How do we live under unpopular political leadership, or a leadership in which we are frustrated? It is a question that we are constantly faced with in dealing with changing leaders and political philosophies of our day. Where do we look for answers when society, as we know it, is faltering? The psalmist speaks of the hour when the ‘wicked bend their bows and set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do (cf. Psalm 11:2-3)?’
The foundation that is spoken of here is the moral fiber and values of a people. The simple answer is to ‘take refuge in the Lord (Psalm 11:1).’ To remember whose world this really is. ‘The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on the earth; his eyes examine them (cf. Psalm 11:4-5).’
This is God’s world, and He will ultimately act. While we are waiting, what should our response be? Revolt? Rebellion? Complaint and criticism? Compliance? Or is there a different response that is being called for? In Jeremiah 27, we are about to discover who is really behind the unpopular political leadership. What we learn should help us respond to even the most oppressive governments. Oppressive governments are often God’s tools of chastisement. These are moments that ought to cause us to pause and consider. It is a time when we should humble ourselves and stop looking for human solutions and to political leaders for answers, but rather surrender our lives anew before God. God is ultimately in charge of our world. He appoints whomever He desires to rule over people.
“Yahweh [God] may assign power to anyone Yahweh chooses. …Yahweh does not need to give explanation or justification, does not need to give account to the nations.[i]
Who are we to call God to account for His actions, which are higher than our ways? We are accountable and answerable to God; this includes those God uses as His appointed leaders. Every person, including every leader, will ultimately be judged by God for how they lived and served as leaders. So how should we respond to unpopular political leaders? There are three things we need to consider when we disagree with those in authority over us from our text and how it applies to our current context.
THE FIRST THING WE NEED TO CONSIDER WHEN WE DISAGREE WITH THOSE IN AUTHORITY OVER US IS THAT GOD IS SOVEREIGN OVER ALL NATIONS AT ALL TIMES
When we speak of God’s sovereignty what is meant is that God is in control of events. He is allowing certain things to happen, some of which are painful in order to ultimately bring about good in our lives as believers, both on an individual level but also in a corporate and national level. In Jeremiah 27 we see God telling Jeremiah to fashion a yoke as a prop to dramatize the message that God is sending him to communicate not only to the Jewish people but to the nations throughout the Middle East. What is being conveyed is that Yahweh is not a local deity but the God of all peoples. He is Sovereign over all creation, including people. God is entrusting the Babylonians with leadership over their nations, which these nations are called to submit to for a season. It is God that has appointed the Babylonians to rule over these nations. We need to remember that Jeremiah’s calling extended beyond his national boundaries.
The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.[ii]
What was Jeremiah’s message to these nations to be?
See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.[iii]
God needed to destroy what was wrong with the nations in order to build and plant what was healthy and needed within them. God continues to do that even today. He allows destruction into nations that are in rebellion to Him in order to rebuild and to plant what is healthy in them. In Jeremiah chapter twenty-seven we see this calling being fulfilled in the message that God is speaking through Jeremiah.
Early in the reign of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
This is what the LORD said to me: ‘Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck.
Then send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon and through the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah.
Give them a message for their masters and say, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Tell this to your masters:
With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please.[iv]
Obviously, Jeremiah wearing a yoke brought immediate attention to himself and was the context of his message.
A yoke symbolizes submission and control. Just like an animal is yoked in order to harness its energies for its owner so, according to Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar will make the nations submit and bring them under his control.[v]
Brueggemann explains that the yoke is at the command of God.
The yoke of Babylon is worn, however, not at the behest of Nebuchadnezzar, but at the command of God.[vi]
Philip Ryken gives us a sense of the context of the political realities in that hour.
The city was bustling with diplomats in those days. Special envoys from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon had all gathered in Jerusalem for a summit meeting. They were having talks to form a military coalition and throw off the yoke of Babylonian oppression. Back in 597 B. C. the Babylonians had downsized Jerusalem, carrying much plunder and many people back to Babylon. They set up Zedekiah as the puppet king of Judah. But at the time this chapter was written, in 594 B. C. or so, Nebuchadnezzar seemed vulnerable.[vii]
The Babylonian Chronicles record that during this period he had to repel an attack by an enemy, put down a revolt among his own people, and launch a military campaign against the Syrians.[viii]
So with King Zedekiah as their ringleader, the downtrodden nations of the Middle East gathered in Jerusalem to plot the downfall of Babylon. All the political analysts were in favor of armed resistance. Had the ambassadors been interviewed on late-night television, they would have pointed out that Nebuchadnezzar was nearly 1,000 miles away and that he had plenty of his own troubles to deal with. It was a perfect time for a revolution. There was only one problem. These politicians did not stop to seek the will of God.[ix]
THE SECOND THING WE NEED TO CONSIDER WHEN WE DISAGREE WITH THOSE IN AUTHORITY OVER US IS THAT GOD APPOINTS LEADERS OVER NATIONS AND THEY ARE ACCOUNTABLE TO HIM
Many leaders today act as if they are totally unaccountable to anyone. However the reality is that even the most autocratic leaders over powerful nations are accountable to God. In a democratic society, leaders ought to be accountable to the people, but as we see, the people are ignored and then promises are made at election time. Yet, the reality is that leaders are accountable to Almighty God and He determines their future and their time.
Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him.
All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.[x]
Jeremiah realizes that though this is God’s message, he knew that it would be rejected by many in his hour who were actually propagating the very opposite and promoting open rebellion against Babylon. Jeremiah spells out the consequences for defiance and disobedience to God’s message.
‘If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand.
So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.
They prophesy lies to you that will only serve to remove you far from your lands; I will banish you and you will perish.
But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the LORD.[xi]
Robert Davidson explains the challenge of communicating this message to a world that seeks to manage their own destiny.
Jeremiah’s attitude in this situation would hardly increase his popularity. The appeal of freedom and patriotism has always been emotionally powerful, not least when it is backed by the religious establishment. Those who oppose it are liable to be dismissed as defeatist or hounded as traitors.[xii]
Does this mean that the church should be silent when the government violates healthy moral values that are in the best interest of a nation? Of course not. The voice of dissent or disagreement needs to be heard in order to curb destructive and unhealthy laws. Davidson certainly reminds us:
It is a curious fact that, right down to the present day, no government ever objects to a Church which makes pronouncements which support government policies. But let voices be raised from within the Church challenging and criticizing the policies of the government, then this is attacked as illegitimate interference in politics.[xiii]
Policies like the destruction of life based on utilitarian ethics ought to be called out as inherently evil and destructive as a guiding principle in society. Today we realize that our own nation advocates and creates laws that advocate the destruction of human life. Some may be wondering what utilitarianism teaches? Simply put as Neher and Sandin explain:
The ethical or right action is the one that results in the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Rightness or wrongness is determined by totaling the positive and negative outcomes of an action, and the one that produces the highest score of positives over negatives is the most ethical, or right thing, to do.[xiv]
This ethical model justifies the means because they are advocating a good ends, however, it depends on human thought, and rarely brings about what is sought. This rationalistic approach is a product of the ‘Enlightenment Period’ where rationalism became the means of determining decisions in life. However, when God is excluded from the process, it usually brings death and destruction in its wake. It places human reason above God’s ways which are ultimately the right path to take. So, how is it consistent with biblical precepts such as the described in Proverbs?
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.[xv]
The question is, who is determining what the greatest good is? This becomes very subjective. People start playing God in making life and death decisions. The reality is that when we utilize the ‘right means of doing things, it ultimately brings about the right ends.’
Vernon Jensen reminds us that:
Legislative bodies often claim that the voice of the people is the voice of God, an echo and rephrasing of the old claim that the voice of the king or the voice of the emperor is the voice of God or the voice of Heaven. Such claims are not merely exuberant expressions of democratic arrogance but statements that the voice of the majority of the people’s representatives freely elected and assembled is as close to the universal voice of God as humans can be.[xvi]
But let’s be reminded that “we cannot settle moral questions by settling the legal questions. The law may permit immoral behavior, the law may require immoral behavior…”[xvii] Which in these cases we need to answer that it is better to obey God than man (cf. Acts 5:32).
THE LAST THING WE NEED TO CONSIDER WHEN WE DISAGREE WITH THOSE IN AUTHORITY OVER US IS HOW WE AS GOD’S PEOPLE NEED TO RESPOND
Two important ideas are being expressed in God’s words through Jeremiah to the king and the people of Judah.
1. A very important warning against listening to the wrong message.
I gave the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah. I said, ‘Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live.
Why will you and your people die by the sword, famine and plague with which the LORD has threatened any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?
Do not listen to the words of the prophets who say to you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon,’ for they are prophesying lies to you.
I have not sent them, declares the LORD. ‘They are prophesying lies in my name. Therefore, I will banish you and you will perish, both you and the prophets who prophesy to you.’[xviii]
Who we are listening to is critical for our future. Counterfeit messages are always circulating in the name of God. However, what you will discover is that the messages are often conflicting. How can we know what the true message is today in light of so many who are saying conflicting things? We need to get back to God’s word and we will find that the message is consistent. If what George Barna and other surveyors of Christian behavior is correct, then only about 10% of all Christians are daily Bible readers. Is it any wonder that people are easily duped?
2. The significance of the articles of the temple as the focus of the message.
Jeremiah confronts the message of these prophets to the people with their false hope, and damaging result if listened to.
Then I said to the priests and all these people, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not listen to the prophets who say, ‘Very soon now the articles from the LORD’S house will be brought back from Babylon.’ They are prophesying lies to you.
