DISCOVERING WHERE REAL SIGNIFICANCE AND MEANING IN LIFE IS FOUND

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has caused us to pause and to be amazed at her reign of 70 years. She had a very consistent, moral influence on others. Her speeches pointed people to God. She brought honor to her position. Tomorrow she will be eulogized by people around the world. So, what is it that God requires of those who are in positions of leadership? God’s standard is the same for all, but those in leadership influence others. Here in Jeremiah 22, we find that God was speaking to the shepherds of His people, those kings and officials who were giving direction over the land. Tremper Longman explains the duty of the monarch.

“It was the king’s duty to protect those who could not protect themselves and also create a society that was harmonious for law-abiding citizens.[i]

But what happens when those in authority flaunt and abuse their positions? Will God address these abuses? Maybe the greater question is, how does He go about it? If we are to understand this chapter, a brief historical background is needed as Jeremiah is about to relate God’s judgment on the last four kings of Judah following the tragic death of Josiah, the last godly king of Judah.

626 B. C. was the year that Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry during the reign of Josiah, who had a year earlier began purging the idolatry in the land and promoting the proper worship of God. Judah was a vassal state under the Assyrian Empire, but the Assyrian empire was being threatened by the rise of a new power, Babylon. In 621 B. C. the Babylonians captured the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. A remnant of Assyrians relocated to Carchemish which was located on the Euphrates River northeast of the promised land. Then in 609 B. C. Neco, pharaoh of Egypt, in alliance with Assyria tried to halt the advance of Babylon. We read that Josiah, the Judean king tried to stop Neco at Megiddo, but unfortunately, Josiah died in battle. The Judeans then place his fourth and youngest son, Jehoahaz, on the throne. Most scholars believed that he shared his father’s desire for greater autonomy from the Assyrians. His reign ends in three months as the Egyptian pharaoh Neco, returning from his defeat by a Babylonian army, replaces him with his older brother, Jehoiakim who was committed to the Assyrian-Egyptian alliance.

Babylon, which continues its ascendancy under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, subdues all of Syria and makes Judah its staging area to bring Egypt under his control. Jehoiakim is now under tribute and sends temple vessels as tribute to Babylon, and the young nobility of Judah, were taken into captivity in Babylon, one of which is Daniel. Jehoiakim eventually rebels against Babylon, refusing to pay tribute in 597 B. C., but while Babylon is coming to address this revolt, Jehoiakim was removed as king by his officials and replaced by his son, Jehoiachin. A short siege occurs in which Jerusalem capitulates. Jehoiachin, whose reign lasted three months, was exiled by the Babylonians along with other leading citizens, including Ezekiel. Zedekiah becomes king and serves as a vassal leader under Babylon for eleven years. He rebels in his ninth year and the Babylonians return and totally destroy Jerusalem in 586 B. C., in his eleventh year.

It sounds chaotic and a bit confusing, but that is what sin brings about in our lives: instability, confusion, and chaos. What was tragic was that not one of these four kings looked to God but trusted in their own political acumen and failed miserably. What we learn is that sin leads to separation from that which we once cherished. In the case of the Judeans, it was the land that they were exiled from. The significance of this exile is that the land spoke of the presence of God and they feared that they were exiled from God’s presence. That is what sin does in our lives, it separates us from God. Isaiah explains the consequence of sin.

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear![ii]

So what can we learn from this prophetic announcement to these ancient kings that applies to us? What is it that God requires from us, especially if we have been given a responsibility to care for the lives of others, as parents, neighbors, bosses, pastoral, and political leaders? How we treat others is one of the most important tests of the genuineness of our faith in God. When we examine the result of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, or as the apostle Paul described His work, as the fruit of the Spirit, they are all qualities of human behavior. They are described as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (cf. Gal. 5:22). Today we are going to look at God’s requirements and evaluation of some leaders who disregarded His instructions and the consequences of their actions. What is more important is the lessons we learn from their mistakes.

