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God and Idols February 25, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 10:1-16.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah, asserting His superiority over all idols. All idols are utterly helpless and useless. In contrast, He is omnipotent; He alone created the heavens and the earth. Moreover, He alone is sovereign over the weather.

Thoughts: Here, we see that God is superior to all idols. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verses 9 and 10:

The prophet, anticipating what might be said, refers to the splendor and pomp of idols and declares that it is all frivolous and extremely childish. Why did the world show so much honor to idols unless they were dazzled by their pomp? In this way the devil has always deluded the unbelieving. For he has exhibited in idols something that involved people’s minds in darkness.

This passage caused me to ponder the factors that led the people of Judah to worship idols. In some sense, their circumstances are analogous to our situation today. Note that God had appeared in a visible form to their ancestors in the desert, e.g. in a pillar of cloud or fire. As time passed, God ceased to reveal Himself in a visible form to His people; the challenge for the present generation, then, entailed adhering to the traditions that had been handed down to them. They could not perceive God with their senses at that point – as He called them to live by faith. Since humans naturally respond to external stimuli, they drifted away from God – and toward physical objects. Now we live many generations after God appeared in a visible form to His people – in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The challenge for us, then, is to reject external stimuli and maintain our faith in Him. Although we cannot perceive God with our senses at this point, He calls us to adhere to the traditions that have been passed down to us – starting with the Holy Scriptures.

In verses 12 and 13, we see that God alone created the heavens and the earth. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

In other words, “There is one who has created the earth; there is one who has set in order the world and extended the heavens. Since these things cannot be ascribed to many, it follows that it is absurd to imagine that there are various gods.”

Modern-day believers who live in First World countries have witnessed a sweeping rejection of Christianity – and an acceptance of naturalism. In that sense, naturalism can be viewed as a modern-day “god”. It is tempting to succumb to societal trends and worship at the altar of this “god”, e.g. by asserting that science has “proven” that the universe could only have formed ex nihilo. The challenge for us, then, is to wrestle with questions such as:

  • does the Bible contradict fundamental scientific principles?
  • is it possible to reconcile one’s Christian worldview with the scientific literature?
  • how can we see God at work through natural phenomena, e.g. thunder, lightning, wind or rain?

Sin and Punishment February 25, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 8:4-9:26.

Summary: This passage consists of a dialogue between the following groups:

  • the people of Judah – who are fearful of the advancing Babylonian troops; although they call on God for deliverance, they slowly realize that the hour of their punishment is at hand
  • Jeremiah – who expresses his anguish at God’s impending punishment of His people; he is acutely aware of their sinfulness, yet he wrestles with the scope of His divine retribution
  • God – who asserts that His people have committed numerous sins, including idolatry, deception and greed; thus, He will smite them and their land.

Thoughts: Here, we see a painful interaction between God, His people, and His instrument – Jeremiah – as the Babylonian army prepares to attack Judah. Did God explicitly direct Jeremiah to employ dramatic elements in this passage – or did Jeremiah determine that it was the best way to convey the tension of this situation? In any event, this is a valuable reminder that the events of this passage constituted a “drama in real life,” and the actors could not remain silent as they pondered its awful conclusion. Also, modern-day believers can identify with Jeremiah and the people of Judah in that we often struggle to comprehend the scope of God’s holiness – including His punishment of sin. As we are finite, unholy creatures, we struggle when we are confronted by our infinite, holy Creator.

In verse 22 of chapter 8, we see that Jeremiah makes a reference to “balm in Gilead.” That phrase reminds me of a book that presented the fall from grace – and subsequent rehabilitation – of a pastor in North Carolina named Gordon Weekley; I should note that I encountered an excerpt of that book in an old issue of Reader’s Digest. Pastor Weekley had a busy schedule as a rising young pastor; to cope with the demands on his time, he utilized a combination of drugs. He began to fumble his way through sermons, including a memorable incident involving John 14:2. His addiction became so severe that his wife eventually left him and filed for divorce. Eventually, he realized that he needed professional help; God then enabled him to overcome his addiction. Now I am curious as to how he spent the last years of his life; if any readers have some knowledge along those lines, feel free to leave a comment.

