“The LORD gave me this message: “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my prophet to the nations.”
“O Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!”
The LORD replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you. I, the LORD, have spoken!”
Then the LORD reached out and touched my mouth and said, “Look, I have put my words in your mouth! Today I appoint you to stand up against nations and kingdoms. Some you must uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow. Others you must build up and plant.”
Then the LORD said to me, “Look, Jeremiah! What do you see?”
And I replied, “I see a branch from an almond tree.”
And the LORD said, “That’s right, and it means that I am watching, and I will certainly carry out all my plans.”
Then the LORD spoke to me again and asked, “What do you see now?”
And I replied, “I see a pot of boiling water, spilling from the north.”
“Yes,” the LORD said, “for terror from the north will boil out on the people of this land. Listen! I am calling the armies of the kingdoms of the north to come to Jerusalem. I, the LORD, have spoken!
“They will set their thrones at the gates of the city. They will attack its walls and all the other towns of Judah. I will pronounce judgment on my people for all their evil— for deserting me and burning incense to other gods. Yes, they worship idols made with their own hands!
“Get up and prepare for action. Go out and tell them everything I tell you to say. Do not be afraid of them, or I will make you look foolish in front of them. For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land— the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah. They will fight you, but they will fail. For I am with you, and I will take care of you. I, the LORD, have spoken!” –Jeremiah 1:4-19 (NLT)
There’s a phrase out there that goes something like this: “Ima get all Old Testament on you.”
Basically it means I’m about to inflict some serious bodily harm on you.
Why do we have this saying? It’s not hard to see why: the Old Testament is full of stories of God being, well… angry and violent. Contrast that with the God of the New Testament, who is kind and fluffy. In the Old Testament God rains down fire and sulphur on people that he’s angry with; in the New Testament he sends down Jesus.
Passages like this one seem to confirm this idea: God is angry. And he’s going to unleash almond trees and boiling pots and armies from the north on the people who have disobeyed him.
It sounds scary. And just a bit petty.
But let’s look deeper. There are two things I want to bring out to challenge this view that God is basically schizophrenic: that he was frankly a bit of a jerk in the Old Testament, but became really nice in the New Testament. This view is just not true.
On one hand, I could do a cop-out and say that basically God’s people deserved punishment. When God told Jeremiah that he was going to punish his people for doing evil, he makes it very clear that this isn’t a random thing. God’s people had broken their relationship with God. Despite the fact that God had rescued them from Egypt, had saved them from countless enemies, and made them into a great kingdom. And God’s people told themselves, ‘Forget God, he doesn’t matter. There are better gods out there.’ How would you feel? It’s like in a marriage, if one partner cheats on the other; of course the cheater should be punished; it’s only fair. And one of the major parts of God’s personality is that he is fair, he is just, he will not tolerate evil.
But, as I said, that’s a cop-out. That view is too simplistic, and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, as if the only way to relate to God is to be really, really good, and God help you if you fail.
Here’s a better way to look at this passage: let’s look at the God who stands by his people. Let’s look at the God of justice, the God of grace, the God of steadfast love (chesed in Hebrew).
Firstly, this is a God of justice. Let’s think about who God is punishing: his people. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but God is standing by his people by punishing them. He has seen his people wandering further and further away from him, and he decides to act. This isn’t nice, but it is loving. If you had a friend that you loved dearly, if you saw them getting into bad habits, doing things that hurt themselves, would you just stand around? Or worse, would you tell them, ‘Great job, keep doing what you’re doing’? You wouldn’t. You’d stand by them – you’d tell them they should change, you might even have to have the talk with them. But all of that is worth it, because you want to stand by the friend you love.
And we see that here. God had already made a promise hundreds of years before Jeremiah, that he would love this people, that he would stand by them and be in a relationship with them. And that wasn’t going to happen as long as they loved other gods. And so God had to give them a wake up call.
Secondly, let’s think about how God stands by the people on the ground. In the passage you can see how God stands by Jeremiah. Jeremiah says ‘I can’t be your spokesman, I’m too young!’ and God says ‘Don’t worry, I’ll stand by you. I’ll make you strong, I’ll make sure my people hear my message.’ God stands by the people he chooses. In fact, God even tells Jeremiah, ‘I’ve been standing by you even before you were born.’ God doesn’t send Jeremiah on a suicide mission and then sit back and relax, he goes with Jeremiah, he stands by him the whole way.
And think about Jeremiah’s message too: this isn’t a popular message. God’s message for his people is, well, you’re bad and you need to change, or else. That is not going to make Jeremiah a popular man. But God stands by Jeremiah. This is not a God who wants to be popular, he doesn’t say things that powerful, rich people want to hear. He’s the God who rolls up his sleeves and gets down into the mud. He stands by people who have been stepped on, and most of all he stands by his spokespeople, the prophets. He loves his people so much that he would rather his people hate him and hate hearing his message, than let them continue in their sin. He stands by his people, he embraces being unpopular if that will help his people.
So that is the God of the Old Testament. He gets angry and he punishes, but he also stands by his people always. So back to that old saying: ‘Ima get all Old Testament on you.’ What about the God of the New Testament?
Put it this way: in Jeremiah (in Old Testament times), God picked a young, unqualified man to speak for him. He told him to talk to the rich and powerful, tell them that they have led God’s people away from God, that they’re wrong and they need to change. This young man cared so much for Jerusalem, God’s city, that he cried. This young man was hated by the so-called religious people of his day, because he dared to challenge them. And when this man died, everybody thought he was a failure.
And the God of the New Testament? He too picked a young, unqualified man to speak for him. This young man also talked to the rich and powerful, told them that they were wrong and they needed to change. This young man also cared so much for Jerusalem that he cried. He too was hated by the religious people of his day, because he dared to challenge them. And when he died, everybody thought he was a failure too. This young man’s name was Jesus.
This is the same God. The God who stands by his people in the Old Testament, and even hundreds of years later in the New Testament, he’s the same God who stands by. And through Jesus he really stands by us: he lived life as a poor man, he made friends with smelly fishermen, with prostitutes, crooks and terrorists, and he told them that God wants them to come home. The same God who had to make a hard choice for his people in Jeremiah’s time, and had to make another hard choice for his people hundreds of years later, in Jesus’ time. Only the second time, it was for real. Jeremiah’s life and his message was like a preview: you have done wrong, but God is still standing by you today, and he is going to keep standing by you, and when Jesus comes, it will all finally be finished. Then you will truly see the God who stands by: the God of justice, of grace, of steadfast love.
So let’s remember who this God is. Scary? You bet. He hates evil and unfairness, he punishes people who do that. But also the God who stands by; who never breaks his promise to his people; who loves his people so much that he has stood by them for a thousand years, who would send his own son to pay the price of his people’s sins. And this is the God who stands by us even today. We should fear that, yes, but we should remember that, and take comfort in that.