In the editor’s synopsis of Barbara Tuchman’s book ‘The March of Folly,’ the historical tragedy of folly in the realm of human governance is explained.
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function? …It may be asked why, since folly or perversity is inherent in individuals, should we expect anything else of government? The reason for concern is that folly in government has more impact on more people than individual follies, and therefore governments have a greater duty to act according to reason.[i]
We know that sin distorts our thinking. Decisions are made that are both detrimental to us and others.
In Jeremiah 37, we find that a relief force of Egyptians had drawn the Babylonians away from their siege around the city of Jerusalem. In this moment of respite, we find two fascinating incidents that reveal the folly of the nation and the faithfulness of the prophet Jeremiah. From this, we can ask the question, how do we respond in a crisis? Do we act with integrity and courage? Or are we overwhelmed, vacillating, and ultimately disobedient to what God is revealing to us in His word? What may be more telling about our lives is our response after a crisis. How do we move forward? Do we simply go back to what our lives were like before the crisis, or do we make significant adjustments and grow as a result of the crisis in our lives? Do we respond by renewed obedience toward God and His word? What is the outcome of living an indifferent or apathetic life toward God? Our actions reveal the true condition of our soul. Here in Jeremiah 37, we find a contrast between the beleaguered prophet and the indecisive king who allowed political expediency to determine his course of action to the detriment of both him and the nation. What can we learn from the poor decisions of others in order to make better choices for our lives? There are two things we can learn from this crisis in the life of the nation of Judah.
THE FIRST THING WE CAN LEARN FROM THIS CRISIS IS THE DANGER OF INDIFFERENCE TOWARD GOD’S WORD IN OUR LIFE
One of the great challenges in our lives during times of spiritual darkness is dealing with apathy, especially when our lives are enriched by the good things that God has provided. The Scottish philosopher, Alexander Tyler describes the eight stages of the rise and fall of the world’s great civilizations. Let me just mention them briefly and see if we can identify where we are in that process.
1. Bondage to spiritual growth– ‘great civilizations are often formed in the crucible of great difficulties, injustices and sufferings. Charles Pope comments: “Suffering brings wisdom and demands spiritual discipline that seeks justice and solutions.”
2. From Spiritual growth to great courage– God raises up anointed leaders that summon courage and sacrifice. “People who have little or nothing to lose are often more willing to live for something more important than themselves and their pleasures.”
3. From Courage to Liberty– through this process the ideals of the civilization emerges. Heroism and the virtues that brought about liberty are still esteemed.
4. From Liberty to Abundance-” Liberty ushers in greater prosperity, because a civilization is still functioning with the virtues of sacrifice and hard work.” Materialism begins to erode the values that brought about the blessings. The focus moves from God to the blessings.
5. From Abundance to Complacency– “To be complacent means to be self-satisfied and increasingly unaware of the trends that undermine health and the ability to thrive. …necessary virtues crumble, discipline declines, ideals become remote. People who raise awareness are perceived as extreme, harsh or judgmental.
6. From Complacency to Apathy– “The word apathy comes from the Greek and refers to a lack of interest in, or passion for, the things that once animated and inspired. …the growing lack of attention to disturbing trends advances to outright dismissal. Many seldom think or care about the sacrifices of previous generations and lose a sense that they must work for the common good.”
7. From Apathy to Dependence– “Increasing numbers of people lack the virtues and zeal necessary to work and contribute. The suffering and the sacrifices that built the culture are now a distant memory. As discipline and work increasingly seem ‘too hard,’ dependence grows. The collective culture now tips in the direction of dependence. Suffering of any sort seems intolerable. But virtue is not seen as the solution. Having lived on the sacrifices of others for years, the civilization now insists that ‘others’ must solve their woes. This ushers in growing demands for governmental, collective solutions.”
