Jeremiah – Choose Your Zip Code

Introduction to Dialogue #10

Some may hesitate to call this passage a “dialogue”. But it is included here because God DID speak, Jeremiah DID answer, and the consequences were great. Jeremiah’s last prayer is also recorded. It was offered on behalf of other people. They were anxious and worried, forced to wait ten long days for their answer. These were unusual times.

Flow of Conversation

Easily the strangest “dialogue” of all, the two parties communicate indirectly. God’s “servant”, Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, finds and frees Jeremiah (39:11-14). The Lord speaks through another foreigner to say, “Chose where you will live out the rest of your days.” (40:1-5). Jeremiah remains silent but answers with his feet (40:6). People force the prophet to reengage with Supreme Commander (42:1-3). Who then delays His answer (42:7) but eventually speaks clearly (42:9-22). Which the people reject anyway (43:1-2). Yes, this is a strange dialogue.

We can’t imagine the feelings of loss, devastation, and helplessness as Jeremiah watched the city walls torn down, the palace buildings destroyed, and the Temple of the Lord demolished.
The Babylonian officer in charge of the demolition was Nebuzaradan, a VIP Captain of the army, who received orders directly from King Nebuchadnezzar. He arrived a month after the wall was breached and King Zedekiah was blinded and taken away. Nebuzaradan’s job was to level the city.
Nebuchadnezzar, the Great Emperor himself, was very aware of God’s spokesperson, Jeremiah, and was ready to protect and honor him. This is not so surprising and shows the broad and powerful influence God’s spokesperson had. The Babylonian emperor told his top deputy to find Jeremiah. “See that he isn’t hurt. Look after him well and give him everything he wants.” 39:12.
The text sidetracks a little to show how the Lord remembered the Ethiopian (who saved Jeremiah from the muddy cistern) and promised to keep him safe (Jer. 39:15-18).
Then comes this statement, “The LORD gave a message to Jeremiah after Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, had released him at Ramah.” (40:1). But this was not a direct message (as were all the preceding ones), the Lord used a human intermediary, the foreign Captain himself.
The captain of the guard called for Jeremiah and said, “The LORD your God has brought this disaster on this land, just as he said he would … But I am going to take off your chains and let you go. If you want to come with me to Babylon, you are welcome. I will see that you are well cared for. But if you don’t want to come, you may stay here. The whole land is before you – go wherever you like … it’s up to you; go wherever you like.” 40:2-5.
This was the Lord’s word to Jeremiah. He gives him complete freedom and impels him to make a decision. Will you choose to join the exiles in Babylon or will you choose to remain in the land? You must decide, no one will do it for you.
There is no verbal response recorded in the text. Jeremiah instead spoke with his feet.
So Jeremiah returned to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah, and he lived in Judah with the few who were still left in the land. 40:6.

Jeremiah’s Decision
The text offers no comment on this decision.
Did he make the “right” (God honoring) decision or the “wrong” (self-serving) decision? What was his thinking and motives? For what reasons did he choose to stay? For selfish reasons? Self-pity? Or to avoid the attention that awaited him in Babylon? We can only speculate, but asking these honest questions brings us “into” the situation, and how the text addresses it.
It seems apparent, though, that he chose to stay among the “bad figs” in the land accursed by God. Perhaps this was motivated by bitterness. He had worked tirelessly, against great opposition for 40 years, motivated by the hope that the holy city and temple could be saved. He gave his all, and it was not enough.


