24/2/02 10.30 a.m. The Bible : Burning Words - Jeremiah 36

Pastor Joe Wright of Kansas was asked to lead the Kansas State Senate in prayer. They were expecting the usual formal prayer to open the session but that is not what happened. The pastor used the moment as a confessional and prophetic opportunity. Here's what he prayed: "Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask Your forgiveness and to seek Your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, "Woe to those who call evil good," but that's exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and inverted our values. We confess that: We have ridiculed the absolute truth of Your Word and called it pluralism. We have worshipped other gods and called it multi-culturalism. We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle. We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery. We have neglected the needy and called it self-preservation. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare. We have killed our unborn and called it a choice. We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem. We have abused power and called it political savvy. We have coveted our neighbour's possessions and called it ambition. We have polluted the airwaves with profanity and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honoured values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment. Search us, O God, and know our hearts today; try us and see if there be some wicked way in us; cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Guide and bless these men and women who have been sent here by the people of Kansas, and who have been ordained by You, to govern this great state. Grant them Your wisdom to rule and may their decisions direct us to the centre of Your will. Amen." As Pastor Joe prayed there were some senators who got up and walked out but many people have asked for copies of this prayer.

In today's Bible reading we have Jeremiah involved in the political life of Judah and being unpopular with the King, Jehoiakim. This is a reminder that our lives our not split up into neat divisions of religion, politics, family, work, leisure, etc. Behind this is the fact that God wants to be first in all of our lives. We know this because he speaks to us. Through prophets, people who speak on God's behalf, something that may or may not involve foretelling what will happen. And through his word, the Bible.

Today we start a four week sermon series on the Bible. The title of today's sermon is Burning Words. The image of burning words had already come to Jeremiah. In 20:8 he said, Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. 9 But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. The words of truth, implanted by God, so burned within Jeremiah that he had to speak them. When these words were written down, then cut up and burned by the King, they did not disappear. Destroying something or someone that points to the truth does not make that truth a lie or make it go away. It is still there and it is still true. Millions of Christians martyrs throughout history demonstrate this.

Jeremiah constantly warned God's people to turn back to him or God would punish them at the hands of Babylonians. Jeremiah had been popular with King Johoiakim's father, King Josiah. In 622 a book of the law was discovered that led to Josiah trying to reform the religious life of Judah, breaking free of foreign interference and gods. The Jews had worshipped foreign gods and sacrificed their children in fire to them ( 7:30f).

Josiah's reforms included a focus on the temple at Jerusalem. Jeremiah was unhappy about this as it led to a complacency centred on religion, rather than radical faith in God.

When Johoiakim came to power he opposed the prophets, killing one called Uriah and imprisoning and ill-treating Jeremiah. 36:5 tells us that Jeremiah was banned from the temple.

Verse 1 tells us that it was the fourth year of Jehoiakim, 605 B.C., a critical year in Judah's history. Following the demise of Assyria there was a power struggle in the area between the Egyptians and the Babylonians. In 605 B.C., the Egyptians were crushed at Carchemish on the Euphrates by Nebuchadnezzar (46:2), the ruler of Babylon. King Neco of Egypt returned home with heavy losses, and Babylon was given a virtually free hand in western Asia for the next 70 years. The Babylonians were advancing towards Judah, whose King Jehoiakim had been placed there by Egypt. Understandably, things were tense, and this could be why there was a national day of prayer and fasting, mentioned in verse 9.

Jeremiah asked his scribe, Baruch to write down the words he had been given by God so that they could be read at the Temple. The goal of this was to lead people to repent, be forgiven, and saved from the Babylonians who were an instrument of God's justice, verse 3.

I mentioned earlier that God speaks through people, and through His word, the Bible. Of course, during Jeremiah's time there was no Bible, indeed, only one part of the Old Testament Law had recently been rediscovered.

We will now look at what it meant for Jeremiah to be chosen to by God be a prophet, and at the responses to his words.

Jeremiah suffered, he was: beaten and put in stocks ( 20:2); threatened with death (26:8); beaten and imprisoned ( 37:15f.); put in a cistern to die ( 38:9). He went through anguish, he told God he wished he were dead (20:14-18) and accused God of being unreliable (15:18). But God offered no sympathy. Rather, he promised more of the same, reminding Jeremiah of his promise to stand by him (12:5-6; 15:19-20). Their relationship, doubts and all, forms one of the best examples in the Bible of what it means to follow God in spite of everything.

This is a reminder and challenge to us that God doesn't call us to an easy, comfortable life, but one that will involve opposition, difficulties, doubts and fears. But it is a life where we can know the promise and protection of God. We see God 's protection in the way that he hid Baruch and Jeremiah from the King in verse 26.