8. From dependence back to bondage– As dependence increases, so does centralized power. Dependent people tend to become increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Seeking a savior, they look to strong central leadership. But centralized power corrupts, and tends to usher in increasing intrusion by centralized power. Injustice and intrusion multiplies. Family and personal virtue (essential ingredients for any civilization) are now effectively replaced by an increasingly dark and despotic centralized control, hungry for more and more power. In this way, the civilization is gradually ended, because people in bondage no longer have the virtues necessary to fight.[ii]
This rise and fall was certainly evident in the nation of Judah as it was gasping and faltering in this moment in time. Can we not see the parallels to our own hour? Let pick up the challenge before the nation of Judah.
A. We see the spiritual condition of the leadership and people of the nation and the ensuing crisis they were experiencing.
Zedekiah son of Josiah was made king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; he reigned in place of Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim.
Neither he nor his attendants nor the people of the land paid any attention to the words the Lord had spoken through Jeremiah the prophet.
King Zedekiah, however, sent Jehukal son of Shelemiah with the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah to Jeremiah the prophet with this message: “Please pray to the Lord our God for us.[iii]
How many people want prayer for their crisis and needs but live in total disregard toward what God is saying? In other words, they are living for themselves but want God’s help and blessing in their lives. Here we see that the Babylonians were besieging the city of Jerusalem. Once the crisis appeared to be over, Jeremiah warned them that it was only a temporary reprieve. If we don’t address the fundamental problem in our lives, families, and nation, and in this case disobedience to God, by repenting and trusting in God, then the issues that are causing our troubles will return with a vengeance.
Zedekiah’s first approach to Jeremiah in his time of anxiety was indirect. He seems to have lacked the courage for a more open approach. …Perhaps Zedekiah hoped almost beyond hope that Yahweh would repeat the miracle of 701 B. C. when he removed the Assyrian armies from Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kings. 19:32-37).[iv]
Here we see him sending two emissaries to Jeremiah with a request for prayer. Jeremiah ignores the petition as God has already expressed earlier that he should stop praying for the nation (cf. 7:16, 11:14, 14:11). Andrew Dearborn explains the significance of this request of Zedekiah in this manner.
Disciples of Jesus cannot blatantly disregard his Word and then assume that a prayer for deliverance is efficacious; correspondingly, Zedekiah cannot assume that his rejection of God’s Word will somehow induce God to send a different word of instruction. There are circumstances where prayer is not what God desires. Although this sounds like a radical statement, it is worth some moments of reflection. Prayer is a staple of the Christian life, but it cannot be used as a reason for shirking one’s responsibility or as an excuse for not being obedient to divine instruction.[v]
B. God’s unchanging message.
Though situations in life change, God’s values and message remains the same. Unfortunately, people often change their minds based on the present rather than eternal realities. We make decisions based on what seems to be best for the moment rather than making decisions based on God’s standards found in His word.
C. Jeremiah’s actions misinterpreted.
Now Jeremiah was free to come and go among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.
Pharaoh’s army had marched out of Egypt, and when the Babylonians who were besieging Jerusalem heard the report about them, they withdrew from Jerusalem.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet:
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt.
Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it down.’
“This is what the Lord says: Do not deceive yourselves, thinking, ‘The Babylonians will surely leave us.’ They will not!
Even if you were to defeat the entire Babylonian army that is attacking you and only wounded men were left in their tents, they would come out and burn this city down.[vi]
Jeremiah points out that Babylon is God’s agent of discipline for their waywardness and rebellion. The Babylonians will be back and nothing will be able to spare the nation from judgment.
The answer to Zedekiah was to the effect that the Egyptian army which had come to bring help would return to Egypt and the Chaldeans would return and destroy the city. Even if Nebuchadnezzar had only wounded soldiers fighting for him, he would win. Such rhetorical exaggeration served to portray in stark fashion the inevitability of Jerusalem’s fall and destruction… Such words, coming at a time when the morale of the people had been boosted by the Babylonians withdrawal, could only arouse bitter and violent antagonism against him.[vii]
I was deeply moved recently as I was reading from 2 Kings 24:3-4 why God ultimately decided after centuries to cast the nation into exile, and the implication that this message has for our own nation at this time.
Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done,[viii]
Manasseh reigned for fifty-five years (cf. 2 Kings 21:1-11) and did what was evil in God’s sight.
So, what had Manasseh done that crossed the line and activated Divine judgment upon the nation, aside from their disobedience and continuous rebellion? In Kings we discover that many innocent people were being killed.
including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD was not willing to forgive.[ix]
These are chilling words: God was not willing to forgive, because the nation was destroying people. What is the meaning of that statement, ‘innocent blood?’ “To shed innocent blood implies oppression against the young, innocent and godly (cf. 2 Kgs 24:3–4).”[x]
Barnes expands upon this idea:
The phrase “to shed innocent blood” signified in the late monarchical period the oppression of the poor and the underprivileged (Cogan and Tadmor 1988:269; see Jer 7:6; 22:3, 17; cf. Ezek 22:6–12, 25–29). More literally, however, some commentators, in line with Josephus (Antiquities 10.3.1.38) and the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 103b), suggest that Manasseh actually sought to put to death many of the righteous, including Isaiah and other Yahwistic prophets, in an attempt to eliminate all opposition to his policies.[xi]
When leaders and nations try to eliminate God’s message and His messengers, they end up bringing destruction upon themselves and the people who follow them.
THE SECOND THING WE CAN LEARN FROM THIS CRISIS IS THE WISDOM AND COURAGE IT TAKES TO OBEY GOD
The hope that will sustain us in every crisis is to turn to God despite the cost and difficulty it may cause us. Jeremiah is faithful to convey God’s message despite the antagonism he was experiencing. God’s message at this point was not popular in that culture. There were many who were claiming to speak on behalf of God, but were simply telling people what they wanted to hear. They were listening to the messages stating that all would be well apart from the message of repentance. We are living in a similar time when many believers are changing the message to accommodate their, or the lifestyle of a rebellious culture. Why? Because we are more concerned about what people think than what God says. The apostle Paul explains that we need to arm our minds with the idea that persecution is a part of the Christian life.
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted;[xii]
It is not that we are looking to provoke those around us, but as we live a righteous life and speak the truth in love, we can anticipate levels of resistance. We realize that our conflict is not with flesh and blood, but with spiritual powers and authorities who are opposed to the kingdom of God.
A. The persecution that comes from a wayward culture.
After the Babylonian army had withdrawn from Jerusalem because of Pharaoh’s army, Jeremiah started to leave the city to go to the territory of Benjamin to get his share of the property among the people there.
But when he reached the Benjamin Gate, the captain of the guard, whose name was Irijah son of Shelemiah, the son of Hananiah, arrested him and said, “You are deserting to the Babylonians.”
“That’s not true!” Jeremiah said. “I am not deserting to the Babylonians.” But Irijah would not listen to him; instead, he arrested Jeremiah and brought him to the officials.
They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison.
Jeremiah was put into a vaulted cell in a dungeon, where he remained a long time.[xiii]
Jeremiah had been preaching surrender to the Babylonians as part of God’s messaging. Now as he is leaving, it appears that he is going to join the Babylonians. In this action he is perceived as a collaborator at best and a spy at worst. Jeremiah, then is perceived as a traitor.
Jeremiah’s public word from God has already been rejected (v. 2). Now his personal defense is also not heeded. …He is arrested, arraigned, beaten, and imprisoned. …The royal establishment despises his message and therefore abuses the messenger. They find his words unbearable.[xiv]
Though currently in our society this is not the extent of the persecution that we are experiencing, we can sense a growing hostility from some, but there are others who desperately need the message of hope and freedom that the gospel brings and are receptive and responsive.
B. God’s provision for His faithful servant.
Then King Zedekiah sent for him and had him brought to the palace, where he asked him privately, “Is there any word from the Lord?”
“Yes,” Jeremiah replied, “you will be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon.”
Then Jeremiah said to King Zedekiah, “What crime have I committed against you or your attendants or this people, that you have put me in prison?
