Part of the truth of the saying, ‘you reap what you sow’, is that if you have indeed sown the seed, it WILL germinate sooner or later. It is not a question of IF, it is a question of WHEN. God gave the Prophet Jeremiah the unenviable mission of proclaiming to the Kingdom of Judah that their time had run out; their WHEN had finally come. Was that verdict irrevocable?
It is a natural question to ask. The history of Israel, just like our own personal history, is full of second chances. We all know that there have been times when we have dodged the proverbial bullet. When the consequences of our choices, somehow, did not catastrophically catch up with us. And it would be great if the reason we were spared was because we repented just in time. But, from the history of Israel, we know that that is not always the case.
In the book of Job, Job’s so-called friends kept telling him that it is the wicked that suffer, because God punishes them in this world. But Job said no, that’s not the way it is. On the contrary, most of the time, the wicked prosper…
Job 21:7-9 Wherefore do the wicked live, grow old, yea, become mighty in power? Their seed is established with them in their sight, and their offspring before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them…
Job knew his friends could not honestly contradict this. And then he told them what they were missing:
Job 21:29-30 Have ye not asked the wayfarers? and do ye not regard their tokens: That the wicked is reserved for the day of calamity? They are led forth to the day of wrath.
Job didn’t like this truth; but he knew that God – as the Judge of all the Earth – gets to choose when and where to enforce the requirements of Justice. Even if the wicked get away with their deeds with apparent impunity, God has a day of calamity waiting for them.
And that’s the scary part of ‘dodging the bullet’…
The mercy of God is not always what we would like it to be
Did I really dodge that bullet? Or did I just add its weight to the scales of my eventual judgment? Sooner or later that seed will germinate. No wonder, then, that John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth began their ministries by proclaiming the one essential requirement: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
That was, really, Jeremiah’s message to his people: Repent now, for God’s judgment is at hand. This was their last chance to repent (when he began his ministry in the time of King Josiah). If they refused, when they refused, the only mercy left to them was to accept the punishment: Accept that the Babylonians were going to take over their land, take them captive, and destroy the Temple. But if they bowed their heads and surrendered to the Babylonians they would get to live, albeit in exile. If they fought, resisted their punishment, they would die.
The Grace of God is always what we need it to be
Even under this final scenario, with only those two choices – exile or death – God still reserved His right to deliver Grace. And so, even as Jeremiah made clear the devastation that would come, and the sorrow that was now their chosen lot, he proclaimed a principle that Paul the Apostle would remind us of six centuries later.
2 Corinthians 7:10 (NASB) For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Thus, Jeremiah tells his people to accept their fate, accept the exile, and even welcome it: They are to live there, build houses, and raise families, and pray for the welfare of country where they are captive because as surely as the judgment comes so will the Grace.
Jeremiah 29:10-14 (NASB) “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.
Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’
Mercy and Grace in a realistic world
Most of us have heard the definitions of Mercy and Grace, like this: “Mercy is: not getting what you deserve (punishment). Grace is: getting what you don’t deserve (unmerited favor, salvation).” Although true, those definitions leave “the why” out of the picture.
Mercy is there to spare us and thus give us a chance to repent. (As David says in Psalm 30:8,9 (NIV) To you, Lord, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy: “What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?”)
Grace is there to brings us – through that repentance – finally to a committed relationship with God; to bring me to the point that I search for Him with all my heart, and find Him.
In the fallen world where we live, chances are that we will have sown a whole bunch of destructive seeds by the time we are ready for Mercy (that is, by the time we are at the point that God knows we will consider repenting). This is not God’s fault. It is all a function of our free will combined with our stubbornness.
If that is what happens, at that point, Mercy is not going to look like the wholesale wiping out of all the consequences headed my way. Job tried that argument: Job 7:21 (NIV) “Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”
No. As much as I’d like a “clean slate”, the fact is God knows my heart. And, therefore, He knows what it will take for me to freely, honestly, repent. Erasing all the consequences won’t necessarily do that. God didn’t erase the consequences in the case of the Kingdom of Judah in the time of Jeremiah. God didn’t erase the consequences in the case of King David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba. (That baby still died.)
So, in a realistic world, Mercy is not necessarily the absence of punishment, but rather the absence of the punishment I really deserved. And Grace is not as rosy, not as painless as the “unmerited favor” definition could lead us to expect.
Is there a way out?
Faced with this reality, Jeremiah himself prayed this prayer:
Jeremiah 10:24 Jehovah, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing.
Repentance, sooner than later, is the only way. Living daily, consciously, in the presence of God is the surest way to stop making the wrong choices. But, to me, the reason the book of the prophet Jeremiah is there, is to remind us that, even when it is later, there is always hope… no matter how awful the seeds we have planted, no matter how far we may have fallen… Because God is a God of Grace.
The exile that Jeremiah prophesied, came. And God’s Grace took the form of His watchful eye over his people, and His Faithfulness: He never withdrew His promise to restore the remnant. Grace did not shorten the 70 years of exile (or remove the turmoil they faced during them). But it turned that time into 70 years available for self-examination where a Daniel, a Nehemiah, a Mordecai, an Esther could come to a saving knowledge of God and total reliance on His Love.