Preaching Values in Jeremiah

V. L. Stanfield  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 4 - Fall 1961

During the last twenty-five years, preachers have often been exorted to make their messages relevant. During the same period, many pleas have been made for a return to biblical preaching. Some writers have related these two needs by insisting that biblical preaching would be relevant.

The book of Jeremiah is an example of a biblical book that is especially relevant for our own nation just now. It could be called “An Old Prophecy for a New Nation,” or perhaps, “A Prophet Calls for a Return to God,” or even “A Prophet Speaks to America.” To say the least, Jeremiah speaks to our need. God’s message to Israel could be God’s message to America. Jeremiah deals with problems and ideas which have perennial significance.

The book of Jeremiah then has value for today’s preaching. This article is intended to be practical and suggestive rather than technical. It is a recording of the sources, approaches, ideas, and texts which have come to one preacher.

 

An Approach

To find the preaching value in any book of the Bible will first require a leisurely reading, then another reading, and perhaps a third and fourth reading. Since Jeremiah is quite long and repetitive in nature, the reader may want to check some good outline of the book. Aside from the outline suggested elsewhere in this issue,[1]See Ralph L. Smith, above pp. 17-27. another simple but adequate outline may be found in Charles R. Erdman’s The Book of Jeremiah and Lamentations.[2](Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1955), p. 13.

I. Introduction: The Call of the Prophet (chap; 1)

II. The Condemnation of Judah (chaps. 2-29)

III. The Promise of Restoration (chaps. 30-33)

IV. The Guilt and the Destruction of Jerusalem. (chaps. 34-45)

V. The Judgment upon the Nations (chaps. 46-51)

VI. The Appendix: Captivity and Release (chap. 52)

After reading and rereading the book of Jeremiah, and after checking to see how others have organized the material, another plan of the book may present itself to the reader:

I. The Prophet Is Called (chap. 1)

II. The Prophet’s Message of Warning is (chaps. 2-29)

III. The Prophet Preaches Restoration (chaps. 30-33)

IV. The Prophet’s Message of Destruction Fulfilled (Chaps. 34-45)

V. The Prophet Preaches Judgment upon the Nations (chaps. 46-51)

 

Conclusion: Historical Appendix (chap. 52)

Having a general view of Jeremiah, the preacher is ready to study the content of the book in detail. Many excellent commentaries and studies are available.[3]See bibliography, p. 81. Jeremiah has not been considered an easy book to interpret or to preach but serious reading of three or four of these books will contribute greatly to the average person’s knowledge of Jeremiah. These books will also augment the January Bible Study text, Studies in Jeremiah, by Dr. Clyde T. Francisco.[4]Available December 1, 1961.

 

Preaching Ideas

After reading the book of Jeremiah and materials concerning the content, the preacher is ready to catalogue some ideas he has found. Every preacher seeks ideas. Only a few want “ready-made” sermons; most men want materials so they may use their own patterns, scissors, needle, and thread. Jeremiah has an abundance of ideas. However, only a few of these “lie about on the surface; many more lie hidden from view.”[5]Andrew W. Blackwood, Preaching from Prophetic Books (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), p. 157.

Perhaps the place to start is with the prophet’s call.[6]See T. T. Crabtree, above, pp. 33-56. Jeremiah was called to deliver the “Word of the Lord.” Again and again the prophet gives the source of his message, “The word of the Lord came unto me…” To be a transmitter of God’s revelation was Jeremiah’s commission and his distinctive characteristic. This was not the prophet’s choice; he shrank from his duty, but he believed his God had spoken. He had been chosen by the Lord; to deliver the “Word of the Lord” was his destiny. A power stronger than he impelled him and he could not resist the divine compulsion.[7]Harry F. Baughman, Jeremiah for Today (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947), pp. 34-55. A fire burned within Jeremiah that must burst forth. Many twentieth-century “prophets” need to be able to say “the Word of the Lord” came to me. Much preaching today lacks the spirit of “thus saith the Lord.” Yet, can it be said that a preacher is preaching unless God is speaking through him? In preaching worthy of the name, the congregation hears the Word of God as transmitted through a messenger. Many congregations are sick of “religious talk,” “phychological diagnosis,” and “interpretations of current events.” They want to hear a word which has come from the Most High. If God has called us to speak for him, he will give us a word to deliver. Jeremiah can lead us back to the source of all truth. Our message is a given message, and we are channels.

Any listing of preaching ideas in Jeremiah must include Jeremiah’s God. This God who had called him and who had touched and filled his mouth was a sovereign God, yet he was a personal God who could be conversed with, even argued with. Jeremiah’s “conception of God’s nature was derived from an acquaintance with, rather than a knowledge about, God.”[8]J. Philip Hyatt, Jeremiah (New York: Abingdon Press, 1958), p. 75. Therefore, Yahweh seemed very close to Jeremiah, perhaps closer than to most of the prophets.

