Every Christmas, a classic movie is replayed, entitled, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.,’ The story’s theme is on the value of a life. The central character, George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is an optimistic person who plans after he graduates to leave his little town and see the world, but his plans change when he is needed to work so that his brother can go off to college. George ends up working for his father in the ‘Savings and Loan’ credit union that helps people in their community get loans for their homes and businesses. One of the employees of the ‘Savings and Loan’ is George’s uncle, an absent-minded person, who one day forgets a large amount of money at the competitor’s bank run by a man by the name of Potter. Potter, who is unscrupulous and not forthcoming, helps create a financial crisis for the Savings and Loan, which George now is in charge of after the death of his father.
Frantic with deep concern, George wishes that he had never been born, and then in a moment of despair tries to end his life by jumping off a bridge. But God has heard not only George’s cry of despair, but also the prayers of the many people who realize that George is in a time of crisis. So God sends an angel to rescue him from the icy waters of the river below.
Potter never does return the forgotten money, though in the end, George realizes two important things. One is that his life really did matter, even though he never traveled the world, nor did he do any heroic thing like his brother who saved the lives of many people as a pilot during the Second world War, and that what George did for those in his life, like saving his brother from drowning to helping people in financial crisis, had an impact that he couldn’t see, understand or imagine. George also realized that in spite of the ‘Savings and Loans’ financial loss, people respond with such generosity that the crisis is averted. The writer and producer of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, Frank Capra, is trying to give an insight into the value of a single life; that each life matters. Most people feel that their lives are insignificant in the larger scheme of things, but that is not the way God sees each of our lives. In Jeremiah 5, we come to understand that the way we live affects our community beyond our comprehension. Here in this chapter we are going to discover some critical elements in what brings God’s favor into our communities, and what doesn’t.
THE FIRST ELEMENT THAT BRINGS FAVOR INTO COMMUNITIES IS RESPONDING TO GOD’S CHALLENGE
Are we living in a righteous and honest manner before God and others? Do we see a connection between how we live and the consequences of our lives? God here is seen challenging Jeremiah to find a righteous person in a city filled with perversion and corruption. God commands Jeremiah to search out the community to find one person who is living in obedience to God’s covenant requirements. Listen to God’s indictment against the city of Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonian invasion.
Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.[i]
God is still looking for us to walk righteously before Him. In writing to Timothy, Paul challenges him to flee contention and strife, eager for money. He summarizes what we, as God’s children, should be pursuing.
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.[ii]
Here in Jeremiah, we see that God further points out that there are many who profess faith. They are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. “Although they say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ still they are swearing falsely (Jeremiah 5:2).” So, what is God is saying to Jeremiah? That if there is one person who lives righteously, He will spare the city from judgment. Walter Brueggemann relates:
Yahweh is desperately seeking a way of forgiveness. Yahweh is ready, willing, and yearning to forgive, but Yahweh will not engage in cheap grace.[iii]
There must be a turning to God, a repentant heart. What we discover from our text is that there is no evidence of that happening. Jeremiah seeks for one person who will model what God requires, but cannot find even one. This brings to mind the moment in Abraham’s life where he is interceding in prayer for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God had revealed to him that He was about to destroy them because of their unrighteousness. Abraham then asks that God, who is righteous, if will He not spare those who are righteous. As we follow the dialogue between Abraham and God (cf. Gen. 18:16-33), Abraham secures from God a promise that if there are but ten righteous men the city, the city will be spared. Unfortunately, there is only one, Abraham’s nephew Lot, which God delivers from the city before destroying it.
It is as if God is now saying to Jeremiah: ‘It seems to me that Jerusalem is worse than pagan Sodom; prove me wrong, if you can, by producing just one righteous man.[iv]
THE SECOND ELEMENT THAT BRINGS FAVOR INTO COMMUNITIES IS A PROPER CONFESSION
Do we agree with God’s assessment in our lives, or do we hardened our hearts and reject God’s standards for our lives? Jeremiah is unable to find a single person in the entire city that would meet God’s criteria in order to spare the city of Jerusalem. God is thereby justified in allowing destruction to come to the city. Jeremiah begins by seeking out any who would be responsive to God, but finds that even though God has disciplined them, they refused to be corrected. He realizes that they are indifferent toward the things of God.
LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent.
I thought, ‘These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God.[v]
A. Jeremiah begins with those he calls the ‘the poor.’
This is not so much an economic title, but those who are spiritually poor are described as those who ‘know not the way of the LORD or what God requires.’ This is a poverty of spiritual understanding.
Who then were the poor Jeremiah had in mind? The reference may well be to the citizens of Jerusalem, who were insensitive to God’s chastenings and unable or unwilling to read the signs of the times because of their preoccupation with their own affairs… There was no intention on their part to submit their lives and their business dealings to God’s scrutiny. They hardly believed that God would care. God was not in their thoughts or in their hearts although they took his name constantly on their lips. It must have come as a shock to Jeremiah to discover that despite Josiah’s reformation, which removed the outward signs of false worship and swept and garnished the house of Judah, the house was empty (Luke 11:24-25).[vi]
Jesus spoke of lives who were cleansed by God, but were not filled with God’s life. Often people make decisions to clean up their lives, but the only true means of transformation requires the power and presence of God within our lives. Jesus describes it this way for us in Luke’s gospel.
‘When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through acrid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’
When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.
Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.[vii]
Jesus had spoken of this when casting out demons, that the house needed to be filled before greater evil would arise back into a person’s life. It is not enough to acknowledge evil in one’s life, we must displace it with something or someone greater. Even though God had disciplined them, they refused to respond to correction and therefore all that was left was to experience judgment.
B. Then Jeremiah turns to those who are leaders.
These are described as those who understand the way of the Lord. He assumes that those who were leaders and priests would understand the significance of their decisions and how that their decisions impact the lives of others. This is even more disappointing. Here too, Jeremiah realizes that they were in rebellion against God and desired to live their own lives apart from God and His requirements.
So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God. But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds.[viii]
They were actively acting out against God and His authority. These are the people who are knowingly breaking the covenant and desiring freedom from God. We find this expressed so powerfully in the Psalms.
Why do the nations conspire and the people’s plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.[ix]
One of the things that sin produces is a desire to flee from God. We see that in the garden of Eden, when both Adam and Eve were trying to hide from God. So what are the consequences of willful sin? It will bring judgment. Sin always has negative consequences in our lives.
Therefore a lion from the forest will attack them, a wolf from the desert will ravage them, a leopard will lie in wait near their towns to tear to pieces any who venture out, for their rebellion is great and their backslidings many.[x]
Here we see the consequences described symbolically as attacks by wild animals, who will devour and tear apart their prey. It is a picture of the coming invasion as nations are often described as ferocious animals that devour their subjects.
THE THIRD ELEMENT THAT BRINGS FAVOR INTO COMMUNITIES IS TO UNDERSTAND GOD’S CASE AGAINST US
Are we open for God to search our hearts and point out to us what needs to change by His grace? Are we willing to confess that we have failed? Do we really understand how God can justify those who are guilty and the price that it costs Him to do so? Here we see God bringing his charges against the people. It begins with a question in verse 7 and ends with one in verse 9.
‘Why should I forgive you? Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods. I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.
They are well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife.
Should I not punish them for this? declares the LORD, ‘Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?[xi]
Here we find an interesting metaphor: the well-fed, lusty stallion. We need to realize that the great temptations in life come when we are enjoying the blessings of God. Moses had warned the generation going into the promise land that when they were full, that they were not to neglect their relationship to God. Walter Brueggemann explains the metaphor of the horses.
