Click here for a print-friendly version
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 3: Called to God’s Work of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 17, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
- Summarize Jeremiah’s message to the people and the royal court.
- Explain why God’s covenant people sometimes suffered (or seemed to suffer) more severely under his judgmental wrath then did their pagan enemies.
Some of the most disheartening, even frightening, times in life are those when we come face-to-face with the negative consequences of our poor decisions. Perhaps we didn’t turn in a paper on time at school and were shocked at how our grade was diminished. In a situation like this, the lesson we learn often turns out to be very valuable to us later on. And so it should have been with God’s covenant people of the Old Testament era.
Lesson Context: Historical
We are informed that the prophet Jeremiah ministered from about 626 to 575 BC. That ministry was to a people – the Judeans – who had disobeyed the Lord on a level far beyond the failure of a late school paper. As a result, serious consequences loomed. God had sent prophet after prophet to warn both kings and commoners of pending destruction. But they didn’t listen. They acted as though they had God’s favor no matter what. They even viewed Jerusalem’s temple as a good-luck charm (Jeremiah 7:4).
The northern kingdom, Israel, had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 BC. A century later, the survival of the southern kingdom of Judah was by no means assured. The Assyrians were still the dominant military and political power in the ancient near East.
King Ashurbanipal of Assyria died in 627 BC and his death laid bare serious internal weaknesses in Assyria. Disorder and revolt erupted in every part of that empire. The result was that Nineveh, the capital city, was destroyed in 612 BC, and the last vestige of Assyrian might was wiped out at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC (see Jeremiah 46:2).
Now, the consequences of Assyria’s decline were felt in Judah. After a reign of about 30 years, King Josiah was killed in battle in 609 BC as he attempted to halt the Egyptian army from aiding the remnants of the Assyrian army (2 Kings 23:29).
At this point, the Babylonians stepped into the power vacuum left by the collapse of Assyria. They did so under the Babylonian king Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar (reigned 626-605 and 605-562 BC, respectively). Babylon came to dominate much of Assyria’s old territory. The last kings of Judah reined in subservience to the Babylonians before the final exile of 586 BC (Jeremiah 24, 25).
Jeremiah 1:2 places the beginning of Jeremiahs’ ministry at around 626 BC. The book of Jeremiah preserves a prophetic ministry that took place over the course of the next several decades – through the reign of five Judean kings and a governor.
Lesson Context: Jeremiah 21
The opening verse of chapter 21 sets the scene. Pashhur and Zephaniah were sent by Judah’s final king, Zedekiah, to Jeremiah. Pashhur (not the same Pashhur as in Jeremiah 20) was a dogged opponent of Jeremiah, even trying to have him executed (see Jeremiah 38:1-4). And Zephaniah, a priest (not to be confused with the prophet of the same name), was not actively hostile to Jeremiah (see 21:1; 29:25-29).
The two emissaries intended to enlist Jeremiah’s help in order to ensure God’s aid against King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Jeremiah 21:1,2). So it is no surprise that King Zedekiah’s request for the prophet to seek a word from the Lord is really a request to intercede on their behalf with the Lord. And the “wonderful deeds” are the mighty acts of God manifested in the Exodus and the journey into the land and in the whole history of this people whom the Lord has delivered from the hands of their enemy. Knowing that history, Zedekiah hopes – and prays – for such a magnificent deliverance now (2 Kings 19:35,36). Couldn’t God be counted on to do such again?
However, as Jeremiah’s response shows, the request demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of Judah’s standing with God.
So Jeremiah’s response comes in three parts. First, there came words against King Zedekiah himself (Jeremiah 21:3-7). The prophet was blunt: Jerusalem’s weapons will become a liability as God himself fights against the city.
Today’s scripture lesson opens with the second section of Jeremiah’s response.
To the People
In the second of Jeremiah’s three-part responses, he turns his attention from the king (without excluding him) to “the people” in general. God sets before them a stark choice between “life” and “death.” Though similar expressions are common throughout scripture, this particular one seems to especially recall the words of Moses: “See I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” (Deuteronomy 30:15).
Jeremiah’s words of judgment and doom come in the context of God’s covenant with the people. Though sometimes it seems overlooked, God still requires obedience and loyalty. The people’s often-repeated refusals to render to him their exclusive worship have brought them to this dire point.
An acquaintance once wrote Turgenev, the Russian novelist, and said, “I have decided the real problem of life is learning to put one’s self in second place.” Turgenev wrote back: “I have decided the real problem in life is to decide what to put in first place.” Obviously, God’s covenant people had forgotten their responsibility of putting God first, and they were now facing the consequences of their mistakes.
In a true sense, the choice presented to God’s people in the days of Jeremiah is also presented to us, collectively and individually, today. Jesus speaks of the choice between life and death as a choice between a wide gate and a narrow way (Matthew 7:13,14). Each of us is called to choose the path we take. Though choosing life seems the obvious choice, many still choose death by trusting in their own wisdom (contrast Proverbs 3:5-7). Only following Jesus leads to life (John 14:6,7).
In verses 9 and 10, we see that the choices that Jeremiah has just presented abstractly in the previous verse he now paints in real-life terms. To stay in Jerusalem and try to hold out against “the Babylonians” will mean certain death. The three vehicles of death – “by the sword, famine or plague” – are all typical of the results of a long siege (compare Ezekiel 5:12).
