One of the repeated themes in the Scriptures is the imminent judgment that is about to occur because of human rebellion against God. Think back to the Noah and the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of the Northern Kingdom under the Assyrians, the destruction of Jerusalem first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans. We are now living in the hour of Christ’s return. For the believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ, it will be a day of redemption, but for the lost, a day of judgment. One of the dangers of life is ignoring or recasting the past with the desire to create a different narrative in the future apart from the past, and even redefine current realities. The problem is that what happened in the past is a tale that must be heard and understood in its context and learned from, otherwise we will repeat its mistakes and suffer once again the consequences of unwise decisions.
In the book of Jeremiah God decrees an indictment against His own people who are making tragic decisions that will ultimately lead to terrible consequences. In Jeremiah 19 through the first six verses of chapter 20, we see both the most challenging message and the response to that message by those who were in the established political and religious leadership. They were leading the nation astray. In the texts we discover three movements that defines Judah’s state of apostasy from God. What is more compelling for us is the amazing parallelism that is happening in our times. How do these biblical truths impact the way we live, or ought to live?
THE FIRST MOVEMENT THAT DEFINED JUDAH’S STATE OF APOSTASY IS GIVEN IN THE PROPHETIC VERDICT
God, who knows what the future holds, knew that Judah was past responding to the wooing of His love and grace. They had continually rejected His overtures and calls for repentance and a return to His ways. They were now deeply entrenched in their state of denial, deception, idolatry, and a destructive lifestyle. What is being seen is transpiring both at the national level and being lived out in the lives of the vast majority of Judeans. What can be stated in our text is as true today. We see the destructive pattern of sin that keeps people from God, but we are also embracing many of the values of our current society. God calls Jeremiah to return to the potter’s house not as a spectator but rather to purchase a piece of pottery in order to make a dramatic point.
This is what the LORD says: ‘Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah and the people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.
They have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.
They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.
So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter.[i]
Once again, Jeremiah is obedient to God’s mission and secures the finished piece of pottery and brings some of the leaders of Judah to the Valley of Ben Hinnom. It is amazing that some of the leadership of the people and priests would go with Jeremiah. We need to remember that Jeremiah was from the priestly cast. He may even be related to some of these people and his ministry was obviously attracting attention. What was he up to?
That he could convince these important individuals in Judean society to accompany him indicates that Jeremiah was something of a force to be reckoned with and could not be easily ignored.[ii]
Where was this location and what was the significance of bringing them to the Valley of Ben Hinnom? Steve Barabas relates:
The location of the valley has been much disputed. All three of the valleys around Jerusalem have been identified with it—the Kidron to the east, The Tyropoeon in the center, and the Wadi er-Rababi on the west…which has the most support.[iii]
It was in this valley that child sacrifices were offered in the past to Molech and now in Jeremiah’s day to Baal. In their recent history, under the reforms of King Josiah, Josiah had destroyed those pagan altars and had halted this abomination before God. But after Josiah’s untimely death, the nation had reverted back to their old idolatrous ways. Josiah had brought about a legislative reform, but it had not brought about a deeper heart transformation.
He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.
He removed from the entrance to the temple of the LORD the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Melek. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun.[iv]
It later became a place for burning garbage. Because of the repugnant association with the smoldering fires of garbage being burned, Gehenna (lit. valley of Hinnom) is the NT word commonly translated “hell.[v]
In other words, this becomes a place of Divine judgment for sin. John Thompson explains that “A change of name signified a change of function…”[vi] What was once the Valley of Hinnom now becomes the valley of slaughter.
Since Jeremiah is speaking this judgment speech at least in part to the kings of Judah (19:3), it suggests that Jehoiakim rebuilt the place and started using it again. …Jeremiah announces a name change. In the future it will be called the Valley of Slaughter. The slaughter will be that of the Judeans who practice such horrific rites.[vii]
Their current idolatrous practices were leading the nation away from God. That is always the nature of sin in our lives. It champions death in order to sustain a lifestyle that is abhorrent to God. Unfortunately sin blinds us to the real value of life and that which is most sacred and valuable as a culture. It creates an inverted value system and vilifies what is sacred and esteems what is considered an abomination to God.
In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals.
I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of the wounds.
I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.[viii]
Walter Brueggemann relates the nature of this graphic description that ought to jar them as to what they can anticipate in their future.
