I Was Caught by Surprise
After an early church service this past Sunday I drove to Hug Point. It’s an aptly named scenic section of the Oregon coast, a few miles south of Cannon Beach. I visit there at times to enjoy God’s embrace—a good time of Bible reading, praying, and taking a nap while serenaded by the thundering surf.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only person napping there on Sunday. Near the end of my stay I was surprised by a Coast Guard helicopter that slowed near the southern point of the beach where a cliff rises up out of the waves. Just 250 yards from me it came to a hover and dropped a rescue diver down on a long cable to a spot around the bend. After a few moments the diver was reeled back up but now with another person attached. Then the aircraft began to move back and forth in a search pattern over the churning sea for most of the next two hours.
I changed locations to the other side of the craggy cliff in order to watch the helicopter operate. There I heard a lady telling some other viewers that she was the person who had called 911 for emergency help. She explained to us that she spotted the couple napping on the rock. They were in terrible danger because during their sleep the incoming tide had cut off any escape from their spot. So she immediately phoned for help and then raced towards the couple to shout for them to stay up on the rock and that help was on the way.
Before she could get close a wave caught the now-awakened couple as they tried to get off the rock through the chest-high surf. It was a hopeless effort so the man helped the woman climb back up on the rock but he was then lifted by a wave and slammed against the cliff. With that he disappeared from view. The helicopter arrived minutes later and rescued his companion but the man was never seen again. Given the frigid water there was no hope of finding him alive.
This week I’ve mulled over what I watched that Sunday and what I had been reading from my safe spot up on the shoreline. In the two hours before the helicopter interrupted our peace I had completed most of Jeremiah—a book with stark warnings against spiritual danger, yet with a promise that help was on the way. What I saw and heard from the lady telling her story, with her still bare feet and sopping-wet blue jeans from her rescue efforts, was a living reminder to me of Jeremiah’s rescue efforts so many years ago. Jeremiah knew, by God’s counsel, that Judea was facing an incoming tide of the Babylonian invaders and there would be no escape. Yet they could still look to God for spiritual rescue.
Let me follow up this connection by considering some features of Jeremiah’s warning.
The problems the nation of Judah faced in Jeremiah’s days were both spiritual and tangible. Spiritual in that Judah’s religion was void of substance; and tangible in that their enemies, the Babylonians, were launching an invasion because Judea had become an unreliable vassal state. But these were not separate matters: Jeremiah linked them in a cause-and-effect unity. The perpetual sin of the people forced God to catch their attention by a sharp mercy—and Babylon was to be his instrument.
The main target in Jeremiah’s warnings were religious leaders who had separated worship from relationship. He spoke on God’s behalf: “The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me” [2:8].
Judah’s northern sister-nation, Israel, had already been carried away to captivity by the Assyrians a few decades earlier for having practiced spiritual adultery, “Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the LORD” [3:10].
The problem of Jeremiah’s day was not that the people were skipping weekly attendance at worship services but that they lacked any real transformation. They were stubbornly ungodly while claiming to be committed to God.
Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man , one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her. Though they say, “As the LORD lives, “ yet they swear falsely. [5:1-2]
But what about the academics of Jeremiah’s day? The role of the wise men of his day was to offer truth to the population, truth rooted in the Scriptures. Jeremiah answered with a rebuke: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’?” Clearly he rejected their status as leaders.
What was the problem? Jeremiah answered, “behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them?” [8:8-9] But there was a deeper issue at stake that Jeremiah next raised: “everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
Let me summarize what we’ve seen so far. God had warned Judah that the tide of his judgment was coming in. Her sin, however, had her sleeping on a sunny rock in the tidal zone. Yet the men who had the jobs of posting local tidal charts, of putting up warning signs, and of patrolling the beaches for unsafe activities, were up in the parking lot selling lattes and hot chocolates with one ambition: to get paid and to keep beach goers feeling good. No matter that there was danger at hand.
What made Jeremiah remarkable in his day is that he just would not quit. In time he had all the local preachers and politicians—and finally even his extended family members—absolutely fed up with him. All his negativism and nay saying was ultimately directed at them so they fought back. If Jeremiah warned about coming judgment, one of the local preachers would preach the exact opposite to his warning. Anything to keep the congregations happy. Yet it was God himself who was telling Jeremiah what to say!
So what were the listeners to think, with both Jeremiah and his opponents claiming to speak on God’s behalf? The book offers two main responses: the moral ground for discrimination (the other prophets of Jerusalem were committing adultery and walking in lies [23:14]), and the outcome basis for discrimination. I’ll say more about the second of these.
The premise of Jeremiah’s opponents was that Judah would have a happy ending. No warnings to worry about. No incoming tide. No insecurity. But their promises were empty. Why? Jeremiah answered: they didn’t spend time listening to God. Only when the judgment arrived would it be clear that Jeremiah was the one who, alone, had really listened to God. With his unique confidence Jeremiah reported God’s own words on the subject:
They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, “No disaster shall come upon you.” For who among them has stood in the council of the LORD to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? Behold, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth . . . . In the latter days you will understand it clearly. [23:17-20]
As I think of the lady who tried to warn the couple on the dangerous rock I wonder at my own role in a culture that is too much like that of Jeremiah’s day. Is it time to sound a warning? Are we, as religious leaders of various stripes and standing, calling out the warning of the tide of coming trouble to a church satisfied with promises of spiritual self-fulfillment?
As I reflect on the messages being preached by many in the church today who are the contemporary counterparts of the Old Testament prophets and priests, I’m struck by how much focus is placed on “personal application.” It’s as if the whole point of the Bible is to fulfill our needs. Isn’t the real purpose of the word to offer us the “council of God”? To bring us to a moral and spiritual awakening—to offer warnings to leave the dangerous tidal zones behind us?
My invitation to us all is to become much bolder Bible readers. Not with a view to consume any personal benefits we might find—though benefits will certainly be discovered—but to hear God’s heart. To become aligned with his ways. To stand in his council. The world needs us to shout out to them on the basis of what we hear. Help is certainly on the way, but right now we face some serious dangers.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.