For change to be authentic, it must come from within where our deepest desires, our hidden passions, our greatest fears meet and shape who we are and what we do. Only with a change of heart could Israel return to the mercy of the God who loves them.
Since Israel would not listen to the Lord, God is compelled to give a message through Jeremiah that leaves no room for mercy.
In Jeremiah 4, Verse 11:
“At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: a hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights.”
Wind is often used in the Bible to represent the Holy Spirit which blows freely among us. Here, however, it is a sign of God’s judgment:
“A hot wind…not to winnow or cleanse– a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.”
This hot wind could represent the sirocco, a dry wind from the eastern desert which brings suffocating heat into Palestine. Here, God uses something ordinary to explain the extraordinary. God often uses the created order to emphasize a larger truth.
God is fed up with the people of Israel. God has had it up to here with their stubborn and rebellious hearts. Now is the time for judgment, not mercy. Again and again, the people turned away from God, fully expecting God’s forgiveness, counting on the abundance of God’s grace. Now they have gone too far and must meet the consequences of their actions.
It is important to see that God does not use divine power indiscriminately. Where God’s power is used, it is carefully constructed to bring something good out of a bad situation. The Israelites were doing damage to themselves, their community and their God by “going along with the crowd” and worshiping other gods. They had violated God’s covenant with them, a covenant which brings life, abundant and eternal. God can’t just overlook this violation. Yes, our God is a God of mercy, but all the mercy in the world could not change the hearts of the people.
God is our divine parent who lets us grow up and experience bumps and bruises along the way. Now Israel must face the consequences of their faithlessness. Their biggest enemy is within themselves.
In the meantime there are enemies from the North pressing down on them. These enemies are not identified in the text. Scholars say this may be the Chaldeans, and/or the Sythians. In either case, a strong enemy is prepared to do battle with Israel and claim their land.
Had Israel remained faithful, God would no doubt have saved them from this battle. Throughout the Bible, when a task seems insurmountable, God comes to save the people. Israel had experienced this from the days of their Exodus from Egypt, their long trek through the desert, and their entry into Promised Land. With God on their side, even a small battalion could defeat a strong army.
Yet the Israelites do not turn from their ways. In time, they are defeated and must once again live under foreign control. Due to their unfaithfulness, they lose their land, this land of promise God had provided for them.
God had given Israel this land as a gift. Yet, the land became a temptation for them to become complacent, to find false security in things that pass away. There were many false prophets going around saying everything was okay. This land was their heritage. God would always be with them, even if they pursued false gods. Why not call on other gods to get along better with our neighbors and have extra security?
When God gave this land to Israel, three important guidelines were attached. First, that there be a prohibition of images. These images were “efforts to reduce to manageable and predictable form the sources of value and power in our lives.” These images would distract Israelites from their simple source of value and power in God.
Second, Israel was expected to keep Sabbath in this new land. This Sabbath included freeing slaves, resting land, and canceling debts. As Walter Bruggemann writes:
The Sabbath “is a central affirmation to Israel about the character of life and land as a gift. It is the institutional reminder to Israel that cessation from frantic activity will not cause the world to disintegrate or society to collapse.”
The third guideline that Israel received was that they care for their brothers and sisters: “from the poor, to strangers living among them, to sojourners passing through.” Having their own land could lead to decisions that are unjust, particularly against vulnerable members of society. Israel is to keep the Sabbath by honoring brothers and sisters who may not have power but do have dignity.”
Israel failed to keep these Sabbath guidelines and now they must face the consequences. God would allow their enemies to overcome them and once again, they must live under foreign control.
I was listening to a radio preacher the other day who was preaching a message about “bad things happening to good people.” He made the comment that “God does not punish his people.” I wondered about that in light of this text in Jeremiah.
Certainly it is true that God would not violate divine compassion for creation by willfully punishing without cause. Yet, our faith tradition teaches us that God is in control of all things. The Bible teaches us that God punishes people for their wrongdoing. God certainly has the power to punish, where it is appropriate. Call it punishment or discipline, God is like a loving parent who must, at some point draw the line and set limits for behavior.
What good could be said about the punishment of God? For one thing, we can rest assured that God is in control: not kings or queens, not presidents or governors, not a terrorist lighting a bomb, or a pervert abusing a child. God is in control, though it may not always seem like it. Because God is in control, we can work our way through the maze of life’s decision, confident as we follow the Spirit of Christ that God will bless us along the and bring us home to a place not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens.
In the meantime, we are to worship God alone even when the way seems unclear and life becomes a mystery for us. Don’t settle for lesser gods whioffer easy answers and promises they can’t back up. We are to care for creation, including the land and our brothers and sisters in need. We are to rely on the strength of the Spirit which flows from God and Jesus Christ. Only Christ has the power to save us. Only Christ can set us free. Only Christ can give us hope in a hopeless situation. Only Christ. Only Christ. Amen.