Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.--JEREMIAH xxiii. 5.
At the time when Jeremiah the prophet spoke those words to the Jews, nothing seemed more unlikely than that they would ever come true. The whole Jewish nation was falling to pieces from its own sins. Brutish and filthy idolatry in high and low--oppression, violence, and luxury among the court and the nobility--shame, and poverty, and ignorance among the lower classes--idleness and quackery among the priesthood--and as kings over all, one fool and profligate after another, set on the throne by a foreign conqueror, and pulled down again by him at his pleasure. Ten out of the twelve tribes of Israel had been carried off captive, young and old, into a distant land. The small portion of country which still remained inhabited round Jerusalem, had been overrun again and again by cruel armies of heathens. Without Jerusalem was waste and ruins, bloodshed and wretchedness; within every kind of iniquity and lies, division and confusion. If ever there was a miserable and contemptible people upon the face of the earth, it was the Jewish nation in Jeremiah's time. Jeremiah makes no secret of it. His prophecies are full of it--full of lamentation and shame: "Oh that my head were a fountain of tears, to weep for the sins of my people!" He feels that God has sent him to rebuke those sins, to warn and prophesy to his fellow- countrymen the certain ruin into which they are rushing headlong; and he speaks God's message boldly. From the poor idol-ridden labourer, offering cakes to the Queen of Heaven to coax her into sending him a good harvest, to the tyrant king who had built his palace of cedar and painted it with vermilion, he had a bitter word for every man. The lying priest tried to silence him; and Jeremiah answered him, that his wife should be a harlot in the city, and his children sold for slaves. The king tried to flatter him into being quiet; and he told him in return, that he should be buried with the burial of an ass, dragged out and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem. The luxurious queen, who made her nest in the cedars, would be ashamed and confounded, he said, for her wickedness. The crown prince was a despised broken idol--a vessel in which was no pleasure; he should be cast out, he and his children, into slavery in a land which he knew not. The whole royal family, he said, would perish; none of them should ever again prosper or sit upon the throne of David. This was his message; shame and confusion, woe and ruin, to high and low; every human being he passed in the street was a doomed man. For the day of the Lord was at hand, and who should be able to escape it?
A sad calling, truly, to have to work at; and all the more sad because Jeremiah had no pride, no steadfast opinion of his own excellence to keep him up. He hates his calling of prophet. At the very moment he is foretelling woe, he prays God that his prophecy may not come true; he tries every method to prevent its coming true, by entreating his countrymen to repent. There runs through all his awful words a vein of tenderness, and pity, and love unspeakable, which to me is the one great mark of a true prophet; a sign that Jeremiah spoke by the Spirit of God; a sign that too many writers nowadays do not speak by the Spirit of God. If they rebuke the rich and powerful, they do it generally in a very different spirit from Jeremiah's--in a spirit of bitterness and insolence, not very easy to describe, but easy enough to perceive. They seem to rejoice in evil, to delight in finding fault, to be sorry, and not glad, when their prophecies of evil turn out false; to try to set one class against another, one party against another, as if we were not miserably enough split up already by class interests and party spirit. They are glad enough to rebuke the wicked great; but not to their face, not to their own danger and hurt like Jeremiah. Their plan is to accuse the rich to the poor, on their own platform, or in their own newspaper, where they are safe; and, moreover, to make a very fair profit thereby; to say behind the back of authorities that which they dare not say to their face, and which they soon give up saying when they have worked their own way into office; and meanwhile take mighty credit to themselves for seeing that there is wrong and misery in the world; as if the spirits in hell should fancy themselves righteous, because they hated the devil! No, my friends, Jeremiah was of a very different spirit from that. If he ever was tempted to it when he was young, and began to fancy himself a very grand person, who had a right to look down on his neighbours, because God had called him and set him apart to be a prophet from his mother's womb, and revealed to him the doom of nations, and the secrets of His providence--if he ever fancied that in his heart, God led him through such an education as took all the pride out of him, sternly and bitterly enough. He was commissioned to go and speak terrible words, to curse kings and nobles in the name of the Lord: but he was taught, too, that it was not a pleasant calling, or one which was likely to pay him in this life. His fellow-villagers plotted against his life. His wife deserted him. The nobles threw him into a dungeon, into a well full of mire, whence he had to be drawn up again with ropes to save his life. He was beaten, all but starved, kept for years in prison. He had neither child nor friend. He had his share of all the miseries of the siege of Jerusalem, and all the horrors of its storm; and when he was set free by Nebuchadnezzar, and clung to his ruined home, to see if any good could still be done to the remnant of his countrymen, he was violently carried off into a heathen land, and at last stoned to death, by those very countrymen of his whom he had been trying for years to save. In everything, and by everything, he was taught that he was still a Jew, a brother to his sinful brothers; that their sorrows were his sorrows, their shame his shame, their ruin his ruin. In all their afflictions he was afflicted, even as his Lord was after him.
He struggled, we find, again and again against this strange and sad calling of a prophet. He cried out in bitter agony that God had deceived him; had induced him to become a prophet, and then repaid him for speaking God's message with nothing but disappointment and misery. And yet he felt he must speak; God, he said, was stronger than he was, and forced him to it. He said: "I will speak no more words in His name; but the Word of the Lord was as fire within his bones, and would not let him rest;" and so, in spite of himself, he told the truth, and suffered for it; and hated to have to tell it, and pitied and loved the very country which he rebuked till he cursed "the day in which he saw the light, and the hour in which it was said to his father, there is a man-child born." You who fancy that it is a fine thing, and a paying profession, to be a preacher of righteousness and a rebuker of sin, look at Jeremiah, and judge! For as surely as you or any other man is sent by God to do Jeremiah's work, so surely he must expect Jeremiah's wages.
