Bearing fruit during drought (Jeremiah 17:5-18)
While the 2020 season of enforced self-isolating persists, in order to curb the spread of Covid-19, it is quite an education to re-visit the writings of Jeremiah. Although he is often thought of as the weeping prophet, he was in fact the Lord’s messenger of eventual hope in an era when threats of foreign exile were frequent. So I was interested on discovering some old sermon notes that were refreshingly relevant – which I offer here slightly edited.
- Jeremiah’s personal trust (17:14-18, all references from the New Living Translation)
- O Lord, if you heal me, I will be truly healed, if you save me, I will be truly saved. My praises are for you alone.
- People scoff at me and say, ‘What is this “message from the Lord” you talk about? Why don’t your predictions come true?’
- Lord, I have not abandoned my job as a shepherd of your people. I have not urged you to send disaster. You have heard everything I’ve said.
- 17. Lord, don’t terrorize me! You alone are my hope in the day of disaster.
- 18. Bring shame and dismay on all who persecute me, but don’t let me experience shame and dismay. Bring a day of terror on them. Yes, bring double destruction upon them.
[Might we think of the coronavirus as what currently persecutes us?]
This outburst should be considered in its immediate and wider contexts. The NIV Study Bible in its introduction to the book of Jeremiah alerts us to six poetic ‘Confessions‘ of the prophet. I prefer to call them his ‘Complaints’. They are to be found in (1) Jeremiah 11:18-23; (2) 12:1-6; (3) 15:10-21; (4) here in 17:14-18; (5) 18:18-23; and (6) 20:7-18. The Lord graciously replied to each of his first three complains. But on Jeremiah’s next three he declined to comment! Actually, Jeremiah’s final cry of exasperation (20:14-18) is a complete echo of Job’s introductory wail of a sevenfold Why? Why? Why was I ever born? (See 3:11-26)!
Although resolute in his trust in the Lord’s faithfulness, the prophet admits his frustration honestly. He did not fake a religious stiff upper lip! But, I repeat, we must realise that each of these cries of protest and despair is rooted in a particular context of the prophet’s inspired writings. So, what else did Jeremiah say here in chapter 17 where we find this fourth poetic complaint? He begins with:
- A Parable of two trees (17:5-8), contrasting ‘Blight and Blessing’ that are both publicly visible
(a) The reason for the blight – trusting in humanly produced answers, while turning aside from the Lord and his covenant promises.
- This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord.
- They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land.
- But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.
- They are like trees planted alongside a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green and they never stop producing fruit.
Bear in mind that you can legitimately trust the Lord via your employer, your bank, your doctor etc as channels of divine actions. But beware: you can also pray frantically and then try to help God to do your will! Jeremiah’s verdict about such behaviour would be that you have ‘turn[ed your] heart … away from the Lord’ by ‘rely[ing] on human strength’ (17:5).
(b) The nature of blight – a shrivelled, stunted shrub in a parched, salty, empty waste land, with all hope of future fruitfulness dashed. It results in hopeless destitution. What’s more, such persons don’t even recognise blessing when it comes. A vivid example of this is the late Howard Hughes, the fear-ridden multimillionaire, an emotional prisoner in his luxurious penthouse where he sat naked all day (in case there were germs hidden in his clothes!), watching Laurel and Hardie movies, and walking barefoot to and from the toilet on Kleenex tissues! He could not enjoy his material prosperity!
(c) The reason for blessing – confidence in the Lord who ‘works all things together’ [black threads with coloured ones] ‘for the good of those who love him’ (like a beautiful tapestry).
(d) The nature of the blessing – even in drought it is a luxuriantly fruitful tree, planted near an underground water supply. Such a one is free from fear and ‘not bothered’ by the heat ‘or worried’ by long months of drought. (17:8).
The verb ‘bothered’ calls to mind such motivational nouns as ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘worry’. I noticed that when I had written those notes ‘back in the day’ I had consulted Webster’s dictionary that offered some crisp and meaningful definitions such as:
 Fear – an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.
 Anxiety – painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind, usually over impending or anticipated ill;
– fearful concern or interest;
– an abnormal or overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by doubt concerning the threat and, by self-doubt, about one’s capacity to cope with it.
 To worry – from German/Old English wurgen = to strangle;
– to shake or pull with the teeth (as a terrier would worry a rat);
– to assail with rough or aggressive attack;
– to subject with persistent/nagging effort;
– to afflict with mental distress or agitation.