On the other hand, leaving the confines of the city and surrendering to the Babylonians is the only path to continued life (compare Jeremiah 14:12; 38:17; 40:9). This passage draws on language and themes from the great covenantal and climactic text of Deuteronomy (30:15-19). As in that decisive moment, the people are given the alternative of life or death. In Deuteronomy the choice was a matter of obedience to the Lord’s instruction. Now, however, that option is no longer open. Or rather, the people have chosen the way of death by failing to obey the Lord’s commands.
As mentioned previously, leaving the confines of the city and surrendering to the Babylonians is the only path to continued life. To be sure, this is not the advice the people hope for in this situation. They want to stay “in this city” and be delivered by God. However, the ways of life and death that Jeremiah presents are the only options. Because God has decided to punish his people, there will be no deliverance from the Babylonians (Jeremiah 27:11, 12). So in this situation, if the people surrender to the Babylonians, they will be rewarded with their lives and nothing more. In other words, if the people accept God’s judgment they will live.
Jeremiah’s address to the people closes with a sobering restatement of the truth as God has “determined” (Jeremiah 44:11). Translated literally, God has “set his face” against the people. He will “do this city harm and not good.”
Without doubt the idea that God will do “harm” against his own people is a shock (Jeremiah 44:26,27); Amos 9:4). However, God’s harm is not intended only as retribution; it is intended also to correct his wayward children (Jeremiah 5:3; Hebrews12:4-11).
The nation of Judah, represented by its capital city of Jerusalem, certainly deserves God’s wrath in a retributive sense. God’s wrathful judgment results from the actions of a people and their rulers who have received God’s word as no other nation has. Consequently, they are without excuse in their repeated rejections of him. What is happening to Judah now is the promised result of those actions (Deuteronomy 4:25-28). Even so, God’s wrath in this instance is also corrective in nature (Deuteronomy 4:29-31).
This whole situation is a reminder of the absolute sovereignty of God. Zedekiah, in seeking to inquire of God (Jeremiah 21:2), seems to assume that God is on call to perform miracles whenever the people desire. But God cannot be manipulated, and it is dangerous to presume on God. The destruction of Jerusalem at the “hands of the king of Babylon” will happen because God has determined that it should (compare 20:4; 32:28).
So Judah had a long history of listening only to themselves rather than to the prophets’ warnings. It resulted in the destruction of their nation. One wonders if there is any kind of message for us in all this.
Point! Sooner or later, the wheels of God’s righteousness will right every wrong, balance every scale, and correct every injustice in the world.
William Wadsworth Longfellow expressed it this way:
“Though the mills of God grind slowly
Yet they grind exceedingly small,
Though with patience He stands waiting
With exactness He grinds all.”
To the King’s House
The focus of Jeremiah’s message shifts again as he begins the third of his three sections of address. In speaking “to the royal house of Judah,” the reference seems to be to all members of the royal court including those who live in the palace and assist in the carrying out the affairs of the state. They are not exempt from the indictment against king and commoner.
Jeremiah’s convictions about the nature and duties of the kingship are set out in 21:11-14. Now, instead of acting as father and guardian of his people, each of Israel’s (Judah’s) kings had shown himself to be an exploiter and oppressor of the people. Few had been an exception to this! The traditional description of the royal duties as those upholding justice and delivering those who are oppressed had too often in practice been little more than a hollow fiction. For the most part, the kings had readily become agents of injustice and exploitation.
Even the Davidian dynasty had been far from maintaining innocence on this front. It is readily understandable that Jeremiah felt no great affection for the royal house of David. Abiathar, a priestly ancestor of the prophet, had been banished by the Davidian royal house to the relatively minor sanctuary at Anathoth (see 1 Kings 2:26,27,35).
Thus, in just two words, Jeremiah sets forth God’s vision for kingship and for the responsibilities of the ruling elites toward the people. Those two words are “administer justice.” This is to be the foundational role of the ruling elites toward the people.
The justice spoken of here can be understood in a legal sense. That includes adhering to the Law of Moses with regard to how people are to be treated – especially those who are most vulnerable (Exodus 22:22; Leviticus 25:17).
The phrase “every morning” implies “daily” or “regularly.” It is customary for cases to be dealt with at the city gates in the morning. Starting each day with the right judgment will help ensure that the people act in ways please to God.
And all this certainly includes the royal officials of the “house of David” ending the evil schemes of the “oppressor.” Such people seek to take what is not theirs. Point! If human judges refuse to end this injustice, God’s “wrath” will be like “fire,” and will “burn” as a result. Can there be any worse words to hear from God than “I am against you?”
This lesson today brings us face to face with one of the most somber moments in the history of God’s dealings with his covenant people. Jerusalem was beyond the point of repentance. The people’s trust in their own wisdom meant destruction and death.
The question before us is, will we learn from history? And unlike the people of Jeremiahs’ day, will we repent while there is still time?
Resources for this lesson
- How would you respond to someone who says that God’s promise to punish contradicts the claim that “God is love” in 1 John 4:8?
- Do you think that this lesson today is a warning for America or not? Please explain?
- Why were God’s people surprised that His judgment came to pass?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 316-322.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI,” pages 731-734, 739-740.
- “Interpretation, Jeremiah” by R.E. Clements, pages 125-130.
- “Commentary on Jeremiah” by Andrew Blackwood, Jr. pages 163-166.