The results
We learn that things turned out horribly for him. There was hope for peace while Gedaliah served as governor, but then he was murdered. Jeremiah was in the hands of this murderer and about to be taken to Ammon.
A rescue mission took place and now there was a diverse group of people under the leadership of the rescuer, Johanan. They felt they should flee to Egypt before the Babylonian armies brought vengeance for the murder of the appointed governor. But they decided to ask Jeremiah to check what God thought about their plans.
Then all the guerrilla leaders, including Johanan son of Kareah and Jezaniah son of Hoshaiah, and all the people, from the least to the greatest, approached Jeremiah the prophet. They said, “Please pray to the LORD your God for us. As you can see, we are only a tiny remnant compared to what we were before. Pray that the LORD your God will show us what to do and where to go.” 42:1-3.
Jeremiah agreed to enquire.
“All right,” Jeremiah replied. “I will pray to the LORD your God, as you have asked, and I will tell you everything he says. I will hide nothing from you.” 42:4.
They promised to do whatever the Lord said.
Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the LORD your God be a faithful witness against us if we refuse to obey whatever he tells us to do! Whether we like it or not, we will obey the LORD our God to whom we are sending you with our plea. For if we obey him, everything will turn out well for us.” 42:5-6.
But, the Lord did not answer quickly. Think of the times Jeremiah received almost immediately a “Word of the Lord.” But here a whole week went by without an answer. These are people living in fear; fear for their very lives. Eight days, no answer. Nine days, no answer.
The Lord’s spokesperson did not receive a word from him until the 10th day. Jeremiah was not in close fellowship with his God at this point of his life. Anger, bitterness, disappointment raged in this heart.
During this long wait the distraught seekers made up their own minds what to do. Jeremiah finally delivered a detailed, lengthy, well documented “word from the Lord” on the 10th day (42:7-22). But by now the people were prepared to go completely against the Lord’s instructions. They went to Egypt where God’s wrath awaited, and they forced Jeremiah and Baruch to go with them.
The Lord gave a few more messages to his spokesperson for the hearing of those in Egypt, but they were only messages of judgement that the people refused to hear. (43:8-13, 44:1-14, 44:20-30).

Conclusion
Jeremiah was forced to choose his own zip code. He could not blame God for that choice, the results that followed were entirely upon himself.
Jeremiah’s time in Judah and Egypt were, for all we can see, a waste. There is nothing good that came out of it.
The other place Jeremiah could have taken up residence had hundreds of thousands of the Lord’s “good figs.” The Lord’s heart, the Lord’s favor, and the Lord’s future plans were with those exiles. His seasoned spokesperson could have had (and I would say “should” have had) a strategic impact among those favored people.
But this was a choice Jeremiah had to make himself: To set aside his heart-pain and be willing to offer himself as a “living sacrifice” to the Lord, for the sake of his captive people.

Jeremiah was overcome by tragedy. But his amazing, longsuffering, relationship-driven God was not done with him. It would seem clear that God’s spokesperson, and the spokesperson’s scribe were in Egypt for some length of time. And as their hearts softened, as they allowed their loving God to renew their strength, they took the opportunity to work together in constructing this amazing, lengthy, full-disclosure scroll that we now know as The Book of Jeremiah.

Broken Pot, Night in the Stocks

Jeremiah’s most barbed and exacting statements are recorded in chapter 19. The episode is not dated, but it could have been soon after Temple Mob incident.[1]

Jeremiah was somehow able to persuade leaders of the people and leaders of the priests to follow him to the loathsome “garbage dump”, the place called Topheth in the valley of Ben-Hinnom.[2] What he said to get them there we do not know.[3] We do know he carried a brand new clay pot[4] and spoke harsh words of condemnation.

Listen to what the prophet said on the LORD’s behalf:

I will bring a terrible disaster on this place, and the ears of those who hear about it will ring! 19:3.

For Israel has forsaken me and turned this valley into a place of wickedness. The people burn incense to foreign gods – idols never before acknowledged by this generation, by their ancestors, or by the kings of Judah. And they have filled this place with the blood of innocent children. They have built pagan shrines to Baal, and there they burn their sons as sacrifices to Baal. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing! 19:4-5.

The time is coming… when this garbage dump will no longer be called Topheth… but the Valley of Slaughter. 19:6.

I will upset the careful plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will allow the people to be slaughtered by invading armies, and I will leave their dead bodies as food for the vultures and wild animals. 19:7[5].

I will reduce Jerusalem to ruins, making it a monument to their stupidity.[6] All who pass by will be astonished and will gasp at the destruction they see there. 19:8.

I will see to it that your enemies lay siege to the city until all the food is gone. Then those trapped inside will eat their own sons and daughters and friends. They will be driven to utter despair. 19:9.

