When Paul wrote that all Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), he was writing in context about the Old Testament Scriptures, which he also said were able to make one wise “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). While we counselors (rightly) focus much attention on the New Testament Scriptures, we would do well to also take our counselees to the OT, helping them to see how these sacred writings lay the foundation for and develop the Messianic hope of God’s people. The OT Prophets in particular provide powerful demonstrations of the righteousness of God’s judgment, the sinfulness of sinners, our need for the Savior, and — most importantly — God’s great salvation.
In light of our charge to accurately represent what God has said (2 Tim 2:15), the counseling applications in this series will be presented in a number of brief synopses of the OT Prophets. Each post will be laid out according to an identified literary structure for the book, fitting its component parts into its larger purpose, while noting counseling applications along the way. This will provide a template for taking a counselee through the Scripture, as the counselor is encouraged to teach the rough outline and background of the book before assigning questions to help the counselee make application from his or her reading.
Jeremiah is named for its human author, who served as a priest and a prophet, and was the son of a priest named Hilkiah. His ministry was mostly to his own people in Judah, over the course of approximately 50 years — starting in King Josiah’s 13th year (627 B.C.), and lasting past the time of Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon (586 B.C.). Known as the “weeping prophet,” it was his calling to warn Judah of the coming judgment through exile to Babylon; to witness the continued unfaithfulness that would finally bring that judgment; and to endure some of the hardships of that judgment himself. Jeremiah teaches that it was because of Judah’s unrepentant spiritual adultery and rebellion against God’s law given through Moses that Jerusalem was destroyed; however, Yahweh’s rule is still certain through the promises of the New Covenant.
The book opens with introductory background details (1:1–3) immediately followed by Jeremiah’s call and his ambivalent response — apparently a young man, he did not believe the people would listen to him. In an exchange reminiscent of that between Moses and Yahweh at Moses’s calling (Ex 4:10–12), God tells Jeremiah not to worry about his mouth — Yahweh will put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth (1:4–10). It will be Jeremiah’s job to trust him and proclaim what Yahweh says — even though much of it will be bad news and will result in Jeremiah’s persecution, although not in his ultimate ruin (1:19).
Chapter two brings a scathing rebuke of Israel’s spiritual adultery. After recounting his exceeding goodness to his people (2:4–7), Yahweh points out that Israel has done something that even the other nations do not do: Although the other nations do not have the glory of serving the one true God, they still do not trade in their gods for another (2:11). He calls all creation (2:12) to witness the two-sided reality of Israel’s evil: Negatively they have forsaken Yahweh, the only source of good and contentment; positively, they have sought in their idolatry after that which is worthless — and the objects of their adulterous affections have proven to be like broken cisterns that cannot hold any water: They have provided no benefit to Israel (2:13).
This indictment of Israel’s spiritual adultery will find ready application in our lives and in those of our counselees. Whether the presentation problem is anxiety, sexual sin, addiction, or any number of other issues, heart idolatry is always a component of the root problem: we are looking for hope to something or someone other than God. We are looking to trade in the Fountain of Living Water for something else that promises immediate gratification. Part of counseling is identifying these idols and putting off their false worship, replacing it with the true worship of the Living God. While there is a tendency to read OT historical books and even the prophets simply as history, it can be instructive to see how our struggles are common to God’s people throughout the ages. And in being led to identify their struggles with our own, we will also be led to receive the correction they received, and to place our hope where the faithful remnant has always hoped — in our God who is faithful through the ages.
Much of the next 27 chapters of Jeremiah are devoted to recounting, demonstrating, and condemning Judah’s treachery. Although the Northern Kingdom is notorious for its wickedness, it is stated that Judah’s evil has surpassed even Israel’s (3:11). There are repeated indications that Jerusalem and Judah have feigned an external repentance, while their hearts have remained hardened against Yahweh and his Word (3:10; 5:2), a theme that becomes even more explicit:
“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 delivered!’— only to go on doing all these abominations?” (7:9–10).
Judah is thinking that she can practice evil without consequence, because she still has the external forms of temple worship.
Here again we find useful counseling application. How many of us have the practice (if not the theological conviction) of trying to outweigh or make up for our sinful behaviors by doing good religious things like going to church or having a quiet time? Jeremiah describes a clear case of this hypocrisy in what Judah is doing, and contrasting it unfavorably with Israel’s blatant immorality, offers one of Scripture’s most startling condemnations of external righteousness that does not find its root in a heart that fears the Lord. Any thought that our external “good” could outweigh our sin is excluded: This is an abomination to God.
And so Yahweh continues to present his case, intermixed with promises and descriptions of the coming judgment. So profound is the woe that Jeremiah is overwhelmed with grief as he continues to be the mouthpiece for Yahweh’s pronouncements of judgment (8:18–9:1). Chapter 10 again presents the folly of idolatry in contrast with the worship of the living God. And then in chapter 11, Yahweh explicitly ties the coming judgment to his people’s rebellion against the Mosaic Covenant:
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you” (11:3–4).
The generation that Yahweh brought out of Egypt did not obey (11:8), and this generation has returned to the iniquities of their fathers (11:10). Because of this covenant-breaking, Yahweh is bringing disaster on them that they cannot escape (11:11). The judgment is by now so certain that Yahweh tells Jeremiah not to pray for his people (11:14). Indeed, even if Moses and Samuel had interceded at this point, Yahweh would not have relented (15:1).
Even in these devastating chapters, there is a ray of hope: Although judgment through exile is certain (16:13), Yahweh will not leave his people in exile — he will bring them back from the north country and from all of the countries where he will drive them, just as he brought them up from Egypt (16:14–15). One must imagine this was a needed encouragement to Jeremiah as his suffering intensifies. After prophesying disastrous judgment due to unrepentance (19:15), he is persecuted by Pashhur the priest, who puts him in the stocks (20:1–2). God’s Word through Jeremiah becomes increasingly specific: It is the king of Babylon who will destroy Jerusalem with fire (21:10), and the exile of God’s people in Babylon will last 70 years (25:11–12).
For a counselee who is suffering — whether due to sin or sickness — the long-range perspective in all of this is a timely encouragement. Yahweh’s ultimate judgment against sin is still coming (cf. Heb 12:26-29), and any suffering we endure now is temporary and even brief by comparison. Just as God was faithful to Jeremiah and used his sufferings for a good purpose, so he will be and do for all of his people (cf. 1 Cor 10:13; Rom 8:28-30). What was true for Jeremiah is true for Paul later when he writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).
Part two of this post will be posted soon.
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