The Prophets of Captivity: Jeremiah
In December 2004, an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean created the deadliest series of tsunamis in history. More than 200,000 people died in Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. Some of the most tragic video footage shows people trying to outrun the seawater as it swallowed up entire cities.
I have often thought about the people on higher ground who pulled out their phones to record those scenes. How helpless they must have felt! They had the perspective to see the disaster coming, yet there was nothing they could do. Of course those who perished suffered the greatest loss, but it’s emotional to imagine what it must have been like for the observers, too.
Perhaps that sense of helpless grief is what Jeremiah felt as well. As a priest, he loved God’s house. As a prophet, he loved God’s people. Yet his ministry for the Lord required him to witness the devastation of both.
Jeremiah’s Place in History
This three-part series has examined the lives of Daniel, Ezekiel, and now Jeremiah. In the Old Testament record, the book of Jeremiah comes before Ezekiel and Daniel because Jeremiah’s ministry began more than twenty years before theirs. (By similar reasoning, the book of Daniel is last of the three because he outlived both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.) When God called Jeremiah as a young man (Jer. 1:6) into prophetic service, King Josiah was on the throne of Judah. Josiah’s rule turned out to be Judah’s final golden age before it descended into instability, judgment, and ultimately destruction.
Jeremiah served for the last eighteen years of Josiah’s reign (as we conclude from Jeremiah 1:2 since Josiah ruled for thirty-one years). He continued his ministry as four more Judean kings took the throne. All four were weak and godless. Jehoahaz ruled for only three months; Jehoiakim for eleven years; Jehoiachin for only a hundred days; and finally Zedekiah for eleven more years until the burning of Jerusalem and its temple.
We can calculate, then, that Jeremiah served God for forty years before Jerusalem was destroyed. He was there when Daniel went into captivity during Jehoiakim’s reign. He remained active when Ezekiel was taken during Jehoiachin’s reign. And he was probably an eyewitness to the tragic destruction of Jerusalem, the city of God’s delight, when Zedekiah’s reign ended and the third wave of captives went to Babylon in 586 B.C.
Rising Early and Speaking
For Jeremiah, the worst of it was that he had seen it all coming. At one point he told the people, “From the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, even to this day… I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking, but you have not listened” (Jer. 25:3 NKJV). His daily work was to warn them that their actions had consequences. He took this task to heart, “rising early” so he would not miss even one opportunity. If the message was important, then the messenger would be persistent.
Some struggles in our lives are long-lasting as well. Perhaps we see people we care about going in the wrong direction. Perhaps our conversations fall on deaf ears. Perhaps our compassionate warnings are met with cold hearts which seem determined to quench the warmth of God’s truth.
In such times we might try to encourage ourselves or others by saying, “Well, you never know how God is going to work before it’s too late!” This is often true. But in Jeremiah’s case, it never happened. For forty years the people refused to accept his message, preferring instead to persecute, slander, imprison, and torture the messenger.
Later, after the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah and some others were at least allowed to remain in the land rather than being deported to Babylon. Maybe this would be the turning point! Maybe this would be the moment when blessing rises out of tragedy.
But instead of getting better, the story got worse. (You can read it all in Jeremiah 40-44.) The remaining Jews asked Jeremiah for God’s guidance. Should they stay in Judah or seek refuge in Egypt? After ten days of prayer, Jeremiah gave them God’s answer: Stay here and be blessed! In response, the people accused him of conspiring with the Babylonians, and they left for Egypt anyhow, forcing Jeremiah to go with them. Even there, the prophet gave them God’s words; yet even there, after they had lost everything, the people simply said, “We don’t care. We’re going to do what we want.”
And as far as we know, that’s how Jeremiah’s life ended: a rejected messenger in his sixties, living in a foreign land, surrounded by rebellious, stubborn people who stood firm in the belief that God meant nothing to them and had done nothing for them.
It Is Enough
Jeremiah’s story is desperately sad. If his name had been listed in Hebrews 11, he would not be found among those who gained victories of faith but among those who suffered loss despite their faith. It has often been this way for many of God’s people. Perhaps you too have felt like a helpless spectator while your whole world collapsed around you and those you love.
Despite Jeremiah’s sorrow, though, he remained a prophet to the end. God had not rescinded His call, so Jeremiah did not relinquish his task. If God has called you to be a parent, a brother or a sister, a pastor or a teacher or a friend, you can still be that, even in tragedy, with His help. And perhaps that is enough.