Chapter 19 – The Holy Spirit in the Life and Testimony of Jeremiah

JEREMIAH, although occupying in comparison with Isaiah the second place in our Old Testament canons, really occupied the highest place in the mind of his people, and in the estimation of the rabbis and religious leaders of the Jews. So supremely was he regarded as the guardian spirit of Judah and Jerusalem that they expected him to come back from the dead and to usher in some new bright era of national hope and prosperity. Therefore, when Jesus of Nazareth was performing His wondrous miracles upon earth, and was attracting the attention of all the people, we find that many of them supposed that He was no other than Jeremiah who had risen from the dead.

The life of Jeremiah is inseparably linked with the last days of ancient Judaism and the fall of Jerusalem. The period of his ministry, occupying as it did about forty years, was singularly parallel to the forty years of the ministry of Moses in the beginning of Israel’s history. It was parallel, also, to the forty years of trial and probation which preceded the fall of Jerusalem in later centuries, after the testimony of Christ and His apostles had been at length rejected.

These three periods of forty years were all times of probation, and, alas! of provocation, on the part of Israel. Just as Moses was the divine messenger under the first, so Jeremiah stood under the second with loving loyalty to his country and supreme fidelity to His God. He strove to avert the awful catastrophe which he saw so swiftly and surely coming upon his people. When at last he could not prevent it, he shared it with his people; and finally, it seems probable, perished at their cruel hands.

The story of his life and the record of his testimony are full of the most touching and beautiful manifestations of the divine character and love and of the working of the Holy Ghost.

The New Testament has borne most distinct witness to his inspired messages, and recognized his words as the messages of the Holy Ghost. We shall glance first, at his personal call; next, at the relation of his life and ministry to his own people and times; and, finally, at his messages for later ages and for us through the Spirit.

1. JEREMIAH’S CALL AND COMMISSION. Jeremiah has given an account of his call and commission in the first chapter of his prophetic book. It is not unlike the story of Isaiah’s consecration in the sixth chapter of his prophecy. God came to him and announced to him before his birth he had been called to be a prophet unto the nations.

His commission is a very glorious one. “I have this day set thee,” He says, “over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, . . . and to plant.” Not only did his commission extend to his own people, but at his prophetic word the mightiest nations of his time rose and fell. The mighty armies that traversed the whole earth and made the nations to tremble, moved at the word of Jeremiah through the Holy Ghost. Alone in his quiet home at Anathoth, or suffering in his lone dungeon in Jerusalem, he was really the mightiest force of his time. It was his prophetic word that decided the fate of dynasties and kingdoms.

There is nothing more sublime than the simple power which the Holy Ghost gives to the humblest saint; and the ministry of prayer which He enables the lowliest child of God to exercise. Is there a spectacle more glorious than the picture given us nearly a century later of that mighty sovereign of the east, the all victorious Cyrus, after he had subdued the nations, after proud Babylon had fallen beneath his feet, after the whole world had become his empire, compelled by an influence that he could not understand, to fulfill the very words of Jeremiah’s prophecy?

His was a peculiar prophetic ministry, no doubt; but God will give a similar power to every true saint who is willing in the name of Lord Jesus to accept the high commission and the holy ministry of prayer, and to grasp the scepter of faith through which He can touch the world with the power and blessing of the eternal God.

The commission of Jeremiah was a very remarkable one. Naturally he seemed wholly unfitted for it. Everything is his nature recoiled from the task to which he was called. He was sensitive, shrinking and loving. It was a fearful sacrifice of all his feelings to be compelled to stand in constant antagonism and to utter God’s rebukes against the people that he loved, against princes, priests, and prophets.