Jesus promised that God would continue to call people to be united with him, and that his followers can be assured of their relationship with him. John 6: 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

Those who do follow God sacrificially will receive a greater reward in heaven. Mark 10:29"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields - and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

As well as knowing God, Jeremiah knew about the culture in which he lived and how this contrasted with God's ways. We see this from 7:30" `The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. 31 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

As God's people today we are to understand the historical and cultural background to a Bible passage and identify the principle(s) behind it. We then have to look at our rapidly changing society today and seek to apply these principles. This will involve rejecting many of the assumptions that have permeated our culture and are blindly accepted by so many people today. For example, the way that cohabitation and same-sex unions are likely to be given the same status as marriage. The pursuit of material goods at the expense of children, spouses, and people's health. The 'get rich quick' philosophy behind the National Lottery, 'Who want to be a millionaire?' and 'Pop Idol'. The way that schools are hindered in administering adequate discipline and the resultant misbehaviour by children, some supported by their parents who think it is right to give a child everything it wants. The relegation of Sunday to 'just another day' for so many people and so on...

The proclamation of God's word will provoke different responses. We see some of them in this Chapter.


Sometimes I am walking from one place to another, so focused on where I am going or what I have to do, that I disregard what is around me. So I have had someone come up to me and say, 'Oh, I saw you in Freeport last week but you didn't see or hear me.'

The Jewish people were deaf to the words of Jeremiah. Baruch read the words of Jeremiah to 'all the people' , verse 10, but only one of them, Micaiah, responded, verses 11ff. Perhaps the rest were not listening properly, or thought that Jeremiah's predictions would not come true. They would soon pay the price for this when they were conquered by the Babylonians and, later, exiled to Babylon.

All but one of the people failed to respond in repentance and faith, and so rejected the forgiveness and salvation that God had waiting for them, verse 3.

Jesus warned that only a few people will respond in true faith to God. Matthew 7 13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."


Imagine you get a red reminder for your electricity bill. You put it in the bin with the first one. You get a further letter, threatening you with disconnection and court action to recover the outstanding bill. You file this like the others. Then the day comes, your electricity is disconnected. You then receive a summons. What do you do ? You know that, eventually this will lead to a court case and, if you don't pay, a visit from bailiffs who will take possession of some of your property and sell it to pay the bill and court costs. Turning a deaf ear to things, ignoring things hoping that they will go away is foolish.

The King did this. He kept cutting up and burning the scroll that contained the prophesies of Jeremiah. He also asked two of his entourage to arrest Baruch and Jeremiah. Equivalent to shooting the postman who brings the bills !

The King could not escape the truth of the words of Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem in 605, humiliating Jehoiakim. 2 Chronicles 36: 5 Jehoiakim was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD his God. 6 Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon attacked him and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon. 7 Nebuchadnezzar also took to Babylon articles from the temple of the LORD and put them in his temple there.

Dread and Devotion

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti said "When I was a boy, my father, a baker, introduced me to the wonders of song. He urged me to work very hard to develop my voice. Arrigo Pola, a professional tenor in my hometown of Modena, Italy, took me as a pupil. I also enrolled in a teachers college. On graduating, I asked my father, 'Shall I be a teacher or a singer?' "'Luciano,' my father replied, 'if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.' "I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now, I think, whether it's laying bricks, writing a book, whatever we choose, we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that's the key. Choose one chair."

The Kings officials were fearful when they heard the scroll read out and decided that they must report this to the King, verse 16. They were fearful because they recognized that Jeremiah's prophecy was true and needed acting upon. They were also fearful for Jeremiah and Baruch whom they told to flee from the King's wrath that they anticipated. Furthermore they tried to safeguard the scroll by putting it in room of Elishama, the secretary.

They were sufficiently devoted to their God, their country and even their King to bring these unpalatable truths to his attention. Even when he was cutting up and burning the scroll verse 25 tells us that 'Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll.'

We see the devotion of Baruch and Jeremiah who re-wrote the scroll to preserve Jeremiah's prophecies. The Bible is not only inspired by God, but has been preserved by God. It is the best attested and accurate ancient historical book, something that bears the mark of the sovereignty of God.

There were a small minority of the Jews who believed and obeyed the words from God. It is not enough to give intellectual assent to God's word. We must believe and obey it. Rely upon it in every area of our lives. Choose the chair and sit upon it !

We should not be surprised at the different reactions to God's word. Jesus told the parable of the sower ( Mark 4:14ff ) to illustrate this. We should make every effort to be receptive to God's word like the good soil, proclaiming and following the words and will of God in our lives.