I recently listened to a podcast about cryptocurrency and how it has turned out to be massively speculative and often fraudulent. But investing in crypto was all the rage a few years ago. There was a Super Bowl ad campaign, and stories of crypto fortunes. Why was crypto so popular?
Will it surprise you to read that I think crypto was popular because of fear. Any scheme that promises quick, effortless wealth taps into our fears about financial security. If we are financially secure, we believe we’ll be free of the fear that we won’t be able to provide for our family. As we will see in this week’s mid-week devotional, fear is a powerful motivator. What are you afraid of?
We are studying the book of Jeremiah, this week looking at chapters 42-43. These chapters continue the story of the remnant of Jews living in Judah in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion. After Gedaliah, the governor of the remnant, is assassinated (for that story see last week’s post here), an army officer, Johanan, rounds up the people to head toward what they believe is safety in Egypt (see 41:17). At the end of chapter 41, Johanan and the people have made camp in Bethlehem.
Now in chapter 42, we read in verses 1-3 that they meet with the prophet Jeremiah, asking him to pray to God on their behalf so that God will guide them. This request sounds very faithful. Are they being genuine, though? Do they really want God to guide them? They make it sound like they are ready and willing to hear God’s word and do what he says. At the same time, we’ve already learned that they are heading to Egypt. What if God says, “Don’t go to Egypt, but stay put.”?
This scenario is one that many of us have encountered in our own lives. We act first and seek God second. We formulate a plan, then we go to God asking him to bless our plan. We invite God into a situation that is already a done deal, and if we deeply examine our intentions, we’re likely not all that interested in what he might say about it.
In verse 4, Jeremiah says, “Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll will pray to God and tell you everything he says.” This has been Jeremiah’s life since chapter 1. Hear from God and tell people what God says. If that sounds common, it’s not. If that sounds easy, it’s not. Throughout the life and ministry of Jeremiah, you can read time and time again how difficult the prophetic task is for Jeremiah. People think they want to hear from God, but when they actually hear from God, they are often extremely disappointed. Why? Because people want affirmation of what they have already chosen to do. They rarely want a corrective. They rarely welcome critique. Jeremiah knows this. He’s faced it hundreds of times.
But the people are excited. Look at verses 5 and 6. They are so positive and committed, making bold proclamations about how they will obey God. These verses are an excellent ideal that we should strive for. The people say that they will obey God no matter if his word is favorable or unfavorable to them. If God says, “Go to Egypt,” or “Stay in Judah,” they will do what he says. They are all in.
Or so they say. They might believe they are all in, but are they? What will happen if God says, “Stay in Judah, be subservient to the Babylonians,” and the people think, “But we are afraid of the Babylonians, God. When they find out about the assassination of Gedaliah, they will come back and kill us!”? Will the people follow the word of the Lord if they don’t like what he says to them?
When we don’t like what we are hearing from God, we can rationalize it away. We can convince ourselves into thinking, “I bet I didn’t hear God right.” Or we can think, “There’s no way God would call me to do something so difficult. I can’t do it.”
It is easy, in other words, to proclaim our commitment. It is another thing to remain committed to God’s heart and God’s way when we think it will cost us. But perhaps God will affirm the remnant’s desire to travel to safety in Egypt? In verses 7-8, we learn that ten days later God spoke to Jeremiah. So Jeremiah gathers the remnant, and delivers the message from God.
In verses 9-18, the message is this: “The Lord wants you to stay in Judah, and there he will build you up, protect you and restore your land. Do not go to Egypt, or you will surely die.” Jeremiah concludes with some comment of his own in verses 19-22, telling the people that their bold proclamations of commitment were a sham, and they were never truly interested in being guided by God.
Here we go again. This is what Jeremiah dealt with many times before when he prophesied to the kings of Judah. People say they want God to lead them, but they actually want God to bless them. People do not want a God who will guide them through hardship and difficulty and fear; they want a God who will only make life easy and comfortable. But that’s not how God always answers our prayers.
Instead God often calls us to trust him in the midst of the struggles in life. Look closely at verses 10-12. God is saying, “My people, I am grieved over all the pain you have endured recently, but if you will trust in me, I will protect you and help you thrive in the middle of the devastation. Do not be afraid of Babylon, as I am with you. Stay put in Judah, and I will save you.”