The simple announcement of death, however, is not rhetorically adequate. We are offered a picture of bodies piled up as food for birds (v. 7). The bodies will be uncared for, unprotected, and dishonored. The city, envisioned as a pile of ruins, will be a place of mocking (v. 8). The famine will be so great that people will desperately act as cannibals against neighbors and their own children (v. 9).[ix]
Jeremiah is simply restating the results of the broken Mosaic Covenant from Deuteronomy. They had failed to keep their obligations to God and now instead of blessings they would experience the curses. The examples that Jeremiah expresses are stated in the book of Deuteronomy.
The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them for one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all kingdoms on earth.
Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.[x]
Jeremiah lived beyond this hour of judgment, and witnessed the carnage and the capitulation of Judah and her capital, Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Later in the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah poetically describes in snapshot form, the carnage of the hour he warned against.
Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets. Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps.
The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment without a hand to help her.
Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.
With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.[xi]
What a graphic picture of what happens when sin is allowed to run its course in people’s lives.
THE SECOND MOVEMENT THAT DEFINED JUDAH’S STATE OF APOSTASY IS THE SHATTERED RESULTS
God was about to overrule all the plans that the people had made in order to resist His judgment that was coming through the nation of Babylon. They were forging military alliances. They were busy sacrificing their children to foreign gods in order to be spared, but none of this would avail them deliverance. What they should have done would have been to repent and return to the Lord, but they had refused.
Are we moving toward that very place in our society today? Are we as God’s people indifferent to what God is calling us to? The Christian life is a life of separation. We are to come out from among them, to not embrace the values of a corrupt society. God is calling us to be a holy people, set apart for him. Now Jeremiah acts prophetically in order to demonstrate what is about to happen.
Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.
This is what I will do to this place and to those who live here, declares the LORD. I will make this city like Topheth.
The houses in Jerusalem and those of the kings of Judah will be defiled like this place, Topheth—all the houses where they burned incense on the roofs to all the starry hosts and poured out drink offerings to other gods.[xii]
The idea of dashing to pieces pottery is a poetic sign of the complete devastation that would occur. The Psalmist in speaking of the rule of God speaks of the nations all being brought under God’s authority.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron, you will dash them to pieces like pottery.
Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, your rulers of the earth.[xiii]
To demonstrate this, Jeremiah broke a clay jar and said, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired”’ (v. 11, NIV). The nation was beyond discipline (2:23), beyond prayer (7:16), and now, beyond repair! They had so hardened themselves against the Lord that all hope was gone. …Can nations and individuals sin so greatly that even God can’t restore them? Yes, they can. As long as the clay is pliable in the hands of the potter, he can make it again if it is marred (18:4), but when the clay becomes hard, it’s too late to reform it. Judgment is the only response to willful apostasy.[xiv]
Obviously, these rulers were indifferent to the warnings that God was bringing to them through Jeremiah. Here also, we see that the people were engaged in personal religion from their households. Upon their flat roofs they were worshiping the starry hosts. This speaks of astrology, the idea that lives are shaped, guided, and destined by the movement of the heavenly bodies. This is another rejection of trusting in God alone for their lives. God alone determines the destiny of our personal lives and the world in which we live.
Jeremiah then returned from Topheth, where the LORD had sent him to prophesy, and stood in the court of the LORD’S temple and said to all the people,
‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them, because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words.’[xv]
Here the message is brought to the temple area in order for all the people to have the opportunity to respond to the message. Obviously it is a greater sin to rebel against knowledge. Knowing the right way and not embracing it is far more significant than groping in the dark, trying to find one’s way. What is God telling us here? Simply put, we need yield to God and obey His words. It is not about having an understanding and knowledge alone, but rather it is about applying what He says into our lives.
THE THIRD MOVEMENT THAT DEFINED JUDAH’S STATE OF APOSTASY IS THE HARDENED ATTITUDE AND AGGRESSION AGAINST THE TRUTH
Though Jeremiah is speaking here against Judah, this message applies to all of God’s people throughout history. Whenever we stand and speak the truth as revealed in God’s word, we can anticipate opposition. What shocks most people is where the opposition comes from. Here we find it right in the lives of those who knew the law. In other words, these people ought to have been allies, but as we will see, become the greatest opponents of God’s servant.
When the priest Pashhur son of Immer, the official in charge of the temple of the LORD, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things, he had Jeremiah the prophet beaten and put in stocks at the Upper gate of Benjamin at the LORD’S temple.
The next day, when Pashhur released him from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, ‘The LORD’S name for you is not Pashhur, but Terror on Every Side.
For this is what the LORD says: ‘I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; with your own eyes you will see them fall by the sword of their enemies. I will give all Judah into the hands of the king of Babylon, who will carry them away to Babylon or put them to the sword.