Far sweeter would it have been for him to weep for Israel’s sorrows and even to suffer for her sins; but God called that gentle nature to be the messenger of His most fearful warnings and judgments, and to pass through an ordeal of suffering from which the bravest heart might shrink. He did shrink. “I am a child,” he said, but God would not allow him to plead his weakness. It was not Jeremiah’s strength that was to prevail, but God’s mighty enduement of power from on high. So the hand of God stretched out and touched his lips. The power of God was communicated to his shrinking weakness, and he was commanded to stand forth without a doubt or a fear, and to speak the words that God should inspire, and to be like a wall of adamant and a fortress of fire against the priests, the princes, the prophets, and the people of the land.

In like manner God often calls us to ministries for which we are naturally unfitted; but if He calls and enables, what need have we to fear? Indeed, the only thing we have cause to fear is the spirit of fear; and when we step forth at the divine command to fulfill such sacred trusts, we must stand in fearless courage and absolute obedience. Yes, we might almost say, audacity is the only safe position. “Be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them” is still as true for us as it was for Jeremiah of old.

2. JEREMIAH’S RELATION TO HIS OWN PEOPLE AND TIMES. Jeremiah lived and testified through the reign of four of Judah’s kings. He was called to his ministry early in the reign of young Josiah, who, having inherited a corrupt throne, found himself, while yet but a child, the sovereign of a people who had been stereotyped in idolatry and sin. The long reign of Manassah, which covered half a century, was paralleled only by the days of Ahab and Jezebel; and, although the last days of his life led him, through divine judgment, to sincere repentance, yet they were too short to undo the fearful crimes of a long reign. After the short reign of a son as wicked as himself, Josiah ascended the throne.

He was destined to be one of the best of Judah’s kings, and to take his place beside Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah among the true successors of David. Beginning early to struggle against evil, he labored courageously and consistently till the close of his reign for the reformation of his kingdom. In these efforts he was seconded by the faithful Jeremiah. Indeed, there is no doubt that the reformation was due, under God, chiefly to the labors of Jeremiah himself.

Day by day he stood in the streets of Jerusalem, uttering his tender and solemn messages. His earlier addresses have been preserved to us in the beginning of his prophecy. Reminding the people of God’s ancient covenant and their former faithfulness and blessing, he appealed with tender solemn pathos to their hearts. “Thus saith the Lord,” he would cry, “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thy espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness.” And that he would renew the appeal, and cry, “Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? a land of darkness?” “My people have committed two evils. They have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”

Then as he saw, perhaps, their cold indifference or scornful unbelief, there would follow some solemn message, the vision of coming calamity, the dramatic picture of the invader and the besieging army from the north and the impending fall of Jerusalem. Or sometimes his heart would break out in a wail of despair and anguish, “Oh, that mine head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

Thus he preached and pleaded and warned and waited, year after year. Gradually some improvement appeared, until after a while it seemed as though the clouds were passing, and the nation were returning to their God.

At this time a strange and important incident occurred. It was the finding of a lost copy of the law amid the rubbish of the temple. The house of God had become like a filthy stable, and had been given up to the rites of idolatry for generations. But, as they were cleansing it at the commandment of Josiah, they found amid the wreck and debris an old copy of the law of Moses. Perhaps it was the book of Deuteronomy; perhaps it was a larger scroll containing the entire law. It made the deepest impression upon the prophet and the king.

It was like the finding of Luther’s Bible in the sixteenth century. It was solemnly brought to the king, and then the priests and the people were gathered together in public convocation and the sacred book was read. As thy listened to the voice of God, and learned His precepts and commandments, which for ages they had neglected and disobeyed, there began to fall upon them something like the spirit of a true humiliation and reformation.

Following up the movement, Josiah summoned the whole nation to Jerusalem, and sent out a universal call for a great Passover. They came from north and south and east and west; and some even of the remnant of Israel gathered with them; and there they kept the Passover as it had not been kept for generations.

