Online Text Sermon - Survey of Jeremiah, Jeremiah ch.23 v.29
|Preacher||Rev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness|
|Sermon Title||Survey of Jeremiah|
|Text||Jeremiah ch.23 v.29 |
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"Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23, 29).
I am conducting this series on the prophets with the purpose in view of acquainting people with the general outline, summary and survey of what these prophets were sent to do and say. I am not so much preaching an orthodox sermon on these occasions as giving you something midway between a sermon and a Bible Study. My intention is to try to broaden our knowledge of these great and wonderful Old Testament men of God whom we refer to as the Prophets.
We divide the prophets of the Old Testament like this. We speak of major prophets and minor prophets. The major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. The minor prophets are the twelve books which follow - right at the end of our Old Testament: Hosea, Joel, Amos down to Malachi. It is not that the minor prophets were not so inspired as the major ones; the term simply refers to the length of their book. Isaiah clearly is very much longer than any of the books which form the minor prophets, which we sometimes refer to as 'the twelve'.
Then again we have another distinction. We refer to the prophets as 'acting' prophets and 'writing' prophets. The acting prophets were those who did not leave a book behind after their name. It is very clear that there are prophets in the Old Testament who have no book named after them - Elijah would be an excellent example and Elisha would be another case in point. They were great men, sent by God, but they left no book after their names. For convenience we refer to these as the acting prophets. They did great miracles, signs and wonders: calling down fire from heaven, raising the dead and similarly doing miraculous things through the power of God.
The writing prophets, obviously, are those who left books after their own name - Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others.
These prophets began to be raised up by the Lord at exactly the same time as the king began to reign in Israel and in Judah. That is not an accident and I want to explain why, in my opinion, God acted in that way. It was because when you have a king as distinct from the Judges, the king automatically attracts great power to himself; too much power, probably, in many cases. So to counterbalance the power and influence of these kings, as soon as they began to come to the throne and to rule over God's people, the Lord raised up this body of men called prophets who put them in their place.
The first prophet was Samuel. He was the last of the Judges and the first of the prophets. He was there to counterbalance king Saul - the first king. In David's time there were men like Nathan. These prophets you understand were extremely courageous men. On very rare occasions we even meet with a prophetess such as Huldah in the days of king Josiah. Their courage consisted of the fact that they had to bring the Word of God - even to kings, princes and the entire nation - whatever the consequences to themselves. Numbers of these faithful prophets were put to death. It is said about Isaiah - although not written in Scripture tradition tells us - that he was sawn in half, probably my Manasseh. We can't prove that; it's not as I say in Scripture but it is altogether consistent with what we know of these men: "They loved not their lives unto the death" (Revelation 12, 11). They were true Covenanters in that sense: they put God and His truth first and their own comfort and their own lives last.
We come now to look tonight at this good dear man Jeremiah We should love these men. Jeremiah is a man whose feet we are not worthy to wash. I will tell you a little bit in general about him and then, having done that, I will say something about this chapter. I am not confining myself to the verse twenty-nine I announced as the text but I give it as a text because it summarises the great thought of this chapter, and summarises indeed the great truth of the Bible itself. "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? (text).
What then shall we say about Jeremiah - the man and his calling? In the first chapter of this prophecy we see that he was called by the Lord to be a prophet of God. It is very important to observe that the prophets usually, in many cases, give us some idea of their calling by God. Isaiah does it. Evidently, when Isaiah was in the temple and saw the vision of the glory, God said - "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? then said I, Here am I; send me" (Isaiah 6, 8). Likewise, Jeremiah speaks of his calling at the very beginning of his book. He was a young man and felt utterly unfit and inadequate. The Lord said to Isaiah, "thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass" (Isaiah 48, 4). So, in spite of the fact that the whole of his ministry would be opposed, contradicted and withstood by the entire nation, he and not they would prevail.
