Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
During a series of seminar sermons that I watched online I recently heard a pastor note to wives and others that most men of the cloth are running constantly on the edge of burn out. I think that many lay people also run their lives very close to the edge. If you’re on the edge and are ready to quit (whatever it is you may want to quit), this message is for you!
After many years of Jeremiah warning Israel to turn from their ways, crying out in every way possible to the people in order to bring them to repentance from their idol worship and to follow God, Jerusalem was destroyed. We read in Jeremiah 39:8-9,
The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard carried into exile to Babylon the people who remained in the city, along with those who had gone over to him, and the rest of the people.
Jeremiah failed, Babylon came and destroyed the city of David. But what happened after the destruction is more interesting. Nebuchadnezzar had heard about Jeremiah’s prophecies and, despite not believing in God, he honored Jeremiah as a prophet. We read as the story continues,
Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had given these orders about Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard: “Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks” (Jeremiah 39:11-12).
We can understand through this that even though he failed, the Lord still protected his servant Jeremiah. So, when he found Jeremiah, Nebuzaradan offered him the chance to retire in comfort,
When the commander of the guard found Jeremiah, he said to him, “The Lord your God decreed disaster for this place. And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would. All this happened because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him. But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please” (Jeremiah 40:2-4).
This offer used to confuse me; why would Nebuzaradan be so kind? Then the Holy Spirit explained that for him it would be a great honor having a Nebuchadnezzar-approved prophet in his home. So for both men this would be a win-win situation. Jeremiah would finally get the recognition and honor he deserved, and Nebuzaradan would be graced by having a prophet of God (No matter who that God was) living in his house.
After a long hard service to the Lord, a cushy retirement sounds pretty great, right? Well, it was not to be; for the Lord had other plans for Jeremiah. We read,
However, before Jeremiah turned to go, Nebuzaradan added, “Go back to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, whom the king of Babylon has appointed over the towns of Judah, and live with him among the people, or go anywhere else you please.”
Then the commander gave him provisions and a present and let him go (Jeremiah 40:5).
God told Jeremiah (through Nebuzaradan) to go back to his people because they needed him. GO BACK!? They hadn’t listened to him the entire time he had been preaching and God said (through Nebuzaradan) to go back?! It seems strange that the Lord would send a failure back into the field. However, as we are often reminded while reading odd things in the Bible,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways,”
Declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
God doesn’t look at the same qualities as we do. We see the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of Israel as the mark of Jeremiah’s failure in his mission. However, that isn’t how our Lord saw things.
How did the Lord see Jeremiah then? As humans, we can only see the outside, but God sees everything. We can read about this in 1 Samuel 16:7 as God rejects the choice David’s brother as the future king,
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things a man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
God looks at the whole package; and considering how he treated Jeremiah after the fall and continued to want to use him, we can assume the Lord thought very highly of the unlucky prophet. Jeremiah had failed by human standards, but in truth he had been a faithful worker during his whole ministry. We can better understand his mission by reading Ezekiel 33:7-9,
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, “O wicked man, you will surely die,” and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.
Anyone who has read all of Jeremiah’s adventures with the kings of Judah knows that Jeremiah did his best to save the people; and as such, he did what the Lord called him to do. God doesn’t look at the results, he looks at the heart. I’ve written before in other posts (such as “Fighting like a Christian”) about well-meaning-but-ineffective Christians. I always make sure to note that such people mean well. Why? God looks at the heart, and though I may make suggestions for greater effectiveness (coming from my days of being outside the church dealing with Christians), it is not my place to judge people’s motives.
I have heard a few pastors quote 2 Timothy 4:6-8 while retiring,
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day- and not only me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
However, I recommend we look more closely at the situation before we use these words for our own retirement. Paul preached his whole life, and when he was locked deep in dungeons, he wrote letters to churches and individuals, continuing to spread the message. Not only that, but he didn’t stop preaching either; instead of talking about Jesus to willing Jews and Gentiles, Paul had a captive audience in the Roman soldiers guarding him. He wrote about this to the people of Philippi,
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ (Philippians 1:12-13).
Paul never stopped spreading the Word of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. So when we read 2 Timothy, we must understand that Paul wasn’t saying that he was quitting, he was noting his likely impending death- and even how he kept on writing (since we have these letters in our Bibles)!
Even tired and in prison, Paul kept going. Why? Well, Paul had read in his Bible what Jeremiah did when he was given the chance to retire, “So Jeremiah went to Gedaliah son of Ahikam at Mizpah and stayed with him among the people who were left behind in the land” (Jeremiah 40:6). Even with his lifetime career of failure, Jeremiah went back to work after the destruction of Jerusalem. He knew that no matter what the results said, he was fighting the good fight. And even if Jeremiah’s ministry produced only a little fruit (as he continued to fail in turning the survivors to God), he went on to receive the crown of righteousness the Lord prepared for him. So don’t give up, you are useful, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Jeremiah died a failure in his time, but today his words touch millions of people’s hearts because he was given a place in God’s Word. If you feel like quitting, don’t. Go back to your people; they need you.