One would have thought that all this must have filled the heart of Jeremiah with joy and confidence. Doubtless he did appreciate fully even the transient awakening. But it brought to him one of those crises which are most trying to a faithful minister. He saw the shallowness of the movement. He saw the deep insincerity on the part of the leaders. He saw that the heart of the people was wedded to idolatry and sin, and that all this was but superficial and would soon pass away. They were willing to go so far; but a radical revival that would separate them from all idolatry and sin, and from the gross vices and unrighteousness which pervaded the whole national life, for this they were unwilling. He saw with the vision of divine discernment that nothing short of this revival would avert the impending stroke.

So he pleaded more solemnly that ever. He summoned the princes, the priests, the prophets, and the people to righteousness and holiness; to circumcise their hearts and not merely rest in a ceremonial worship or an outward reformation.

But his messages found little response. The transient reformation passed by; the hearts of the people were still unsanctified; the prophet was sure that the day of judgment for Judah was only delayed but not averted.

It was not long before clouds began to gather more dark and hopeless than before. In an evil hour Josiah was led into a foolish and hasty campaign against the king of Egypt. Neglecting the warning which God sent to him through the lips of that heathen king, he rashly ventured into the forbidden conflict, and left his life upon the bloody field of Megiddo.

With Josiah’s death the last hope of Judah died, and Jeremiah uttered over him a lamentation which wasthe very cry of despair. Then began that chain of crimes and ccalamities which culminated in the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of Judah.

Jehoiakim, the immediate successor of Josiah, was a counterpart of Ahab and Jeroboam in the worst days of Israel. He set at naught all the counsels and warnings of the prophet. When, at last, Jeremiah had Barak to read to him from his prophetic scroll the solemn judgment which God had pronounced against him, instead of the least show of repentance, he took his penknife, cut the objectionable words out of the scroll, and threw them into the fire.

The prophet returned to his house, rewrote the threatenings of Jehovah with many terrible additions, and read them back to the king. Again and again was Jehoiakim warned of his impending ruin; but his heart seemed given up to an utter infatuation of willfulness and wickedness, until, at last, after an infamous reign of eleven years, he was slain in a night attack by the BabyIonian army upon Jerusalem, and his lifeless body was exposed in the open fields. Men said in after ages that on the withered forehead could be read in awful characters the name of the evil spirit whom he had followed all his life.

Jeremiah had predicted long before that the wicked king should be, “buried with the burial of an ass,” and his wretched life ended in shame and ruin. His reputation was so desperate that he was not even buried in the sepulchres of the kings.

He was followed by Jehoiachin, who was really the puppet and creature of the Babylonian monarch. After a short and uneventful reign, he in turn was succeeded by Zedekiah, the last of Judah’s kings.

Zedekiah was weak and irresolute rather than obstinately wicked. His whole reign was marked by vacillation and cowardice. He had a certain measure of respect for the messages of Jeremiah, sometimes sending for him, and seeming to listen to his counsels and to desire to carry them out; but he feared the princes and the people, and had not the courage to obey his own convictions.

Again and again did Jeremiah assure him that, if he would but obey the voice of God, even yet he and his kingdom would be spared; but as surely as he persisted in the counsels of the people and the princes, and depended upon the alliances of the neighboring nations, both he and his kingdom should perish.

Many were the vicissitudes and trials of the faithful prophet during these last years. Again and again was he exposed to the charge of disloyalty and treated as an enemy of his country. Again and again did the false prophets testify against him and try to bolster up the hopes of the people by deceiving visions of coming prosperity. Sometimes he was pursued for his life. Often he was exposed to imprisonment and the severest hardships, and left even for days to sink in the mire of his dungeon, and was saved from death only by the interposition of compassionate strangers.

And so the years rolled by, until at last the cup of iniquity was full and the divine judgment could wait no longer. The Babylonians invaded the land. The cordon of destruction tightened around Jerusalem, and, at last, the walls were broken up and the Chaldeans entered. Zedekiah sought for safety in cowardly flight, and succeeded in reaching the plains of Jericho with a tartan retinue; but he was pursued by the Babylonians and captured. He and his sons were taken into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar. His sons were murdered before his eyes; and, as if to stereotype this last and hideous vision forever on his memory, his eyes were then cruelly put out, and he was taken in blindness and bondage to Babylon, and left to end his days as a royal captive.

