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Friday, September 21, 2012

Jeremiah: The Anguished Prophet of Disaster

Assyrian siege of Lachish


The warnings of Judah’s last prophet fail to prevent the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its people. With this calamity, the kingdom ends and the city is all but deserted.

The Anguished Prophet 
of Disaster 

It was Jeremiah’s unfortunate job to predict misfortune. It was then to his great distress to have to witness the outcome. Solomon’s glorious temple is destroyed and the kingdom of Judah is taken away to Babylonian captivity.

His ministry spanned the period from 627 b.c. to 580 b.c. and he was rejected and given short shrift by those he would save. He was often lonely and filled with sorrow, but his life is a testament to faith in God even in times of great distress.

Born in the village of Anathoth, the top of a broad hill about two miles outside of Jerusalem, it was a place set aside for the priestly ministry in the times of Joshua and ever since that time the priests had insisted on strict adherence to the laws of Moses. Jeremiah’s father, Hilkia, was one of those priests and his son was given deep respect for the laws of Moses. Its no guess that Jeremiah believed he belonged to a tradition that went back in time with his ancestors and was closer to them than what was currently happening to the people of Jerusalem of his day.

Jeremiah lived in a wilderness which offered no relief from a brutal sun. The land was also quite brutal, containing many ragged cliffs, huge boulders and also a 3000 foot cliff drop to the Dead Sea. Images of the desolate area would be burned in the young boys mind, and would surface in his writings. To the south, he could see the shining city of Jerusalem, a place filled with people he would love and chastise.

At home, Jeremiah was probably shielded from the crazies of Jerusalem. A small child when King Manasseh died, he was witness to the evils that had corrupted the people and had also become a way of life. For quite some time, Jerusalem had been a vassal of Assyria, and was obligated to honor their gods. But Manasseh did far more than pay token homage. He didn’t prevent the worship of Yahweh, but he did re-open local heathen shrines, installed pagan altars and even restarted the  practice of human sacrifice. Ishtar, the Assyrian god of love and war, was placed in the temple in statue form. In her name the priests and male worshipers practiced ritual sex with “holy” prostitutes who lived in the temple. This was a practice that was supposed to promote fertility in the crops, the herds and the families. Statues to the sun god, Shamash, the moon-god, Sin, and other deities representing heavenly bodies were erected within the temple courtyards. Although sorcery was forbidden, wizards and enchanters were flourishing. Those who opposed the King’s decrees were executed or driven underground. 

In 640 b.c. the King’s son and successor, Amon, was murdered. His eight year old son, Josiah, was then placed on the throne. As Josiah matured, the surrounding nations of Babylonia and other vassal states began to challenge Assyria’s waning power, and Josiah himself found strength to assert some resistance. In 628 b.c. he defied his Assyrian overlords and launched a religious reformation to clean Jerusalem of its pagan influences. The shrines were destroyed and the temple was cleaned, and too, the temple priests and prostitutes were executed. 

Jeremiah was called about the year 627 b.c. when he was 17 or 18 years old.

“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying: Before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! I do not know how to speak for I am only a boy!”

But the Lord said to me, “ Do not say I am only a boy, for to all those I will send you, you will go. Whatever I command you, you will speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord. Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, and said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.”

God then revealed to him the impending doom of Judah. “Out of the north evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.... and I will utter my judgements against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me: they have burned incense to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands.” The divine voice warned Jeremiah not to be dismayed by the persecution to come: “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail. I am the Lord, and I am with you."  God also ordered him NOT to take a wife, for Judah faced destruction and family lines would perish. From the outset, Jeremiah faced loneliness,  implacable enemies and his country’s bitter destiny.

It was with great heaviness of heart that Jeremiah took up his calling. Like those before him he admonished the shoppers in the marketplace and the crowds in the temple courtyards. He would join the worshipers and deliver his grim warnings dressed in a long white robe of the priest.  He was young and full of anger, and must have presented quite the spectacle.

Hear the word of the Lord, he would say. “As a thief is shamed when caught, so shall the House of Israel be shamed! Those who worship wood and stone and call it their father who gave them birth! Be they Kings, Princes or stone cutters! All will be shamed!”

Before long he would become quite the well known thorn in the side of the people despite their ridicule. “They bend their tongue like a bow.... falsehood has grown strong in the land!”

Josiah’s attempt to revive Judaism gained impetus around 622 b.c. with the discovery of an old law book now called Deuteronomy, outlining the theology of the Mosaic covenant. In line with the precepts, all sacrificial ceremony was now to be performed inside the temple. The clergy were invited to participate in this ritual, but most of them would refuse.

The reforms met with little support, the people suspected political motivation of the King and also feared Assyrian retaliation. At best, the people kept everything that had been doing and only added the King’s wishes into the mix.

Meanwhile Assyria was failing on all fronts. The Babylonians destroyed the capital of Nineveh in 612 b.c. and marked the virtual end of Assyrian power. Josiah, committed to renewal, carried his reformation into the old kingdom of Israel. Now free of Assyrian influence, he extended his reach as far north as Galilee and then west to the Mediterranean sea.

Looking to create a buffer between aggressive Babylonia and his own empire, Pharaoh Neco of Egypt decided to aid Assyria. Knowing that an Egyptian-Assyrian alliance would interfere with an independent Israel, Josiah led an army to  intercept and delay the Egyptians. He met them in battle about 50 miles northwest of Jerusalem, in the place known as Megiddo. He was mortally wounded there and died in transit to the capital. His forces were then badly routed by the Egyptians. Judah then fell temporarily under Egyptian domination. His son Jehoahaz the II was then crowned King. Within three months, Neco carried the new King off to Egypt, placing his brother Jehoiakim on the throne. The new ruler, having no  respect for Josiah’s reforms, threw open the doors wide to paganism once again.

more next time       

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