August 25, 2013

Jeremiah – A Character Study

Passage: Jeremiah 1: 4-10

For today’s message, I would like to do something different. I would like to present to you a character study of the one of the prophets from the Old Testament – Jeremiah.

The book of Jeremiah and the book of Lamentations are two wonderful pieces of literature in the Old Testament and cover a pivotal period in the history of the people of Israel, the forerunners for us in the faith.

Jeremiah was born at a time in history when the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had been separate for about 200 years. Those who followed Solomon had squabbled over power and prestige. Such squabbling had led to a division of the nation. The subsequent weakening of the whole led to two kings with two centres of worship and intense rivalry over which centre God was most present at. The division eventually led to first the kingdom of Israel being overrun by the Assyrians and the people led into exile in 721 BC and then to the downfall of the kingdom of Judah and the exile to Babylonia in 587 BC.  This was the world into which Jeremiah was born.

For us today we may find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when what we know as the Old Testament could ever have been lost but that is exactly what had happened before Jeremiah’s time.  In fact, the oral tradition handed down from generation to generation, which was the method of transmission in those days, had been perverted to the point where there was no clear understanding of what the people of God were to believe or follow. The division within the nation had not only split the kingdom and the family of David but also led to splits within the priesthood. Such divisions led to many and strange things happening some of which we read about in the story of the kings and through the exploits of such great figures as Elijah.  What we have come to understand in religious studies as the Deuteronomic tradition did not arise until this time.

According to tradition, copies of the Law were to be kept by the priests in the temple and by the kings and read aloud to the people at every major festival. Of course, through the corruption of the kings, such practice ceased and one king in particular, was so adamant that the scrolls not be read that eventually as the generations passed, all knowledge of what the true doctrine was had disappeared from public view. But, as in every age, there were faithful followers who ensured that the tradition and true doctrine not be lost; and so it is that Hilkiah produces a copy of the scroll and gives it to King Josiah. It sparks a renewal of the true worship of God in the land but it proves to be too little too late to save the people from the coming destruction of the nation and their exile into captivity.

This is the world into which Jeremiah is born and the world to which he brings his prophetic message. Unlike some of the other prophets of the Old Testament, Jeremiah comes from a priestly family. It certainly would have been expected of him that he would become a priest and I am sure that his father would have been schooling him in the true tradition of their faith and teaching him from the scroll of the Torah. It is an interesting question to ask as to why the priests who held this scroll at Anathoth did not bring this forward before but probably they knew that only King Josiah would be receptive to receiving it and be prepared to restore the people and the kingdom to the true worship of God.

As I have already indicated, this was a turbulent time in the history of the people, especially with regard to their relationship to God. Jeremiah is a young man from a small village in the land of the smallest of the tribes of Israel - the tribe of Benjamin. If you remember, Benjamin was - along with Joseph - one of the two children born to Jacob’s favoured wife, Rachel.  And so throughout the history of the people, Benjamin holds a special place.  And so it is significant that a renewal of the faith of the people come from a place of great meaning for the nation.

So hear we have this young man who probably sees himself as one who will perhaps succeed his father one day as a servant in the temple at Anathoth. Now suddenly he is thrust into a position where he will be sent to a people who have determined for themselves what is the truth about God and God’s plans for their lives and who have decided for themselves what path they will follow. He is given a little insight into what the future holds for him, the prophecies which he will have to deliver. He is given an insight into the difficulties and personal sacrifices which such prophecies will bring. And unlike many other prophets, Jeremiah will suffer greatly – not only emotionally and spiritually but physically to the point of death. His future is not a bright one and yet he is determined to take on this calling from God.

Almost every prophet whose words have been recorded in the Bible has a personal story of their calling. At first we may think this simply to be a nice way to introduce the prophet to those who may not have known him but such stories are critical for they provide the reader with a foundation for understanding whether or not the prophet is truly sent by God.

Jeremiah is the first prophet to speak so directly about his calling to be a prophet. From what is said, we learn that God had a plan for Jeremiah long before the day when the Lord first spoke to him. Such words help Jeremiah to understand that God did not just choose him on a whim to be the one to go to the people and deliver the prophecies that would upset the people but that this was a plan that God had, knowing what had occurred in the nation. God impressed upon the young Jeremiah that he had been created for this very purpose.  In many ways it seems astounding and perhaps unbelievable that someone could be chosen by God in this way to be His prophet and yet the history recorded for us in the Bible and even today reveals that God continues to choose people to be prophets, teachers, and pastors and to fulfil so many other roles of service.

In his lifetime Jeremiah would move through a period of history as catastrophic as the period in time in the first half of the 20th century. He began to prophesy in the last times of a great nation with its temples and priestly orders and kings. He would witness terrible strife and oppression and see the destruction of the nation’s whole life. He would be challenged to help them find meaning in the midst of such turmoil and be challenged in his own life to discover how to truly worship God when all the familiar places had disappeared. He would be challenged to discover and communicate to the people a God who continued to love them in spite of all the calamities that had befallen them. And yet, until they turned their hearts again to God and saw their lives as in God’s hands, he could not speak a word of peace to them.  Between a rock and a hard place, Jeremiah remained faithful and spoke only the words God gave him. The lamentations of Jeremiah reveal much to us of the personal struggle and sacrifice of this man yet to the very end he remained faithful.

Jeremiah is seen as one of the great figures of the Old Testament. He is one of the communion of saints who has preceded us and yet he would see himself as just a person who was called by God and given a task. He never asked for it nor did he want it but he was faithful to the call of God and gave his life in service.

We may never have an experience like Jeremiah yet each of us can answer the call of God in our own lives. Each of us has a task to fulfil. It may be big or it may be small but whatever it is, when we see the hand of God in our life and respond to it, we have done what is required of us.

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