For basketball fans, ‘March Madness’ is the tournament where the best teams in U. S. college basketball meet over a couple of weeks. The tournament begins with 64 teams endeavoring to win a national championship. It is so difficult to win that repeating seldom happens. Yet between 1964-75, an eleven-year stretch, one team won that championship 10 times, the UCLA Bruins. In that time, players came and then moved on from university, but there was one single factor that never changed, Coach John Wooden. So, what was his secret to such high-level consistency? Tony Dungy, who coached and won a Superbowl, studied John Wooden’s philosophy of coaching and summarized it this way: “He didn’t just coach teamwork and preparation and strategy. He coached character and attitude and ideals.” John Wooden was a wonderful follower of Jesus Christ and what he coached in these young athletes extended into their very lifestyles. He realized that the real issue in life is character. When we become the right kind of person, certain results begin to occur in our lives.
In Jeremiah 34, we see a contrast between God’s faithfulness and those who rebel against Him. We see it in their inconsistency and fickleness toward others. In Jeremiah 35, there is a comparison between these Judeans who were unfaithful to God and another people group who were faithful to keep the instructions of their forefather.
This particular message from Jeremiah came sometime in the final year and a half of Zedekiah’s reign before the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the final group of Jews were exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah 34 reinforces why God had to bring His people into exile. They had violated their covenant with God in every way possible. In evaluating their unfaithfulness to God and His disciplinary response to them, the question that we need to evaluate in our own lives is what will God address in our lives as we also will ultimately face Him with our lives? How did we walk in relationship to the covenant we are in with Him? Are we faithful? I recently attended a bible study group in our church to answer questions regarding what happens after this earthly life. One of the questions had to do with the issue of judgment. Will God judge everyone? The quick answer is yes. However, as believers who are trusting in Christ, we will not be judged for our sin, but we will be judged based on how we served the Lord. Paul expresses it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:10.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad [without value].[i]
Paul describes this judgment more fully in his first letter to the Corinthians.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.
If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.
If it is burnt up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.[ii]
What is Paul telling us? That our lives will be evaluated and based on how we lived on earth, it will determine our future rewards in eternity. We discover from Jeremiah 34, the criteria upon which God evaluates our lives as believers. We also see the cost of living an inconsistent life. In Jeremiah 34 we see three aspects of the coming judgment upon the nation for their hardened hearts and unrepentant response to God’s messages to them and reveals to us the nature of how God evaluates our lives.
THE FIRST ASPECT OF THE COMING JUDGMENT IS THAT GOD TEMPERS IT WITH MERCY
We all rejoice that God is so merciful. It amazes me how God does not give us what we truly deserve, for we have all sinned. Yet, Christ took our sin upon Himself on the cross. What we need to realize is this does not mean that we then live for ourselves.
God will repay each person according to what they have done.
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.[iii]
After repeated warnings and a long delay, the inevitable consequence of sin comes to people. For the nation of Judah, despite their continued rebellion and violation of the covenant, God still tempered the judgment as seen by allowing the king to die in peace and honor in the land of captivity, while we see from Jeremiah in chapters 29-33, God promised restoration back to the land after a seventy-year captivity. In Jeremiah’s ministry we discover both public pronouncements, and also private dialogues with King Zedekiah. Tremper Longman gives us this synopsis of the nature of Jeremiah’s ministry.
Jeremiah was preaching repentance and surrender to Babylon, since Babylon was God’s instrument of judgment. Thus, he was seen as someone who collaborated with the enemy and thus a danger to king and society. An interesting aspect of these stories is the nature of the private conversations between Jeremiah and Zedekiah. Publicly, Jeremiah boldly announced the message of judgment that God gave him. Privately, he begged Zedekiah to better his conditions. Publicly, Zedekiah rejected the projection of doom that Jeremiah preached and treated him as if he was not a true prophet of God. Privately he sought the prophet out and asked him to pray for him and the country, and hoped that he would get a more positive message.[iv]
Let’s look at the text which begins with a private message to the king. Here we see the attack of the Babylonians and their vassal states warring against Judah.
While Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army and all the kingdoms and peoples in the empire he ruled were fighting against Jerusalem and all its surrounding towns, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord:“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Go to Zedekiah king of Judah and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am about to give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it down. You will not escape from his grasp but will surely be captured and given into his hands. You will see the king of Babylon with your own eyes, and he will speak with you face to face. And you will go to Babylon.