* How did young David cope with his fears?
 When ‘seized … in Gath’ by ‘the Philistines’ he sang (Psalm 56: title):
- I am constantly hounded by those who slander me, and many are boldly attacking me. That, for sure, is major fuel for fear. So, what to do?
- But when I am afraid I will put my trust in you … O God.
- I praise God for what he has promised. I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me?
And he repeats this determination to praise God and trust his promises in verses 10 and 11.
- Let’s think things through
 Fears produce anxiety which is an attitude of dread of things over which one has no control, producing a fog of hopelessness.
 Stress can be caused by external and internal pressures such as challenging changes in one’s routines of life.
Beware of ‘keyhole facts’: they are never the whole truth! And take stock not only of what you see but also how you look at situations. Stand back and see ‘the bigger picture’.
Fear is faith either in the devil (‘this is my fate’), the world (‘others will disapprove’), or the flesh (‘it makes me feel aweful’). Indeed, fear is faith in reverse gear.
- Beware self-deception – you can’t fool the Lord (17:9-11)
- ‘The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?
- But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards; according to what their actions deserve.
- Like a partridge that hatches eggs she has not laid, so are those who get their wealth by unjust means. At midlife they will become poor old fools.’
- Assess your life’s goal. Is it to please people or to please the Lord? If you are unemployed, are you being frantically busy to prove your usefulness, efficiency and wisdom? The rich fool in Jesus’ parable resembles the poor finch that hatched a cuckoo! Take care not to miss God’s blessings
- Review your dislikes and your reason for them.
The unregenerate heart is hypocritical, being devious and manipulative. Even when criticising others for not calling a spade a spade, you may be adjusting your own self-righteous mask. So, [question]: who is able to diagnose such dangerously wayward motivation? And who can then heal this incurably sick condition once it is acknowledged? [Answer =] The Lord alone can cancel the blight and bestow the blessings – as he did, for instance, for the woman at Sychar’s well.
- God in control (17:12-13) – the secret of success
- But we worship at your throne – eternal, high and glorious!
- O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who turn away from you will be disgraced. The will be buried in the dust of the earth for they have abandoned the Lord, the fountain of living water.
Here is the key to the soul’s constant protection, poise and empowering: it is the ‘shalom’ of Paradise restored, even amidst the most appalling circumstances. Under God’s rule [‘throne’] there is refuge. God’s sovereignty offers sanctuary (from the world, the flesh and the devil). But take care not to speak of God’s kingdom with some sort of token slogans such as: ‘the Sanctuary rules OK’, as if mercy lets us dodge God’s rule (as if Moses had merely given ‘The Ten Suggestions/Recommendation’)! It is God’s government that liberates us, God’s absolute standards that reassure us. Our security comes through our conformity to principles of divine righteousness. This is all reflected in:
 Jeremiah’s description of God’s throne It is:
- Eternal – no novelty here! It’s ‘from the beginning’
- Exalted– high above all other government; holy, that is, ‘set apart’;
- Excellent – glorious, awesome. It is ‘the great white throne’ before which ‘each of us will give a personal account to God’ (Romans 14:12). Isaiah felt that his spoken ministry was foul-mouthed when confronted by that lofty throne. Mercifully his lips were purified by a glowing coal from the altar offerings and he was re-commissioned in his prophetic calling (see Isaiah 6:1-9). And John on Patmos saw the Lamb freshly slain in the centre of that throne (see Revelation 4 and 5). It is now for us ‘a throne of grace’ (Hebrew 4:16).
- A personal cry for deliverance (17:14)
After his one-and-only personal pronoun in this section of his book (a plural in 17:12, ‘we worship at your throne’) Jeremiah utters x16 singular person pronouns in these five verses of ‘Complaint No 4’. For instance he prays to the Lord that ‘If you truly heal me, I will be truly healed’ etc. Then his ‘praises’ of appreciation will be exclusively for Yahweh himself, his divine healer.
- Think about it:
 The fatalist can never praise the Lord, nor can the pessimist sing songs of joy.
 Let us boast in the Lord as a choice to rejoice, in an attitude of gratitude!
 Listen to your mutterings: where’s the God talk? Be sure when you talk of him that it’s no mere jaw-jaw. Put your action where your mouth is!
 Praise is God’s home address – Psalm 22:3 (margin), ‘You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel’. So, enter his presence daily through the gates of praise (Psalm 100:4).