babylon who heard it, it would have dared them to hope. I’m guessing it would have been encouraging beyond anything else they could hear.
Thank you for being the God who sets me free and invites me to your table, who feeds me, sustains me, and gives me all I need just because you want to, because you love me and delight to honor me. Thank you for bringing these words to me today and for how they’ve stirred my heart.
Keep me in your word.
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,
he saved us,
not because of righteous things we had done,
but because of his mercy,” 4-5.
As if Paul knew he would follow the story of Jehoiachin today, he gives us the point in his own words, just in case we missed it: “This is who God is: a God of kindness and love, our Savior who saves us because of his mercy, not because we deserve it.”
It just never gets old.
The gospel always feels like surprisingly good news to my heart. Where else in the world can I find a story as good as this one, a story that’s real and true–not make-believe, a story that all the best stories borrow from:
A wise and wealthy father longs to lavish his wayward children with his entire estate–particularly with his forgiveness and love, with unending joy, and with himself.
And here in this chapter are all the usual suspects in this spectacular story:
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit,
who cooperate together to ensure that God’s kids are…
…washed up (“He saved us through the washing of rebirth” 5),
…and filled up (“renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously”5-6),
…and brought into his family (“so that, having been justified, we might become heirs” 7).
For me, the gospel always begs the question, “Why?”
Why do you do it, God?
Why do you bother with Israel and Judah, with Jehoiachin and Zedekiah?
Why do you bother with me?
“I don’t understand where your love comes from.”
NEEDTOBREATHE’s lyrics get at the heart of it in the song, “Who Am I?”
Here it is on you tube in case you want to listen, youtu.be/AUdMMUUYXKs.
Maybe everybody had the heads’ up today that Jehoiachin’s story, a gospel story, would be the focus.
Like Paul, the writer of Psalm 100 is in on the theme, too:
He rouses the whole earth to shout for joy,
and to worship with gladness,
and to come to God singing.
He tells the whole earth to know that God is the Lord,
the one who made us and who makes us his–
his own people, the sheep of his pasture.
What’s to be our response?
To come to God with thanks and praise,
to give God thanks and praise,
because he is good
and his love lasts forever
and his faithfulness lasts for all generations yet to be born.
If the gospel has never moved you to sing and shout, to dance and praise, to fall on your face and thank, then maybe you just haven’t heard it yet or believed it could be true. Because when you do, when you see your seat of honor at the father’s table as astonishing and as moving as Jehoiachin’s was, after a lifetime of bread and water in prison, you just cannot help it.
You will worship.
My take away today is the glory-story of the gospel. It is such unbelievably good news. Calling it “the good news” is maybe the greatest understatement of all time. It should be called the “freakin’ unbelievable news,” FUN for short.
But I don’t think that’s going to catch on.
[Special thanks to The Gospel Writing Genius, for giving me insight into his words today–and everyday. When I read the text in Jeremiah this morning and sat down to my computer to write, my heart sank. “What the heck am I going to say about all this, God? There’s nothing here!” Oh, man. The words I’ve had to eat. Thankful God knows I’m just a sheep.]
*Since Seraiah’s story takes place during Zedekiah’s fourth year as king, and the fall of Judah happens during his eleventh year in 587 BC, the year of Seraiah and the scroll is 594 BC. So Babylon’s fall to Persia came in 539 BC, 55 years later.