Where are your prophets who prophesied to you, ‘The king of Babylon will not attack you or this land’?
But now, my lord the king, please listen. Let me bring my petition before you: Do not send me back to the house of Jonathan the secretary, or I will die there.”
King Zedekiah then gave orders for Jeremiah to be placed in the courtyard of the guard and given a loaf of bread from the street of the bakers each day until all the bread in the city was gone. So Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.[xv]
While the king sends for Jeremiah to hear what God is saying, we know from the opening words of the chapter that he will not obey. We immediately see that Jeremiah reiterates that God hasn’t changed His mind. The message has not changed. Zedekiah needs to do what God is requiring. Even so, we need to realize in this hour, we have an unchanging message from God. God is unchanging. We need to surrender our lives to Him and serve His kingdom. It is not about making God’s message socially acceptable. We are called simply to be faithful and allow the power of the message of the gospel to bring about transformation in people’s lives who respond in obedience.
C. Staying true to God and His message.
After remaining true to God’s message, Jeremiah appeals to the king regarding the injustices that he is experiencing. All he has done has been to faithfully declare what God has revealed to him. The other prophets have falsely said what the people wanted to hear and they have avoided any persecution. However, as the situation had unfolded, they were leading the king astray. Jeremiah, however, stayed true to his calling. This is the lesson we need to learn. We need to be faithful to God and His message despite the difficulties in communicating it. There needs to be a renewal of courage in our lives.
D. Jeremiah’s plea for deliverance.
Jeremiah asks not to be sent back to the prison that he was taken from. Jeremiah pleads from the position of truth and innocence. He does not want to be sent back to the dungeon. It is a plea for justice. The fact that the king complied with Jeremiah’s request is telling. The king, by making a concession for Jeremiah to be removed from the hostile and unhealthy environment to the courtyard of the guard and a provision for food, means that the king acknowledges that Jeremiah is a servant of God and the prophet’s words are chilling. However, the king is more afraid of those who are opposed to the messenger of God than to God himself. Proverbs reminds that the ‘fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe (cf. Prov. 29:25). This explains why there are people who know the right thing to do, but refuse to do it.
In the midst of an urgent public crisis, there is truth to be told. The overriding will of Yahweh cannot be circumvented, certainly not by abusing the messenger. While we are concerned with Jeremiah in this episode, the larger stakes concern the city of Jerusalem. The city is in an awesome jeopardy. The city is not autonomous. God’s powerful word matters, and no posturing by king and princes can void that sovereign word. By the end of the chapter the word of the prophet is not heeded.[xvi]
So, how are we going to respond to God’s word? We must respond with courage and obedience. In the New Living Translation, it describes the nature of a person who is in covenant relationship with God.
No, a true Jew [covenant person] is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not a cutting of the body but a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. Whoever has that kind of change seeks praise from God, not from people.[xvii]
Lord, help each of us to live a transformed life, with courageous hearts, looking for your praise rather than the accolades of people. May we not allow the current tides of culture define us, nor keep us from hearing God’s word and living in obedience to Him.
[i] Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), inside jacket.
[ii] Adapted from Charles Pope, comments developed by Alexander Tyler, from Ted Flynn, The Great Transformation, https://blog.adw.org/2016/10/eight-stages-rise-fall-civilizations/
[iii] Jeremiah 37:1-3, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iv] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 631.
[v] Andrew Dearborn, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The New Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 337.
[vi] Jeremiah 37:4-10.
[vii] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, 632
[viii] 2 Kings 24:3.
[ix] 2 Kings 24:4.
[x] D. J. Wiseman, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1 and 2 Kings, Vol. 9, (Downers Grove: Il: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 311.
[xi] W. H. Barnes, 1-2 Kings, Vol., 4b, (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012), 352.
[xii] 2 Timothy 3:12.
[xiii] Jeremiah 37:11-16.
[xiv] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 357.
[xv] Jeremiah 37:17-21
[xvi] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 360.
[xvii] Romans 2:29.