Betrayed by Theological Confusion

We distort our theology by false presumptions about God.

The prophet Jeremiah with the ruins of Jerusalem by the French artist Horace Vermet, 1844

A sobering passage to read in the Bible is found in the prophet Jeremiah. It is known as the temple sermon (Jeremiah 7:1-8:3). It reports a message that the prophet gave in the gateway to Solomon’s glorious temple complex.

Jeremiah delivered it in a time of national crisis. Jehoiakim, king of Judah, had taken advantage of some setbacks the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar had sustained. He decided to throw off vassalage to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar responded by invading Judah and besieging the city of Jerusalem.

The military situation was dire. Jehoiakim and his advisors, however, believed they would prevail. Why? Because of the promises that God had made to King David that the Davidic dynasty would reign forever (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17). Furthermore, the city possessed the temple of God. The city of Jerusalem was surely inviolate.

History seemed to confirm this confidence. During the reign of one of Jehoiakim’s predecessors, King Hezekiah, the Assyrian armies under Sennacherib had besieged the city. The wise course of action seemed to surrender the city. But the prophet Isaiah counseled Hezekiah to place his trust in God. And God had intervened miraculously. The Assyrian had had to retreat in utter defeat. (See the account in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).

The lesson seemed clear. God lives up to his promises. He had done so in the past; he would do so again. And so it seems that it became a mantra in Jerusalem circles to assert, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4). No matter how dire the circumstances, God would never allow the city to fall.

In his sermon Jeremiah calls this presumption into serious question. The royal court is deceived, he says, if they place their confidence in the belief that God will always come to their rescue, because the city possesses the temple of God.

A Theological Crisis

Why is it a false presumption? Jeremiah says that it ignores that God’s defense of the city is always contingent on Judah’s faithfulness to God’s purposes and God’s ways. And the city’s populace and its leaders have not been faithful. They have tolerated injustice. Hear the words of Jeremiah:

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:8-11)

Jeremiah also appeals to history. He reminds the people of the fate of Shiloh, the site of an earlier sanctuary dedicated to God during the time of the judges. That sanctuary was destroyed because of Israel’s unfaithfulness and sins. The Jerusalem temple is in danger of suffering the same fate, unless Judah changes its ways. The Judeans cannot count on God’s protection and blessing if they continue to live in ways contrary to God’s beneficent purposes and will.

The temple sermon is sobering reading because it reminds us to be careful in how we live out our faith in God. We can confess absolutely orthodox beliefs about God and yet turn them into theological mush by the conclusions we draw from those assertions. That is what the Judeans were doing in Jeremiah’s time. It is just as easy for us to do as well.

Does Jeremiah’s sermon mean that God ceases to love Judah because of its sins? If we read the Old Testament prophets carefully, we cannot say that. There are passionate passages in the prophets where God expresses his love for his people in spite of their sins (one of the most passionate is Hosea 11). So if we say that God loves his people always, that is true.

But we cannot draw from that true statement the false conclusion that God therefore endorses everything his people do or desire. God is not there to bless their–or ours– agenda when that agenda works against God’s good intentions for ourselves, others, and all God’s creation.

The people of Judah learned this lesson when the city of Jerusalem indeed fell to the Babylonian armies in the year 586 B.C. despite the presence of the temple of the Lord. Following the surrender, the temple of the Lord was burned and razed to the ground.

A Sermon for Today

I hear Jeremiah’s sermon speaking to me personally. A basic principle of my theology is that God is for us, always. I do not believe God hates humanity and stands ready to damn every one of us to hell unless we repent and place our faith in him.

That is not what I hear in reading the Bible. I hear that God loves the world so much that God becomes a human being and suffers with this world so that this world can be lifted to become what God has always intended it to be. God is motivated by love, not hate.

For this reason, I assert that God is for us, always. That is a fundamental dimension of my idea of divine grace.

But like all theological concepts, this idea of grace can be easily perverted in practice. We can presume that since God loves us, God will endorse whatever actions, desires, and agendas we have. We can presume that God will come to our rescue in all situations of danger. After all, isn’t that his job description?

If this is the conclusion I draw from my assertion that God is always for us, then I am guilty of fostering a false theology. The expression of God’s love for us may at times require an experience of passing through intense suffering. That suffering can act as a purgation from all that withholds us from the fullness of life and glory that God intends for each one of us as well as for all creation.

As we pass through those times of re-orientation, we can discover the truth in what the psalmist says in Psalm 66:

…we went through fire and through water;

yet you [God] have brought us out to a spacious place. (Psalm 66:12)

As we read more deeply into the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophet scholars call the second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), we find how for some of the Judean exiles the collapse of the false presumption led into a fuller and more spacious understanding of God.

Yet Again I’m Surprised by What I’ve Read Many Times Before

Bible text: Jeremiah 29:1-14

I’ve been reading the Bible or hearing it read all my life. Many of its texts are as familiar as those nursery rhymes my mother taught me as a toddler. Yet I can be reading an old familiar passage and something in the text jumps up and slaps me in the face. Then I slap my palm against my forehead and I say, “Why haven’t I seen that before?”

That happened to me two weeks ago. I was preparing my sermon for the upcoming Sunday. The lectionary had assigned Jeremiah 29:4-7 as the Old Testament reading.

The passage is a fragment from a letter the prophet sends to a group of Judean exiles. They were relocated to Babylon in 597 B.C. as a part of the settlement that the Babylonian king imposed on the submissive government of Judah when he besieged the city of Jerusalem. The exiles included the boy king, his mother, nobles, priests, and productive artisans of the city.

The exiles were pining to return home. Word from a prophet named Hananiah assured them that they would return soon, within two years. But Jeremiah says Hananiah does not speak the word of the Lord. Their exile will indeed be long, several generations long.

In his letter to the exiles, Jeremiah tells them that the Lord is calling on them to settle down in Babylon. They are to build houses, plant gardens, marry and raise families.

 Then comes this word from God: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The exiles are to look upon Babylon as if it were their new home, for in fact it will be their home for generations to come.

These are familiar words. I’ve read them many times, but I had never quite appreciated what startling counsel is coming from the Lord. The Lord is telling the exiles to seek the welfare of their enemies. The Babylonians after all are the ones who carried them into exile. Some ten years later they will return to Jerusalem to snuff out Judean independence, to capture the city, to burn the temple, and to raze the city to ground.

The exiles are to work for the welfare of Babylon in spite of all the empire has done and will do to them and their homeland. Furthermore they are to pray for their enemies.

Now those are the words that jumped out at me and slapped me in the face. I had heard them before, but never stopped to soak in their import. The exiles are to pray for the Babylonians.

To give a modern comparison, it is as if God were to tell Americans to pray for Al Qaeda and seek its welfare. We would be outraged. So must have been those Judean exiles. Who is this God that is asking for such an absurdity?

 Yet that is the word of God to those exiles. How surprising can this God be?

 We often think that Jesus is unique in his vision when in the Sermon on the Mount he counsels his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44). Now Jesus was unique, but not every point of his teaching is. The essence of his teaching on loving our enemies is already present in the Old Testament in these words of God to the Babylonia exiles. I had never seen that before.

 Many Christians have traditionally regarded the God of the Old Testament as a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament as a God of love. It’s a false reading of both testaments. As this passage in Jeremiah makes clear, there is a deep continuity between the vision of the Old and the New. We need to be acutely sensitive to that reality.