THE FIRST LESSON WE NEED TO LEARN IN LIFE IS WHAT GOD REQUIRES OF US

How does God want us to treat people, especially those who are dependent upon us? How are we fulfilling our role of nurturing and caring for others? We discover in life that God brings people to us that need our help and care. What are we to do? How do we respond to the challenges that this poses for us? The sick, the elderly, the disabled, the weak, children and those who have suffered the loss of their spouse are all in need of assistance and must not be neglected. Here we discover that God calls us to care for those who find themselves unable to care for themselves.

A. We are called to do the right thing on behalf of others.

This is what the LORD says: ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: Hear the word of the LORD to you, king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne – you, your officials and your people who come through these gates.[iii] [underlined mine]

The statement that Jeremiah was to ‘go down to the palace’ suggested that he was at the temple area. The temple was built upon the highest point in the city and the palace was just below it. Even in the location we find the preeminence of the Temple being physically ‘higher up,’ revealing that God was deemed the greater authority. However, kings often forsook their God-given responsibilities and acted as if they were the final authority. Before we chide them for this behavior, we need to evaluate our own lives and see if we are in submission to God, or are we living basically an autonomous, independent life from God? When we are determining what we should be doing, and where we should be going rather than allowing God to direct our steps, are we not acting as if we are the final authority in our lives? Should not God be the One who determines our priorities in life? Jesus certainly made that clear in his sermon on the Mount.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.[iv]

Here Jesus is explaining that we need to put first things first. We need to put God’s kingdom above our own concerns. When we have the right priorities, God makes sure we are cared for.

We may mentally assent to this, but the fruit is in the pudding, as they say. Are we are living this out? We can easily say, ‘I get it – yes, God is first’, but then proceed to make decisions in conflict with the text. We put other activities ahead of God’s priorities. So, what are some examples? There are many believers today who act as if ‘coming together to worship God’ and serving is based on our convenience. Or stated differently, we neglect giving the best of our time, resources and efforts toward God’s kingdom, often giving Him what is left over of our time, efforts and resources. How many realize that it takes faith to act upon what God says, believing that God will enrich our lives? Why would God desire to ultimately to enrich our lives? Many believe that it’s about us. Yet, God enriches us in order that we have something to share with others. We can only give what we have. We can only enrich others because God has first enriched our lives. Yet as we are about to discover from our text, one of the great temptations of life is to enrich our lives at the expense of others. Consider the nature of Christ. He enriched others at His expense. Isn’t this the nature of what it means to be a true follower of Jesus?

We notice here that Jeremiah not only addressed the king and his officials, but also the people. This message was for everybody. The standard was the same for everyone. Notice that Jeremiah was directed to go to the king, even though he was not invited. We need to understand that God calls us to go and bring His message to others even though we are not asked by them to do so; but are told by God to go.

So what did God want to communicate to His people? He wanted to remind them of His standards, which they had forsaken and abused.

This is what the LORD says: do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people.

But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.[v]

What needs to be understood is that Jeremiah is reminding those in leadership that they are accountable for their actions. It is stated as a warning and followed by both a promised blessing if obeyed and consequences if ignored. God promises that if the kings obey, they will retain their leadership role, but those who disobey and abuse those they are called to lead will be displaced.

‘If…then argument…is consistent with the old Mosaic covenant tradition which we expect Jeremiah to articulate. The net effect of the ‘if …then’ formula is to subordinate the monarchy to the torah, its requirements and its sanctions. This subordination deabsolutizes the monarchy and makes the king, like everyone else, subject to the demands of torah.[vi]

What he is stating is that no one is above God’s law, not even the king. This is true of all of us as human beings. No one is beyond the authority and judgment of God. We will all be judged according to God’s standards. The apostle Paul applied this idea in relationship to the gospel. In writing to the Thessalonians. All human beings will be held accountable to their response to the good news about Jesus.  

