“Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others. It is healthier to think of one’s own. It is the reverse of morbid. It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and really to know one’s own sins is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be at first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass ofunrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of the tooth about which you should go to the dentists and the simple straightforward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.” —C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders” in C.S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), pp. 464–465
This post was originally published on December 29, 2014 and was revised on April 3, 2020.
Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
to set his nest on high,
to be safe from the reach of harm!
You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
For the stone will cry out from the wall,
and the beam from the woodwork respond.
When threatened, picking up a sword could be the most dangerous response. Reaching for a gun when an officer has commanded “Freeze!” is a fool’s act. Sometimes, the supposed wisdom of security is really the folly of unbelief. All our attempts at security might be nothing more than thinly veiled self-reliance and idolatry.
Nebuchadnezzar built an eagle’s nest where he thought his dynasty and kingdom would be safe. Walls were erected wide enough for a chariot to travel on. Much was invested in security, but all this was counterproductive because the most crucial factor in any building program wasn’t heeded—the One who holds the atoms of every stone, brick, and piece of lumber together—God Almighty.
Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
All that was for safety only testified against Babylon. The materials gained by evil means antiphonally cry out against her (2:11), just as Abel’s blood cried out against Cain (Genesis 4:10; Habakkuk 2:12). Where men see glory, God sees sin; and He isn’t intimidated. Babylon was a city built with blood and sin; and thus, it was not a city to flee to, but to flee from. Worse than building their own prison, they’d constructed nothing more than a giant lightning rod to attract the unbearable storm of God’s wrath.
Your efforts at security may not be mortared with blood, but if they’re an expression of self-reliance and idolatry, then it’s still bonded with explosive-laced sin and a fire is coming. Tis far better to be Habakkuk in certain-to-fall Jerusalem, confusingly trusting in the Rock (1:12). The righteous shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur the son of Malchiah and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, saying, ‘Inquire of the Lord for us, for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is making war against us. Perhaps the LORD will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds and will make him withdraw from us’ ” (Jeremiah 21:1–3).
Zedekiah was the last reigning king of Judah. This siege began in the ninth year of his eleven year reign. This means Jeremiah had been prophesying near forty years at this point, warning Judah of judgment and calling for her to repent. Neither Zedekiah nor Jerusalem have repented, but ol’ Zed thinks “Perhaps?” Perhaps!
Perhaps Zedekiah recalls the instance when Assyria done messed up by mocking Israel’s God during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18–19). In that instance, it wasn’t so much that Judah was so good, but that Assyria was so bad. Though God has promised to destroy Jerusalem with the Babylonians, Zedekiah presumptuously thinks “Perhaps?” Perhaps!
Thomas Brooks warned “Despair hath slain her thousand but presumption her ten-thousand.” Ol’ Zed is not alone in thinking “Perhaps?” As Zedekiah went to the prophet, so we go to the word or the preaching of the word, not desiring to hear the word of the Lord, but a word from the Lord, because “Perhaps?” We don’t want to know what Scripture says concerning His will for our lives; we want Him to speak encouragement and blessing on our lives. We have no inkling of honestly obeying Him without reservation, yet we come to the word thinking “Perhaps?” Perhaps!
If you’re not following me, every time we sin, we presumptuously think to ourselves “Perhaps?” The presumption of “Perhaps?” is as foolish as heading west on Route 66 and expecting to get arrive in the Caribbean. We hear the serpent’s whisper, “You will not surely die… you will be like God.” We know what God said, but hey, perhaps? God clearly said that the wages of sin is death, but we think “Perhaps?” Perhaps!
To our wretched “Perhaps?” the immutable I AM of heaven always and without fail replies, “Absolutely not!”
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7–8)
“O LORD, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7).
If one was hoping the more uncomfortable passages in Jeremiah might be left behind after chapters 18 and 19, chapter 20 proves sorely disappointing. But whereas the discomfort of chapter 19 consists in Yahweh’s ear-tingling judgment, that of chapter 20 is found in Jeremiah’s complaints. We feel as though we are in the presence of a rebellious child publicly lashing out at their venerable father.
Here we see Jeremiah at both his best and his worst. Before he complains to the Lord, he is bold for the Lord. We too easily dismiss the boldness for the complaint. Jeremiah’s complaint is the last of six that are called the “Confessions of Jeremiah.” The others are found in 11:18–20; 12:1–6; 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23. In some of these, Jeremiah righteously laments; in others, he sinfully complains. This complaint bears the most similarity to the one found in 15:10–21, which along with 12:1–6 are the only places where we find a word of rebuke following Jeremiah’s “confession.” This lament, though no rebuke follows it, stands above, or should we say, far below the rest. Here we see Jeremiah at his lowest; in his darkest pit.