While the leaders watch, he raised the clay pot and forcefully smashed it to the ground, shattering it to pieces beyond all hope of repair. Then he continued to speak:

Then say to them, “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: As this jar lies shattered, so I will shatter the people of Judah and Jerusalem beyond all hope of repair. 19:11a.

They will bury the bodies here in Topheth, the garbage dump, until there is no more room for them. 19:11b.

This is what I will do to this place and its people, says the LORD. I will cause this city to become defiled like Topheth.” 19:12.

And in all of this prophetic message no escape clause is either stated or inferred. After he was done, he left them and returned to Jerusalem.[7]

The prophet was held in high enough regard that he was not lynched on the spot. But he returned to the city and repeated some of the words at the front of the temple for everyone to hear. Was he asking for trouble?[8] This is when a certain priest’s anger boiled over.[9] He lashed out and insulted and physically abused the prophet to the fullest measure allowable in his situation.

An Eyewitness Account[10]

Why did I stay and watch? The scene is now indelibly imprinted in my brain. Every time I close my eyes I see the pain, anguish, blood, and the flies. I hear shrieks of pain, and groans of the prophet and also the insults, jeers, and hatred of priests and temple officials. It was all so horrible.

Stripped of his clothes, his hands were tied tightly to a post. They whipped, and whipped, and whipped him without mercy. After 20 or 25 lashes he was so weakened that his legs could no longer support him; his weight hung by his wrists tied to the post. At some point, I can’t say when, the groans ceased. Later still, I can’t recall when, the involuntary jerks also stopped. Still, the lashes came and came, reaching the maximum allowed of 39.

Certainly other men have been whipped, but never had I seen it done with such vengeance, such malice as this.

His limp body was then dragged a short distance, raised up, and placed in stocks[11].

I feel absolutely awful; dirty, no, filthy on the inside.

How I wish I could have drummed up the courage to go forward and give him a sip of water. I should have given him a little soup for nourishment. I wish I could have been by his side, swatting away the flies, chasing the pesky dogs away through the night; do whatever I could to help him survive. But I, like everyone else, let fear of the priests rule my behavior. It was the Priest in charge of the Temple who charged him and punished him without a trial. And as far as I know, God’s prophet was alone the whole night in those stocks.

Horrible, cruel inhumanity; this great and noble man treated in such a way as to become a household joke.[12]

The stories and laughs continue around nightly fires in all directions.

We all failed this upright spokesman for God.

Who will defend this most noble man?

Things to Note

1. The Lord had his spokesperson round up some dignitaries and take to them to the heart of the worst cesspool of pagan practices. Located outside the wall, just below the holy Temple. He spoke the harshest, most damning words. He made the point by smashing the perfectly good clay pot into pieces (who cares if some pieces shatter into the faces of these dignitaries). There was no harsher confrontation Spokesperson could offer.

2. Demonic[13] idols called for the murder of beautiful innocent children; and the people and priests were answering that call.

3. As offensive as the words about cannibalism of children sounds (19:9), this was nothing new to the priests and leaders. It is the bottom rung on the ladder, the deepest, severest level of punishment prescribed in the Mosaic Covenant (Lev. 27:16, 18, 21, 24, 28-29). It was absolutely, unequivocally avoidable. And the prophet’s words should have shaken them into recognition of their precipitous condition. But their hearts were stone cold.

4. This telling of the events assumes that Jeremiah acted on his own volition and not under God’s command when he repeated the private words (from the valley) to the general public in front of the Temple. Commentators are divided on this.

For example, Michael Brown states, “We can assume that he does this at the Lord’s bidding, since on other occasions the Lord sent him to the temple to deliver messages (see, e.g., 7:1; 26:1 – 2); moreover, it is difficult to imagine that Jeremiah would take it on himself to do this on his own, as he would be asking for the very trouble he so wishes to avoid (see, e.g., 15:10; 20:9).”[14]

People in the Bible were flawed humans just like us, not bigger than life. It is very possible that anger overcame this fiery man, and he maybe went a step further than directed.

Reasons for this opinion are as follows:

A. The Lord gave specific instructions regarding what was to be said and done before a specific group of people. The instructions did not include the temple and the common people.

