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Repent of Injustice
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 3: Called to God’s Work of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 24, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
- State promised results of obedience to God and promised consequences for disobedience.
- Compare and contrast God’s statements regarding social justice and injustice with those in other lessons of this unit.
- Evaluate our church’s ministries to the most vulnerable and participate in a plan for improving those.
It is recorded that on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helena erupted in the state of Washington. Reportedly, it was the deadliest eruption ever in the United States. The estimated power of the blast was 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Miles of forest were leveled by the direct blast, and the very earth was scorched by its power. Fifty-seven people and thousands of animals died as a result. What had previously been lush forest and vacation area looked like moonscape. The ash cloud turned the sky dark as far away as Montana. As we are told, the blast was a violent reminder of nature’s potential for destruction.
The terrible devastation that was to follow the destruction of Jerusalem probably looked equally shocking. A once thriving city would be reduced to wilderness and wasteland. A key thing to keep in mind, however, is that the devastation of Jerusalem was definitely supernatural in origin.
Since the historical context of this lesson is the same as last week’s lesson, we can move along and say a word about Jeremiah himself.
God called Jeremiah as a young man to be his prophet to Judah, however, Jeremiah thought that he was too young and not qualified to speak (Jeremiah 1:6). The forthcoming confrontations would seem, at times, to be just two against everyone else. But since one of those two was God (1:17-19), the outcome would never be in doubt.
At times in Jeremiah’s lengthy ministry, the stress was so great that it seemed as if he were at the psychological breaking point. Nothing Jeremiah did seemed to persuade people. An example of his extreme frustration is his series of complaints in Jeremiah 12:1-4 (also 20:7-18).
At any rate, God’s response would be something like, “Get with the program!” Whatever! Jeremiah’s early years of prophetic ministry under King Josiah were easy compared to what was to come.
The populaces of Judah were convinced that the presence among them of a king of the royal house of David was an assured sign of God’s favor and protection. More than 300 of history appeared to prove this belief, especially when contrasted with the fate of the short-lived dynasties of the Northern Kingdom. It is remembered that the Northern Kingdom seceded from the Davidic kingship in Jerusalem after Solomon’s death (I Kings 12:16,20). And the succumbing of this rebellious Northern Kingdom to Assyrian domination had been popularly interpreted as a consequence of this abandonment of the divinely appointed Davidic royal house. So there was this widespread conviction that God had in the past blessed and protected Judah “for the sake of his servant David” and that he would continue to do so in the future.
As we are told, against such a popular conviction, it requires a Jeremiah to recognize and expose such a dangerous fallacy. Only God, not a person or an institution, could be the true author and ground of faith.
It is this point that lies at the heart of Jeremiah’s concern. To be sure, God had in the past given Israel kings to lead them in the pursuit of a national life of peace and justice. However, the relationship of the kingship to God – even that of the kingship of David’s line – did not guarantee Israel or Judah, which had remained loyal to the Davidic dynasty, a guaranteed assurance of God’s protection. In Jeremiah’s understanding, the kingship might even become an obstacle between the people and God.
These verses before us repeat the exhortation to the king to execute justice that is the subject of 21:11,12. Like 21:11,12, the threat of judgment hangs over the king who does not do justice. The demand for royal justice, however, is elaborated even more in these verses. Not only is there the positive call for justice and righteousness and the deliverance of those oppressed, but there is also a negative word of warning to the kings not to be agents of oppression against the marginalized, the powerless, and the poor of the land.
In verse 3, Jeremiah again emphasizes that “the Lord” is speaking. Jeremiah himself is only the messenger.
“Do what is just and right.” This is the point of leadership failure (compare Ezekiel 45:9; Amos 5:24). Doing “what is just” is to ensure fair treatment but is not limited to that. It also includes developing and maintaining healthy, honest, and respectful relationship at all levels. To “do…right” is to create and maintain those kinds of relationships. Even so, we should not see too much of a distinction between being just and right, given their many uses as parallel terms in Hebrew posting (example Isaiah 32:1).
