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Occasional Letters - Put Your Money Where Your Future Is

D Newell, Glasgow

I confess that I find James 3.1 a sobering verse: "My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation". In other words, assembly teachers will be assessed more strictly than others. Of course, we shall all be assessed in the light of those pious words we so easily sing in our hymns or utter in our prayers. But teachers are particularly responsible because of their influence. And the testing often begins down here, as Jeremiah 32 illustrates.

It was 587 BC, just one year before Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonian army which lay encamped about its walls. Disaster, disgrace and captivity were imminent, and yet Jeremiah the prophet was suddenly instructed by God to sink his money into a plot of land in Anathoth, his home town, even though it was most probably at that very moment being trampled underfoot by the Chaldeans and their camp followers. How absurd – to invest in what was doomed! Back in 1942 BBC reporter Giles Playfair recorded his impressions of Singapore just before it fell to the Japanese: "There was a sort of fanatical abandon about life in Singapore in those last days. For one thing possessions didn’t count any more…The most you hoped for was to preserve your life and if possible your freedom". When the enemy is at the gates why bother to purchase land you will never enjoy?

Chapter 32 is a refreshingly frank account of a godly man who found it hard to understand what Jehovah was doing. For a start, he was in prison (vv.1-5), suffering for his robust testimony to the disobedient inhabitants of Jerusalem. It was the 41st year of a long ministry which had unflinchingly announced coming judgment on a people who had turned their back on God. From the very beginning Jeremiah’s message had been two-fold, predicting short-term retribution because of Judah’s guilt (Jer 16.5-13), and long-term restoration because of Jehovah’s grace (Jer 23.3-8). Such a public affirmation of the nation’s inevitable collapse branded him a traitor to his people and a thorn in the side of the religious establishment, who insisted that all would be well (Jer 8.11; 23.16-17). Jeremiah, you see, was no flattering preacher who played to the gallery or gave his congregation what they wanted to hear. Speaking God’s truth without fear or favour isn’t a recipe for popularity. Nor should we be surprised today when the gospel is rejected and despised. Its whole character runs counter to the spirit of the age. That is one reason why it requires a work of God’s sovereign grace to awaken any soul to the need of salvation for, of himself, "none…seeketh after God" (Rom 3.11). Yet it grieved Jeremiah’s spirit to see his own people malign and abuse him.

The purchase itself, possibly the most meticulous record of a Middle Eastern land transaction found in the Bible, is a model of business precision (vv.6-15). Built into Israel’s social structure was the right of redemption, permitting a relative to buy back property which because of poverty had been sold out of the family. The details can be studied in Leviticus 25. Jeremiah carefully made sure that everything was done before witnesses according to law and custom: the title deeds, both the open and the sealed copy, were stored in an earthen vessel as long-term proof of purchase and ownership. That done, he announced the explanation for his strange action: "thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land" (v.15). "Houses and fields and vineyards" – the idiom unmistakeably signals an eventual return to social normality in the war-ravaged land of Judah.

The public scene over, Jeremiah betook himself to prayer (vv.16-25). Had he engaged in a wasteful, foolish speculation? The sure answer to every perplexity is prayer, that divine helpline which is always open. We can never do better than turn to the Lord. But mark this: Jeremiah did not use his bewilderment as an excuse for disobedience. No, he did what the Lord had unambiguously told him to do (buy the property); then, and only then, did he cast himself upon God. More, the earnestness of his supplication throbs through his language ("Ah Lord God!"). There was nothing cold, clinical or perfunctory about this prayer; it was intense and impassioned, very different from the business-like words associated with the earlier legal transaction. In public Jeremiah spoke like the oracles of God; in private he freely confessed his anxieties. Yet his prayer constitutes a cogent doctrinal statement of God’s greatness. Young men and women can benefit from a free course in theology simply by listening to the way older brethren pray in the gatherings of the assembly. Jeremiah may have been confused about what the Lord was doing, but he retained unshakable confidence in Him. Here’s a little homework. Just go through that prayer slowly, jot down what it says about Jehovah, and see if you can relate each attribute to the Lord Jesus. What does Jeremiah say about God? He is the God of creation (v.17), a God of infinite power and resource for whom nothing is too wonderful. He is the God of moral government who treats men with loving-kindness or strict justice in accordance with His purpose (v.18). As the God of immeasurable greatness He is in His awesome majesty far beyond human understanding (vv.18-19), yet nothing is beyond Him, for He infallibly comprehends all (v.19). Nor is He remote from His creation for He has intervened in history according to His pleasure (v.20), redeeming Israel as His elect people (v.21) and granting them the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession (v.22). And this had nothing to do with Israel’s merit, any more than our spiritual salvation today rests upon our worthiness – rather, all is of God’s grace. But precisely because He had entered into covenant relationship with Israel He would discipline them for their sin (v.23). The land might be theirs as a free grace gift but for any generation of Israelites occupation of that land depended upon practical obedience. We may be "blessed…with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ" (Eph 1.3), but we shall not enjoy these privileges if we fail to walk worthy of the Lord. Finally, Jeremiah steers his prayer back to the immediate situation, noting that what God says will be, will be: "what thou hast spoken is come to pass" (v.24). Of course, our God is reliable in everything He says: "the Lord hath both devised and done that which he spake…for every purpose of the Lord shall be performed" (Jer 51.12,29). And having said all this, Jeremiah at last arrives at his present problem: "thou hast said unto me, O Lord God, ‘Buy thee the field for money, and take witnesses;’ for the city is given into the hand of the Chaldeans" (v.25). I have added quotation marks to the AV text to make the point that Jeremiah is contrasting God’s command with the observable facts. How honest is the Bible about its heroes! For 41 years the prophet had announced both impending judgment and future restoration (Jer 3-4; 30-31), but now, asked to invest in Judah’s promised future, he seems dazed. A similar uncertainty possessed John Baptist when he sent disciples to verify that the Lord Jesus really was the anticipated Messiah (Mt 11.3). None of us would have done better than these godly men. But let us note that Jeremiah devotes eight verses to worship (vv.17-24) and only one (v.25) to his worry! The priority and the relative proportions are worth pondering.

God’s answer was a stunning promise (vv.26-44) based on the prophet’s own words: "is there any thing too hard for me?". The Lord reaffirmed Judah’s coming ruin (vv.28-29) and its cause (vv.30-35). What Jeremiah had faithfully taught was correct, but so too was his prediction of a future regathering. The language goes beyond the return from Babylonian exile (vv.43-44) to describe something far greater and as yet unfulfilled (vv.37-41), when all Israel will be brought into a spiritual relationship with God. We find glimpses of that moment in Hosea 14.1-5; Zechariah 12.10; 13.9 and of course Jeremiah 31.31-34. And lest anyone attempt to transfer these promises to the church, look carefully: "thus saith the Lord; like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them" (32.42). The God who brought the evil will bring the good – on the same people. It couldn’t be clearer! Just as Jeremiah acted as redeemer for his cousin’s land so Jehovah is Israel’s unfailing Redeemer who will restore them to their land in righteousness and peace (Jer 31.11; 50.34). Lessons? We can trust God to be true to His word; we can rejoice in His programme for Israel; and teachers must be prepared to live in the good of what they teach.

As far as we know, Jeremiah never saw his investment, for after Jerusalem fell he was carried off to Egypt. But wait. In the Millennium he will be raised up alongside all other saved Israelites of old to enjoy the land as it ought to be under Messiah’s beneficent rule (Dan 12.2-3,13). Those who take a practical stand on the truth they teach will never lose out.

To be continued.


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