In verses 23 and 24 of chapter 9, we see what God desires from those who would boast about anything. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Jeremiah forbids anyone to glory except in God alone. All are greatly deceived who think themselves blessed when they are alienated from God.

I find these verses to be challenging, as I readily – either outwardly or inwardly – boast about my external advantages, including my:

  • educational background
  • intellectual abilities
  • ethnicity.

These external advantages are concrete facts that I often indulge. Yet God calls us to only boast about our relationship with Him. That is difficult, as one cannot judge the value of that relationship with worldly metrics. Nonbelievers may scorn us for assigning worth to a relationship that is unseen – and, to them, a delusion. How can we live in a way that demonstrates the primacy of our relationship with God? One thought is that God does not call us to reject our external advantages; instead, He wants us to leverage them to effectively exercise “kindness, justice and righteousness on earth.”

The Valley of Slaughter February 19, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 7:30-8:3.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah, condemning the people of Judah for their idolatrous actions, including:

He will punish them by causing them to perish in the Valley of Ben Hinnom; moreover, they will run out of room to bury their dead in that place. Furthermore, all of the dead will be exposed to carrion fowl and other wild animals – serving as a just punishment for their worship of the heavens.

Thoughts: This passage reminds me of the macabre imagery in Revelation 19:11-21 concerning the punishment of the wicked. The following question also occurs to me: what is the impact of exhuming a corpse and allowing it to be ravaged by carrion fowl and other wild animals? Clearly this action has no effect on the one who is deceased, as their soul has already departed from their body and cannot be damaged through physical means. One thought is that we should consider the effect of this action on those who are still alive. Indeed, a sense of decency and humanity compels us to honor the dead by giving them a proper burial. Thus, if the dead are not properly buried, our sense of decency and humanity is offended, and we ponder the rationale for that action. It is God’s desire that we arrive at the following conclusions:

  • He hates sin – whether it is committed in the Old Testament or the New Testament
  • we must abhor what He detests and cherish what He embraces.

False Religion Worthless February 17, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 7:1-29.

Summary: In this passage, God commands Jeremiah to preach the following message at the gate of His temple in Jerusalem: the people of Jerusalem and Judah have failed to worship Him properly. Although they pretend to worship Him, they repeatedly sin against Him; for example, He charges them with:

  • idolatry
  • oppressing the disadvantaged
  • shedding innocent blood.

While they commit these sins, they rest on the assumption that God will not hold them accountable for their deeds. In particular, they assume that since God has placed His temple in their midst, He would never allow it to be destroyed; thus, they draw strength from its supposed permanence. Yet He disabuses them of that notion by citing the example of Shiloh; He punished their ancestors for their sins by allowing Shiloh to be destroyed, and so He will punish them for their sins by allowing His temple to be destroyed.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the people of Jerusalem and Judah assume that since God has placed His temple in their midst, He would not allow it to be destroyed. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

The prophet repeated the words the temple of the LORD because the Jews boasted, as it were, “We are invincible. How can enemies come to us? How can any calamity reach us? God lives in the middle of us. He has his court, his temple, and his Most Holy Place with us.”

There are no modern Christian theocracies – apart from the Vatican City – and so this passage lacks a primary application for most modern-day believers. In terms of a secondary application, though, perhaps believers who live in countries where a majority of the citizens are Christians should heed the warnings in this passage. Do we – either knowingly or unknowingly – assume that God views our nation with special favor? Are we hewing to His commands in verse 6 and striving to bless the disadvantaged in concrete ways? Indeed, as long as we strive to obey the second greatest commandment – and reject the assumption that our nation is uniquely blessed by God – then we can be confident that He will abound in spiritual blessings towards us.