I’ve argued before that though Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet, we shouldn’t unnecessarily slander him as a weepy prophet. He’s a sinner true enough, and he doesn’t need our imaginations to make him more so. Over a ministry spanning forty years we have five recorded lament/complaints, and we, on the basis of those, might like to think Jeremiah a cry baby, and thus below us. If you look down on his lament, ask yourself if you have risen to the heights of his courage? If you have never been so high, can you really understand such lows?
My point in this is not to excuse Jeremiah in the least. His complaint makes me cringe. It is repulsive. May we never complain as he does. Lord forgive me when my prayers and the sentiments of my heart are just as blasphemous. Forgive me that I think myself superior to Jeremiah simply because I mask the same ugliness. My desire is that instead of looking down on Jeremiah, we would see our own cowardice and complaining, and then, having seen it, strive, in hope of the same grace, to be as courageous in the future without the complaint on the other side.
“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country” (Jeremiah 17:1–3a).
Sin being engraved on the heart isn’t so much the diagnosis as the prognosis. Here we’re not told the disease itself as of its advanced stages. Jeremiah will soon speak of humanity’s heart condition in verse 9. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” At the beginning of the chapter though, we see what happens when the sin-sick heart pumps sin after sin after sin.
Man, born totally depraved advances toward being utterly depraved. The more the heart flows with wickedness, the darker the flow of wickedness becomes. Sin, having flowed out of the heart, is then engraved on the heart. Heart-hardening is the result of our hereditary heart disease.
But it is not the heart being likened to a tablet which speaks to this hardness. The father of Proverbs pleads, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart” (Proverbs 3:1–3, emphasis mine). The heart is a tablet. It is what is written on it that is indicative of hardness.
In an oral culture the important and that which was to be preserved were written. Writing something on paper indicates was significant; engraving it on stone far more. Judah’s sin is indelible, ineffaceable, ineradicable.
This is humanity’s prognosis. We are all terminally ill. And because our hearts are deceitful, we are in denial. Our only hope is that the Great Physician, in mercy, grant us new hearts in the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34; 32:36–41; Ezekiel 36:24–32).
“I myself will lift up your skirts over your face,
and your shame will be seen.
I have seen your abominations,
your adulteries and neighings, your lewd whorings,
on the hills in the field.
Woe to you, O Jerusalem!
How long will it be before you are made clean?” —Jeremiah 13:26–27
If there is a dominant note in the assortment of words that make up chapter 13 of Jeremiah, I’d say it is that of the shamed she. By putting the words “dominant” and “shamed” and “she” in the same sentence, however far apart and dissociated they may be, perhaps I’ve already put the misogynist match to the patriarchal fuse of dominance dynamite.
Indeed, the shamed she here is dominated, and as such, she is shamed. This passage isn’t politically correct. Truly, the shaming of the she is disturbing, but if we fail to see that her being shamed is a just punishment for her shame, then perhaps we too are trying to hide our nakedness behind inadequate leafy loincloths.
Judah is shamed because she is shameful. It is because Judah is not ashamed that she is to be so shamed. One aim of this judgment is to shame the shameful. When God shames the she, His judgment pulls the curtain back and exposes the harlot for who she really is. The fig leaves are gone. She can no longer hide. The judgment is harsh because the sin is vulgar.
This passages in’t about the oppression of women. This passage is about the execution of justice. God’s grace had made His bride beautiful. Judah then used this beauty to whore after other gods. The promised land was like a wedding chamber. Yahweh brought Israel there that He might make her beautiful, radiating with His glory. Brought in as a bride, now, having committed adultery with the pagan gods, she is driven out as an adulteress. What was hidden in the darkness is now brought into the light. Yahweh doesn’t place a shame on Judah that doesn’t fit. He removes the royal robes with which He clothed her, garments she had used to conceal her harlotry, so that she is now seen for what she is. Yahewh clothes her in her own garments, and those fig leaves don’t cover.
When you shudder at the language of shame, remember, Christ wore this garment Himself so that His bride might be clothed with His righteousness. The severity of His justice, He has tasted Himself. The severity of His justice testifies then to the depths of His mercy and grace. He was stripped bare and exposed so that the church might stand before the throne of His Holy Father, clothed in His righteousness.
Yes, He rose as Lord over His bride, but His redeeming rule does not oppress; it liberates. Know that when you are repulsed at His lordship in judgment, you’ve then also foundationally rejected the lordship that redeems.
“Who is the man so wise that he can understand this? To whom has the mouth of the LORD spoken, that he may declare it? Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through?” (Jeremiah 9:12)
Jeremiah propounds two questions as to who could possibly answer a third question. First, who is so wise that he can understand this? Second, to whom has Yahweh spoken that he might reveal it? So what is this? What is it?