He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.[vii]

B. The tragic example and consequence of disregarding God’s warnings.

For this is what the Lord says about the palace of the king of Judah: “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a wasteland, like towns not inhabited.

I will send destroyers against you, each man with his weapons, and they will cut up your fine cedar beams and throw them into the fire.[viii]

We need to understand that God desires to save us, but if we disobey Him, we’ll find out that He will discipline us. The descriptions of Gilead and the forests of Lebanon were speaking of the great opulence in the palace of the king. Cedar was used in such abundance that it looked like a forest. This extravagance, at the expense of the people, had blinded the eyes of those in leadership to the poverty surrounding them. What was true in ancient times is equally true today. We can insulate ourselves from poverty by living a life with little or no interaction with those who are in need. God states that He will raise up destroyers who will bring to ruin all that has been built up. The lesson is that people from all nations and times need to learn that those who forsake the Lord and embrace other gods, will experience ruin in their lives.

People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this great city?’

And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and have worshiped and served other gods.[ix]

One expression of idolatry is covetousness as Paul reminds us in Colossians 3:5.  

THE SECOND LESSON WE NEED TO LEARN IN LIFE IS THE CONSEQUENCES OF ABUSING THOSE WE ARE CALLED UPON TO CARE FOR

In his message from the Lord, Jeremiah explains the tragic losses that three of the final four kings experienced as a result of their rejection of God’s warnings in their lives. Here are three short vignettes of three kings.

A. The brief and tragic reign and end of Jehoahaz.

God speaks through Jeremiah to call the people to stop mourning the loss of the godly king, Josiah.

Do not weep for the dead king or mourn his loss; rather, weep bitterly for him who is exiled, because he will never return nor see his native land again.

For this is what the LORD says about Shallum son of Josiah, who succeeded his father as king of Judah but has gone from this place: ‘He will never return.

He will die in the place where they have led him captive; he will not see this land again.[x]

Shallum takes on the name, Jehoahaz when he ascents to the throne. Jehoahaz means, ‘to grasp the Lord.’ However, the irony of this name is that Jehoahaz rejected God’s direction for leading the nation.

Jehoahaz was twenty-three years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months.

He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, just as his predecessors had done.[xi]

His name betrayed his true nature. It goes on to say that Neco took him to Egypt where he died (cf. 2 Kings 23:33-34). God through Jeremiah was telling the people to weep for the king that was deposed by the Egyptian Pharaoh as he would never return to the land. We gain a sense of the severity of this judgment. God is telling the people that their lament for Josiah and the good he had accomplished was now at an end. They should weep for the son who was banished to die in a foreign place. In other words, weep for those who are cut off from God.  

B. The Next king, Jehoiakim, is an oppressive leader.

The wrong priority of Jehoiakim is described by Jeremiah.

Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.

He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms. So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedars and decorates it in red.[xii]

Here the question is raised as to what makes a good leader.

Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him.[xiii]

Here we see the contrast between Josiah and this other son, Jehoiakim.

He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?[xiv]

Here we are presented with a great challenge and understanding of what it means to know God. When we serve the interests of others on God’s behalf, we are serving God. When we are concerned with the people that God is concerned about, we are God’s representative. However, Jehoiakim’s actions reveal the condition of his soul. His understanding of the measure of a person was what he attained in riches, status and prestige. God’s measure of a person is what we do for others, showing care, generosity and kindness. Josiah, in contrast, was a man who took his responsibilities of justice and righteousness seriously and God blessed him for it. This is an indictment against Jehoiakim’s reign.

But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.[xv]

He was simply enriching himself at the expense of the people God had called him to serve and help. God ultimately judged him for his ungodly life and his memory was held in disdain by the people. There was no mourning after his inglorious end. 

Therefore this is what the LORD says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah: ‘They will not mourn for him: ‘Alas, my brother! Alas, my sister!’ They will not mourn for him: ‘Alas, my master! Alas, his splendor!

