Thursday, October 28, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #41 "I Have Made Thee This Iron Pillar"

Jeremiah 1-2, 15, 20, 36-38


Biblical historian Alex Motyer writes, "In [Jeremiah] we meet a man beset by a sense of inadequacy, holding on with determined fidelity to a God who frequently baffled him, and acting with a courage always at odds with his personal insecurities.  We could well call him the most human of the prophets, the most unlikely prophet, too--and therefore the prophet whose example speaks most movingly to us who are cast in the same mold" (Motyer, p. 121).

The first thing the Lord revealed to Jeremiah was the truth about Jeremiah himself: that he was foreordained, that his nature was divine, that, contrary to his personal belief about himself, he was prepared for his mission in life (1:4-5).  Jeremiah's opinion of himself was vastly inferior to the Lord's opinion of him.  Jeremiah cried, "Ah, Lord God!  I am completely incompetent" (1:6).  And the Lord answered, "What you are or what you can do are irrelevant: all that matters is that you are with me" (1:7-10). Over and over again, Jeremiah obeyed the constant injunction of the Lord to all of us to "fear not," when his natural inclination was terror.  By continually obeying the Lord's frightful commands, Jeremiah learned to live according to the truth about himself as revealed by God, rather than by his own faulty and inferior "self-esteem," thus successfully fulfilling the mighty role God intended for him. 

Each of us who has sought a patriarchal blessing has received a "call" similar to Jeremiah's, always with a revelation from the Lord telling us the truth about ourselves and revealing the mission of our life, often including details about our pre-earth life or foreordination and the divinity of our nature.  If we can start out our adult life, chapter 1, verse 1, with this "call," and if we can trust in the Lord's opinion of us, rather than our own flimsy self-esteem, we can be prepared to meet the overwhelming challenges of our mission admirably, as did Jeremiah.  (If you have class members who need more information about patriarchal blessings, this may be a great place to address the topic.  Here is a link to information about patriarchal blessings on the Church's website.)


Notice how the reading assignment for this lesson jumps drastically through the book in order to give a logical sequence for study?  The book of Jeremiah is confusing.  First off, the dates are all jumbled up.  Jeremiah's address at the temple in chapter 7 can be dated to 608 BC.  Chapter 21 occurs in 589-588 BC.  Chapter 25 fits in 605 BC.  Chapter 32 occurs in 587 BC.  Chapter 31 goes back to the beginning at 608 BC.  "The book is not arranged chronologically, and this sense of an anthology rather than an orderly presentation is enhanced by the varieties of literary genre and the unpredictible way in which they occur"  (Motyer, p. 122).  There are poetical passages, biographical passages, and prose discourses, all jumbled up every which way.  Why?  Motyer writes, "It is not permissible to [explain the apparent disorder] by assuming that ancient editors were less than devoutly serious and seriously competent in what they did.  The books of the prophets as they have come to us give enough evidence of carefully structured composition to make it appropriate to attempt [to make sense also of Jeremiah]" (Motyer, p. 123).

Motyer has taken a great effort to make a basic outline of the book of Jeremiah, "a sort of stepping stone pathway through the book [following] the thread of thought."  Much more detail is available in Motyer's book than I can include here (Motyer, p. 123-125).  And, of course, all the themes intertwine among and around each other, popping up here and there, but this list identifies general themes that follow a logical sequence and order.
  • Prologue: Jeremiah's Call. 1:1-19
  • Israel's Unfaithfulness. 2:1-6:30
  • Misunderstood Privileges. 7:1-13:27
  • Inescapable Judgment. 14:1-20:18
  • The Failure and Triumph of the Covenant. 21:1-24:10
  • Conclusion: The Course and Governing Principle of History (the efficacy of the Lord's word, and the justice of the Lord's judgment). 25:1-38
  • The Word of Consolation.  26:1-44:30
    • 1.Jeremiah Authenticated.  26:1-29:32
    • 2.The Book of Consolation. 30:1-33:26
    • 3.Hope Deferred. 34:1-44:30 
  • Jeremiah: A Prophet to the Nations. 45:1-51:64
  • Postscript. 52:1-34

The Lord promised Jeremiah that he would have great trials, but that he would always prevail.  "I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land...They shall fight against thee: but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee" (1:18-19, and restated in 15:20). 