He continued in his ministry for roughly forty-one years. That is a long time to be preaching with people opposing you. He lived in very difficult days of backsliding. It would be profitable to you I believe to know what the time difference was between Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah prophesied in the days of Hezekiah and a little bit following after that - that is in the eighth century before Christ. Jeremiah prophesied roughly one hundred and fifty years later than he. How then could we compare that in modern history? It would be something similar to Dr. Thomas Chalmers who died in the 1840's and a contemporary minister of the Gospel in Scotland today. Jeremiah lived in days of national backsliding. I know we live in days when people like to hear user-friendly language. It is very offensive, even to some professing Christians, to use words like 'sin', 'apostasy', 'judgement' and 'backsliding'. I am very well aware of that- we feel when we hear these words somewhat uncomfortable. They are not words we use in order to make people feel at home. Backsliding, apostasy and tremendous spiritual and religious decline - that is the kind of time that Jeremiah was living in. His calling was especially to warn the nation of Judah; that is now the southern kingdom, the northern kingdom had disappeared by now - gone off never to return. The ten tribes who had formed the northern kingdom of Israel were swept away by the Assyrian army and planted all over the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world. Nobody on earth knows where they are. They have simply integrated into these other nations. They have been lost to the knowledge of man. The Jews in the south, however, remained in the days of Jeremiah. The specific ministry of this man, Jeremiah, was to warn the Jews that if they did not return from their backsliding ways that much the same thing would happen to them as had happened a century earlier to the northern nation of Israel - the ten tribes.
This message was extremely unwelcome then, as it would be unwelcome today. Many people believe in the Day of Judgement, that is to say, the last and final judgement. And so, of course, we should and must. There will be a final day of judgement but not all Christians seem to believe in what I call providential judgement - judgement in the course of history. They would resent my saying to you that nations are judged for their sins in time but individuals will be judged in eternity. But that is the fact of the matter and it is the teaching of the Word of God. The providence of God takes in to account whether the nations follow the policies of righteousness or follow the course of unrighteousness. If they follow in the right way, then as nations they will flourish and prosper and grow because the Word of God tells us that "Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people" (Proverbs 14, 34): a nation - not simply an individual, a family or a church but a nation. So, the sad calling of Jeremiah was to tell the people the last thing they wanted to hear and that was that they were increasingly coming under the wrath and curse of their own God because of their backsliding.
There was a good and great king lived early in the ministry of Jeremiah. I refer to Josiah - one of the greatest men who ever lived: a wonderful king. He was a young man who proceeded to carry out reformation in the worship of God. Sadly, he went to battle against the Pharaoh of the day and was killed, to the great loss of the whole nation. The kings who followed after him were a disaster - Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. Under their reigns, after the death of Josiah, the Jews went farther and farther and farther from God. Jeremiah lived long enough to see what must have broken his heart. The Babylonian armies came and surrounded Jerusalem. They eventually, after a long siege, made a breach in the walls, entered the city and slaughtered the people - having no regard for man, woman or child. Princes were hanged up by their arms and left outside to die in extreme pain and disability, pregnant women were ripped up: the barbarism was indescribable. Many were carried off into exile, never to come back to their own land again - although many did come back seventy years on. Jeremiah saw that - the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. He mourned and grieved. You find his heavy-hearted expressions of woe and his sense of the judgement of God in the book which he wrote called The Lamentations. I hope you all read Jeremiah and Lamentations and I hope you will go back and read them. They are wonderful books - salt for the soul; they are a corrective for the giddiness which is so common even in religious circles today. They put man in his place; they put us down upon our knees. They make us put our mouth in the dust before the great God whom we have offended in our own lives as well as the Jews with their lives. On the other hand, he exalts the mercy of God to those who repent and to those who turn from their evil ways.
Let me say a little of how much we know about Jeremiah's life. We know a good deal more about Jeremiah than we know about Isaiah. Jeremiah talks about himself more; he gives us more of an understanding of his own feelings and his own thoughts. A strange element in this book of Jeremiah is that he was better treated by persons of other countries than by those of his own. When the Babylonians entered the city and captured it, taking control of Jerusalem, they found Jeremiah. They treated him with great respect and gave him liberty to go anywhere he wanted because they respected the fact he had told the truth, whereas the other prophets of his day had told a pack of lies and deceived the people. On another occasion, just before that, when the city was under siege, Jeremiah had been lowered down into a pit with mud and mire at the bottom. There they had left him to languish and eventually - had he not been pulled out - he would have died. Food was scarce in Jerusalem at this time because of the siege. The soldiers surrounded the city and there was no coming in or going out. The man who pulled him out of that quagmire was an Ethiopian - a black man called Ebed-melech. So, he was better treated by those of another country than those of his own, fulfilling in that sense Christ's own words, which we should all well remember - "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and amongst his own kin, and in his own house" (Mark 6, 4).