Important to note! It is God’s character that sets the standard for what is just and right (examples Isaiah 56:1; Psalm 89:14). Both must be expressed toward everyone at all times. And it is the leaders who are to set the example.
Continuing in verse 3, oppression flourishes where justice and righteousness are absent. In such circumstances, “the oppressor” can cheat and steal without consequence. The three kinds of victims mentioned are the most vulnerable in the ancient world. We are informed that three were mentioned together 16 times in the Hebrew Old Testament (compare Jeremiah 7:6). The “foreigner” (that is, a non-Israelite living among the covenant people) should have legal recourse for righting “violence” done to himself and his family. The “fatherless” and the “widow” are most susceptible to poverty, lacking a family breadwinner.
Now, God frequently sets his commands in the contest of consequence and blessings (example: Deuteronomy 11:26-28). Here in verse 4, God promises again to extend David’s legacy to David’s royal descendants if they will “carry out these commands” – namely, practice justice and righteousness.
The main question is simple: Do those “who sit on David’s throne” desire to keep their positions, or do they not?
Verse 5 says, “but if you do not obey these commands, declares the Lord, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.”
To swear is a particular weighty way of making a promise (compare Genesis 22:16). The more significant permanent or powerful the thing sworn on, the more definite and absolute the promise. There is nothing and no one more significant, permanent, or powerful than God (Hebrews 6:13). Thus, God will make sure he fulfills this promise if Judah refuses to respond obediently.
The consequences God describes are both symbolic and literal. The phrase “this palace” refers both to David’s descendants and to the physical structure of their dwelling. If Judah’s leaders disregard God, they will not only be dethroned, they will also be without a physical residence in Jerusalem (compare Jeremiah 39:4-8).
The late Paul Harvey told about a man named Gary Tindle who was charged with robbery. While standing in the California courtroom of Judge Armando Rodriguez, he asked permission to go to the bathroom. He was escorted upstairs to the bathroom, and the door was guarded while he was inside. But Tindle, determined to escape, climbed up the plumbing, opened a panel in the ceiling and started slithering through the crawl space, heading south.
He had traveled some 30 feet when the ceiling panels broke under him, and he dropped to the floor – right back in Judge Rodriguez’s courtroom!
When the guilty seem to have escaped judgment, it’s only for a short while. In due time, they will find themselves back before the Judge.
At any rate, this is the predicament of the kings and court of Judah if they fail to adhere to God’s commands. They will not escape God’s judgment.
In verses 6 and 7, God uses imagery to affirm how precious his people are to him. Like Gilead, like Lebanon, is the land of Judah to the Lord. Gilead is an area just east of the Jordan River. Lebanon is located along the seacoast north of Israel. Those areas were known for their forests. Both David and Solomon used expensive wood from the areas in building projects. And Gilead was also known for its balm (Genesis 37:25; Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11).
So the reference to Gilead and Lebanon is probably reminding us that the palace was built of fine cedars. It was also built with a “hall of justice,” where the king was “to pronounce judgment” (I Kings 7:7). This text suggests that the “hall of justice” had decayed. Therefore, the magnificent cedar timbers of the royal palace will fall.
Though Judah is to God like the land of the choicest cedars, it will be made like a desert, and travelers from many nations passing by will pause and wonder “why?” (Deuteronomy 27:24,25).
The destroyers of verse 7 refer to the Babylonians (2 Chronicles 36:17-19). Those magnificent cedar timbers of the royal palace will fall under their siege. Then the besieging army will cut down the trees to build its siege ramps and towers (Jeremiah 6:6).
The Babylonians will burn everything of significance before leaving for home (Jeremiah 52:13). Simply put, Judah will be a deconstruction zone. As we are reminded, the sense of the verse is of priceless things destroyed that need not have been.
We now come to verse 8 and 9. People of the ancient Near East general linked the rise and fall of “nations” to the power of a nation’s deities (see I Kings 20:23). Jerusalem’s status as a “great city” has earned Judah a reputation for following a very powerful deity. This is what God intended (Genesis 12:1-3).
