Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jeremiah 26: Anatomy of a Religious Attack

Jeremiah 26 is a typical example of what happens when a person is attacked for what he believes.

Jeremiah's main message was that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed by Babylon; yet, if the people of Judah repent, God will change his mind and spare the city of destruction by the Babylonians.

A summary of Jeremiah's central sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-15) appears in Jeremiah 26:4-6. Notice what Jeremiah said:
4 You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you,
5 and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded—
6 then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.
In sum, the terrible thing that God will do to Jerusalem is conditioned ("If," vs. 4) upon the people NOT repenting.

The priests and prophets quickly caught onto something they believed to be heresy.
8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, "You shall die!
9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, "This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord. (Jeremiah 26:8-9)
The problem that the priests and their supporting prophets saw was a violation of temple ideology. They believed that salvation was by temple and not by repentance. (Today, we might verbalize it as, "We are saved by temple, not by works of faithfulness"). This temple ideology is expressed in Psalm 132:13-14.
13 For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation:
14 "This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it."
In other words, the priests, et. al. believed it did not matter how the people approached covenant relationship with Yahweh. The presence of the temple in Jerusalem would keep the city safe. The warrior God (Yahweh) would not permit his house to be destroyed by a foreign enemy. The favorite sermon of the profits who promoted the temple ideology was "Peace, peace" (Jeremiah 6:14).

That is why the priests were comfortable to misquote Jeremiah as saying, "This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant." Jeremiah preached the judgment as conditional but the priests considered the city's safety to be unconditional.

They wanted covenant relationship with God except with no covenantal expectations.

Any preacher whose sermons only make people feel good about themselves without challenging them to see their spiritual failings and to make personal improvements is preaching lies. "Peace, peace" without "Repent, repent" is a lie.

Thus, they did not hear the conditional "if" in Jeremiah's sermon. We are the same way if we are not careful. If we do not agree with somebody on any issue, we tend to listen carelessly. We hear only part of what was said and repeat it back in a way that turns what was actually said into something heinous. We remember only half of what was said, and by itself the half sounds really bad.

Notice the content of the accusation with which the priests et. al. formally charged Jeremiah at trial.
Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, "This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears." (Jeremiah 26:11)
People tend to regard as heresy any preaching against what they hold to be sacred (church or church's leadership). It is almost like church and church leadership have a pass from being called to repentance. I have personally heard the following verses cited in support of censoring people who make hard challenges to church and church leaders.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Obviously, if you want to conscript these verses into the service of supporting the censoring somebody's preaching, you cannot read them too carefully.

The princes and the people recommended acquitting Jeremiah on some fascinating grounds.
Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, "This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God." (Jeremiah 26:16)
They believed that any prophet who spoke in the name of Yahweh could not possibly be preaching against Yahweh's people or his city or his temple. This statement clearly parallels Luke 9:49-50.
49 John answered, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us."
50 But Jesus said to him, "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you."
The passage from Luke is really loaded with meaning. One very important lesson is that anybody who is ministering for Christ is not an enemy. He is on your side and you should find a way to work together. Quit practicing the politics of exclusion in the church!

Jeremiah was not the enemy of Jerusalem. People who preach tough lessons against spiritual lethargy are not the enemy of the church. If they bring "shame and reproach" on the church, perhaps the church is acting shamefully and in ways that invite reproach. Instead of censoring hard and upsetting teaching, maybe we should listen.

The elders, who were acting as judges in Jeremiah's trial, quoted Micah 3:12. They noted that Micah's preaching was very similar to Jeremiah's; but Micah's king Hezekiah instituted religious reforms and Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster Micah predicted. It is fascinating to me that Micah's disaster prediction did not include a conditional clause; but there clearly was one and Hezekiah worked with it. Jeremiah's disaster prediction clearly did include a conditional clause but the priests could not hear it. The elders pointed out that, unless the city respond as Hezekiah did, Jeremiah's prediction of disaster will actually happen.

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