Saturday, 30 August 2014

Symbolic imagery in Jeremiah

The Old Testament section of the Bible is comprised of 39 books. Seventeen of these are termed books of the prophets – writings of individuals who were entrusted by God to bear a message to His people. Jeremiah is classed as a “major prophet” – major in the sense of volume of work, the book of Jeremiah being one of the longest in the Bible.
Prophecy is given by God, through individuals, to foretell of coming events, in order that His people will be prepared. God gives us information in the Bible telling of events which have happened and will happen in the history of the world.
Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people had fallen into moral decay – worship of foreign idols, immorality, false teaching, the sacrifice of infants and disregard for God’s law and provision had reached such an extent that God was to send His judgement in the form of the Babylonian army which would conquer the land and take the people of Judah captive. God being the loving Father that He is, sent Jeremiah to warn the people and call them to repentance and faith.
There are some symbolic images used by God through Jeremiah to demonstrate His feelings towards His people. In chapter 13, Jeremiah is told to buy a belt made of linen and tie it around his waist. He is then to take it off and put in a crevice in some rocks. This, says God, is what my people were like- useful and pure. Fine linen is used elsewhere in the Bible as a symbol of purity and holiness. The angels in Revelation are dressed in “clean shining linen” (Revelation 15:6) and the bride of the Lamb is given “fine linen bright and clean” to wear, “representing the righteous acts of God’s people.” (Revelation 19:8). In Ephesians we are admonished to “stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist” (Ephesians 6:14). The belt removed from the crevice was what the people of God become without Him- spoilt and filthy and useless.
In chapters 18 and 19 Jeremiah is told to go to the potter’s house and buy a jar of clay. He finds the potter shaping the clay on the wheel. In the same way, God makes us and shapes us into vessels for His purposes. Paul, when speaking about the light of Christ in our lives, reminds us that “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7). In 2 Timothy 2:20,21 Paul writes: “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” Jeremiah was told to take the clay jar that he had bought and smash it. In the same way God would destroy the people who had rejected Him and disregarded His love and just laws.
Chapter 24 of Jeremiah describes a vision given by God to the prophet of two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the Lord. One basket holds very good figs; the other figs so poor that they cannot be eaten. Fig trees are used many times in the Bible as a symbol of fruitfulness, particularly of the people of God. James poses the question “can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?” (James 3:12) The people of God who abide in Christ will be blessed and produce good fruit. Why were these two baskets placed in front of the temple? Because God knew which people were fruitful for Him and which in the temple were not. In the week leading up to His crucifixion, Christ curses the barren fig tree on His way into Jerusalem, before clearing the temple of the moneychangers. He knows which offerings are for Him and which are human vanity. There is no fooling Christ.
There are a few other images in Jeremiah which speak of God’s judgement, including God asking Jeremiah to take a cup of wrath from His hand and drink it (Jeremiah chapter 25:15). The nations would stagger and go mad, in the same way that no doubt many citizens of the time were individually becoming drunk and reeling around.
A more hopeful image is found in Jeremiah chapter 32, when God asks the prophet to buy a field. With the prospect of invasion and destruction looming, the purchase of the field serves to remind Jeremiah that God can and will restore His peace and blessings to those who remain true to Him. In Chapter 33, we are given a reference to the promise of a coming Saviour:

“‘In those days and at that time
    I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
    he will do what is just and right in the land.
 In those days Judah will be saved
    and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’ (Jeremiah 33 15:16)

In the usual occurrence of “stoning the prophets” Jeremiah was ignored, persecuted, imprisoned and  threatened and his message fell on deaf ears.
Like many of the accounts in the Bible, what was relevant in Jeremiah’s time (around 600 BC) remains true today. Often a Biblical account has relevance for a particular time and situation, but can also be relevant to other times and places. In our time the things of God are being rejected and ridiculed and Christians persecuted and murdered. This world is full of moral decay and wickedness, murder, satanic practices, abortion, greed, hedonism, war and abuse. Despite medical advances, sickness of body and mind is widespread. The light of Christ is this world’s only true and lasting hope.
Christ had some angry words and strong action judgement for the religious hypocrites of his day, and if the church is to be effective in this world, it needs to be faithful to God and His word. False doctrine is now being taught in some churches, with repentance and judgement low on the preaching priority. Some “Worldly Christians” are more concerned with their own comfort than the plight of the persecuted and poor. Yet many other Christians are seeking to follow Christ wholeheartedly and demonstrate His love in many different areas to this world that desperately needs Him.
We are reminded throughout the book of Jeremiah that we all have choices. Through the juxtaposition of impending doom and, in some of the most exquisite prose in the Bible, the blessings of God, we realise our ultimate fate if we forsake God, and the joys and eternal life we have in Him if we choose to follow Him in love and faith:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”    Jeremiah 31:33

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
 They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”   
  Jeremiah 17:7-8

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
                                                                        Jeremiah 29:11-13

Barossa Valley, South Australia

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