Verse 18 displays the pervasive nature of idolatry in Jerusalem and Judah during the ministry of Jeremiah. Here, we see that all members of a particular family collaborate in the offering of sacrifices to an idol. Indeed, the depravity of the people of God even ensnared children. In light of this sobering fact, it is no wonder that Jeremiah’s repeated appeals for the people of God to repent were met with derision. Clearly God had to employ the Babylonians as His instrument of punishment; otherwise, the sinfulness of His people would continue to offend Him for generations to come.

Jerusalem Under Siege February 15, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 6.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah, proclaiming imminent judgment on the people of Jerusalem. He describes the battle plans of the Babylonian army concerning that city – including a siege. He stresses that Jerusalem will be besieged due to the detestable actions of its inhabitants. Although they claim to worship Him with pure hearts, their hearts are evil. He has repeatedly warned them – through His prophets – of the consequences of their actions, yet they have ignored all of those warnings. Thus, He rejects their acts of worship. Indeed, they are utterly worthless in His eyes, and so the Babylonians will cause them to mourn and wail.

Thoughts: In verse 20, we see that God rejects the external acts of worship of His people, as they are internally rotten. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

The prophet replies to those hypocrites who thought they had made expiation when they offered incense and sacrifices, as if that were all that was necessary in serving God. See Jeremiah 7:21-22; Psalm 50:8-10; Micah 6:7.

Jeremiah presents a more in-depth discussion of this point in the next passage, but for now, this passage should suffice as a challenge to modern-day believers. Clearly there is nothing inherently wrong with the following actions:

  • singing loudly – and on-key – during a worship set
  • praying passionately – and eloquently – in a small group setting
  • taking copious notes during a sermon.

Yet this passage compels us to consider how we live during the week – in relatively mundane moments. What occupies our time on weekdays? Is God pleased with those pursuits? Are we blessing the disadvantaged when we are not in the presence of other believers? Indeed, if we do not love our neighbors when other believers are not observing us, then God will not accept our acts of worship during formal church activities.

In verses 27-30, we see that God has tested His people and determined that they are wicked. This spurred me to consider the trials that I have experienced – and His purpose for those trials. I often wonder: given the trials that I have experienced, how will I respond to future trials? One thought is that since I am human, it would be unnatural for me to not feel some degree of sadness when confronted with a trial. Trials are meant to be painful to some degree, and God does not call us to avoid pain in those instances. That being said, the fact that I have overcome previous trials will give me confidence – in the midst of pain – that God is working through any future trials that I experience. In particular, I am learning that a confident mindset is a key aspect of His plan for me to:

  • rely less on the things of this life
  • rely more on the things of the next life.

I will not be able to completely learn that lesson in this life, but each confident thought in the midst of a trial is a small victory in that regard – and reveals some amount of spiritual mettle.

Not One is Upright February 11, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 5.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah, declaring that all social classes in Jerusalem and Judah are plagued by sinfulness. He charges them with the following sins:

  • rebellion against His authority
  • corruption
  • oppression of the disadvantaged
  • ignorance – as they should have acknowledged Him as their Creator and Sustainer.

Thus, He will employ the Babylonian army to punish them. In particular, the Babylonians will devastate their land and decimate their population.

Thoughts: Verses 12 and 13 include the reaction of the people of Jerusalem and Judah to Jeremiah’s prophecies. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 13:

Jeremiah exposes the contempt the people had for God. They said, “Oh, these are fine words the preachers speak from their pulpits. But everything they say comes to nothing. Whatever they denounce on us will fall on their own heads.”

I anticipate meeting Jeremiah in the next life and plying him with questions concerning his ministry. Did he pray that God would move in the hearts of his compatriots so that they would accept His message and repent of their sins? What were his thoughts and emotions as they scoffed at his attempts to rescue them from impending judgment? Did he ever harbor a desire to compel them to accept the truth of his message? Did he ever entertain the thought of abandoning his ministry and fleeing to a neighboring country?