B. The speech at the Temple did not honor the Lord, it only berated the leaders.

C. The speech at the Temple did not serve a purpose. Rather, it prompted an “I feel sorry for myself” lament that any man or woman can easily succumb to.

D. Jeremiah went too far in his personal, self-centered lament. These words are not God-honoring:

O LORD, you misled me, and I allowed myself to be misled. You are stronger than I am, and you overpowered me. Now I am mocked every day; everyone laughs at me. When I speak, the words burst out. “Violence and destruction!” I shout. So these messages from the LORD have made me a household joke. Jer. 20:7-8.

Yet I curse the day I was born! May no one celebrate the day of my birth. I curse the messenger who told my father, “Good news – you have a son!” Let him be destroyed like the cities of old that the LORD overthrew without mercy. Terrify him all day long with battle shouts, because he did not kill me at birth. Oh, that I had died in my mother’s womb, that her body had been my grave! Why was I ever born? My entire life has been filled with trouble, sorrow, and shame. Jer. 20:14-18.

These words are a true and Biblical (therefore Divinely Inspired) record of what Jeremiah felt and prayed, but Spokesperson was caught up in himself and felt he was under a landslide, even though in the middle of these two quotes above he expressed the highest of praise (verses 11-13). He was complaining about problems he had brought upon himself and was blaming his Commander for it.

5. Commander saw it fitting to answer his spokesperson with complete silence.


[1] It was during Jehoiakim’s reign that the authorities most clearly opposed the purposes of God and would have elicited such strong rebuke (however, there may be other reasons to place this closer to the final destruction). Much of the first audience of the book would have recognized the time clue given in 20:1, but we don’t have the data to interpret it.

[2] People groups throughout history in all parts of the world value and protect their children. Children hold the future. The practice of child sacrifice was demonic insanity. That the Lord’s people did this, and did it just outside the temple walls, shows how hard those demons were working. King Manasseh took the lead in this, murdering even his own sons, the princes of the land, and only a son of his old age survived to succeed him (2 Chr. 33:5-6). Manasseh would have had many more sons before his 45th birthday, he was 45 when his successor, Amon, was born.

[3] The text leaves this question unanswered, “Why would these VIPs follow him to a despicable place like that?” Perhaps two things are involved: First, he was doing something unusual by carrying this brand-new clay pot and he must have expressed urgency. Secondly, they perhaps figured he was going there to denounce the foreign, idolatrous priests. Something they could support. They could let him be the spokesman (and suffer any reprisals) while they looked on from a distance. Fretheim believes they hoped to entrap the prophet, “No question is raised whether these leaders will accompany him; unbeknownst to them, they will function as witnesses, though they may think they can entrap him.” Fretheim, P. 282. But things went otherwise.

[4] It is curious to note that during the span of his ministry the Lord told Jeremiah to buy three things. A linen ephod (13:1), this clay pot (19:1), and a piece of land (32:8-12). The Lord instructed Jeremiah to abandon the ephod and it was completely ruined (13:3-7), to smash the pot (19:10), and even the land was seen by the prophet as a public insult (32:25).

[5] The leaders would not have felt comfortable from the start, but they could still have been trying to attribute the evil to others (i.e. foreign priests). However, by verses 6 and 7 there is no denying that all the harsh words are pointed against them and they are being blamed for the horrible plague of war that is soon coming.

[6] This is a superb translation of the Hebrew phrase.

[7] Another question is, “why were there no physical reprisals for such offensive statements against the leaders and the priests?” They must have been livid at his words, but Jeremiah actually trapped them in their own pride and heaped shame on them. They went to this horrible place feeling offended by the idolatry (including child sacrifice) and feeling prideful condemnation against the idolaters. Jeremiah, however, shifted the blame for the evil upon “the leaders of the people and the leaders of the priests” for allowing these horrific practices to continue right outside the holy city. They were truly guilty and had no way to deny it.

[8] Jeremiah was human, very much a man. Going to that horrible place, speaking such sharp words and smashing the pot as a visible demonstration of wrath, only elicited a “ho-hum” response. He was angry! Is it surprising if he failed to ask his God for permission, and he went on to give his scathing message for the general population to hear? This is the kind of response the human beings have to such frustrating situations.

