The high cost of sin: Lamentations 5

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Today’s reading: Lamentations 3:37-5.

Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.

According to Charles Finney, sin is the most expensive thing in the universe. “If it is forgiven sin,” he said, “it cost God His only Son… If it is unforgiven sin, it cost the sinner his soul and an eternity in hell.” The people of Judah and Israel found out how expensive it is; they lost everything. Jeremiah saw it happen firsthand and gave a detailed description of sin’s high cost.

Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger. Women have been ravished in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah. Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect. Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood. The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music. Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned! Lamentations 5:11-16

We lose what we hold dear. Family, friends, home, work – all these and more can be lost due to sin. It separates us from God’s blessings. It exposes us to Satan’s attacks. It alienates us from those we love.

We suffer poverty. Sin is expensive because it makes everything else cost more. For the people of Jerusalem, all of their basic necessities – food, water, wood – became costly or unavailable. Today, it might mean you pay out more for rent, alimony, medical expenses, or lawyer’s fees.

We find no rest. Guilt from within, and the attacks of those we have harmed from without, will chase away our sleep and rob us of leisure until we repent.

Our sin harms our children. Though God doesn’t hold children accountable for the sins of their parents and grandparents, those younger generations can still suffer the consequences of their elders’ mistakes. Broken families, emotional trauma, poverty, depression, and shame are some of the costs children must pay because of the sins of others.

We become enslaved. We lose control of our lives. Addictions become our master, or sometimes the court system takes over and tells us what to do. When whole nations sin, it can lead to repressive governments or domination by foreign countries.

We lose our joy. The singing and dancing stop. The music in our homes and in our hearts goes away. In its place there is mourning.

Our health suffers. Sin causes poor health directly and indirectly. It can be as direct as damage from drugs or sexually transmitted disease, or as indirect as the slow decay of shame and guilt. It can bring discipline from God or attacks from Satan that weaken us. Jeremiah saw faint hearts and eyes that grew dim.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it was one man’s reality. Neither Jeremiah nor his countrymen could afford the high price of their sins. You and I can’t afford the price of our sins. They are infinitely expensive because, ultimately,they are sins against an infinite God. Even so, Jeremiah remained hopeful. He believed in the grace of God, and saw a coming day when the LORD would restore and renew his wayward people. We know that God paid that infinite debt of sin by the sacrificial death of his own son. Unfortunately, we forget that Jesus’ death doesn’t stop the consequences of sin. That cost remains a debt that all sinners, and those close to them, must still pay.

Image by Globovision on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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Therefore I have hope: Lamentations 3

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Today’s reading: Lamentations 1-3:36.

“Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” George Iles

Parade magazine told the story of self-made millionaire Eugene Land, who was asked to speak to a class of 59 sixth-graders. He wondered how he could change the lives of these predominantly black and Puerto Rican children, most of whom would drop out of school. Throwing away his prepared speech, he told them, “Stay in school and I’ll help pay the college tuition for every one of you.” Suddenly the students had hope. As one student said, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.”

Jeremiah maintained his hope in spite of the terrible ordeal of Jerusalem’s siege and fall. He witnessed famine, cannibalism, cruelty, and personal attacks against himself. Yet he still clung to his faith in God and the belief that good would return.

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lamentations 3:19-24

Jeremiah’s hope wasn’t groundless, but based on God’s character. The third chapter of Lamentations spells out these character traits.

The LORD’s mercy. God doesn’t give me the punishment I deserve; that’s mercy. For all the terrible things that happened to his brothers, Jeremiah knew that it was less than they deserved for breaking their covenant with God. It came only after a long forbearance on God’s part. He repeatedly gave them opportunities to repent and escape the worst part of his judgment. God had proven his mercy in the past and Jeremiah knew he could count on it in the future.

His compassion. God had shown his love for the Jewish people by the way he blessed them and nurtured them in the past. This word, compassion, describes a strong emotion coming from the deepest part of a person’s being, and that’s the way God loves his people.

His faithfulness. God remained true to his word and to his people, even though they had disregarded their covenant with him.

The LORD was Jeremiah’s portion. God’s resources are infinite, limitless in time and amount. His supply cannot be exhausted, and he desires to bless us.