To Jeremiah, Yahweh was a living God, a sovereign God of majesty and power. Jeremiah had experienced the power of God in his own life. God had overpowered him and made him a prophet. Jeremiah’s God was not one of the “no gods” (Jer. 2:11; 5:7; 16:20); he was the God of creation

which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is his name (Jer. 31:35).

I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me (Jer. 27:5).

God had not only created all things, but he could use them for his purpose.

But Yahweh was not only powerful, he had other qualities. Jeremiah gives a lofty conception of his God when he sings,

But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord (Jer. 9:24).

Sin has been fiercely denounced because God is righteous. But always there is the offer of mercy:

Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever (Jer. 3:12).

God offers to give his people steadfast love. The opinion has been expressed that the Old Testament does not represent Yahweh as a God of love, but this is erroneous.[9]Ibid., p. 82. Both Hosea and Jeremiah reveal God as a God of steadfast love.

Many congregations today need to hear Jeremiah’s view of God. In a time of fear, frustration, and futility, they need to hear of the great “I Am,” who is the sovereign ruler of the universe, who controls their lives and their world.

In preaching from Jeremiah one can hardly overlook the emphasis on the nature and consequences of sin. Judah has turned from God. Jeremiah’s first calls were for the nation to repent. But he later saw that the sins of Judah were the sins of her people. The nation can turn to God only as men turn to God. As sin had been the choice of men, so repentance and salvation must come through persons. “It is in this emphasis that Jeremiah makes his most distinct and possibly most permanently significant contribution to Old Testament literature on the nature of sin.”[10]Baughman, p. 153.

The people of Judah had known the blessing of Yahweh; why did they sin? Jeremiah found the answer in the condition of man’s heart; sin originates in the heart of man.[11]Hyatt, pp. 90-91.

O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved. How long shall vain thoughts lodge within thee? (Jer. 4:14).

The heart is deceitful above all things, and completely wicked; who can know it? (Jer. 17:9).

References to the stubbornness, the wickedness, and the weakness of the heart are frequent in Jeremiah.

Sin, in its essence, is a hardening of the heart to the overtures of God. The heart has moved away from God; the heart (mind, intellect) no longer hears. Self-will has destroyed all sensitivity to the divine will. When this happens, the results are always tragic.

Jeremiah knew the cycle of sin; he knew that when sin conceived it would bring forth every evil. He knew that ultimately it would contaminate the entire nation. After describing Judah as a harlot, he cries, “The whole land was polluted” (Jer. 3:9). Jeremiah at first preaches a “return” to God; he wants the bride to return to her husband. But ultimately he preaches destruction, the final consequence of sin.

Does this not have special relevance for our people? If sin can be termed “heart direction away from God,” are we not most guilty? Are not our “hearts” set on things? Are we not making our “no gods”? We desperately need to ”break up our fallow ground”!

Jeremiah has often been called the “prophet of doom”; he could also be named the “prophet of hope.” In the midst of spiritual darkness, Jeremiah could see the light of a new response and the dawn of a new day. This was not a foolish optimistic hope which had neither fact nor faith, but rather it was a realistic hope which grew out of firm belief in the ultimate triumph of the purpose of God. Though Jeremiah lived in a time of national collapse, though his nation faced imminent destruction, his God would bring good out of ultimate failure. One of the truly great statements in Jeremiah comes in his message to the exiles:

I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope (Jer. 29:11, RSV).

To prove his belief in the future, Jeremiah, while in prison, purchased a field in Anathoth and prophesied,

Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land (Jer. 32:15).

This certainty in the future and this ground for hope must have sustained the exiles. Our country also faces a time of crisis. Constant is the threat of missiles filling the air and destruction covering the earth. Moreover, godless people seem to be overcoming the righteous. Where is our hope? Our hope is the same God, whose purpose cannot be permanently frustrated. But our hope has a dimension which Jeremiah did not have; it is our hope in Christ, which is a hope for this life, but it is also a hope for life beyond the grave. In much of our preaching, especially evangelistic preaching, we often stress “doom” rather than “hope”; perhaps Jeremiah can give us a new note to emphasize.

The idea in Jeremiah most often called his “greatest contribution to religion” is the idea of the “new covenant.” Knowledge of God will be written in the heart of man. True religious experiences can never be found in institutions, ceremonies, or regulations, but the “seat of religion is in the heart of the individual person.”[12]Elmer A. Leslie, Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 336. This is a religion of inwardness. Here is Jeremiah’s declaration of the new covenant:

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer. 31:33-34, RSV).