It is a very strange fact that Jeremiah refused to leave his own country. He stayed in Jerusalem - or at least, in Judah - and he warned the people that whatever they did when they were settled under the Babylonian rule - they should not go to Egypt. He warned them that if they went to Egypt, the judgement of God would come upon them even there. The people heard what he said and they did the very opposite. They went off to Egypt looking for some safety there and, strange to relate, they took Jeremiah with them - no doubt, very much against his will. They took him and we can only conclude - as far as our knowledge goes - that he must have died in Egypt. Forty-one years of painful, sad ministry, faithful to God, faithful to His Word, unsuccessful, unpopular and unloved but true to Jesus Christ, true to his own conscience and now in heaven highly exalted we may well believe: shining like the stars of heaven.
One great lesson is that if we love popularity we should never go in for the ministry. If a man must feed upon popularity, let him never go in for the ministry. God does not call men into the ministry who feed upon their own popularity and who must have adulation and praise from men. If that is what we suffer from - never enter a pulpit; it is the most dangerous place in the world. Jeremiah teaches us that.
What now is the subject of chapter twenty-three (text)? You would have noticed in the reading that here Jeremiah is condemning the false prophets. This is something that the true prophets always do. I want to give you a similar chapter for your memories to this one that I've read here in Jeremiah twenty-three. A very similar chapter, running almost in parallel with this chapter, is Ezekiel thirty-four where Ezekiel castigates the false shepherds as he calls them - or false prophets as we know them to be - of his own day. Ezekiel lived at the same time as Jeremiah. They had a somewhat different ministry but they both lived at roughly the same time. It is a very remarkable chapter of judgement on the false shepherds of that time and place.
This is not so much a sermon as a Bible-study introduction to the whole of Jeremiah. I am doing the impossible; I am trying to open up a few doors and windows for your mind. I hope and pray you will go back to this book and that you will read it and love it. And love Jeremiah for the man he was in the sight of God.
Let me take you briefly through some of the things in this chapter (twenty-three). "Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord. Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord" (v.1-2). It is very clear what is being said. These 'pastors' were the religious leaders of the country - whether prophets or priests, doesn't really matter - they were those who should have led the people. I speak to those who are wise, dear friends; this is the trouble with our country today. So many ministers in the Church of England and other churches have utterly failed to tell the people the truth of the Word of God. They have buckled, bent, twisted, writhed and contorted themselves to say all manner of things which would be appealing and acceptable to modern man BUT the task of the pastor is to tell the truth of God's Word. See what God says here: when the religious leaders fail to preach the truth what happens is they scatter the flock, drive them away and make the lives of the Lord's people difficult and sad.
In the section v.3-8 we have a wonderful promise from God to the elect of those who were scattered. You've got the picture - the Lord's people are driven into corners; small groups here, there and everywhere because of the unfaithfulness of the bulk of the preachers and religious leaders of the day. God says, "I will set up shepherds over them," (v.4); "I will raise unto David a righteous Branch..." (v.5); "He shall be called THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS" (v.6). It is very evident that that is the prophecy of the coming of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ - He is 'THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS' and the only justification we shall ever have.
The section v.9-15 shows us that bad religious leaders are all too often immoral in their own lives. Look at this, "For the land is full of adulterers; for because of swearing the land mourneth; the pleasant places of the wilderness are dried up, and their course is evil, and their force is not right For both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness, saith the Lord" (v.10-11). "I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah" (v.14). You see how relevant the Word of God is. The calling of those who are leaders amongst the people of God is that they should be pure in life - not angelic, otherwise there would be no preachers on earth. We are never angelic but we must conscientiously, sincerely strive to walk in the light of Christ. Where that is not done you see what happens to the poor country, whether it is Judah, England, Scotland or any other country - the effect if visible, it becomes like Sodom and Gomorrah (v.14). Chapter one of Isaiah uses exactly the same language: "Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah" (Isaiah 1, 10), he says. It is always the same thing. Human nature always goes down hill in the same way - the same old sins come in, the same old depravity is visible.