[9] It was bad enough that Jeremiah criticized the group there in the ugly valley, but it was a greater offence (in the eyes of the priests) to publicly shame the priests in front of the “much inferior” common people. Pashhur was not carrying out a personal vendetta so much as acting on behalf of the whole class of priests.

[10] This again is creative nonfiction in action.

[11] Stocks are very intentionally a public punishment. “Individuals are to be placed in the stocks (a wooden framework with holes for head and hands), which would expose him to public ridicule and contempt.” Fretheim p. 408.

[12] Jer. 20:8. This was indeed the intent of the public shaming.

[13] Biblical writers unequivocally accept the existence and extensive activity of demons on earth, Due. 2:17, Psa. 106:37, 1 Tim. 4:1, Jam. 3:5.

[14] Brown, Kindle Location 9491.

Jeremiah’s Early Naivety

Everyone grows up in social, moral and religious environments. It’s natural to accept one’s surroundings as the norm.[1] Same for young Jeremiah. A godly king was ruling on the throne. King Josiah removed the idols, purified the temple and reestablished God’s law as the focus of civil and religious life. From outward appearances the nation was in good spiritual shape; far better than before. And young Jeremiah was oblivious to what lurked under the surface until forced by his Commander to face the facts.

The Challenge

Early on, God gave a challenge to his rookie prophet with a hefty reward if successful. Perhaps he could set aside his mantle and retire before he hardly even started!

“Run up and down every street in Jerusalem,” says the LORD. “Look high and low; search throughout the city! If you can find even one just and honest person, I will not destroy the city.” 5:1.

Wow. No destruction. Life as we know it goes on. “The pot boiling in the North” can be dismissed, if only Jeremiah can find one person of integrity.

But no. Not even one just person. So, empty-handed and out of breath he kind of blames God[2] and says:

“LORD, you are searching for honesty. You struck your people, but they paid no attention. You crushed them, but they refused to be corrected. They are determined, with faces set like stone; they have refused to repent.” 5:3

Rationalization

Jeremiah thinks harder and has a brilliant thought: The common people simply don’t know better, they are ignorant, can’t expect too much from them. But the leaders know God’s ways; surely some must qualify as “honest”.

Then I said, “But what can we expect from the poor? They are ignorant. They don’t know the ways of the LORD. They don’t understand God’s laws. So I will go and speak to their leaders. Surely they know the ways of the LORD and understand God’s laws.” 5:4-5.

The Discovery

However, his naivety quickly becomes obvious. The leaders are detaining the people in ignorance and disobedience.

“But the leaders, too, as one man, had thrown off God’s yoke and broken his chains.” 5:5.

The young man is hit with a jarring truth. These fellow priests and prophets are acting all righteous and godly, but “Their rebellion is great.” 5:6.

To understand the book of Jeremiah, we must meet a truly evil people.

Jerusalem “is wicked through and through. She spouts evil like a fountain.” Jer. 6:6-7.

To understand the book of Jeremiah, we must meet a ferocious God.[3]

So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “I will pour out my terrible fury on this place. Its people, animals, trees, and crops will be consumed by the unquenchable fire of my anger.” Jer. 7:20.

Family

The result of standing on the side of truth and righteousness, and speaking the forceful words of God, was that Jeremiah made many enemies. He spoke publicly. He spoke privately. He confronted sins that were hidden and sins that were public.

His family turned against him and literally wanted him gone:

The men of Anathoth… wanted me dead. They had said, “We will kill you if you do not stop prophesying in the LORD’s name.” 11:21.

Even your brothers, members of your own family, have turned against you. They plot and raise complaints against you. Do not trust them. Jer. 12:6.[4]

Co-workers

The prophets and priests, who should have been his allies, also worked to get rid of him:

The priests and prophets presented their accusations to the officials and the people. “This man should die!” they said. 26:11.

Kings and Palace Officials

Even kings saw him as a pesky nuisance and wanted him gone:

So these officials went to the king and said, “Sir, this man must die! … This man is a traitor!” King Zedekiah agreed. “All right,” he said. “Do as you like.” 38:4-5.