Jeremiah obeyed all the commands of the Lord, many of them frightful, almost suicidal.  And what was his reward?  "He had to face continuous opposition and insult from the priests, the mob, his townsmen..., the frivolous and cruel, the king, and the army.  After the fall of Jerusalem the Jews who escaped into Egypt took Jeremiah with them as a kind of fetish and at last, according to tradition, stoned him to death."  (Bible Dictionary, p. 711)  He was cast into a dungeon full of muck, so much that he sank into it and nearly died.  The people did not listen to his words, but to those of the false prophets who promised the Lord would save them as the covenant people no matter what they did.  Jeremiah might not be blamed if he had said, "Excuse me?  I'm a little confused here:  I thought the Lord said I would be impervious to danger.  I thought he said I would win, or at the very least, I would be saved."  And in some ways, he did ask questions like that (see 15:18 and 20:7-8).  But each time Jeremiah recognized the fulfillment of the promise:  it was a different kind of deliverance, an eternal deliverance.

In chapter 1, Jeremiah wrote, "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 nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant" (1:9-10).  The Lord revealed the frightful things that Jeremiah was to prophesy.  (In this reading assignment, 1:11-2:37, and then 15:1-14.)  As might be predicted, the prophecies did not go over well with the wicked people, and Jeremiah was persecuted severely.  Despite a great desire to save himself from the constant assault of the people, he could not stop preaching.  "Then I said, I will not make mention of [the Lord], nor speak any more in his name.  But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing [resisting], and I could not [stop prophesying]" (20:9).

And yet, while complaining of this persecution, he gloried in the revelation, and in the salvation of Jehovah:  "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts" (15:16).  This was literal:  Jeremiah's name means "Jehovah will exalt," (Tefan). 

Jeremiah's lamentations (as in 20:14-18, as well as in the paragraph above) are directly juxtaposed with his prayers or songs of praise (as in 20:11-13).  Everything in the scriptures is there for a reason.  What do we learn from this?  Perhaps we expect a prophet of God to submit willingly all the time, and to never despair, even for a moment.  But maybe it is a greater lesson to observe that, although Jeremiah understandably complained, he always, always carried on!  Never did he give up!  His desire to do the Lord's will repeatedly trumped his wish for physical and social comfort.  Do we have "fire in our bones"?  Where do we find our greater drive?  For ease, or for truth?  For our will, or for God's will?  The answer to this question will determine whether we are also "Jeremiahs": people whom "Jehovah will exalt".

v. 1 Even if the great prophets Moses and Samuel were to petition the Lord in behalf of the present Israelites, the Lord will still destroy them.
v. 2 If they ask Jeremiah where they should go, he can simply reply, "Those destined for disease, go to disease; those destined for war, go to war; those destined for starvation, starve; those destined for captivity, go to captivity."  (They have given up the option of repentance.)
v. 3 The Lord will send four kinds of destroyers to do the job.  The number four refers to the temporal creations of God. 
  • On the fourth day, the creation of the earth was complete, with only man and beasts remaining to fill it. 
  • There are four elements on the earth: earth, air, fire, water. 
  • There are four regions of the earth: north, south, east, west. 
  • There are four seasons on the earth: spring, summer, autumn, winter. 
  • In addition, there are four types of animals on the earth, and this may match the symbolism of the four destroyers here: man (the sword), domesticated animals (the dog?), wild animals (the beasts), and birds (the fowls).  If that is the case, the message here is that the enemies will be of all types, from everywhere, and will do the job completely.  Another idea, from Harper-Collins Study Bible, is that the sword will kill, the dogs will drag away to captivity (NIV translation puts "drag" where the KJV says "tear"), and the birds and animals will devour and destroy from above and beneath.
v. 4 The reason for this fury from God is the evil that was done under Manasseh's rule.
v. 5 When Jerusalem is gone, there won't even be anyone left to care about it or mourn for it.
v.6 "I am weary with repenting" is translated in the NIV as "I am weary of relenting."  The Lord is tired of exercising mercy and forbearance in case the Israelites will repent, when they never do repent.
v. 7 "Winnowing is an agricultural method developed by ancient cultures for separating grain from chaff. It is also used to remove weevils or other pests from stored grain...In its simplest form it involves throwing the mixture into the air so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall back down for recovery. Techniques included using a winnowing fan (a shaped basket shaken to raise the chaff) or using a tool (a winnowing fork or shovel) on a pile of harvested grain" (Wikipedia entry for "winnowing.")