This passage makes it clear that law written on stones will not be sufficient; it must be written in the heart. When man’s relationship to God is a personal, inner relationship, then a new life with God commences. He now has a new dynamic and a new motivation to obey his Lord. This stress on the inner life is remarkably close to the teaching of Jesus.

Here indeed, is an emphasis which touches a point of need. It does not take a prophet to see that the “outer” trappings of religion are stressed at the expense of the “inner” life. It is so easy to emphasize the church building rather than the “body of Christ,” to equate fellowship with eating and recreation, to stress goals and records regardless of what happens to persons, and to make the “doing” of things synonymous with the fruits of the Spirit. We need today to look into our hearts to see if the word of God is written there; then if this be true, we should proclaim a religion of the heart as a prime essential for Christian living.

 

A Sermon Seedbed

Not only should the leading ideas of Jeremiah provide “grist” for the preacher’s mill, but some of the great texts may also prove helpful. A few texts have already been noted in discussing the leading ideas; additional texts will be suggested in order to provide seed for a “homiletic garden.”[13]For additional help see Kyle M. Yates, Preaching from the Prophets (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1942), pp. 138-48; Edward Hastings (ed.), The Book of Jeremiah (“The Speaker’s Bible” Aberdeen, Scot.: The Speaker’s Bible Office, 1944); and James Philip Hyatt and Stanley Romaine Hopper, The Book of Jeremiah (“The Interpreter’s Bible,” Vol. V. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956).

Thus says the Lord,

I remember the devotion of your youth,

your love as a bride,

how you followed me in the wilderness,

in a land not sown (Jer. 2:2 RSV).

The relationship between God and his people is presented as the relationship between a husband and his bride Pictured is the tender love of courtship and the deeper love of marriage. A sense of oneness and belonging has existed between God and his people. The love of the husband remained steadfast, but the bride’s love has cooled and then died. She has gone after other “husbands.” Great is her shame and greater is the heartache of her husband. “Love That Did Not Last” or “Can a Bride Forget?”[14]Fred M. Wood, Fire in My Bones (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959), pp. 25-33. could be suitable sermon titles for a message on this text.

Therefore I still contend with you,

says the Lord,

and with your children’s children

I will contend (Jer. 2:9, RSV).

A sermon on this text was called “God’s Lawsuit.” God is the plantiff. He is pleading or contending his case. He wants to win this case; for he wants his people back. Even in the face of sin and rejection, he will continue to contend. The merciful pleading will continue from generation to generation.

. . . my people have changed their glory

for that which does not prophet

……………………….

they have forsaken me,

the fountain of living waters,

and hewed out cisterns for themselves

broken cisterns,

that can hold no water (Jer. 2:11-13, RSV).

Many and varied sermons have been preached on this text. A sermon could be appropriately entitled “A Poor Trade.” God’s people had exchanged him for “no gods”; they had traded a flowing fountain for a broken cistern, pure water for stagnant, and an unfailing stream for an uncertain supply. They had lost all sense of value and had been terribly cheated.

If you return, O Israel,

says the Lord,

to me you should return.

If you remove your abominations from my presence,

and do not waver,

and if you swear, “As the Lord lives,”

in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,

then nations shall bless themselves in him,

and in him shall they glory (Jer. 4:1-2, RSV).

Jeremiah proclaimed a message of repentance. The people had turned away from God; they were urged to return” to God. Repentance is a recurring theme, but it is to be more than lip service. It is to prove its genuineness by its fruits. A revival sermon calling for “sincere repentance” could find a firm basis in this and similar texts (see 3:12-14; 18:11; 31:18-19).

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,

look and take note!

Search her squares to see

if you can find a man,

one who does justice

and seeks truth;

that I may pardon her.

Though they say, “As the Lord lives,”

yet they swear falsely (Jer. 5:1-2, RSV).

So corrupt had the people become that a man characterized by justice and truth was difficult, if not impossible, to find. Men said, “As the Lord lives,” but a gulf stood between profession and practice. The application of this text to our day is quite obvious. A sermon could be preached on “Integrity Needed.” The phrase, “a breakdown of communication,” is often used today. However, the breakdown is really a “breakdown of integrity.” Many men—even some religious leaders—fail to speak, say less than they mean, or say what they do not mean in order to attain selfish ends.

My grief is beyond healing,

my heart is sick within me.

…………………

O that my head were waters,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

that I might weep day and night

for the slain of the daughter of my people!

(Jer. 8:18; 9:1, RSV).

These words show why Jeremiah has been called “The Weeping Prophet.” He could be designated “The Concern Prophet.” The sin of his people and its ultimate consequences left him grief-stricken. Do we not need this concern? Has our reaction to “wet-handkerchief” preachers left too many “dry-eyed” prophets?

If you have raced with men on foot

and they have wearied you,

how will you compete with horses?

And if in a safe land you fall down,

how will you do in the jungle of the Jordan?

