Upon this rock (34): The land left desolate

Previous article in this series: September 15, 2018, p. 490.

Nebuchadnezzar left Jerusalem in smoldering ruins. Thousands of Jews were either killed or carried off to Babylon. But, since the poorest of the people yet remained in the land, the history of what had once been the nation of Judah is not yet finished.

Over the Jews who remained, Nebuchadnezzar placed Gedaliah as governor. Mizpah, a city about ten miles north of the ruins of Jerusalem, was chosen as the capital.

After the departure of the Chaldean army and the establishment of Gedaliah, remnants of the scattered army of Zedekiah began to gather in Mizpah (Jer. 40:7-8). Likewise also the Jews who had fled into neighbor­ing Moab, Edom, and Ammon in order to escape the sword of Nebuchadnezzar now returned, cautiously, to their homeland (vv. 11-12). There they were assured by Gedaliah that they needed not to fear further pun­ishment from the Babylonian army. Gedaliah was convinced, on the basis of the word of the Chaldean king and probably also that of Jeremiah, that with submis­sion and faithful payment of annual tribute all would indeed be well with them (vv. 9-10).

It seemed for a time as if both peace and a measure of prosperity would be the lot of those who remained in the land. They “gathered wine and summer fruits very much” (v. 12). But all would not be well. All could not be well. For, in spite of all that befell Judah on account of her unfaithfulness to God and her rebellion against His Word, the remnant who were left in the land did not return to the Lord. So rebellious were they, as would soon become apparent, that they were prepared to quit the land, in open defiance of the prophet of God whose every word had been proven, by events, to be true.

Long before, it had been revealed to the prophet that he must expect this. “Therefore thou shalt speak all these words unto them,” the Lord had said to Jeremiah, “but they will not hearken to thee: thou shalt also call unto them; but they will not answer thee. But thou shalt say unto them, This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the Lord their God, nor receiveth correction: truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth… Therefore, behold, the days come saith the Lord, that…the land shall be desolate” (Jer. 7:27-34).

Centuries earlier, God’s servant Moses had warned the people of Israel of the inevitable consequences of apostasy. “And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; then I will walk con­trary unto you also in my fury… And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword af­ter you: and your land shall be desolate [i.e., without inhabitant—cf. Jer. 9:11], and your cities waste” (Lev. 26:27-33).

God will, therefore, in keeping with repeated, sol­emn warnings by His servants the prophets, empty the land of all its inhabitants. But not apart from their continued rebellion. The word of God to the remnant that yet inhabited the land is “If ye will still abide in this land, then I will build you, and not pull you down, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up…” (Jer. 42:10). Their final expulsion will come about in the way of their rebellion to the bitter end.

It began with the assassination of Gedaliah. Along with Gedaliah, some Chaldeans who had formed part of the governor’s court were slain also. The eleven assassins fled into the land of Ammon, but their deed struck fear into the hearts of the Jews who were left in the land. What, they wondered, will Nebuchadnezzar now do to avenge this treachery and insurrection?

A sensible solution to their apparent predicament would have been simply to report to Nebuchadnezzar what had been done, and inform him that the culprit had subsequently been driven from the country. Even to the nervous Jews it should have appeared unlikely that, if they remained submissive, Nebuchadnezzar would hold them responsible for the deed of eleven scoundrels. But the Jews had had enough, they thought, of Babylon. They were ready to quit the country. In Egypt, they thought, they could find the peace and tranquility that had for so long eluded them in Judah. So it was that Johanan and the remnant of the people determined “to enter into Egypt” (Jer. 41:17).

Before they made the move, however, they would con­sult Jeremiah to learn the will of God. To the prophet, who was already suspicious of their mood, they profess a willingness to accept and act in accordance with the divine will as revealed to Jeremiah, whether it seemed to them to be right or wrong (Jer. 42:4-6).

Concerning their desire to go to Egypt, Jeremiah would surely have been able to advise them without further revelation from God. The word of God through Moses, who had commanded concerning Egypt that Israel must “henceforth return no more that way” (Deut. 17:16), certainly still held true. But Jeremiah neverthe­less promised to bring their request before God, and to relate to them only that, and all that, which the Lord would reveal to him.

For ten days Jeremiah waited for that revelation. The people, then, had plenty of time to consider how they would respond to the message; and they also had all the more evidence that Jeremiah was not coming to them with his own thoughts on the matter, but that he waited for and brought to them what was the will of God.

And during those ten days the people were further hardened in their determination, no matter what the old prophet might say, to go to Egypt. That their minds were made up from the start is plain from the assertion of Jeremiah that “ye dissembled in your hearts, when ye sent me unto the Lord your God” (42:20). It is evi­dent, further, from their immediate rejection of Jeremi­ah’s word. They do not, of course, admit to a rejection of God’s word. They rather accuse Jeremiah of lying. “The Lord hath not sent thee,” they say, “to say, Go not into Egypt to sojourn there” (43:2).