Summary

This is the environment, the severity of conflict that Jeremiah endured. It stretched his coping powers to the limit. He suffered battle scars. He ended up saying,

“I am hated everywhere I go. I am neither a lender who threatens to foreclose nor a borrower who refuses to pay – yet they all curse me.” Jer. 15:10.

The rest of this section focusses on these battles or escapades and their resultant scars. Jeremiah recorded these episodes not to gain notoriety or sympathy for himself, but for the truths they reveal about the wickedness of the people and leaders, and the incredible longsuffering of his God.


[1] The old “Frog in a pot” syndrome.

[2] “You struck your people… You crushed them…” i.e. Your strategy only made things worse!

[3] But Divine anger is a vastly different breed from human anger, so different that it deserves an entirely different term.

[4] For a Jew in Jeremiah’s day, rejection by your family had to be the severest of hardships. Everyone grew up among a very large extended family which provided a sense of stability, longevity, and belonging; a safety net no one wanted to be without.

Wave after Wave of Opposition

Last section, Stumbling onto the National Stage, emphasized a major tragedy. The death of King Josiah brought stark repercussions to the nation and God’s Spokesperson. The “glory” days of Josiah were swallowed up by the “gory” days of his four offspring. A mere twenty-two years of compromise caused total failure of the state, and deportation of its citizens.

After Josiah’s funeral, opposition comes to Jeremiah in waves.

“Conflict” in the book of Jeremiah is not just a series of random events. It is an environment within which the prophet lives and breathes daily. Always swimming upstream. Continually walking a steep incline. It took extra-human effort to trudge on.

This level of conflict was disclosed when God first enlisted Spokesperson:

You will stand against the whole land – the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah. They will fight you… 1:18-19.

Former prophets faced similar opposition,[1] but Jeremiah experienced an acute dosage to the point of inhumane abuse.[2] This was due to the obstinate rebellion of God’s people, and unrelenting efforts by God and his Spokesperson to win them back.

This section presents several major events in Jeremiah’s life. Let it serve as a window to understanding the oppressive environment in which he lived, served, and wrote. The man’s strength of purpose and character shine bright amidst the darkness surrounding him. He withstood each opposition and fulfilled his duties as the true spokesperson for God.

This section includes seven parts:

  1. His Early Naivety
  2. Temple Mob Pacified[3]
  3. Broken Pot, Night in Stocks
  4. Prophet on the Run – Burnt Scroll
  5. Showdown of Two Prophets
  6. Stuck in the Mud
  7. Reluctant Landowner

“Conflict” is an amazing and enlightening storyline woven throughout the book of Jeremiah. The man is caught in the crossfire between truly obstinate people and their ferocious, unyielding God. Jeremiah is attacked by family, common people, fellow priests, fellow prophets, and by the kings and their officials. He is threatened, mocked, whipped, put in stocks, beaten, thrown in jail, had his hard work destroyed, and was even thrown into a muddy pit to die.

The Book of Jeremiah gives us a portal or window not only into the events of the day, but also deep into the heart and thoughts of God’s abused Spokesperson.

“Among the most moving – and startling – passages in Scripture are Jeremiah’s forthright complaints to God, his tender confessions and prayers, mingled with expostulation and challenge, protesting God’s having snared him into a prophet’s responsibilities, tensions, and anguish.

Yet for over forty years Jeremiah maintained his obedience, reiterated his message, and fulfilled his mission.”[4]


[1] See Exo. 5:20-21; 6:9; 14:11-12; 16:2-3; Num. 14:1-4; 1 Kin. 18:4a; 19:2; 2 Kin. 17:13-14; Mat. 23:20, 37; Luk. 11:50; Act 7:52.

[2] Perhaps the worst two physical abuses inflicted on Spokesperson were the night in the stocks and imprisonment in a muddy cistern. Both occasions are covered later in this section.

[3] This story, along with the next five in this section, is told using the genre of Creative Nonfiction. If you are new to this genre, please see Appendix 1. What is Creative Nonfiction? The Bibliography includes resources that explain, regulate and teach these techniques. But the Biblical record is what really counts and should always be both the first and last words studied.

[4] White, p. 11.