(Jer. 12:5 RSV).

When Jeremiah complained of his persecutions God reminded him that greater difficulties were ahead. The present hardships were but training for sterner tests. He was given a more challenging task. He had been “wearied by amateurs,”[15]Baughman, p. 19 but now he must struggle with professionals. He must “face up to his task.”

O thou hope of Israel,

its savior in time of trouble

why shouldst thou be like a stranger in the land

like a wayfarer who turns aside to tarry for a night?

…………………..

and we are called by thy name;

leave us not (Jer. 14:8, 9b, RSV).

Jeremiah has been called “the father of true prayer.” More than any other prophet, he has taught us what prayer should be. It is dialogue with God”;[16]Hyatt, pp. 109-10. it is “conversation with God.”[17]Charles E. Jefferson, Cardinal Ideas of Jeremiah (New York: Macmillan Co., 1928), p. 147..[/ref] Jeremiah did not teach us how to pray; rather he set an example by his praying. He poured out his soul to God and waited for an answer. Jeremiah’s prayers are not meaningless forms; they are words of desperate need expressed with “deep earnestness and passionate sincerity.”[18]Leslie, p. 340.

I the Lord search the mind

and try the heart,

to give to every man according to his ways,

according to the fruit of his doings

(Jer. 17:10, RSV).

To the Hebrews the “heart” was the center of the intellect, the center of the personality. Man’s relationship to God was really “an affair of the heart.”[19]Jefferson, p. 53. Religion is not primarily concerned with externals or customs or traditions; it is interested in the heart. Though the heart may be deceitful and difficult to interpret God does test and know the heart and will give to each man according to the “fruit of his doings.”

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another, as it seemed good to the potter to do (Jer. 18:3-4, RSV).

Jeremiah went down to the valley of the potteries. He saw the potter as maker. When the design of the vessel was spoiled he reshaped it according to his own desire. As the potter controlled the clay, so God is sovereign. The potter may remake or destroy; this is Yahweh’s prerogative. This text has been a favorite preaching text. Israel was its original significance, but its application is universal. God is still God; he shapes our destinies. To be pliable is to be used; to become hardened or rebellious is to be destroyed.

Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will repent of the evil which he has pronounced against you (Jer. 26:13, RSV).

Even when arrested and in danger, Jeremiah’s sermon remains basically the same-“Mend Your Ways.” God’s people are called upon to obey that their deeds may be acceptable to him. “Mend Your Ways” is a sermon title with perennial relevance.

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer. 31:34b, RSV).

A part of the “good news” is that God will forgive. Clovis G. Chappell has a delightful communion sermon on this text which he entitled, “When God Forgets.”[20]Chappell’s Special Day Sermons (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1936), p. 158. After listing all the things which God does not forget, Dr. Chappell declares that God forgets one thing—our sin. As we struggle with the sin which so easily besets us, we need the promise of forgiveness. “The Forgetful God” would be a good title for this text.

Perhaps this brief discussion of ideas and texts will stimulate some modern prophets to reexamine Jeremiah. The book of Jeremiah is a vein of rich ore. Moreover, the mine is open and tools are available. The wages are high—for those who will dig.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The following is a limited bibliography of sources for a study of Jeremiah which are available to the pastor.

BOOKS

Baughman, Harry F. Jeremiah for Today. Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1947.

Calkins, Raymond. Jeremiah the Prophet. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930.

Gillies, J. R. Jeremiah the Man and his Message. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907.

Gordon, T. C. The Rebel Prophet. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932.

Jefferson, Charles E. Cardinal Ideas of Jeremiah. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928.

Lofthouse, W. F. Jeremiah and the New Covenant. London: Student Christian Movement, 1925.

Morgan, G. Campbell. Studies in the Prophecy of Jeremiah. Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1955.

Robinson, H. Wheeler. The Cross in the Old Testament. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1955. Pages 115-92.

Skinner, John. Prophecy and Religion. Cambridge: The University Press, 1936.

Smith, George Adam. Jeremiah. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1929.

Wood, Fred M. Fire in My Bones. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959.

COMMENTARIES

Ball, C. ,T. The Prophecies of Jeremiah. “The Expositor’s Bible,” Vol. IV; Hartford Conn.: The S. S. Scranton Company, 1904.

Brewer, Julius A. The Book of Jeremiah. “Harper’s Anotated Bible”; New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951.

Binns, L. Elliott. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. “Westminster Commentaries”; London: Methuen and Company, Ltd., 1919.

Brown, Charles R. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. “An American Commentary”; Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907.

Cunliffe-Jones, H. The Book of Jeremiah. “Torch Bible Commentaries”; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.

Hyatt, J.P. and Hopper, S. R. The Book of Jeremiah. “The Interpreter’s Bible,” Vol V. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.

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