I will deliver all the wealth of this city into the hands of their enemies—all its products, all its valuables and all the treasures of the kings of Judah. They will take it away as plunder and carry it off to Babylon.
And you Pashhur, and all who live in your house will go into exile to Babylon. There you will die and be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied lies.[xvi]
While Jeremiah’s actions at the Potsherd Gate provokes very little, here at the Temple; at the hearts of the place of worship; Jeremiah’s words trigger an immediate response of suppression. Jeremiah is arrested, beaten, and detained by being placed in the stocks.
Priests were guardians of the holy space, and so Pashhur was surely within his rights to punish someone whom he thought was a false prophet (Deut. 17:12). However, since Jeremiah’s prophecy was not false, the story condemns Pashhur.[xvii]
Jeremiah is perceived to be an enemy of the establishment, but we need to be reminded that this was a leadership that was deeply compromised. Worship of idols were occurring even in the Temple. Jeremiah’s contemporary Ezekiel sees the vision of idolatrous worship even in the temple precincts.
He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the LORD and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east.[xviii]
Two views of reality clash and there can be no compromise. …Jeremiah’s scathing response, rather than his punishment, is the point of the text. …His response is in three parts. First, he dramatically renames the temple administration (Jer. 20:3). A changed name witnesses to a changed reality. The temple was to bring shalom [peace], but it brings terror (cf. 6:25). The administrative head of the temple is renamed ‘Terror on Every Side, or ‘Surrounded by trembling.’ The temple (represented by Pashhur) and the city are now marked by terror and not peace. The temple cannot keep its promises. The system is under judgment and has failed. It may mouth shalom, but it embodies terror. It is therefore subject to God’s terror.[xix]
What is being spoken against Pashhur is really what is being spoken against the entire system. It’s a systemic failure. The population from the top down have turned their backs on God and are trusting in the mere form of godliness. It is a shame, an outward ritual that is denying the very power and presence of God to have His way in their lives, both nationally and individually. God is revealing this rebellion through his messenger, Jeremiah. While they are saying peace, God is decrying judgment.
What can we take away from this historically relevant moment for our own time? What is the lesson we need to heed? When a people turn their back on God, even though they have an outward form of godliness but there is no evidence of an inward vitality with God, the outcome will be hypocrisy. Sin will run rampant. Our focus on God’s nature will be skewed if we only look with delight on the love and grace of God, yet neglect His righteousness, holiness and justice. It is only as we embrace God in His totality will we reflect His attitude toward sin, beginning within our own lives. We will hate sin, and desire to see it curbed in our own lives and within the greater society in which we live. Listen again to the warnings of Peter in his second letter.
1. We are to guard against false prophets and teachers who introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord.
2. Many will follow their depraved conduct and bring the way of truth into disrepute.
3. This is motivated by greed as fabricated stories deceive their listeners.
Peter points out that God has judged and God will judge.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned…
If he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood…
If he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah…and made them an example of what will happen to the ungodly;[xx]
What can we expect? What was the response of the righteous? Noah was a preacher of righteousness… Lot, a righteous man distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless… tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard. What is our response to the prevailing values of our society? Is there a sense of urgency in warning our generation? Are our souls vexed? Are we concerned about others hearing the words of salvation and hope from the impending judgment? Are we sharing our faith with those around us? Is there any urgency in our hearts toward those around us? When we lose sight of the justice and imminent judgment of God, we lose a sense of urgency in sharing the gospel with others.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.
KJV (Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; …[xxi]
Let us pray that we will recover that sense in our lives of the urgency of the hours, the lostness of humanity and the need to come to Christ in submission and surrender.
[i] Jeremiah 19:1-6 The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 143-44.
[iii] Steve Barabas, Valley of Hinnom, Merrill C. Tenney, Ed. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), 160-61.
[iv] 2 Kings 23:10-11.
[v] F. B. Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 186.
[vi] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 450.
[vii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 144.
[viii] Jeremiah 19:7-9.
[ix] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 176.
[x] Deuteronomy 28:25-26.
[xi] Lamentations 4:5-6, 9-10.
[xii] Jeremiah 19:10-13.
[xiii] Psalm 2:8-10.
[xiv] Warren Wiersbe, Be Decisive, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 89-90.
[xv] Jeremiah 19:14-15.
[xvi] Jeremiah 20:1-6.
[xvii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 146.
[xviii] Ezekiel 8:16.
[xix] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 179-80.
[xx] 2 Peter 2:4-6.
[xxi] 2 Corinthians 5:11.