What was the word that they rejected? God told them first what they should do, namely, remain in the land and prosper (42:10). The message was really the same as it had always been through Jeremiah—“Serve the king of Babylon and live” (27:17). God assured them, further, that they need not fear the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar, “for I am with you to save you, and to deliver you from his hand” (42:11). No matter, in other words, what Nebuchadnezzar’s natural inclination may be, his heart is in God’s hand. It was in this sense, after all, that Nebuchadnezzar could be described as God’s servant. Apart, now, from any intent on Nebuchadnezzar’s part, the fact is that the king of Babylon could only execute what God had decreed.

Then God told them what they should not do, name­ly, go into Egypt. Their admitted reason for considering flight to Egypt was their fear of the sword of Nebuchad­nezzar. The word of the Lord was that “the sword, which ye feared, shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt” (Jer. 42:16). And indeed it did. Historical re­cords show that there was a successful invasion of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar about five years after this prophecy by Jeremiah.

To the admonitions of Jeremiah the people paid no heed. They set out shortly thereafter for Egypt, prob­ably compelling the few reluctant ones to accompany them. Jeremiah was also in their company. In Egypt, the prophet continued to admonish them, for there they soon adopted the idolatrous practices of their hosts. In open defiance of God and of His prophet, they simply declared, “We will not hearken unto thee” (Jer. 44:16). They continued to “burn incense unto the queen of heaven,” claiming to have fared better when they wor­shiped her (vv. 17, 18). Thus, they hastened toward the destruction predicted by Jeremiah.

And thus was Israel plucked up by the roots from her promised inheritance. Some were carried away captive to Babylon, but many had been scattered among the na­tions. The cause of God and of His people would seem to have perished forever.

But not so. Jeremiah knew it. After having himself pronounced the just judgment of God upon Judah and Jerusalem for all their sins, Jeremiah had bought a field in Anathoth (Jer. 32:9). Yes, there was hope. Though the land would soon indeed be desolate, yet, the proph­et declared, “houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land” (v. 15). To the ears even of the faithful remnant, who were carried off into captivity right along with apostate Judah, that promise must have seemed a thing incredible. How, they must have won­dered, could such a thing ever happen? Jeremiah had the answer: “Ah Lord God! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee” (v. 17). “Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger, and in my fury, and in great wrath; and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely” (v. 37).

But, we might ask, did that ever in fact happen? True enough, after a seventy-year captivity in Babylon a rem­nant did indeed return. But, “dwell safely”? Subsequent events would seem to prove otherwise. The returned exiles found themselves harassed by their neigh­bors. Over the years they would be subjected to the rule of one world power after another. And in the end Jerusalem would be leveled again, this time by the Romans. Though the prophet was not given to anticipate this eventuality, he must have been keenly aware that the ‘end’ of this promise, as of all other promises, was spiritual. It would find its ultimate fulfillment in the kingdom of Christ. Liberation from exile was, there­fore, but the bare beginning of what would be the real redemption of Israel. Physical restoration to the land of Canaan there must be, for out of Bethlehem Ephratah “shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Isra­el” (Micah 5:2). Then would be revealed the great wonder of all wonders. Not, first of all, possession of an earthly Canaan, but “they shall be my people”—they who have forfeited, a thousand times over, every right to My favor will be My people—“and I will be their God. And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me forever, for the good of them, and of their children after them” (Jer. 32:38-39). No question, therefore, about the permanency of this covenant and of this planting in the land…for it will be accomplished by Christ. The Jews may again be expelled from the land of Canaan. No matter. For those who are in Christ are citizens of a kingdom that is heavenly and they are heirs of eternal life.

Therein lies, too, the “point” of the history of Old Testament Israel. Who of them were unfaithful? Some of them? Most of them? Listen: “…because of all the evil of the children of Israel and of the children of Judah, which they have done to provoke me to anger, they, their kings, their princes, their priests, and their prophets, and the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And they have turned unto me the back, and not the face: though I taught them, rising up early and teaching them, yet they have not hearkened to receive instruction” (vv. 32-33). All of them.

And they are we. For Israel of the old dispensation is a type of the church of the new. Thus is man. Sinners all—deserving not only deportation from the earth­ly Canaan but to be cast into everlasting punishment. But…“Ah Lord God…there is nothing too hard for thee: Thou showest lovingkindness unto thousands…” (vv. 17-18). How? Not by winking at their sin. But by giving His Son a ransom for many. It is only in Him that “they shall be my people and I will be their God.” Wretched sinners they are, but “I will give them one heart and one way”—or, in the language of the apostle Paul: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). All is of God.

That is what we learn from the history of Israel. They, we, are unfaithful, but the Lord says, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul. For thus saith the Lord; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them” (Jer. 32:40-42).

“The brilliancy of God’s love,” writes G. Vos, “needs a dark background.” There is a song that only the re­deemed can sing…

Next time: A remnant returns.