God uses our trials to strengthen us. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

God does not cast us off forever. Jeremiah realized that God may bring grief for a season, but his compassion will return because his love for us is so great.

“Notice that, in all his sorrow, this man still had hope. His soul was humbled, and therefore he had hope. I think that, in the New Zealand language, the word for hope is ‘swimming thought’ — the thought that swims when everything else is drowned. Oh, what a mercy it is that hope can live on when all things else appear to die!” Charles Spurgeon

Image by Rafa Bahlense on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Surrender or Fight? Jeremiah 52

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Today’s reading: Jeremiah 51-52.

“I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.” Sitting Bull

We idolize those warriors who fight to the finish and never give up. We call them heroes, though sometimes they are dead heroes. Is it always best to fight, or are there times when it is wiser to surrender?

Today’s devotional is a tale of two kings. First, there is Zedekiah, Judah’s final king. Jeremiah counseled him to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar, but he fought to the end. When defeat was certain he still didn’t give up, but tried to run.

…the Babylonian army pursued King Zedekiah and overtook him in the plains of Jericho. All his soldiers were separated from him and scattered, and he was captured. He was taken to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath, where he pronounced sentence on him. There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death. Jeremiah 52:8-11

Zedekiah didn’t suffer alone. Nebuchadnezzar also killed the chief priest, the next priest in rank, the doorkeepers, the officer in charge of the fighting men, seven royal advisers, the officer in charge of conscripting people, and sixty of his assistants.

Then there is King Jehoiachin. He was king of Judah just before Zedekiah, eleven years before the destruction of Jerusalem. He served only three months before he surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar’s army. He lived in obscurity in a Babylonian prison for thirty-seven years, but then his fortune changed.

In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Evil-Merodach became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah and freed him from prison on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month. He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. Jeremiah 52:31-33

After so much emphasis on the disasters that engulfed Jerusalem and its people, it seems a little odd for Jeremiah’s book to end with this account of a forgotten prisoner. It sets up a contrast, however, between those who fight and those who surrender – those who fight God’s discipline and those who surrender to his will. The distinction doesn’t have anything to do with Babylon, who was only God’s agent. It has everything to do with how a person responds to God’s declaration of their sin. Zedekiah and Jehoiachin were both sinful men, but Zedekiah resisted God’s judgment totally. It appears that Jehoiachin accepted it.

God calls us to account for our sins by his word, by his spirit, and sometimes by our friends. If we’re wise we feel the conviction of our error and repent. Many don’t repent, however, and face the hard consequences of a life opposed to God’s will. It’s a prison of our own making, full of deprivation and self-torture. We hold the key to the prison door – it’s called grace. When we surrender to God’s will and turn away from our sin the prison door falls open.

When Zedekiah asked for Jeremiah’s advice, he told the king, “Obey the LORD by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared.” In the end the king was too afraid to surrender his control and trust God. You and I should learn by his example and not make the same mistake.

Walls will fall: Jeremiah 50

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Today’s reading: Jeremiah 46-50.

The historian Herodotus claimed that the walls around ancient Babylon were 300 feet high and 80 feet thick, wide enough for two chariot teams of four horses each to pass one another. Another less impressive wall ran inside the great outer wall. Herodotus may have exaggerated, but he accurately represented the awe with which outsiders viewed the strength of Babylon. Yet what is Babylon today but a pile of rubble in the desert south of Baghdad? Jeremiah prophesied the fall of Babylon’s walls many years in advance, even before the fall of Jerusalem’s walls.

“Take up your positions around Babylon, all you who draw the bow. Shoot at her! Spare no arrows, for she has sinned against the LORD. Shout against her on every side! She surrenders, her towers fall, her walls are torn down. Since this is the vengeance of the LORD, take vengeance on her; do to her as she has done to others.” Jeremiah 50:14-15

God condemns Babylon chiefly for its cruel treatment of Israel, but goes on to list a number of other sins:

  • She rejoiced while pillaging God’s people.
  • She opposed the LORD.
  • She defied the LORD.
  • She was arrogant.
  • She was full of idols.