(This painting of winnowing by fan, by Millet, appears in Wikipedia.)

v.8-9 "The mother of young men" would have the best position in society for a female.  The mother with seven young men would be the greatest of all, since seven symbolizes perfection and completion--when the number seven appears, it just doesn't get any better than that.  She has died prematurely ("given up the ghost; her sun is gone down while it was yet day").
v. 10 This is a brief complaint by Jeremiah, that although he has done nothing to hurt anyone ("I have neither lent on usury, nor men have lent to me on usury"), everyone despises him.
v. 11 The NIV translation says "The Lord said: Surely I have intervened in your life for good."  Harper-Collins comments, "God assumes responsibility for the contempt and persecution of the prophet, yet intervenes in the prophet's life for good."
v. 12 This persecution strengthens the prophet's character, enabling him to endure the disaster from the north (Harper-Collins).
v. 13-14 The enemies of the Israelites will get all of their treasure, and will carry them into a foreign land.
v. 15-16 Jeremiah begins his supplication to the Lord for mercy, reminding the Lord that he has done His will and suffered for it. 
v. 17 He did not join the merrymakers.  Under the Lord's direction, and with the message of the Lord burning inside him, he stood alone.
v. 18 As far as Jeremiah can see at this point, the Lord is not fulfilling his role in Jeremiah's life as the "fountain of living waters," but as "a deceitful brook" (NIV) or "waters that fail."  Jeremiah feels as one who travels in the wilderness, joyfully sees a creek bed, and then is bitterly disappointed to find it dry (Harper-Collins).  Like many of us in the midst of trial, Jeremiah wonders where the promised peace is.
v. 19 The Lord gently calls upon Jeremiah to repent, and he will be able to once again "stand before" the Lord, like a messenger who stands before the king and awaits the word.  What has Jeremiah done to deserve this rebuke?  In v. 17 he stated that he had never joined the evildoers.  But the sin can be found in v. 18, one that is common to all of us: Jeremiah lost faith and despaired.  It's understandable, but it is still a sin.  If he turns back, and chooses the "precious" word of the Lord, and leaves the "vile" feelings of hopelessness, he will once again be "as my mouth"--the prophet of the Lord.  A prophet cannot function without faith!  Jeremiah is to wait for the Israelites to change and come to him (even if it never happens); he is not to change and become faithless and lack eternal perspective like them.
v. 20-21 The original promise of his prophetic mission is reiterated:  The Lord will make him strong enough to endure, and win the eternal conflict.  Jeremiah will be delivered.


Jeremiah was a contemporary of the prophets Habakuk, Obadiah, Nahum, and Lehi.  Here is a link to a very informative Ensign article, "Jerusalem at the Time of Lehi and Jeremiah", by Keith Meservy (Jan. 1988).


Alex Motyer, The Story of the Old Testament
Elder Jean A. Tefan, "Jeremiah: As Potter's Clay," Ensign, October 2002 for the meaning of the number 4

Note:  NIV stands for New International Version of the Bible
           KJV stands for King James Version of the Bible

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