What was the fate of Jeremiah? He had been true to God, and God had not failed him in this dark and dreadful hour. The Babylonian king having heard of his high and heroic character, gave orders to his officers that Jeremiah should be carefully sought out and guarded from all harm. Not a hair of his head was touched, but he was treated with honor and every consideration. He was given his choice of going to Babylon, with liberty and ample provision for his every need, or of remaining among his own people. Of course, he chose the latter. He had lived for them, and he was ready to die with them; and so he remained among the remnant that were left after the deportation of most of the leading citizens of Jerusalem as captives to Babylon.

It is said that he went down with those who went to Egypt and dwelt among them, still counseling them and teaching them the messages of God; but they refused his warnings and counsels, and ultimately, tradition has reported, they even took the prophet’s life. He became one of the glorious list of martyrs of truth who sealed their testimony with their blood.

Humanly speaking, his life was not a success; but when the books shall be opened and the rewards shall be given, it will be found that Jeremiah’s life outweighed the most successful and brilliant career. His was the high honor of remaining true to God and faithful to his trust, even in the fact of seeming failure and the martyr’s death.

This is true success, and this was the glorious testimony of Jeremiah’s life.

3. HIS MESSAGE TO OUR TIMES. Let us look finally at his message to us in later ages. His prophetic writings are full of messages for future times. The very failure of the kingdom of Judah was but a background for the vision of the true kingdom which the future was to bring.

He saw, as no other had ever seen, how powerless was the highest teaching or the severest suffering to lead to virtue and faithfulness. Alas! the secret of failure was found in the wretched material of poor, fallen human nature and the need of a strength higher than human purpose, or even the light of truth and example. He looked forward with deep longing to the bright day of the New Testament, the coming Savior, and the Holy Ghost.

As a result, Jeremiah has given to us out of the darkness and failure of his own time, the inspired vision of the new covenant, the Gospel, and the work of the Spirit. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews has repeatedly quoted from this ancient prophet the most comprehensive statement of the new covenant which has ever been given to the Church of God.

It is found in the thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah, from the thirty-first verse to the thirty-fourth. “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord; But this shall be the covenant that I shall make with the house of Israel; After these days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.”

The distinguishing feature of this new covenant which Jeremiah announced lies in the fact that God promises to write His law upon our hearts, and to “put it in our inward parts.” The old covenant gave light and law, but it did not give the power and disposition to obey it. But the new covenant writes it in our inmost being; makes it part of our very nature; incorporates it into our will, our choice, our desires, our very intuitions, so that it becomes second nature to us, our spontaneous desire, and our deepest life.

This is the work of the Holy Ghost. This is the meaning of sanctification. This is the great purpose of Christ’s redemption and His indwelling in the heart of the believer through the Spirit.

It is God who undertakes to keep this covenant. It is not dependent upon what we do; but He becomes our God first and makes us His people. He undertakes to teach us and to reveal to us by the Holy Spirit the meaning of His will, the nature of His covenant, and the purposes of His grace and love.

We are not dependent upon outward instruction merely; but each of us has access to Him, and may enjoy the personal teaching of the Holy Ghost.

It will be noticed that the forgiveness of sins is not the primary promise of this chapter. It is secondary, and follows as a matter of course; but the primary feature of the great promise is the power of divine grace to keep from sin, and to lead us into righteousness and holiness.

This is the glorious Gospel which Jesus has come to bring in its fullness, and of which the Holy Ghost is at once the Revealer and the Enabler. It brings not merely the message of repentance and forgiveness with the dreary prospect of continued sin. It comes not only to forgive the past, but to assure us of a power that will keep us for the future, and put into us a nature that is in its tendency holy and divine, and that leads us to choose the will of God and the life of holy obedience.