Jeremiah summed up Babylon’s fate by declaring that God was doing to her what she had done to the nations around her. The Babylonian empire ended about fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem when Cyrus conquered the city. The city itself lay ruined and abandoned within another 400 years. So it remains today. A good candidate for the dustbin of history, right?

Unfortunately, Babylon rises out of its ashes before the end of time. I don’t know if it will be the same city on the same river Euphrates, or if it is another city or a world system that embodies all the worst of ancient Babylon. The apostle John saw it in his Revelation, and also saw its final destruction.

“Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. Revelation 17:1-6

Ancient Babylon was built in the same area and on the same principles as the tower of Babel. Babylon of the end times will mirror the sins of the ancient city: opposing and defying God, exalting itself in pride, filling itself with idolatry, and seeking the destruction of God’s people. One new element in John’s Babylon is the power of her commerce, which draws in the entire world. Yet for all its power and strength, the future Babylon will fall utterly and completely never to rise again. Let that be your encouragement as you face walls of opposition to your Christian faith. Those walls are bound to fall. Your eternal safety is secure in God’s hands.

Image by Tim Lucas on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Collateral damage in the time of God’s judgment: Jeremiah 45

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Today’s reading: Jeremiah 42-45.

“I knew God was going to judge the land because of its wickedness, but I never thought it would affect me so much.”

Baruch was Jeremiah’s secretary or scribe. He was also his messenger, and that’s where the trouble began. The messages Baruch carried to the nobles and kings were hot with judgment. Soon the heat was turned on Baruch, and he had to hide to escape it. Apparently it was more than he had expected as a scribe or assistant. God saw that he was struggling and sent Jeremiah with a prophecy just for Baruch. Look closely at the prophet’s words; someday you may find yourself in a similar situation as the land and people around you stagger under God’s discipline.

“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, ‘Woe to me! The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with groaning and find no rest.’ “ [The LORD said,] “Say this to him: ‘This is what the LORD says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land. Should you then seek great things for yourself ? Seek them not. For I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life.’ ” Jeremiah 45:2-5

First take a look at Baruch’s emotional state as he dealt with the reality of living in a land under God’s judgment:

  • He was sad for himself and for his countrymen.
  • He was in mental pain.
  • He was physically tired.
  • He despaired.

Next look at God’s description of the state of affairs. He said that he was tearing down everything he had built up in Judah and pulling up by the roots everything he had planted. This would have included homes, families, religious institutions, and the government. Nature was suffering as well as drought and famine struck the land. One more thing – it was throughout the land. No one could escape it, not even those, like Baruch, who still served the LORD.

Baruch had expected something better, some “great thing.” Maybe it was some earthly reward for doing God’s work. It could have been that old prosperity theology at work, leading him to look for health and wealth instead of fear and trembling. Maybe he just expected the people to be bowled over by God’s message and convert en masse. Or he might have wanted nothing more than quiet anonymity as he worked for God. Instead he found himself right in the cross-hairs of the king’s wrath. As God tells him, “I will bring disaster on all people.”

God speaks the truth. No rose-colored glasses for his children. When disaster comes because of God’s discipline it affects everyone, even God’s servants. By his grace, however, God gives his servants a promise. He will be with them wherever they go and whatever they go through. He guaranteed Baruch his life. That isn’t his promise for every believer, but our souls are safe and secure, and he does guarantee our eternal life whatever happens during our moments of affliction here on earth.

 

Why won’t we listen to advice? Jeremiah 38-42

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Today’s reading: Jeremiah 38-42.

“If I had only listened to that advice. Why was I so foolish?”

For those within earshot of a prophet, the major problem was a failure to listen. If you wanted to send a prophet into retirement, nothing would have worked better than to heed his words. Jeremiah’s people failed to follow his warnings for forty years, so he kept talking, and they kept ignoring him, right up to the fall of Jerusalem and even after its destruction.

King Zedekiah ignored Jeremiah’s final warning. Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “This is what the LORD God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down; you and your family will live. But if you will not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, this city will be handed over to the Babylonians and they will burn it down; you yourself will not escape from their hands.'”

