November 12, 2000
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
The march of armies across the middle east in the mid centuries of the first millennium BC are echoed by the tramping march of Jeremiahs lines in chapter 50,
Take up your positions around Babylon
Shoot at her! Spare no arrows.
Shout against her on every side!
She surrenders, her towers fall....
The noise of battle is in the land,
The noise of great destruction!
It has always been like that with war, and in many ways Babylon was no better nor worse than any other nation that has warred against nations whom it desired to dominate. The one crucial difference is that Babylon picked on Gods people and ravished them.
At one point in the book of Revelation, an angel who has great authority comes down from heaven and speaks with a voice as great as his authority. And this is what he says (in chapter 18),
Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the great! ... For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries... Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins... For her sins are piled up to heaven... Woe! Woe, O great city... O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come.
For fewer than 100 years Babylon was a great nation, until it was overcome by Cyrus the Persian in October, 539 BC. Babylon became a symbol of political and military power, but it was a power that would not last, for Babylon opposed God and His ways. When John hears Gods revelation, he hears about the destruction of that nation that was Gods enemy. John says what Jeremiah had said before him, and what we say of nations in our day. Once they may have been great and cruel, but, lo, their doom is sure.
Why do people live so badly? In our culture in America we have many celebrities, but few saints. In our society people live trivial lives and then commit some great evil to try to make themselves significant. But though people live badly, they have a thirst for something more. They get tired, even ashamed of the wrong they do. Admit it to yourself that you do. Are you content with your life? When you go to the Bible to find encouragement from how people who knew God lived, you find great people, like Jeremiah and Paul and Mary; but you also find that many of the great people in the Bible dont live perfect lives: Jacob cheated, Abraham lied, Moses murdered, David committed adultery, Peter blasphemed. These were the great people of God, and yet God didnt give up on them and they repented. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon once repented. The account is in Daniel chapter 4 when, after Nebuchadnezzar had been turned into an animal and eats grass in punishment for his pride, he repents. Even the king of Babylon repents.
These last chapters of Jeremiah are Jeremiahs prophecy about the fall of Babylon the great, and the conclusion of the book is one chapter on the history of the fall of Judah.
We find three lessons here:
1. God controls human history. He often does this by using human wars.
2. God punishes sin, so that finally justice is done.
3. The task of Gods people who live in nations like Babylon is to separate themselves from the world and to seek the Lord and not get caught up in the desire for wealth and power.
Let us look at what we can learn from Jeremiah that will help us live in our world.
1. God controls history, often using human wars to do this. War is a fact of human life. There is a surge, back and forth, of armed conflict that disrupts lives, destroys order, causes suffering and brings great sacrifice. We say, God controls things. We say that confidently when our lives are going along all right, but then war comes, and we cant always see how God is in control.
We ask one of the big questions of ethics. In fact it has its own technical name, theodicy, if God is in control why is there evil like war and persecution? We ask that question - indeed we ask most questions - because knowledge is power. Our human problem is that when we gain knowledge we misuse the power it confers. We get knowledge about atomic structure, about the human genome, about the sociological forces that affect national life, and we misuse that knowledge. Human history is a gigantic object lesson in power and its misuses. Babylon is only one example, but it is the example the Bible often brings up.
Now the Bible is not really concerned primarily with the wars of nations. The Bible is concerned primarily with the lives of people who trust God. God wants people to turn to him and trust him and he defends those people, and while he is patient with their shortcomings because of the unusual thing of their faith, he does punish even his own people; and since he controls history, he often uses the normal forces in history to do that.
So in Jeremiah 51:20, God says of Babylon, You are my war club, my weapon for battle, with you I shatter nations, with you I destroy kingdoms, including, Jeremiah adds, Jerusalem and Judah who have sinned against me. God uses the wars of nations. I know that is hard to understand. Any of you who have fought in a war, or those of you who pray for our nation, or for your own land where you come from another country, you know that war is a horrible thing.
Jeremiah shows us God controlling the course of nations by the repeated words, the Sovereign Lord Almighty, and the Lord Almighty. (50:18, 25, 31, 33, 34) And then lets look at 50:33,34. Speaking of Israel, the Lord Almighty says, All their captors hold them fast. And the word translated hold fast is a word that could be translated to be strong. All their captors are strong. And then comes these words in verse 34, Yet, their (meaning Israels) Redeemer is strong, the Lord Almighty is his name. In fact, He is stronger than the captors. This is the God who is in control over history. This is the first lesson.