Here, we see that God condemns His people, as they fail to acknowledge His sovereignty despite the evidence of His creation. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 24:

The people were more senseless than lifeless elements. “For you have eyes,” he says in summary, “and you have ears, and all human faculties. God gave you rain. Every year the earth has been fruitful. Are not your minds filled with God’s bounty? Yet you do not think he should be worshiped.”

This passage reminds me of Paul’s polemic against unbelievers in Romans 1:18-32, since they fail to acknowledge God as the Creator of the universe. Indeed, the ultimate cause of the nature of the universe has been debated since the beginning of time. In general, humans can employ their five senses in perceiving nature; for example, they can:

  • feel the warmth of the Sun
  • smell a field of flowers
  • behold the grandeur of a glacier.

While humans generally agree on the nature of these phenomena, they often make widely varying inferences regarding their ultimate cause. Sometimes I wonder why God has made it difficult for all humans to make the same inferences in this regard. Perhaps those differences reveal His holiness, as holiness has no meaning without wickedness.

Disaster From the North February 8, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 4:5-31.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah, warning the people of Jerusalem and Judah of His impending judgment. In particular, since they have repeatedly sinned against Him, He has chosen the Babylonians as His instrument of judgment; He will empower the Babylonian army to invade their kingdom from the north. Jeremiah then bemoans this portent of doom, as he cannot bear to observe the destruction of his homeland. Indeed, the Babylonians will wreak such havoc on Jerusalem and Judah that it will appear that God is reversing His act of creation through them.

Thoughts: In verses 19-21, we see that Jeremiah is deeply troubled by God’s impending punishment of His people and their land. These verses serve as a valuable reminder that this book (and the book of Lamentations) does not merely contain the words that God spoke through Jeremiah. Indeed, Jeremiah reminds us in these verses that he is a human being with passions and desires; his love for his people compels him to express these feelings. Even though God has divinely commissioned him as His prophet, he cannot help but wrestle with Him regarding His judgment. On a related note, I must admit that I cannot read Hebrew; I do envy those who are proficient in that regard, as I suspect that some of the nuances of Hebrew poetry have been lost when translating this passage into English.

Verses 23-28 highlight the scope of God’s impending destruction of the land of Judah due to the sinfulness of His people. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

In highly metaphorical language the prophet expands on the terror of God’s vengeance, that he might arouse the Jews, who were so stupid and careless…And wherever he looked, he saw dreadful tokens of God’s wrath that threatened the Jews with utter ruin.

The language that Jeremiah employs in these verses reminds me of the creation account in Genesis 1. Indeed, God could bring no greater calamity on the land of Judah than the effective reversal of His act of creation – returning it to a “formless and empty” state. When confronted with this dramatic warning, though, the people of Judah dismissed it as the ravings of a lunatic. Perhaps they could not believe that God would actually wreak havoc on their land – after all, they were His people and He was their God. Perhaps they believed that Jeremiah was merely being ostentatious. At any rate, Jeremiah would be vindicated – causing him a great deal of sorrow.

Unfaithful Israel February 4, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 3:6-4:4.

Summary: The events in this passage occur during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. At this time, God speaks through Jeremiah, comparing the deeds of the northern kingdom of Israel with those of the southern kingdom of Judah. Although both nations have been adulterous toward Him, He regards the adultery of Judah as egregious – as she persists in her idolatry, dismissing the punishment that has befallen her northern sister. Thus, He calls the people of both nations to acknowledge their sins, repent of them and return to Him. Moreover, He promises to unite Israel and Judah as one nation – where He is their King.

Thoughts: Here, God promises that He will forgive the people of Israel and Judah and restore them to a right relationship with Him – if they will repent of their sins. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verses 14 and 15 of chapter 3:

God intimates that the exile will be temporary, and the Israelites will again have a part in his inheritance, if they return to God in sincerity and truth…God promises that he will provide for the salvation of his people after their return from exile, so that they will not perish again.

