by Charles Whitaker
It was the worst of times. Period. The time of Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch was everything but the age of wisdom, the epoch of belief, the season of light, the spring of hope. The king was about to lose his throne, his sons, his sight, his freedom. His witless subjects, unfaithful to God and ungracious to man, were soon to fare no better. It was the winter of despair. For everyone.
King and people alike declared that God had committed Himself to favor them above all peoples on the earth and to protect Jerusalem against all assailants. After all, was not the king of the family of David, and was not Jerusalem the city he had established as the capital of the people of God? There, Solomon had built the Temple. The king and his people felt so secure in “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4).
So reliant were king and people on the past that they had forgotten to plug God into their present. They refused to live His way of life. God called for a change in attitude and behavior:
For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:5-7)
The moral and social depravity of king and people had reached a crucial state that could only become an inevitable tipping point, or to change the metaphor, a decided critical mass that begged God’s prompt attention. The iniquity of the Amorites, so to speak, was full. Through a number of prophets, God warned of the consequences of this widespread turpitude. Consider Jeremiah 17:27, only one of many examples:
But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
God meant business. The king and all his men would be unable to douse the fires of Jerusalem. The cultural artifacts they so dearly prized would go up in smoke.
In figurative language, God issued a like warning through His prophet, Isaiah. As recorded in Isaiah 5, God likens His people to a vineyard that He has painstakingly cultivated. The fruit was not what He expected, however:
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes?
And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.
To Root Up a People
The metaphor is informed by the thoroughness implied by the act of digging up a plant. God is not just clipping or trimming or pruning. He is digging up, root and branch, stock and foliage. Everything is gone. A number of other passages convey this idea of uprooting. Consider Psalm 80:8-16, where Asaph asserts that God uprooted Israel from Egypt and planted it in the Promised Land:
You have brought a vine out of Egypt;
You have cast out the nations, and planted it.
You prepared room for it,
And caused it to take deep root,
And it filled the land.
The hills were covered with its shadow,
And the mighty cedars with its boughs.
She sent out her boughs to the Sea,
And her branches to the River.
Why have You broken down her hedges,
So that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit?
The boar out of the woods uproots it,
And the wild beast of the field devours it.
Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts;
Look down from heaven and see,
And visit this vine
And the vineyard which Your right hand has planted,
And the branch that You made strong for Yourself.
It is burned with fire, it is cut down;
They perish at the rebuke of Your countenance.
As another example, consider God’s commission to a young Jeremiah, as recorded in Jeremiah 1:10:
See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms,
To root out and to pull down,
To destroy and to throw down,
To build and to plant.
Yet another use of the same metaphor appears in Jeremiah 18:7-10:
The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.
As a final example, consider Jeremiah 31:28, a more positive passage: “And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to throw down, to destroy, and to afflict, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.”
There is, as God inspired Solomon to write, “a time to plant and a time to uproot” (Ecclesiastes 3:2, Complete Jewish Bible). The time for planting was past, and the time for “digging and dunging” (see Luke 13:8) was over as well. It was now time for God to do some serious uprooting, and to do so on a vast scale. Indeed, far more than “the house of Israel and the men of Judah” awaited the shovel. God sent Jeremiah to the kings of the earth, giving them a cup, telling them to drink of it. Jeremiah 25:27-29 tells the story:
“Drink, be drunk, and vomit! Fall and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you.” And it shall be, if they refuse to take the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘You shall certainly drink! For behold, I begin to bring calamity on the city which is called by My name, and should you be utterly unpunished? You shall not be unpunished, for I will call for a sword on all the inhabitants of the earth.’’’
In verses 31-32, God emphasizes the depth and the breadth of His imminent digging project:
“A noise will come to the ends of the earth—
For the Lord has a controversy with the nations;
He will plead His case with all flesh.
He will give those who are wicked to the sword,” says the Lord. . . .
“Behold, disaster shall go forth
From nation to nation,
And a great whirlwind shall be raised up
From the farthest parts of the earth.
The historical fact of the matter is this: In the days before Jeremiah, God had uprooted ten-tribed Israel and later, Assyria. Now, He was in the proximate act of uprooting Judah. He would later uproot Babylon, Egypt, Persia. In this general timeframe, what some today call the Axial Period, God also rooted out empires in the Indus Valley and in the Far East. The scope of God’s actions, as Jeremiah states, were gigantic, their impact on history—and on people—monumental.
Murmurs in the Worst of Times
Into such a time comes Jeremiah, with his scribe Baruch following nearby. In the course of their careers, both men issued complaints to God. A review of Baruch’s and Jeremiah’s complaints, as well as God’s responses, may prove fruitful. Of these in their order.
Little is known about Baruch, son of Neriah. A note in The Amplified Bible, citing II Chronicles 34:8, suggests that he may have been the grandson of Maaseiah, who served as the governor of Jerusalem in the days of King Josiah. Baruch may have been attached to a family of means, perhaps a prominent one. He was certainly educated, serving as he did as Jeremiah’s secretary. Entrusted with putting down Jeremiah’s words for posterity, we can surmise that he was detail-oriented and performance motivated, able to get a lot of work done and get it done correctly.
Jeremiah 43 and 44 offer us a clue about Baruch’s social status. Shortly after Jerusalem’s fall, a small number of Jews remaining in the city ask Jeremiah to seek God’s counsel regarding what action they should take. After ten days, God tells the people through Jeremiah to remain in the vicinity, around Jerusalem. Specifically, they are not to flee to Egypt in an attempt to escape from the Babylonians. The Jewish leadership rejects God’s instruction to them, and ultimately leads the people down to Egypt anyway. One of their reasons for rejecting Jeremiah’s comments may be telling. They respond to the prophet, as recorded in Jeremiah 43:2-3:
You speak falsely! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, “Do not go to Egypt to dwell there.” But Baruch the son of Neriah has set you against us, to deliver us into the hand of the Chaldeans, that they may put us to death or carry us away captive to Babylon.
It appears that the Jewish leadership saw Baruch as somewhat of a mover and shaker, someone who had influence over Jeremiah, as though he, rather than God, were the power behind Jeremiah’s words. It is not likely that they would come to this conclusion (erroneous as it was) if Baruch were just a secretary. He was undoubtedly a highly competent, poised person, perhaps prominent to some extent.
Next month, we will look at his complaint.