2. The second lesson is God punishes sin. First there is Israels sin. If we go to the history in the last chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 52, we read about king Zedekiah, verse 2, who did evil in the eyes of the Lord. And there were many kings like him. Chapter 50, verse 6, tells us that it is the shepherds who led the people astray. Bad kings and false prophets made bad decisions and misled the people; but the people do not use common sense. They dont thank God for what he has done for them. Their evil has left an indelible stain and their hearts are corrupt. (2:22 and 17:9) And so God punishes Israel and he used Babylon to do it. Thats what chapter 52 shows us. But then Babylon, the nation God uses for his purpose, becomes arrogant and defies the Lord, according to chapter 50:14 and 29. She has sinned against the Lord, and she has defied the Lord.
There is an ancient question, why do nations go into decline? Edward Gibbon spent 20 years writing about the decline and fall of the Roman empire. He lived in the 18th century. He was hostile to Christianity and blamed part of Romes decline on Christianity, but he traced the political, economic and military forces which brought about the decline of Rome. Jeremiahs analysis of Babylon results in his pointing out one factor for Babylons decline. That single factor is moral evil in the nation. 50:2, Bel, Marduk and Babylons other images and idols will be put to shame. Babylon declines because the people worshiped idols. 50:11, she takes delight in pillaging other nations. 50:29, she has been arrogant and defied the Lord. 50:24, she has opposed God. It is that moral evil which undermined all else that might have made Babylon great. Her greatness was a twisted greatness.
C. S. Lewis says in one of his books that right and wrong are a clue to meaning in the universe. And then Lewis makes this telling comment,
Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has nothing... to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness. It is after you have realised that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power - it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk. When you know that you are sick, you will listen to a doctor. When you have realised that your position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what the Christians are talking about.
And then Lewis adds, If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth - only soft soap and wishful thinking ... and in the end, despair.
And that is exactly what we find with Israel and with Babylon and think about how that is true in our society which is the second lesson of these chapters..
3. So, let us examine thirdly, what should Gods people who live in Babylon do? When Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BC, nearly 50 years after Israel went into captivity there, he offered to the Jews the freedom to return to Palestine; but some Jews had established good businesses in Babylon and others enjoyed the luxury of a city like Babylon, and they chose to stay there. Isnt this like us? When we are comfortable and getting a good income, we tend to overlook moral things. So we dont always come to worship because we have to work. So we dont think about the poor when we vote. So we dont talk about our faith or about moral wrongs that people around us are involved with because we dont want to offend people we work with. Jeremiah says in 50:8, Flee out of Babylon.
The Brethren in Christ believe in separation from the world. What does that mean for you? Let me tell you one thing it means for me. For me it means watching little TV and rarely going to the movies. You know the struggle over movie and television ratings and the inability of the industry of police itself. For 30 years I have used AT&T as my long distance carrier, until last year they bought a sexually explicit television station and began promoting its programs. So I changed long distance carriers and I wrote to AT&T to explain why I was dropping my AT&T long distance service. Their reply letter said, There are people who want this, so we give it to them. And I wrote back and said, Dont moral issues affect what you do? And if they dont, thats why Im not going to use AT&T. For me, this is fleeing out of Babylon. And you know how AT&Ts stock has fallen.
The other thing Gods people can do is seek the Lord with tears because we have sinned against him. 50:4. It takes a brave man or woman to repent, but as C. S. Lewis said, you dont begin to understand Christianity until you have repented for your sin.
Ive talked to a dozen or more people who have come to the Grantham Church in the last year all of whom said, We got tired of being in a church that didnt preach the Gospel. We werent growing as people. Churches arent around to help people feel good about themselves. Oh, we can provide support for people going through hard times, but Israel got into trouble because they were not living justly, they were not acting with righteousness and when a prophet called them to repent, when Jeremiah called on them to repent, they ignored him. The start of the Christian life is when you repent for the sin of your life and turn in faith to Jesus Christ who holds out his arms to welcome you. He says, Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. And he will.
Ah, what a lot of problems that seemingly simple thing of coming to God would have done for Babylon and for Israel. But finally it wasnt simple because it would have meant admitting they were wrong and they were unwilling to do that. Do you have the same problem?