Before unveiling the enigma, consider that a short bit after Jeremiah we come to the prophet Daniel, who, because of his Lord, could explain mysteries no other could. When Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall and none of his wise men could interpret it, the king was alarmed, but then the queen explained:
“There is a man in your kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father, light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him, and King Nebuchadnezzar, your father—your father the king—made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers, because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will show the interpretation” (Daniel 5:11–12).
Now, to resume our present mystery. What puzzle is Jeremiah going to set before us?
“Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness so that no one passes through?”
This is not a difficult question. It is an indictment of Judah. These questions are no insult to her intelligence, but her pride. Her inability to answer stems from no deficiency in intellect, but in humility. If you flunk this test, Ephesians 4:18–19 explains why.
“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”
“The blindness of humanity is so great that people are actually proud of their blindness,” wrote Augustine. Look around at humanity and you will see blindness touted as sight, darkness paraded around as though it were light. It is because of the lies that Judah holds onto in pride that she cannot grasp the truth, for truth can only be held with the hands of humility. The false prophets have told Judah “He will do nothing, no disaster will come upon us” (5:12). They say “Peace, Peace!” when there is no peace (6:14). Judah doesn’t want to let go of these lies because that would mean she would have to turn from her idols.
The reason she cannot answer this question is because she loves darkness. Judah has fallen for the wrong boy and she can’t admit the relationship is toxic. In Jeremiah 5:31 we are told not only that the prophets prophecy falsely but that the people love to have it so. They love lies because they love darkness. Jesus said, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:19–20).
Their pride is perplexed by God’s humbling them. Their sin is shocked by God’s righteous judgment. Their love of darkness is angry at God’s light. This is why they cannot answer so obvious a question. This is why the world still cannot see the curse all around us? This is why she cries “Why?” in the face of suffering. We act dumfounded because the apple is still in our hands and we want to eat it deceiving ourselves that despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, we will indeed be like God if we just eat a bit more. The love our of idols is proud because the idol we love most is self.
God told Jeremiah that the people would ask this question. “And when your people say, ‘Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?’ you shall say to them, ‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve foreigners in a land that is not yours’ ” (Jeremiah 5:19). The punishment rhymes with the sin, but their sin-muffled ears can’t hear the poetry.
Such is the wisdom of man. It can tell you how pain works, but it is blind to why a thing such as pain is.
“Most men are mad upon the world, and so they may have much of that for their portion, they care not whether ever they have God for their portion or no. Give them but a palace in Paris, and then with that French duke [the Duke of Burbone (Bourbon)] they care not for a place in paradise; give them but a mess of pottage, and let who will take the birthright; give them but manna in a wilderness, and let who will take the land of Canaan; give them but ground which is pleasant and rich, and then with the Reubenites they will gladly take up their rest on this side the Holy Land; give them but their bags full, and their barns full, and then with the rich fool in the Gospel they can think of nothing but of taking their ease, and of eating and drinking, and making merry, Luke 12:16–22. So brutish and foolish are they in their understandings, as if their precious and immortal souls were good for nothing but as salt to keep their bodies from rotting and stinking.
Oh that these men would seriously consider, that as a cup of pleasant wine, offered to a condemned man in the way to his execution, and as the feast of him who sat under a naked sword, hanging perpendicularly over his head by a slender thread, and as Adam’s forbidden fruit, seconded by a flaming sword, and as Belshazzar’s dainties, overlooked by an handwriting against the wall; such and only such are all earthly portions to those that have not God for their portion.” —Thomas Brooks, An Ark for All God’s Noahs
“You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD:
When men fall, do they not rise again?
If one turns away, does he not return?
Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They hold fast to deceit;
they refuse to return.
I have paid attention and listened,
but they have not spoken rightly;
no man relents of his evil,
saying, ‘What have I done?’
Everyone turns to his own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
Even the stork in the heavens
knows her times,
and the turtledove, swallow, and crane
keep the time of their coming,
but my people know not
the rules of the LORD.” (Jeremiah 8:4–7)
Judah’s behavior is “unnatural.” When a man falls, he gets up. When he has gone the wrong way, he retraces his steps. Judah however, has intentionally chosen the forbidden path leading to death and insists on continuing down it despite incessant warnings. Earlier God called for them to “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for [their] souls.” Their reply was, “We will not walk in it” (6:16).
Judah has fallen and it is not that she can not get up; she will not get up. Prideful idolatry has let to her fall, and now her pride refuses to rise. She is like the child who has ignored repeated warnings, and because they’ve done so, she now lies flat on her back. When you encourage the child to get up, her rebellious pride now refuses to stand. The problem isn’t that the mind is slow, but that the heart is hard.
The birds know their times and seasons for turning and returning. They are not made in the image of God and follow a less glorious rule. Whereas God’s people, not mankind generally, but specifically God’s people, those He has redeemed in covenant love, do not know His rules. Derek Kidner, ever the master of succinct commentary, summarizes the gist of the passage well, “In matters spiritual and moral we act with a perversity which is quite unlike our common sense at other levels, let alone the impressive wisdom of our fellow creatures (even the bird-brained, 7a!).” Isaiah observes the same “unnatural” behavior. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:2–3).
In one sense, sin is now natural. Sin is our default condition in Adam. This is why Scripture speaks of the “natural man” as it does. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Wisdom is folly to us, and folly is wisdom.
Even so, what is now natural to us is unnatural, it is contrary to creation. When we sin we are going against the grain of creation. Sinful man is like a fish trying to live on dry ground. This is seen in the penalty Paul unfolds for man’s denial and suppression of the truth in worshipping the creation rather than the creator. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26–27).
Sin is a kind of insanity unto greater insanity. Sin is a plunge down the rabbit hole. Sin is senseless. Sin is nonsensical. Sin is our nature, and yet, sin is unnatural. It doesn’t compute. All of God’s creation and revelation testify against it. Sin sticks out like a sore thumb, and yet, we call it a healthy finger.
Sin is drinking poison knowingly and intentionally and expecting health. Sin is losing your way on purpose and continuing when you know the path leads to destruction, and yet expecting to find happiness thereon. Sin is the rebellion of a finite creature against an omnipotent God and hoping for victory. Sin is falling down and refusing to get up but expecting to be exalted. Sin is as obviously foolish as adding one plus one over and over again and expecting anything other than two. Sin is eating the same forbidden fruit again and again and expecting something other than death and the curse.
What hope can there be when fallen man’s nature is so “unnatural,” so nonsensical? Only the supernatural grace of God. It is not something natural, not something from within, not something below; but something supernatural, something without, something above. When fools turn wise, all glory is God’s. No sinners are self-educated unto sainthood. When sinful fools graduate unto saintly wisdom, summa laud, highest praise is ascribed to God, not man.
“God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’ ” (1 Corinthians 2:14, emphasis mine).
“And when your people say, ‘Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?’ you shall say to them, ‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve foreigners in a land that is not yours’ ” (Jeremiah 5:19).
Names have been referred to as “handles” and though I’m not completely certain of all the etymology involved, I’d bet it is largely because names help us to pick things up. It is peculiar how naming a thing can prove so useful in understanding it. This shouldn’t be mystifying, for naming a thing is as old as Adam, and once named, conversation may ensue. So let me give you a handle by which to pick up this chapter: theodicy. This chapter presents a theodicy, that is, it argues to vindicate the goodness of God. A theodicy answers the questions that begin, “How can God be good if… ?” This particular theodicy is a justification of God’s justice; it demonstrates that God’s justice is just. Now we’re talking huh?
The answer given here to the question “Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?” is not one that is universal but particular. And yet, ultimately, the answer given is the answer, for all suffering is foundationally rooted in sin. The judgment Judah faces here is the one we all deserve.
The real puzzle to turn over in your noodle is not a theodicy, but an anthropodicy. It is not the goodness of God we should question but the goodness of man. We ask “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but we have started with a false premise. The real dilemma is “Why do good things happen to bad people?” B.B. Warfield explains, “Righteous men amid the evils of earth seek a theodicy—they want a justification of God; sinners do not need a theodicy—all too clear to them is the reason of their sufferings—they want a consolation, a justification from God. …we are sinners, and what hope have we save in a God who is gracious rather than merely just?”
So why do good things happen to bad people? We might begin by answering that God is patient, long-suffering, and benevolent, but this answer is not enough. This is a big question and a larger foundation must underly such patience. To see what it is, let’s return to ponder that question we discarded, and see if it might help us now. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” One theologian answered, “That only happened once, and He volunteered.” Peter tells us that “Christ… suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The real dilemma of God’s dealing with man was not “How could he judge?”, but “How could he show mercy?” The answer is that grace comes in the Christ who quenched the fury of God’s anger against sin so that we might be declared just.
Sinner, you are not righteous. Shall He not punish (5:7–9)? Do not delude yourself with words of wind, but hear these words of fire against your soul (5:12–14). And yet, know this, there is hope. Instead of expected justice God extends surprising grace. This grace is found in Jesus Christ who was everything we are not—righteous, and was reckoned everything we were—sinful, bearing everything we deserve—the wrath of God.
Repent of your sins, trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved. Then you will ask, not in agony, but in bliss? “Why has YHWH our God done all these things to us?” “Why has He blessed and loved us so?” And the answer you will love to hear and give again and again for all eternity is this, “Jesus!”