It wasn’t that it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t timely, or that it wasn’t trustworthy. It wasn’t that it wasn’t spoken in love, or that Jeremiah wasn’t rightly called and sent by God to speak it. Why did they reject Jeremiah’s message? It was because they didn’t like what he had to say. They didn’t want their sins corrected. They wanted to continue in them. “This man deserves the sentence of death,” they said, “because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears” (Jer. 26:11).
God did not want to punish them. He’d pled with them again and again to repent, through prophet after prophet, and still now he urged Jeremiah, “Do not hold back a word. It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds” (Jer. 26:2b-3). Jeremiah’s voice was to be like a fire alarm or tornado siren, calling them to safety through repentance.
I remember in college they would test the fire alarms in the dorms from time to time. It was almost always in the morning. I’m not a morning person. I remember lying in bed debating if I should get up and leave the building. I was usually one of the last ones out. Why did I eventually leave? I was afraid it might not just be a test that time.
Judah had tested God too many times. There was nothing fake about the alarm the Lord was sounding. They knew better, and their punishment would be all the more severe because of that, if they would not repent while there was time. “If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you,” the Lord warned, “and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth” (Jer. 26:4-6).
Shiloh was the city where the Ark of the Covenant was kept when Israel settled in the Promised Land. It was the site of the tabernacle, where God dwelt among men. But the ark had become little more than a lucky charm to Israel over time, and they offered little more than lip service to the God who dwelt among them in the tabernacle. They might have spoken words of faith at Shiloh, but they marched right back to their lives of intentional sin afterward. And so God allowed the Philistines to destroy Shiloh and carry off the Ark of the Covenant. Israel was on its own, and that was their own doing.
It’s easy to shake our head at the people of Judah, to wonder what could lead them to act like they did, but that’s not a very honest approach. If we examine ourselves, we know we are more like them than not. We too have bristled at God’s law. We too have become upset when he had hard words for us. And so we too need to hear the prophet’s warning. We too need to listen and not close our ears or try to shut the prophet’s mouth.
The life of the Christian is a life marked by lessons, by correction, by hard but necessary words, by admonition and exhortation, and yes, by warning. God did not give us his only begotten Son for us to squander our salvation and be damned. No, the thought of losing even one of those for whom his Son died pains him beyond belief, and the angels rejoice when even one of his children repents. Sometimes the most important words loved ones can share with us are those that sting at first, but serve us well in the long run. And no one loves us more than God.
Do you remember what happened after the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant? Like a trophy, they set it in the temple of their god, Dagon. Unfortunately for the Philistines, their idol was no match for the Lord. Dagon had not captured the Lord. The Israelites had sent him away through unbelief. When the Philistines went into the house of Dagon the next morning, the idol had fallen on its face before the ark. They put him back in place, but the same thing happened again the next morning, but this time both his hands and head were cut off as well. Dagon was powerless, only the trunk of his carved body remaining. Terrified, the Philistines sent the Ark back to the Israelites. I won’t go into all the details now, but you can find the full story in 1 Samuel 5-6. The point is that the pagan unbelievers did what Israel hadn’t. They feared God and were terrified of his wrath.
God’s Word, like the Ark, does not lose its power because it goes unheeded. The Ark brought the Philistines to their knees. God in his goodness, even though Israel had not returned to him, brought about the Ark’s return to them. He returned to them. And he has returned to us.
We Christians have much more than the Ark of the Covenant. We have the Word of God made flesh, who has tabernacled among us and offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. As Dagon fell before the ark, so all that would accuse, damn, or destroy us must fall before the Word who still comes to save his wayward children. On the last day, he will come again, and all that is old will fall away as well, as he makes all things new, a new paradise we can never lose. Though we have woefully neglected his Word, he who came still comes and will come again. He may bring us to our knees at time, but never only in wrath, or for wrath.
In this Advent season, a season of repentance, God calls us to listen. While he sometimes speaks hard words for us to hear, he doesn’t stop speaking there. He also speaks mercy. That’s why he sent his prophet, Jeremiah. That’s why he came himself. He didn’t stop with threats. He held out his promise. Jeremiah said they could go ahead and kill him, but God’s Word would remain true. Jesus let us kill him, precisely because his Word is true, and with that death comes life, and with his life, taken up again, comes our justification. Emmanuel comes, and God relents, and we rejoice, because God is with us, his hopeful people, redeemed and expectant.