The image of ‘lusty stallions’ surely alludes to sexual infidelity and perversion, but it is also a metaphor for shameless self-assertion. Judah is too full of self. ‘Horses in the OT are regularly found only among those who, like kings, assert their own power and seize initiative for their own lives. This same fullness of self-sufficiency, which leads to moral disorientation, also leads to religious self-destruction through the mocking of God (Jer. 5:12-13). Yahweh is now trivialized so that Yahweh may be mocked (cf. Zeph. 1:12). Jerusalem imagines that it is immune from Yahweh’s governance or threat.[xii]
In other words, the words of prophetic warning are seen as mere wind. God here is stating that He is justified in bringing judgment upon these people because they have violated their covenant with Him. They have been unfaithful. Their attitude is such that they feel free from any consequence because God has not acted quickly in the past.
Go through her vineyards and ravage them, but do not destroy them completely. Strip off her branches, for these people do not belong to the LORD.
The people of Israel and the people of Judah have been utterly unfaithful to me,’ declares the LORD.
They have lied about the LORD; they said, ‘He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine.
The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them.’[xiii]
Let the warnings coming from the prophets now be fulfilled, is one way to understand verse 13. How often God’s longsuffering and patience is misunderstood for God’s unwillingness or inability to address evil. We know that God is longsuffering, not willing that any should perish (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9). God affirms that Jeremiah is speaking on His behalf.
Therefore this is what the LORD God Almighty says: ‘Because the people have spoken these words, I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes.
People of Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I am bringing a distant nation against you— an ancient and enduring nation, a people whose language you do not know, whose speech you do not understand.
Their quivers are like an open grave; all of them are mighty warriors.[xiv]
They will devour your harvests and food, devour your sons and daughters; they will devour your flocks and herds, devour your vines and fig trees. With the sword they will destroy the fortified cities in which you trust.
God is about to destroy the things that people are trusting in. Here we read of the destruction of the fortified cities. Walter Brueggemann explains:
The end of these cities means the end of organized life and the exposure of urban life to a variety of threats that the walls currently stave off. Urban life is under assault and is sure to end, bringing down with it all institutional and structural supports for public life. With the destruction of the walls, the coming of social chaos is not far behind.[xv]
Yet despite this judgment, God will temper it in mercy. The exile is a judgment that is designed to lead to repentance.
‘Yet even in those days,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not destroy you completely.
And when the people ask, ‘Why has the LORD our God done all this to us?’ you will tell them, ‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your own land, so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own.’[xvi]
The question raised in times of discipline is, ‘why has the Lord done this or allowed it?’
After all, the people likely grew up learning of their special relationship with Yahweh and the judgment will throw that relationship into question. They suffer because they betrayed God by worshiping other gods. They have broken the covenant. Since they have worshipped foreign gods, they will now serve foreigners in a strange land.[xvii]
THE FINAL ELEMENT THAT BRINGS FAVOR INTO COMMUNITIES IS THE REALIZATION OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIN
In essence, we need to understand that ‘sin deprives us of good.’ The remainder of the chapter is a poetic description of what happens when we stop trusting God and do our own thing. This is not just for the people of that time, but for people of all times. We need to have a proper understanding of how great God is and how awful sin is.
‘Announce this to the descendants of Jacob and proclaim it in Judah:
Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear:
Should you not fear me?’ declares the LORD. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence? I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting barrier it cannot cross. The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail; they may roar, but they cannot cross it.
But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts; they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say to themselves, ‘Let us fear the LORD our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’
Your wrongdoings have kept these away; your sins have deprived you of good.[xviii]
A. What is God revealing through Jeremiah?
Often, we are viewing life through a distorted lens. Jeremiah is saying that they were seeing but not perceiving, hearing but not understanding and responding appropriately.
The moral failure of Israel derives from its ‘practical atheism (v. 21). Israel is indicted for iniquity, sins (v. 25), wickedness (v. 26), treachery (v. 27). The result is that they are great/rich/fat/sleek, that is, satiated and self-sufficient (vv. 27-28). Israel exploits and abuses. The particularity of the offense is that they judge unjustly (cf. Deut. 16:18), they exploit orphans and fail to defend needy people (v. 28).[xix]
In our day, we look at technology as one of the expressions of humanistic sovereignty over our lives. Rather than seeing our creativity as a gift from God, accountable to God, to be stewarded before God, we have rejected God and see humanity as our Savior. We are trying to play God, in every realm of life. This is seen from such things as how we live, what we do and ultimately how we die. Our society has taken matters into our own hands and God is no longer seen as the One we seek guidance from nor walk in His ways.