Do not listen to them. Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live. Why should this city become a ruin?[xix]
These articles had been taken to Babylon a few years earlier when some of the nobility was also taken into exile. Tremper Longman explains their meaning and why this became the focus of the false prophets’ messages.
The articles were significant, not because of their value as precious metal, but because of their symbolic significance. They represented the presence of Yahweh, especially because Israelite religion was aniconic, imageless. In ancient Near Eastern theological thinking, the Babylonian king’s ability to take these objects would have represented either Yahweh’s collaboration with the king or his defeat by the king.
By saying that the articles would be returned, these prophets were giving false hope that the situation with Babylon will get better, not worsen. Such ideas would hinder any possibility of sincere repentance that would lead to the survival of Judah.[xx]
The fact that some of the articles were already in Babylon suggested that God was collaborating with Babylon. It was Yahweh that had initiated this. It certainly would be wrong to consider that a pagan king could defeat God. Jeremiah was arguing that submission to Babylon would lead to life because this was God’s will, while resistance would bring death and destruction, which is what the false prophets were promoting. The false prophets were basically saying that God would fight Babylon on their behalf.
3. Jeremiah’s message of challenge, concern, and comfort.
If they are prophets and have the word of the LORD, let them plead with the LORD Almighty that the articles remaining in the house of the LORD and in the palace of the king of Judah and in Jerusalem not be taken to Babylon.
For this is what the LORD Almighty says about the pillars, the bronze sea, the movable stands and the other articles that are left in this city, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon did not take away when he carried Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, along with all the nobles of Judah and Jerusalem – yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says about the things that are let in the house of the LORD and in the palace of the king of Judah and in Jerusalem.
‘They will be taken to Babylon and there they will remain until the day I come for them,’ declares the LORD. ‘Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.’[xxi]
Jeremiah knows that people generally respond to what pleases them, rather than what they need to hear in order to change an unhealthy or sinful direction in life. They want to believe all will be well, but Jeremiah knows that only responding in obedience to God’s word of correction and discipline will bring transformation and blessing. The same is true in our lives. Jeremiah knows that they are not really listening and will reject the message, for God has indicated that to him. He warns them, and then gives a word of comfort. The more durable and significant remaining parts of the Temple will also be removed and taken to Babylon, but a day will come when God will restore them back to Jerusalem. There is a time for discipline and correction, but also a time for renewal and restoration. When we realize that God is sovereign over the nations and all are accountable to him, we can utilize the greatest tool at our disposal as believers in relationship to those who are in authority over us, namely prayer. This is what we will be engaged in, beginning this Monday through Wednesday night. This should be our first response. There are other important responses that we can engage in.
Some of the best examples of how we ought to live in politically unstable times are found during the Babylonian exile, where we see people like Daniel and his friends, working within the system. How did Daniel handle the pressures of his world? First of all, he negotiated with the powers that were in order to honor God in his diet. He prayed and fasted in order to save the people who were also advisors to the king by securing the interpretation of the king’s dream. We can prove invaluable to those in authority by seeking God’s help on their behalf. Daniel also instructed, advised, and warned the king of making wrong decisions. Daniel challenged Nebuchadnezzar in the interpretation of his second dream to humble himself before Almighty God. Daniel’s fellow believers, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood up against the forced worship of an idol that would have caused them to sin against God, and God honored them for their stance. When the law came that forbid communion with God in prayer, Daniel continued to pray regardless of the consequences, and God honored and delivered him. Yet, these examples are people who were working within the established governing structures that God allowed to be put over them. They are great models for us today how to respond when we don’t agree with those whom God has appointed over us. The ultimate example is Jesus, who lived under the tyranny of Rome, but fulfilled his Diving mission to free people from their sins.
God has given us incredible power and grace to impact the world around us. All of us, including the leaders God appoints over us, are ultimately accountable to God for what is said and done.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 242.
[ii] Jeremiah 1:4-5, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] Jeremiah 1:10.
[iv] Jeremiah 27:1-5.
[v] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 185.
[vi] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 241.
[vii] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2016), 388.
[viii] D. J. Wiseman, The Chronicles of Chaldeans Kings (625–556 B. C.) in the British Museum (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1956) as quoted by Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 388.
[ix] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, 388.
[x] Jeremiah 27:6-7.
[xi] Jeremiah 27:8-11.
[xii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 54.
[xiii] Ibid, 54-55.
[xiv] William W. Neher & Paul J. Sandin, Communicating Ethically: Character Duties, Consequences, and Relationships, (New York: Routledge, 2007), 60.
[xv] Proverbs 3:5-7.
[xvi] J. Vernon Jensen, Ethical Issues In The Communication Process, (New York: Routledge, 1997), 29.
[xvii] Ibid, 30.
[xviii] Jeremiah 27:12-15.
[xix] Jeremiah 27:16-18.
[xx] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 187.
[xxi] Jeremiah 27:18-22.