Beloved, have we learned this blessed message of the Holy Ghost through Jeremiah? Have we come into this new covenant? Have we proved the fullness of salvation through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, and the law written upon our inmost hearts?

Another message which Jeremiah has left for later times is the lesson of faith which he has given in the thirty-second chapter of his prophecy. It was a very striking object lesson. In the days when the future was as dark as calamity could make it, when the whole land was in the possession of the Chaldeans, and the city was about to fall; at a time when real estate in Judah was practically worthless, Jeremiah was commanded to invest his means in his patrimonial estate in the village of Anathoth. It would seem like throwing money away; but instead of hesitating, he immediately obeyed the divine command, and, publicly, before all the people, completed the purchase, subscribed the papers, had the transaction duly attested and sealed, and put his littlefortune into the piece of property which he knew for two generations would be under the blight of the long captivity of Judah.

What did it all mean? It was a practical expression of his faith in the future of his country, and of the fact that a day was coming when that inheritance would be worth all its cost, when that estate would come back to his family again, and when his own glorious promise of Israel’s restoration would be fulfilled.

It was stepping out in the dark hour and committing himself to the promise of God. It was counting upon the things that are not as though they were. It was the faith that anticipates the future, and in the midnight hour lifts up its song of praise, and puts its foot upon the seeming void “and finds the rock beneath.”

This is the spirit of true faith in every age. We too, like Jeremiah, must count upon God’s Word when there is nothing else to count upon, and must exercise that faith that is “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” We must step out, in the dark and empty void, and know that God is underneath us, and that the vision of faith and the promise of the future are as certain and real as His eternal throne.

There is yet another message for future times which Jeremiah has left us, and on which for a moment we linger. It is found in the eighteenth chapter of his prophecy. It is the figure of the potter and his vessel. The prophet, having gone down to the potter’s house, saw him working a vessel upon a wheel; but, through some cause, the vessel was marred in the hand of the Potter. Perhaps the clay did not yield to his touch, and would not lie plastic in his hands. He had to throw it aside, and it seemed as if his work had failed, and that even the material was rejected. Oh, how solemnly it speaks to us of our past failures! Perhaps God took us in hand, and began to work out in our life some gracious purpose; but we shrank from the ordeal; we refused to submit to His will. We asked an easier way, we held back from the cross; and God seeming unable to accomplish His high and holy purpose, had to put us aside and let His gracious plan seem, for the time, to fail. Oh, how sad and solemn the wrecks that lie behind us through our willfulness, our unbelief, and our unwillingness to trust our Father’s wisdom and love in the testing hour!

But there is a beautiful sequel to Jeremiah’s parable. The clay was not thrown away; but the potter took it up again and fashioned it again, another vessel, “as it pleased the potter to make it.” There was a time when I think I interpreted this vision wrongly, and thought it meant that God took up our broken lives and made the best of them that He could; but that it was not all that He had at first intended. I believe that the grace of God loves to triumph even over our self-will, and I cannot but think that even in the very terms of Jeremiah’s object lesson, there are lines of hope and divine encouragement, and that we may dare to believe that the vessel which the potter made the second time was even a better vessel than he had tried to make before, because, we are told, “He made it again another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make it.” This time it was not our pleasure but His that was accomplished. Perhaps he gave us grace to yield our stubborn will and to submit with confidence to his hand. Perhaps, in His wondrous and over-ruling mercy, He brought us to full surrender and subdued our willfulness. At least, His mighty love triumphed over all hindrances, His will was accomplished, and His high purpose was fulfilled. Yes, the grace of God is able, not only for Satan and for sin, but for self too, and strong enough to overcome the opposition of our weak and willful hearts.

Thank God for One whose sovereign grace saved us when we were dead in sin, and whose all-sufficient power is able to save us to the uttermost, to bring us to the place, where, some day, we shall say, “Not unto us, O God, not unto us, but unto Thy name be all the glory.”

“Grace all the work shall crown,
To everlasting days,
It lays in heaven that topmost stone
And well deserves the praise.”