At v.16-22 we are given advice as to these prophets: "Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (v.16). It is very evident that Jeremiah's message is never listen to preachers who do not bring to you the true Word of God. Those who do listen to them will suffer. "They make you vain" - they either make you trivial, light, superficial or careless or something. There is a price to be paid for those who go to listen to bad preaching - it has an effect upon us. It is rather like being poisoned slowly. One of the popes (Alexander VI) and his family - both son and daughter - were expert poisoners. His son was called Cesare Borgia (1476-1507) and the daughter Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519). The pope himself used to poison others and acquire their wealth and property. It is very well known - this was just before the Reformation in Italy. He would have their bodies dumped into the river Tiber and they would just disappear and he would be so much the richer. I mention this because they were expert at poisoning people slowly so that they would slowly deteriorate and die. That is what happens to the souls of men and women who listen to unbiblical, unfaithful preaching. They don't change in five minutes. At first they don't like what they hear; they say it can't be true. However, as they go on listening the great danger is that they are 'dumbed down' which is what bad preaching always endeavours to do. The advice of this great prophet Jeremiah is "hearken not": "Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (v.16).
At v. 23-32 we are told about the all-seeing God - wonderful words about God. "Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I should not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord" (v.23-24). That is a wonderful picture of God - wonderful! The greatest thing that false preachers get wrong is their view of God. That is what has gone wrong today in our society - a wrong view of God. If there is one single doctrine that needs to be put back in its place it's this view of God: "Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I should not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord" (v.23-24). Why does God say that? To make us afraid! My friends, there is nothing better could ever happen to you and me than that we should be afraid of God; that's the best thing of all. That's the great lesson of the Bible from end to end: we should be afraid of God. Not in every sense - afraid of displeasing Him, afraid of annoying Him, afraid of driving Him away. Not simply because He is a God full of angry passions and malignity - that is not true but He's a God whom we desire to love, worthy to be loved, adored, honoured and glorified. If we annoy Him we are the losers; if we displease Him and have no fear of Him then our lives can only end in shipwreck. You see it in the lives of politicians and others today. They may be brilliant, educated, learned men, men with power and influence but their lives are very often a mess. Why? What has gone wrong? No fear of God before their eyes, sadly! I don't say it to condemn anyone; we are all guilty and I am as guilty as anyone else. Many a thing we do without sufficient fear of God.
You won't fail to notice that there is a reference here to the Bible: "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? (text). That is a description of what prophets and preachers are to do. Preachers are not here to stroke people's affections and emotions; preachers are to break people's hearts to repentance. That is not all they have to do; they have to then pour the oil of comfort upon them. But first they must break the heart. The preacher who comforts sinners without breaking their heart is doing them a great disservice; he is stroking them on the way to hell. Is that a kindness? If you saw a man staggering to the edge of a cliff and you sang him a sweet song without warning him of the danger, are you doing him a service? Isn't the real friend the one who shouts out, "Look out"! There is a precipice ten yards ahead of you! Look out! Stop! Turn round! Come back!" Isn't he your real friend? Some preachers think it is their duty to sing a sweet lullaby to sinners so that they don't realise they are going to the edge of the precipice. That is not a kindness. God says His Word is "like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces" (text). The human heart is a rock - as hard as stone: like Aberdeen granite. That is the human heart - yours and mine by nature. The Lord, through the Gospel, takes away the stony heart and gives us a heart of flesh. Once we have a heart of flesh, God speaks love and peace and truth and comfort. When you come to chapter thirty-one of this prophecy of Jeremiah, that's what he does. He spends the first thirty or so chapters breaking the hard hearts of men then, about chapter thirty-one and following, for some time he gives them comfort. Comfort that speaks eventually in chapter thirty-three of a new covenant whereby God shall take His people to be His forever: He shall be their God and they shall be His people forever.
My dear friends, here in Jeremiah we have a man for our times. Would God there were many Jeremiah's in Scotland and England today. Would God you and I were more like this faithful, dear, obedient servant who told the truth though he was hated for it and put in prison for it. Even his own family spoke against him. He was on one occasion so upset he said to himself that he would never preach again, that everyone regarded him as an enemy. But he said that he could not do that because the Word of God was a fire in his bones - he had to speak. There is the real prophet: the fire is in his bones. And there is the real Christian: the Word of God is like a fire in your bones. If you are a true child of God, you don't take your standards by this world, by men's opinions, by newspapers or television; you take your standard by the Word of God. Whatever anyone may think of us - old-fashioned or fools or mad - let them think it; our duty is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
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