What we see in verses 20-25 is the power of our Creator. It is God who sets boundaries both in the created world, as illustrated by the waves, as well as the One who sets moral boundaries for all of our lives. When we trample moral boundaries, we wreak havoc in society. Tremper Longman reminds us of the significance of ancient mythologies.
The sea represents the power of chaos, but God firmly pushes back chaos to allow the order of creation to exist. Further, God is the provider of the life-giving rains (v. 24). This reference is particularly germane, since the people of God are tempted to worship a god like Baal who is a storm deity. Their sins have deprived them of good, like the crops.[xx]
While creation was under the control of its Creator, here Jeremiah describes the boundaries in which the waves were contained, but the one element that was in rebellion was Yahweh’s own people. Rather than reverence God, in whom we are created in His image, the people are making sinful choices, thereby depriving themselves of the good that God desired to do on their behalf.
B. Here are some specific sins that are wreaking havoc in their society.
‘Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people.
Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just case of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?’ declares the LORD. ‘Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?
‘A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies, and the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?[xxi]
What is being described here is nothing short of exploitation of people. All of the institutions in Jeremiah’s hour were geared to continue to facilitate those abuses. Rather than serving those in the greatest need, they were abusing and exploiting them. Yet, as it states here, the leaders and the people would rather believe a lie, than experience the truth.
We can rail against institutions, but what about in our own personal lives? As I explained last week, the real start of transformation is within the grasp of each of us, as we address what is in our own hearts.
Think about the question that God raised to Jeremiah. Could there be found one righteous person in order to spare the city? Unfortunately, at this moment in Israel’s history, Jerusalem was completely given over to injustice and selfishness. This is not just the condition of Jerusalem. This is the condition of all humanity for all time. The Scriptures declare that there is no one who is righteous, not one. Is there one life that could turn away the judgment of God? Thankfully there is one, His name is Jesus. Jesus was without sin. He always dealt with integrity and honesty in every situation.
He gave an honest presentation of his deity, performing miracle to prove his divine power over creation. Jesus Christ dealt honestly with his disciples, not hiding from them the necessity of his own sufferings and death. Jesus Christ also dealt honestly with sinners, like the woman at the well (John 4), exposing their secrets and inviting them to trust in him. And Jesus Christ dealt honestly with his enemies, like the Pharisees, confronting the enmity in their hearts. There was nothing false or deceptive in anything Jesus said or did. Jeremiah was told to look for one man “who … seeks the truth.” Jesus Christ not only sought the truth—he is the Truth! At the beginning of his Gospel, John says Jesus Christ came into the world “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). That is truth with a capital T, the Truth of God himself. Thus when the disciples wanted to know the way to eternal life, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6).[xxii]
God can justify the unjust because Jesus became a sacrificial substitute for us. Will we confess our need, our sin and our desire to be forgiven and allow God’s life to dwell within us bringing about a transformation of our lives? Will we say yes to God’s provision for our sin, by accepting Christ or will we harden our hearts and live in denial that there are any consequences for our sin?
[i] Jeremiah 5:1, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] 1 Timothy 6:11-12.
[iii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 64.
[iv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 55.
[v] Jeremiah 5:3-4.
[vi] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 238.
[vii] Luke 11:24-26.
[viii] Jeremiah 5:5.
[ix] Psalm 2:1-3.
[x] Jeremiah 5:6.
[xi] Jeremiah 5:7-9.
[xii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 64.
[xiii] Jeremiah 5:10-13.
[xiv] Jeremiah 5:14-17.
[xv] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 66.
[xvi] Jeremiah 5:18-19.
[xvii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 58.
[xviii] Jeremiah 5:20-25.
[xix] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 68.
[xx] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 59.
[xxi] Jeremiah 5:26-31.
[xxii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: from sorrow to hope, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 93.