However, the injustice that infects Jerusalem and Judah does not draw the nations toward the just and holy God – the only God there is. Instead, the nations around Jerusalem see no difference between Judah’s way of life and theirs, between their gods and Judah’s God. And when those nations see the defeat and captivity of God’s people, they will link it to God’s activity. Consequently, the devastation Judah is to undergo will be so immense that everyone will conclude that it was a God-driven action. The extent of the destruction will accomplish what Jerusalem and her injustice had not. The nations will acknowledge God in at least one sense.
The question of verses 8 and 9 implies puzzlement on the part of the nations. Why in the world would the Lord want to destroy or allow to be destroyed such a magnificent city as Jerusalem –indeed the place of the Lord’s own dwelling? There is one reason alone, and it has been indicated again and again in the book: The people have forsaken the covenant. The city and its ruling class –indeed, its citizens more generally – have failed to live by the commandments and the requirements of justice and righteousness that were set forth in the covenant, recorded in the Torah. Abandonment of the covenant referred to in verse 9 includes both justice for the oppressed and loyalty to the Lord.
Now, God’s plan from the beginning has involved inviting others to experience and follow him. We see this in God’s promise to Abraham, that Abraham will be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). It is seen again in Zechariah 8;20-23, as God’s restoration of Judah draws the nations to seek him. And we see it again in the New Testament, when Peter challenges his readers to live lives that draw questions – all so that we may respond with Jesus as our answer (1 Peter 3:8-15).
But in our text we see the opposite occurring. Jerusalem’s injustice does not draw the nations to seek God, since they see no difference between Judah’s actions and their own. So God plans to draw their attention to his ways of justice and righteousness by disciplining Judah for her failure to model God’s character. That would invite others to see God for who he is (example, Ezekiel 39:23). The forthcoming devastation will be seen as divine in origin. Nations will acknowledge God one way or the other.
The point of the oracle in verse 10 is that the people who had pinned their hopes so thoroughly on Josiah as the king who would restore the Davidic kingdom and overthrow all foreign domination should not keep on lamenting over those lost hopes. It is now time to mourn over the next king (Shallum, son of Josiah), who is about to go into exile and will never come back.
The force of Jeremiah’s prophecy has been God’s warning of destruction and exile if Judah’s leaders refuse to practice justice. Jeremiah holds him up as a warning of his hero’s own possible future.
The word from God to the house of David features two promises. (1) If David’s descendants would renounce injustice, then God would bless them, but (2) if not, they would suffer punishment. Judah would experience the full and recognizable consequence of disobeying God. God would therefore exhibit his character to the world and draw people to himself in one of those two ways.
And God calls us to the same challenge he presented through Jeremiah. Either we will represent the character of God as expressed in Jesus, and in our actions expose and eliminate injustice to the oppressed, or we will risk experiencing God in ways we will not like or imagine.
The late Dr. John Brokhoff, preacher and professor, spoke of a little girl who came home from church one Sunday. She had just heard a sermon on the subject, “Let your light shine,” and she asked her mother for an explanation. The mother explained that the light shone when we were kind and good. The next Sunday in the nursery, the child caused an uproar, and the teacher had to get her mother. Her mother asked her why she acted so badly. Remembering what she was told the previous Sunday the little girl blurted out, “I have blown myself out.”
God forbid that would happen to any of us!
Resources for this lesson
- What stance(s) should Christians take regarding governmental policies and procedures that the Word of God says are wrong? How does Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29; and Romans 13:1-7 help shape your answers?
- Which sins of injustice are most in need of correcting today: those of commission (doing wrong) or those of omission (failing to do right)? Why?
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 323-329.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI,” pages 739-741.
- “Interpretation Bible Commentary Jeremiah” by R.E. Clements, pages 130-132.
- “Commentary on Jeremiah” by Andrew Blackwood, Jr. pages 166-168.