“‘Yet hear the Lord’s promise to you, Zedekiah king of Judah. This is what the Lord says concerning you: You will not die by the sword; you will die peacefully. As people made a funeral fire in honor of your predecessors, the kings who ruled before you, so they will make a fire in your honor and lament, “Alas, master!” I myself make this promise, declares the Lord.’”
Then Jeremiah the prophet told all this to Zedekiah king of Judah, in Jerusalem, while the army of the king of Babylon was fighting against Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah that were still holding out—Lachish and Azekah. These were the only fortified cities left in Judah.[v]
The nation was falling, and only two other communities had not yet succumbed to the sieges leveled against them. It looked hopeless. God’s prophet Jeremiah was pronouncing judgment. So, why was Zedekiah so obstinate? Maybe he was thinking of his predecessor, Hezekiah who withstood the mighty Assyrian empire after having all the country captured and only Jerusalem was still left holding out against the siege against it. We know from Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 19 that God finally sent an angel to destroy the army surrounding the city in Hezekiah’s hour. However, the difference between Hezekiah and Zedekiah was their response to God. Hezekiah humbled himself before the Lord and was assured by Isaiah that God would protect them; whereas in Zedekiah’s case, he refused to obey God and the prophet Jeremiah explained that the Babylonians were God’s instrument in disciplining the nation. F. B. Huey describes the weak and indecisive character of Zedekiah.
Zedekiah was not as strong-willed as his predecessor, Jehoiakim. He revealed his weak character when he claimed that he could not prevent Jeremiah’s arrest. He confessed fear of his own people if he surrendered to the enemy, as Jeremiah was advising him to do (see 38:14–26). Zedekiah’s indecisiveness cost him his throne and brought about Jerusalem’s destruction.[vi]
Pressured by the Judean nobility he rebelled against the Babylonians despite the warnings of God’s prophet, Jeremiah. God gave Zedekiah many opportunities to do the right thing, but he constantly chose the wrong path.
THE SECOND ASPECT OF THE COMING JUDGMENT IS DETERMINED BY OUR CONSISTENCY IN RELATING TO THOSE WHO NEED OUR HELP
The way we treat others is critical in God’s assessment of our lives. How do we treat those in need? How do we treat the weak, the marginalized, the oppressed, the forgotten, and forsaken? We are reminded in the parable of the sheep and the goats, that when we care for the sick, visit those in prison, feed and clothe the stranger, we are in essence ministering to Jesus. In our text we find that the king and people seemed to be addressing a significant issue in relationship toward those in slavery.
The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves.
Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage.
So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free.[vii]
It is interesting what people are willing to do in crisis. We need to remember that the Babylonians were besieging the city. It was a dire situation, and there was an openness to address a serious evil that had persisted for generations. According to the Law, a Hebrew slave needed to be freed in the seventh year of their service.
If any of your people —Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free.
And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed.
Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the LORD your God has blessed you.
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.[viii]
The idea was that redemption and freedom were to be granted, as God modeled for the people in how He redeemed the nation from their slavery. The point is that no one could be a slave for life. However, the nation had been in violation of this statute for centuries. This mandate was being totally disregarded. People were being enslaved without provision for their release. This was just one of a myriad of transgressions that the nation of Judah was guilty of. Now they were doing the right thing, but it seemed this was only a desperate measure because of their current crisis. Was this a genuine expression of repentance, hoping that God would deliver them from the Babylonians? Or was this just an economic measure in light of the limited need for slaves and the cost of upkeep? John Thompson points out:
It may have been a matter of convenience since slaves had to be fed and could no longer be used for work in the fields.[ix]
In other words, at this point, they were a fiscal liability rather than a benefit. It is easy to serve God when it benefits us, but what about when it becomes challenging and costly? Are we consistent in our lives and our service to God and others.
How often in crisis we negotiate and bargain with God. We make promises but once the crisis is over, we revert back to the way we have been living. Once the crisis seems to be over, we forget the promises made.
But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again.[x]
R. K. Harrison explains what happened historically and what may have triggered the decision to revoke their covenant made with God in releasing their slaves.
…as an Egyptian army was marching to relieve Jerusalem, and these tidings caused the Babylonians to lift the siege temporarily to regroup and attack the advancing Egyptians. This distressingly short respite must have seemed little short of miraculous to the beleaguered citizens of Jerusalem, and some slave-owners were so convinced that the danger was now past that they promptly revoked their earlier promises to the slaves and took them back forcibly into servitude. This act of perfidy [deceitfulness and untrustworthiness] violated the ancient Hebrew ‘law of release.’[xi]
This was just another evidence of how their actions were motivated out of desperation, not out of genuine concern for others. They had not really repented, for true repentance leads to real change of heart and actions. This inconsistency was just another indication that they were not serving God wholeheartedly and were living sinfully with disregard for God’s ways.