God is good, God is loving; but neither his goodness nor his love means that he promises to take all hardship away from our lives. Instead, he often gives us his goodness and love to hold onto in the middle of the hardship. How will the Judean remnant respond? Remember their previous commitment to God, in verse 6, that they would obey him whether his answer was favorable or unfavorable? Will they keep their promise?
In chapter 43, verses 1-3, Johanan and other leaders of the remnant give in to their fear. They accuse Jeremiah of lying. Classic move. When you don’t like what you’re hearing, call the person a liar. They also blame Jeremiah of being influenced by Baruch (Jeremiah’s faithful secretary). Another classic accusation. “There’s no way Jeremiah could be hearing from God, right? He must be controlled by Baruch.” Finally, they describe a nightmare scenario in which the Babylonians kill them. All we hear from the people is fear and more fear. The fear is so thick, they can’t feel or see anything else.
Think about how Johanan previously acted with self-sacrificial honor in chapters 40 and 41, as we saw in the previous mid-week devotional. He tried to warn Gedaliah of the assassination plot. Johanan even volunteered to intervene and stop the plot. Then, after the assassination, Johanan led the way to capture the assassin, Ishmael, and rescue the people Ishmael had captured. Johanan really seemed like he was a faithful guy. Now he is anti-Jeremiah, and therefore, anti-God. I wonder what changed.
It seems that what changed is the assassination of Gedaliah, which included the killing of Babylonian soldiers. Those would be exceedingly serious offenses in the eyes of the powerful Babylonians. I suspect that Johanan, though he courageously intervened and rescued his people, has now become very scared at this point. He appears convinced that the Babylonians will respond with severe punishment, and thus he concludes that Jeremiah is wrong. In Johanan’s view, there is no way that staying in Judah is okay. Fear is ruling his every thought, word and deed. God is the farthest thing from Johanan’s reality.
Fear does that. It captures our imaginations so that we can only think of bad news, bad outcomes, failure and pain. The sneaky thing about fear is that we allow it access to the center of our being, but we do so thinking that we are right to be fearful. We evaluate our situation and we believe things are so awful that our fear is warranted. We do not believe that our ability to evaluate our situation has become polluted by our fear. Instead, we think we are doing what is best for ourselves and our loved ones. As a result, fear clouds our judgment and often pushes us in a direction away from God.
In verses 4-7, then, Johanan leads the people in disobedience to God, right into Egypt. But what of Jeremiah? Does he stay in Judah by himself? It seems not. Look at verses 8-13. In those verses the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah who has traveled with the remnant and is now in Egypt.
There in Egypt, God asks Jeremiah to perform a prophetic skit. In full view of the Jewish remnant, he is to bury some large stones at the entrance to the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. Jeremiah is then to prophesy, telling the people that the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, will invade Egypt and set his throne over the place where the stones are buried. Nebuchadnezzar will then destroy the temples and gods of Egypt. In other words, while the people believe they are fleeing to safety, God says, “You’re not safe. Egypt can’t protect you. Just you wait. Babylon is coming for you here too.”
They symbolism of the Jews’ return to Egypt is rich in irony. God rescued their forefathers from slavery in Egypt, and now the Jews are rebelling against God, pursuing safety and protection from Egypt. Do the Jews no longer believe that God is trustworthy? It seems they do not believe God can protect them. It’s curious, isn’t it, that they would ask Jeremiah to inquire of God on their behalf. Their minds were already made up. They were going to Egypt.
What we see in this story is the complexity and messiness of fear and faith. When we are battling fear, we can have a difficult time placing our faith in God.
How about you? What fears are you struggling with? I write this on the day after the Pennsylvania State primary election, the annual day where members of political parties go to the polls to vote on which candidates will represent their party at the general election in the fall. In our era, politicians harness the power of fear, trying to convince us that our nation or community is falling apart, and they alone have the ideas to save us. It’s a message of “Vote for me or die.” There are many other fears in our world. Fear of financial ruin. Fear of bad health. Fear of our children going astray.
In the midst of fears, read God’s word to the people in Jeremiah 42:10-12 again. God is for us. God is with us. God is mighty to save. Give your fear to him.
Photo by Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash