Run with the Horses
by Jack Wald | September 2nd, 2001

Jeremiah 12:5

Jeremiah was not the kind of person you wanted to invite to a party if you wanted to have a good time. He would certainly not be the prophet of choice for today in a world that abhors judgement. His name has entered English vocabulary as a “jeremiad”, a prolonged lamentation or complaint and also a “Jeremiah”, one who is pessimistic about the present and foresees a calamitous future.

He was an emotional prophet and is often called the “weeping prophet” because he wept openly about the sins of his nation. He was often depressed about the futility of his message which is understandable because I can’t imagine a country in the world at any place or time that would have responded positively to his message.

The history of his time is not very familiar to us. But let me bring his message to a more recent time. Put yourself in England in 1940. Hitler is bombarding London and Winston Churchill makes an instantaneously famous speech in which he says
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs–victory in spite of all terrors–victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Winston Churchill inspired England and the world with his brave words and determination.

Now listen to Jeremiah’s message if it had been given to citizens of England in 1940
“Tell Winston Churchill,  ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands, which you are using to fight Adolf Hitler and the Nazis who are besieging you. And I will gather them to this land.  I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath.  6 I will strike down those who live in this country—both men and animals—and they will die of a terrible plague.  7 After that, declares the LORD, I will hand over King George, Winston Churchill, his officials and the people in this city who survive the plague, bombing and famine, to Adolf Hitler, ruler of Nazi Germany and to their enemies who seek their lives. He will put them to the sword; he will show them no mercy or pity or compassion.’
8 “Furthermore, tell the people, ‘This is what the LORD says: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.  9 Whoever stays in London will die by the bombing, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Nazis who are besieging you will live; he will escape with his life.  10 I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the Lord.”

That was the message of Jeremiah, for forty years that was the message of Jeremiah. Do you wonder that he was at times depressed at the resistance to his message? Are you surprised that his words were greeted with hostility?

I want this morning to introduce you to Jeremiah, to give a context for his prophecies and actions and to take peek at what kind of person he was.

When we studied Hebrews, I remember telling you that the writer of Hebrews needed a good editor. In this case, an editor’s assistance is critical. There is no particular chronological or thematic order to the book if Jeremiah. His prophecies given over a forty year period are interspersed and you need to refer to notes in your Bible or keep a good idea of the history of Jeremiah’s time in order to get any perspective on what you are reading.

So first we take a look at the history of Jeremiah’s world. Jeremiah spoke at a time when the ancient near east was in tremendous upheaval. Within his forty years of ministry the mighty Assyrian Empire that was at its height during the life of Isaiah fell to Babylon which had been a city under its domination. Egypt also was experiencing a resurgence and little Judea was caught between these powerful forces.

[talk about map in bulletin]

Israel reached its height during the time of King David and King Solomon. After the death of King Solomon in 931 BC, Israel split into the northern kingdom which retained the name Israel and the southern kingdom which was called Judah.

Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of the last five kings of Judah. As they made alliances with Egypt in an attempt to protect their borders, Jeremiah for forty years prophesied that they would be taken over by the Babylonians and taken into captivity, all this as God’s judgement against Judah for their worship of false gods.

Jeremiah was not the only prophet during this period of time. Habakkuk and Zephaniah were his contemporaries as well as Daniel at the Babylonian court and Ezekiel among the exiles in Babylon.

The Assyrian Empire dominated the ancient world from 1300 BC up to the time of Jeremiah, a period of 700 years. The last great king of Assyria died in 627 and thirteen years later in 612, the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, fell to Babylon. (Nineveh, you might remember, was the city to which reluctant Jonah went to preach some 140 years earlier.)

Meanwhile in Israel, Josiah, at the age of eight, had been put on the throne and although his father had been a wicked king, he developed an interest in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and at the age of 16 began to institute reforms to bring Israel back to their heritage as God’s chosen people. This reform reached its height in 622, ten years before the fall of Nineveh, when the Book of the Law, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible were discovered as the Temple in Jerusalem was being repaired. Jeremiah was a very active participant in these reforms..

With the fall of Assyria, Josiah was emboldened to declare Judah’s independence from Assyria. At the same time, Egypt was concerned that the Babylonians would be more dangerous to them than the Assyrians and came north to assist the Assyrians in battle against the Babylonians. Josiah was fearful of this alliance between Egypt and Judah’s traditional enemies and fought against Egypt in 609. He was killed in this battle and Judah came under the influence of Egypt. The Pharaoh Necho did not like Josiah’s successor and after only three months on the throne, he was replaced by Jehoiakim.

The Babylonians gradually grew in power and defeated Egypt in a battle in 605 after which Nebuchadnezzar took control of much of Syria, Judah and Philistia.

Four years later in 601, Nebuchadnezzar met surprising resistance on an attempt to move into Egypt and he withdrew to recoup and strengthen his forces. Possibly encouraged by that, King Jehoiakim made the fatal mistake of allying with Egypt and in 598, Babylon put Judah under siege. Jehoiakim died, Jerusalem fell to Babylon and the new king Jehoiachin was deported with other officials to Babylon. His uncle, Zedekiah, was put on the throne.

Eleven years later, Zedekiah broke faith with Babylon and again Judah was allied with Egypt. Babylon again laid siege to Jerusalem and this time the city was plundered and burned and the people deported to Babylon.

A remnant fled to Egypt taking Jeremiah with them and that’s where the story of Jeremiah ends.

You can see in this history the tremendous difficulties facing Judah as they struggled to discover their best course. With whom should they ally? Assyria? Egypt? Babylon? And it is in this political turmoil that Jeremiah prophesied for forty years.

Keep this time line and map handy when you read through Jeremiah so you can put what you are reading into a context.

What do we know of Jeremiah?

He was born in Anathoth, situated north of Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin some time prior to 640. In 627 when he received his call to be God’s prophet, he was a young man, in his late teens or early twenties.

He was reluctant to accept God’s call, because of his youthfulness and partly because of the message he was given to preach.

Frederick Buechner writes about him in this way:
The word jeremiad means a doleful and thunderous denunciation, and its derivation is no mystery. There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy. He denounced recreational sex and extramarital jamborees. He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and he denounced the poor for deserving no better. He denounced the way every new god that came sniffing around had them all after him like so many bitches in heat; and right at the very gates of the Temple he told them that if they thought God was impressed by all the mumbo-jumbo that went on there, they ought to have their heads examined.

When some of them took to indulging in a little human sacrifice on the side, he appeared with a clay pot which he smashed into smithereens to show them what God planned to do to them as soon as he got around to it. He even denounced God himself for saddling him with the job of trying to reform such a pack of hyenas, degenerates, ninnies. “You have deceived me,” he said, shaking his fist. You are “like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail,” and God took it.

But the people didn’t. When he told them that the Babylonians were going to come in and rip them to shreds as they richly deserved, they worked him over and threw him in jail. When the Babylonians did come in and not only ripped them to shreds but tore down their precious Temple and ran off with all the expensive hardware, he told them that since it was God’s judgement upon them, they better submit to it or else; whereupon they threw him into an open cistern that happened to be handy. Luckily the cistern had no water in it, but Jeremiah sank into the muck up to his armpits and stayed there till an Ethiopian eunuch pulled him out with a rope.

He told them that if they were so crazy about circumcision, then they ought to get their minds above their navels for once and try circumcising “the foreskins of their hearts”; and the only hope he saw for them was that someday God would put the law in their hearts too instead of in the books, but that was a long way off.

At his lowest ebb he cursed the day he was born like Job, and you can hardly blame him. He had spent his life telling them to shape up with the result that they were in just about as miserable shape as they’d have been if he’d never bothered, and urging them to submit to Babylon as the judgement of God when all their patriotic instincts made that sound like the worst kind of defeatism and treachery.

He also told them that, Babylonian occupation or no Babylonian occupation, they should stick around so that someday they could rise up and be a new nation again; and the first chance they got, a bunch of them beat it over the border into Egypt. What’s even worse, they dragged old Jeremiah, kicking and screaming, along with them, which seems the final irony: that he, who had fought so long and hard against all forms of idolatry – the Nation as idol, the Temple as idol, the King as idol – should at last have been tucked into their baggage like a kind of rabbit’s foot or charm against the evil eye or idol himself.

What became of him in Egypt afterwards is not known, but the tradition is that his own people finally got so exasperated with him there that they stoned him to death. If that is true, nothing could be less surprising.

What kind of person does it take to be Jeremiah?

In most major cities, there are people who get up each day, get out a board with their particular message: “The world is coming to an end” or whatever it might be and spend the day standing on a street corner or walking the streets with their message. I have seen these people but I have never talked with one of them and I have never read an article about one of them. But I have always thought of these people as being mentally imbalanced, crazy. It’s true that the world is going to end someday but there is something about these people that does not lead me to think are God’s representatives. Was Jeremiah one of those people? Did he one day get an idea into his head and was never able to get it out?

A few years ago there was a movie titled “Network” in which a newscaster began ranting and raving about the problems in the world. In this case, he became a big star and the highlight of the movie came when he had everyone lean out of their window and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Was Jeremiah like this, a man who was angry with the world and received satisfaction from venting his anger in judgements against any and every one he could find?

Was Jeremiah an angry man? A crazy man? A stubborn man? An obstinate man?

I think you will agree with me as we look at Jeremiah over the next several weeks that a very different picture of him emerges.

In the 11th chapter of Jeremiah, the men of Jeremiah’s home town, Anathoth, threaten to kill Jeremiah ‘Do not prophesy in the name of the LORD or you will die by our hands’. Jeremiah breaks out with his complaint to God in Chapter 12. His complaint is not new to us and it was not new to him. King David had expressed the same complaint in his psalms.

You are always righteous, O LORD,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?
2 You have planted them, and they have taken root;
they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
but far from their hearts.
3 Yet you know me, O LORD;
you see me and test my thoughts about you.
Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
Set them apart for the day of slaughter!
4 How long will the land lie parched
and the grass in every field be withered?
Because those who live in it are wicked,
the animals and birds have perished.
Moreover, the people are saying,
“He will not see what happens to us.”

Jeremiah is feeling discouraged, underappreciated and a bit angry. In God’s response to Jeremiah, there is a wonderful image.

5 “If you have raced with men on foot
and they have worn you out,
how can you compete with horses?
If you stumble in safe country,
how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?

This is the verse Eugene Peterson used to title his book about Jeremiah, Run with the Horses. And it is a verse that tells us about the character of Jeremiah. At a young age, Jeremiah was given a huge responsibility and this incident early on in his ministry was a critical moment for him. He had worked to promote the reforms of Josiah and offended the people from his own town who did not want their local shrines to be torn down. They threatened his life and now what will he do?

In the history of persecutions of Christians, it has always been the case that many in the church renounce their faith under the threat of discrimination, torture and death. It is easy to respond to the invitation of God to come and lay down our burden of sin and receive his grace and love. But the real test comes when we discover that our choice will cost us something.

Jeremiah accepted God’s call to be his prophet and was  undoubtedly excited at the leadership of Josiah in calling Judah to repent and return to God. He had had a great time in spreading this message, but now there is this test. The open question is: Will he persevere?

Eugene Peterson talks about this in his book, Run with the Horses.
Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know, to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of the Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah, do you want to shuffle along with the crowd, or run with the horses?

As we preach through Jeremiah this fall I think you will discover, as I have discovered in working on Jeremiah this past summer, that Jeremiah was not a crazy man. The way in which he expresses his frustration and anger tells me he is not crazy. The creative things God tells him to do to make visual pictures of his messages tell me Jeremiah was alive in his relationship with God. He was not an unthinking robot. And as we look at the courage and persistence of Jeremiah, we will discover that Jeremiah made the choice to run with the horses.

His life will challenge us to live the life of excellence he lived. His life will challenge us to also run with the horses. His life will challenge us to live better, not easier. These sermons will not be comfortable – primarily because many of us prefer living easy to living better. I know because I count myself in that group.

These sermons will also teach us about the character of God, because to study the life of Jeremiah is to study who it is that made Jeremiah who he was. Jeremiah did not exist and act in a vacuum. His experience of God allowed him to take the difficult message he was given and persevere with that message. Jeremiah was able to be faithful to what God had called him to do even when his life was in danger because God who called him was faithful.

This is a rich book and I trust we will leave Jeremiah with a love for this emotional prophet of God and an affection for all we learned from his life.

I encourage you to read through the book of Jeremiah as a way of preparing for these sermons. Keep the time line and map with your Bible. We will read the more biographical sections of Jeremiah for the messages, but it will be helpful to read Jeremiah all the way through.

Read through Jeremiah and pay attention to the hope that pops up in the midst of despair. Pay attention to the bits of good news, the encouragement that comes from Jeremiah’s life. Pay attention to the creativity in his ministry, his perseverence, his honesty with God.

I look forward to joining you on this adventure.