THE FINAL ASPECT OF THE COMING JUDGMENT IS THE CONSEQUENCE OF AN INCONSISTENT AND UNREPENTANT HEART
What happens when our actions are disingenuous? When we are not sincere and authentic in our actions? What we are seeing is the evidence an unchanged heart. We need to remember that God is calling us to be faithful which speaks of consistency in our service and walk before Him. God explains that what we are doing when we are disingenuous and inauthentic is profaning His name. In essence we are taking the name of the Lord in vain, or without regard for His honor.
A. The Covenant Obligations are Violated.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said,
‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me.
Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name.
But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again.[xii]
Tremper Longman points out:
To break a solemn agreement between two human partners was bad enough, but that the agreement was made in sacred space makes it so much worse.[xiii]
What is the result of playing fast and loose with God? What are the consequences of lying to ourselves and others and dragging God into the equation with our deceptive and unfaithful behavior? We can see that it causes unbelievers to be turned off by such hypocritical behavior. Now we discover that God will ultimately address it. We are warned against this kind of treachery.
Those who are godly hate lies; the wicked come to shame and disgrace.
Godliness helps people all through life, while the evil are destroyed by their wickedness.[xiv]
B. The Consequences of Covenant Violations.
“Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord— ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth.
Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.
The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.[xv]
The ancient custom that was used by God with Abram found in Genesis gives us an understanding of what Jeremiah is describing for us here. God comes to Abram in a vision and declares two incredible promises. First that he would have a son and his heirs would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and secondly, he would inherit the land in which he was wandering. To ratify this covenant, we read what transpired next.
So the LORD said to him. ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.
Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…[xvi]
In verse 18 we are given an interesting glimpse into a part of a ritual involved in entering into a covenant. A calf was cut in half and the contracting parties to the covenant walked together between the severed halves laid out on the ground. In doing so they were invoking a curse upon themselves: if ever we violate the terms of this covenant, may the fate of the animal be our fate.[xvii]
Walter Brueggemann drives home the sense of Jeremiah’s message.
Reneging on the covenant and then consequently practicing economic exploitation evokes the invasion of Babylon. …internal disorder invites external threat which implements God’s sovereign rule. The first step toward death is internal economic disorder that pits the ‘haves’ against the ‘have nots.’ …The reference to the Exodus (v. 13) is a reminder that God’s initial act of rescue was a gesture of liberation in which the slaves of Egypt were rescued from their economic plight of helplessness. Israel is expected to continue to reenact that miracle of new economic beginnings in its own ordering of social life. When it fails to hear (shema), when it no longer remembers its rootage or its historical destiny, it becomes vulnerable to the exploitation of more powerful ‘haves.’[xviii]
God wants us to treat people like He treats us, except in the area of retribution for evil. God will repay the evil others have done to us.
C. The Pronouncement of Judgment.
I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you.
I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.[xix]
So, what is the cost of an inconsistent life? For Judah it was death, famine, plague and captivity. They were disciplined severely which ultimately brought about repentance. What about us? It brings about a broken relationship with God and others and ultimately our personal ruin. What we see is that we need to get serious about our relationship with God. I’m reminded of two proverbs, the first is Proverbs 4:23.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
We have a responsibility to address the issues of our hearts. Where do we begin?
My son [my daughter], give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways.[xx]
When we give our hearts to God unreservedly, He brings about a transformation that will change even the desires of our hearts. The Psalmist prayed “give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name (Psalm 86:11b).”
James warns us against an inconsistent heart.
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea blown and tossed by the wind.
That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.[xxi]
Let us surrender our hearts to our God that we may live a consistent Christian life.
[i] 2 Corinthians 5:10, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.
[iii] Romans 2:6-8.
[iv] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 226.
[v] Jeremiah 34:1-7.
[vi] F. B. Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 307.
[vii] Jeremiah 34:8-10.
[viii] Deuteronomy 15:12-15.
[ix] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 610.
[x] Jeremiah 34:11.
[xi] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 146.
[xii] Jeremiah 34:12-16.
[xiii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 230.
[xiv] Proverbs 13:5-6, New Living Translation, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 1996.
[xv] Jeremiah 34:17-20.
[xvi] Genesis 15:9-12, 17-18a.
[xvii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 108.
[xviii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 330.
[xix] Jeremiah 34:21-22.
[xx] Proverbs 23:26.
[xxi] James 1:6-8.