Do you think, then, that Jeremiah was a man only to be pitied? Pitiable he was indeed, and sad. There was One hung on a cross eighteen hundred years ago, more pitiable still: and yet He is the Lord of heaven and earth. Yes; Jeremiah had a sad life to live, and a sad task to work out; and yet, my friends, was not that a cheap price to pay for the honour and glory of being taught by God's Spirit, and of speaking God's words? I do not mean the mere honour of having his fame and name spread over all Christ's kingdom; the honour of having his writings read and respected by the wisest and the holiest to the end of time; that mere earthly fame is but a slight matter. I mean the real honour, the real glory, of knowing what was utterly right and true, and therefore of knowing Him who is utterly right and true; of knowing God; of knowing what God's character is: that he is a living God, and not a dead one; a God who is near and not absent at all, loving and merciful, just and righteous, strong and mighty to save. Ay, my friends, this is the lesson which God taught Jeremiah; to know the Lord of heaven and earth, and to see His hand, His rule, in all that was happening to his fellow-countrymen, and himself; to know that from the beginning the Lord, the Saviour-God, Jehovah, the messenger of the covenant, He who brought up the Jews out of Egypt, was the wise and just and loving King of the Jews, and of all the nations upon earth; and that some day or other He must and would conquer all the sinfulness, and misery, and tyranny, and idolatry in the world, and show Himself openly to men, and fulfil all the piteous longings after a just and good king which poor wretches had ever felt, and all the glorious promises of a just and good king which God had made to the wise men of old time; and, therefore, in the midst of shame and persecution, despair and ruin, Jeremiah could rejoice. Jehoiakim, the wicked king, and all his royal house, might be driven out into slavery; Jerusalem might become a heap of ruins and corpses; the fair land of Judaea, and the village where he was bred, might become thorns, and thistles, and heaps of stones; the vineyard which he loved, the little estate at Anathoth which had belonged to him, might be trodden down by the stranger, and he himself die in a foreign land; around him might be nothing but sin and decay, before him nothing but despair and ruin: yet still there was hope, joy, everlasting certainty for that poor, childless, captive old man; for he had found out that the Lord still lived, the Lord still reigned. He could not lie; he could not forget his people. Could a mother forget her sucking child? No. When the Jews turned to Him, He would still have mercy. His punishment of them was a sign that he still cared for them. If He had forgotten them, He would have let them go on triumphant in their iniquity. No. All these afflictions were meant to chasten them, teach them, bring them back to Him. It would be good for them, an actual blessing to them, to be taken away into captivity in Babylon. It might be hard to believe, but it must be true. The Lord of Israel, the Saviour-God, who had been caring for them so long, rising up early and sending His prophets to them, pleading with them as a father with his child, He would have mercy; He would teach them, in sorrow and slavery, the lesson they were too rebellious and hard-hearted to learn in prosperity and freedom: that the Lord was their righteousness, and that there was no other name under heaven which could save them from the plague, and from the famine, from the swords of the Chaldeans, or from the division, and oppression, and brutishness, and manifold wickedness, which was their ruin. And then Jeremiah saw and felt--how we cannot tell--but there his words, the words of this text, stand to this day, to show that he did see and feel it, that some day or other, in God's good time, the Jews would have a true King--a very different king from Jehoiakim the tyrant--a son of David in a very different sense from what Jehoiakim was; that He would come, and must come, sooner or later, The unseen King, who had all along been governing Jews and heathens, and telling his prophets that Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, the Chaldee and the Persian, were his servants as well as they, and that all the nations of the earth could do but what he chose. "Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute justice and judgment on the earth."
This was the blessed knowledge which God gave Jeremiah in return for all the misery he had to endure in warning his countrymen of their sins. And this same blessed knowledge, the knowledge that the earth is the Lord's, that to Jesus Christ is given, as He said Himself, all power in heaven and earth, and that He is reigning, and must reign, and conquer, and triumph till He has put all His enemies under His feet, God will surely give to everyone, high or low, who follows Jeremiah's example, who boldly and faithfully warns the sinner of his way, who rebukes the wickedness which he sees around him: only he must do it in the spirit of Jeremiah. He must not be insolent to the insolent, or proud to the proud. He must not be puffed up, and fancy that because he sees the evil of sin, and the certain ruin which is the fruit of it, that he is therefore to keep apart from his fellow- countrymen, and despise them in Pharisaic pride. No. The truly Christian man, the man who, like Jeremiah, has the Spirit of God in him, will feel the most intense pity and tenderness of sinners. He will not only rebuke the sins of his people, but mourn for them; he will be afflicted in all their affliction. However harshly he may have to speak, he will never forget that they are his countrymen, his brothers, children of the same Father, to be judged by the same Lord. He will feel with shame and fear that he has in himself the root of the very same sins which he sees working death around him--that if others are covetous, he might be so too--if they be profligate, and deceitful, and hypocritical, without God in the world, he might be so too. And he must feel not only that he might be as bad as his neighbours, but that he actually would be, if God withdrew His Spirit from him for a moment, and allowed him to forget the only faith which saves him from sin, loyalty to his unseen Saviour, the righteous King of kings. Therefore he will not only rebuke his sinful neighbours; but he will tell them, as Jeremiah told his countrymen, that all their sin and misery proceed from this one thing, that they have forgotten that the Lord is their King. He will pray daily for them, that the Lord their King may show Himself to their hearts and thoughts, and teach them all that He has done for them, and is doing for them; and may convert them to Himself that they may be truly His people, and His way may be known upon earth, His saving health among all nations.