Of all the biblical prophets, the one who received the most hostile reception was . . . well, I was going to say Jeremiah, but actually it would have to be Jesus, wouldn’t it? We so easily and persistently forget that when the moment of truth arrived, nearly all his followers abandoned him.
Some of us sing from time to time:
Behold the man upon a crossHow Deep the Father’s Love for Us. Lyrics by Stuart Townend.
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
But apart from the time it takes to sing those last two lines, how much time do I spend meditating on the near certainty that yes, my voice would have been heard mocking along with the scoffers?
Or not heard at all, as I just stayed home that day, or slipped away quietly when things got ugly.
Or would I perhaps have been heard mouthing pious stupidities about how maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed, because God is in control, and that guy on the cross kind of brought it on himself by mouthing off against the duly constituted authorities?
I was thinking, though, about Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” who also received a hostile reception—because he was too negative.
Some prophets were like that. For me the most memorable sentence in the story (in 1 Kings 22) of Micaiah ben Imlah’s encounter with an unnamed king of Israel is this royal assessment: I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, only bad.
Micaiah knows what the king thinks of him. So when the king asks Micaiah for a word from the Lord about his battle plans, all the other prophets having promised victory, Micaiah also chimes in, Attack and win! The Lord will hand it over to the king!
But the king knows Micaiah is mocking him and demands that he tell the truth. And Micaiah then says: I saw all Israel scattered on the hill like sheep without a shepherd. A grim warning. And so it happened. One of the most remarkable stories about denial and truth in the Hebrew Bible.
Jeremiah prophesies to a nation in denial. In chapter 6:
This is what the LORD of heavenly forces says . . . To whom can I speak and warn? How can I get someone’s attention? Their ears are shut tight, so they won’t hear.
As the notes to the CEB Study Bible point out: “The sins of God’s people include greed, dishonesty, and indifference.” Jeremiah accuses not the secular rulers or nonreligious people (there were no “secular” leaders or nonreligious people—these are modern inventions) but the entire people from the least to the greatest . . . from prophet to priest, each trades in dishonesty (6:13). Prophets and priests. Right.
Dishonesty. Denial. Deflection. Things aren’t so bad. Or if they are, we can patch them up. And at any rate, it’s not my fault. Plus, haven’t we all learned from our mothers? If you’re going to say anything at all, say something nice, something encouraging.
So we reach verse 14. How do the nice, encouraging prophets speak to the people?
In the King James version:
They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.
In the Contemporary English Bible, which is what I was quoting above:
They treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing: “All is well, all is well,” they insist, when in fact nothing is well.
One danger facing Christians in our cultural moment is that we may speak too harshly. We may not offer enough grace, enough acceptance, enough encouragement, enough healing.
A greater danger is that we will offer cheap grace, easy acceptance of the unacceptable, false encouragement, slight healing. A double helping of fake peace when there is no real peace.
To everything there is a season. But to discern the seasons, to read the signs of the times: that is the great challenge.
Last year I read a book by a Christian member of the United States Senate. I thought it contained a lot of Christian wisdom. Maybe it did. We must cultivate local friendships, build communities, spend time with our families, smell the roses, not spend too much time worrying about the politicians or the national news or the world news.
Wise and good, thoughts, right? Thoughts to make you feel good. I posted numerous excerpts from that book on my Facebook page because I wanted to share them with friends. I thought I’d pass the whole book along to local friends to read.
But then this winter, observing the further words and actions of that author, or rather the further silences and inactions, I came to a stark and unpleasant realization: The right word in the wrong circumstances is the wrong word. To speak some truths while not speaking other, more pressing truths is to lie. To cultivate shalom is a good thing, but to say shalom, shalom when there is no shalom is to propagate a false shalom. False peace is not the wholesome fruit of faith. It is the rotten fruit of bad faith. Bad faith does not heal. It traffics in slight healing.
Timing can be the difference between gospel and heresy, between a word from heaven and vomit from hell.
I realized: This was not a book I could recommend to or share with anyone. This was not a book that I wanted to keep on my shelves. I came to that sharply disappointing realization on a bitterly cold evening in early February and did what I felt I had to do.
I remembered that cold, bitter night recently when I went out to use my Weber grill for the first time this spring. I had to clean it out first.
Yes, I did that. Not without tears.
A nice prophet who wants to soothe your conscience and lull you to sleep with slight healing is a greater threat than a flagrant heretic. Certainly more dangerous than a Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is remembered unfairly when he is remembered only for his weeping, only for his pronouncements of doom. Doom, for Jeremiah, is not the end. It is the truth you must face en route to the end, if you are ever to get to that good end.
Jeremiah does not offer cheap grace. For the ones stuck in denial, Jeremiah offers only doom. But for those who wail and mourn because they have faced the truth?
Thus says the Lord:Jeremiah 30: 5, 7, 12–13, 15–17a
We have heard a cry of panic,
of terror, and no peace. . . .
Alas! that day is so great
there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob;
yet he shall be rescued from it. . . .
For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you. . . .
Why do you cry out over your hurt?
Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are so numerous,
I have done these things to you.
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal,
says the Lord.
When the Lord says Peace, he won’t have to say it twice. The winds and the waves will obey, and even the blowhards will be silenced.
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