Governor Gedaliah ignored a warning of personal danger. Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers still in the open country came to Gedaliah at Mizpah and said to him, “Don’t you know that Baalis king of the Ammonites has sent Ishmael son of Nethaniah to take your life?” But Gedaliah son of Ahikam did not believe them. (Gedaliah wasn’t of royal descent but was a good man who was appointed by Babylon to govern the Jews remaining in Judah.)

The remnant in Judah ignored advice not to flee to Egypt. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die.'”

In all these situations, someone disregarded wise counsel and disaster followed. Zedekiah continued to resist Babylon and Jerusalem was destroyed. Gedaliah took no precautions and Ishmael killed him, causing further hardship for the remaining Jews. The remnant did not remain in Judah but fled to Egypt against Jeremiah’s advice and suffered further violence there.

  • Zedekiah was fearful of mistreatment by the Jewish exiles already in Babylon if he surrendered.
  • Gedaliah seemed too naive of the potential wickedness in a man’s heart.
  • The remnant was afraid of punishment by Babylon after Ishmael assassinated the appointed governor.
  • All three put more confidence in their own assessment than in the advice of a counselor, even when the advice came directly from God.

We often judge ourselves too favorably and think less than we should of others. When our brothers or sisters in Christ share their counsel with us we should consider it seriously. Compare it with God’s word, of course. Listen to a number of wise persons if possible. But when receiving advice, remember not to look down on others and to have a sober judgment of yourself. Don’t reject godly advice. Put your own fears aside and put your trust in God’s promises.

Image by Jesslee Cuizon on Flickr, CC by 2.0

In prison for the Lord: Jeremiah 37

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Today’s reading: Jeremiah 35-37.

“I’ve been faithful to keep God’s word and obey his commands. How did I end up in prison?”

I don’t know if Jeremiah ever said anything like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought it. Then again, he may have been wise and realistic enough to know ahead of time that prison was a likely outcome of voicing God’s judgment on Jerusalem. You and I don’t expect to be jailed for our faith, but in many parts of the world that is a common result. It became a repeated result for Jeremiah. One of the occasions happened during the reign of King Zedekiah. Jerusalem had been under siege by Babylon for some time, but Egypt began to threaten and the Babylonians left Jerusalem to face the Egyptians. During this interlude of peace, Jeremiah decided to visit his home town.

Jeremiah started to leave the city to go to the territory of Benjamin to get his share of the property among the people there. But when he reached the Benjamin Gate, the captain of the guard, whose name was Irijah son of Shelemiah, the son of Hananiah, arrested him and said, “You are deserting to the Babylonians!” “That’s not true!” Jeremiah said. “I am not deserting to the Babylonians.” But Irijah would not listen to him; instead, he arrested Jeremiah and brought him to the officials. They were angry with Jeremiah and had him beaten and imprisoned in the house of Jonathan the secretary, which they had made into a prison. Jeremiah was put into a vaulted cell in a dungeon, where he remained a long time. Jeremiah 37: 12-16

Look at the injustices Jeremiah suffered and notice how little things have changed today.

  • Jeremiah was jailed on false charges.
  • He was jailed because his captors were angry at him for speaking God’s judgment.
  • He was physically abused.
  • He was kept in prison a long time, presumably without trial.

All of this happened despite, or perhaps even because of, Jeremiah’s faithful proclamation of God’s word. And Jeremiah lived in a nation that professed belief in Jehovah! We should not be surprised at the abuse Christians are suffering around the world. Jesus warned it would happen. We may experience it in the United States before too much more time passes.

There is one prisoner for the faith I want to lift up before you today. His name is Saeed Abedini. He is Iranian-born, but also an American citizen, and he has been imprisoned in Iran for his work in expanding the Christian church there. This Friday, September 26, marks the second anniversary of his imprisonment. His wife has led an effort to hold prayer vigils across the U.S. and around the world, in support of Saeed, this Friday. Would you make an effort to find one near you and join in prayer for Saeed and all persecuted Christians? You can find a list of the prayer sites at this link. 

“If you live in such a manner as to stand the test of the last judgment, you can depend upon it that the world will not speak well of you.” Alistair Begg

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. I Peter 4:12-14

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10