Initially, I was confused by the fact that God demanded that His people repent of their sins – implying that deeds, in some form, were a prerequisite for His blessings. After mulling over this point, I was able to convince myself that it is right for God to require repentance from His sinful people. In particular, we know that:

  • on one hand, while repentance constitutes an action for a sinner, it is relatively straightforward; on the other hand, God could have demanded that a sinner perform an impossible task in order to receive His favor, e.g. demanding that a sinner grow wings and immediately fly to the moon
  • God cannot maintain a right relationship with an unrepentant sinner, as sin is antithetical to His holiness.

Of course, as sinners, we may – and often do – struggle to express genuine remorse over our sinful deeds. We must rely on the assistance of the Holy Spirit to apprehend the nature of our sins and delight in righteousness.

In verse 4 of chapter 4, we see that God commands the people of Israel and Judah to circumcise their hearts. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

In effect the prophet is saying, ‘When God commanded the descendants of Abraham to be circumcised, it was not his aim to have a small part of skin cut off. He had something higher in mind – that you should be circumcised in heart.’

This verse reminds me of a concept that I have been contemplating – namely, the simplicity of the Christian life. In particular, this world furnishes myriad opportunities for excess in our lives; we are readily distracted by the Internet, high-end electronic gadgets, and/or our favorite sports teams. While these things are not inherently sinful, they can slowly displace God from our hearts if we do not strive to place them in the proper perspective. Thus, we need to circumcise our hearts on a daily basis – cutting away cruft and refocusing on the simplicity that constitutes our heavenly calling. Indeed, my thought is that the Christian life is an exercise in daily circumcision of one’s heart. Cutting away cruft can be a painful endeavor, yet God calls us to that crucial task; thus, we must bravely meet that challenge.

Israel Forsakes God February 2, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 2:1-3:5.

Summary: In this passage, God reiterates the charges that He leveled against the people of Israel and Judah in the previous passage:

  • they have forsaken Him
  • they have turned to other gods.

They have manifested their sinful disposition by:

  • signing treaties with pagan nations
  • committing acts of ritual prostitution
  • abusing the weak and poor in their midst.

God has responded to their sinful deeds by:

  • compelling their pagan allies to break their treaties with them
  • enabling their enemies to plunder them
  • striking their land with a severe drought.

The people of Judah, though, respond to God by becoming more obstinate in their sinfulness.

Thoughts: Here, we see that God levels a charge of idolatrous behavior against the people of Israel and Judah. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 25 of chapter 2:

He simply means: The people are so insane that they cannot be reformed, no matter how much God tries to check their excesses, through which they were led away into following idols and superstitions. Whenever there was any danger they ran until their feet were bare and their throats were parched, for they went off to Egypt and then to Assyria, as we have already seen.

As a modern-day believer, I often struggle with an attitude of superiority towards the idolatrous Israelites. In particular, I scorn them for prostrating themselves before idols of wood and stone, and I assert, “I would never commit such a foolish sin today.” I need to remember, though, that each generation has struggled with idolatry. Perhaps I should consider how I spend my time and resources; do I dedicate the bulk of my energies to fruitful endeavors? Modern-day idols (e.g. the Internet) are pernicious; I need more strength from the Holy Spirit to achieve daily victories in that regard and bear more fruit for His glory.

In verse 26 of chapter 2, we see that there were many false prophets in Israel and Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

It is as if he said they were corrupt from top to bottom and now showed total contempt for God.

This spurred me to consider the spiritual environment in Judah during Jeremiah’s ministry. It is evident that Jeremiah regularly battled a plethora of false prophets as he delivered God’s words to his compatriots. Perhaps those false prophets constantly assured the people of Judah that God was pleased with them and that the calamities that Israel had suffered would not befall them. When Judah experienced any adversities, those false prophets may have refused to connect them with God’s judgment of their sinfulness. The people of Judah would have struggled to apprehend the truth in Jeremiah’s message as the false prophets skillfully plied them with eloquent falsehoods. Unfortunately, discerning spiritual truth is still difficult for modern-day believers. Truly we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to act with love and humility towards others who may disagree with us on various points of controversy.