He will have the burial of a donkey – dragged away and thrown outside the gate of Jerusalem.[xvi]

The great tragedy of his reign was that he was repeatedly warned and demonstrated his arrogance, indifference, and self-satisfaction. He was the king that cut up the scroll and threw the message of the Lord into the fire. He looked to his alliance with others as a source of his security.

Go up to Lebanon and cry out, let your voice be heard in Bashan, cry out from Abarim, for all your allies are crushed.

I warned you when you felt secure, but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your way from your youth; you have not obeyed me.

The wind will drive all your shepherds away, and your allies will go into exile. Then you will be ashamed and disgraced because of all your wickedness.

You who live in Lebanon, who are nestled in cedar buildings, how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain like that of a woman in labor![xvii]

What we discover is the tragedy of looking to people and things to give us meaning, significance and protection in this life. They will all disappear and fail us in our greatest hour of need.

C. The third king mentioned in this chapter is Jehoiachin.

As surely as I live, declares the LORD, even if you, Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off.[xviii]

John Thompson explains the meaning of the kings of Judah as God’s signet rings.

The kings of Judah were regarded as Yahweh’s official representatives who employed his signet ring.[xix]

This ring is like an official notarized stamp. What is being expressed here is God’s rejection of this king as His official representative. We are told of this brief three-month stint as King and what happened to him.

I will deliver you into the hands of those who want to kill you, those you fear -Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and the Babylonians.

I will hurl you and the mother who gave you birth into another country, where neither of you was born, and there you will both die.

You will never come back to the land you long to return to.

Is this man Jehoiachin a despised, broken pot, an object no one wants? Why will he and his children be hurled out, cast into a land they do not know?

O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!

This is what the LORD says: ‘Record this man as childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.[xx]

Tremper Longman explains what is transpiring in this judgment oracle as Jeremiah is comparing the king to a despised, broken, clay pot.

Clay pots were easily broken and were unusable. If we judge by the millions of potshards that litter the surface of the tells today, they probably grew to be quite a nuisance to the ancient inhabitants, since they do not disappear with time.

Progeny and succession were matters of great concern to ancient kings, including those of Judah, a land ruled by a single dynasty for its entire history. However, Jehoiachin would be like a childless king; though he had children (2 Chronicles 3:17), they would never rule.[xxi]

What have we examined in this biblical narrative? We have seen the devastating end of leaders who rejected their responsibility to care for those people entrusted to them. The enriching of their lives was done at the expense of others. Often we think that this only happens directly, but often it can happen indirectly. We can neglect to do God’s will and because of indifference and apathy, the result is that others, which could and should have been blessed and enriched by our involvement, suffer. In our ‘mind our own business mentality’, we pass by people who need us. There is a danger of enriching ourselves at the expense of others. If we are going to be like Jesus, in which He enriched others at His expense, we need to ask ourselves: who am I enriching at my expense? How am I involved in serving others?

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[i]     Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 155.

[ii]     Isaiah 59:2, The New International Version of the Bible, Biblica, Inc., 2011.

[iii]    Jeremiah 22:1-2.

[iv]    Matthew 6:33.

[v]     Jeremiah 22:3-5.

[vi]    Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 196.

[vii]   2 Thessalonians 1:8-9.

[viii]   Jeremiah 22:6-7.

[ix]    Jeremiah 22:8-9.

[x]     Jeremiah 22:10-12.

[xi]    2 Kings 23:31a-32.

[xii]   Jeremiah 22:13-14.

[xiii]   Jeremiah 22:15.

[xiv]   Jeremiah 22:16.

[xv]   Jeremiah 22:17.

[xvi]   Jeremiah 22:18-19.

[xvii] Jeremiah 22:20-23.

[xviii] Jeremiah 22:24.

[xix]   John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 484.

[xx]   Jeremiah 22:25-30.

[xxi]   Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 159.

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