Mr. “Terror on Every Side”

Jeremiah 16-20

Jeremiah continues the carry out his prophetic calling to “pluck up and the break down, to destroy and to overthrow.” He waits hopefully for the part that says, “to build and to plant.” That part, however, comes only after a thorough and unmistakable fulfillment of judgment has been accomplished. We are made witnesses of the stress felt within the human soul when such an unrelenting stream of severe warning constitutes the message that must be given.

I. God gives special instructions to Jeremiah (chapter 16:1–9).

A. Don’t marry and have children 16:1–4 for they will die with the others; God would be no respecter of persons in this judgment.

His determination to punish is so set that even the family of Jeremiah, should he have one, would not be spared. 

B. Don’t mourn 16:5–7

This judgment is not to be seen as an event that causes sadness, for the people are so wicked and have abused privilege to such a high degree increasing in intensity with each generation, that their destruction merits no sadness, no sense of loss; good riddance. 

C. Don’t go to a house of feasting 8, 9— Places that ignore the severity of Jeremiah’s pronouncements and seek to shrug it all off with a frolic.

God will put an end to any event that normally would be an occasion for mirth and joy. Compare with Ecclesiastes 7:2–4.


II. Jeremiah’s Preaching

A. When the people ask, “Why such a great disaster?”

First, they show how oblivious to both sin and holiness they are. “What is our iniquity?”  The answer is that they are being judged for idolatry, a plain issue of the first table of the commandments. 16:10-13; 16-18.  Chapter 17:19–27 gives detailed instruction concerning the commandment of the Sabbath as a national observance. Their consistent practice of ignoring it again indicates their blindness to God’s clearly revealed law, and how absurd is their incredulity concerning punishment. 

B. The adamantine tenacity of sin 16: 11–13; 17:1, 2, [“the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with the point of a diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart];

Verse 9 opens clearly a distressing truth, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Verse 10 reveals that only God is capable of judging the heart, [note in verse 10 how connected the heart is to the actions. God searches the heart and tests the mind so that he might render to every man “according to the fruit of his deeds.” Deeds, the acting of the will, do not stand alone as disconnected events but proceed from the heart. Our actions are determined by our moral propensities, that is, a deceitful and desperately sick heart, and thus they are the morally culpable actions of a responsible moral agent. When called upon with clarity and earnestness to turn from their evil ways,  They confess in 18:12 “Each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.” 

C. Judgment for cruelty 19:4, 5—

This is another detailed explanation of the reason for their punishment. Further, it shows the tragic blindness and moral hardness indicated by their questions in 16:10. “Why has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us?”

    1. They have sacrificed their children to Baal—This is a clear indication of the progressive nature of corruption and hardness; cruelty follows close upon the abandonment to personal pleasure, and this is pursued as a religious duty.
    2. They will, therefore, eat their own children and their slain neighbors for food 19:8, 9; Their punishment will show and image the horror of their depraved lives.

D. Jeremiah inserts a word of hope.  

    1. For Judah—16:14, 15; Even though driven apparently irreparably into exile, they will be restored to the land.
    2. For the nations – (19–21; cf. 12:14–17) – The nations, even those that taught Israel to sin, also will be brought to know the Lord. This will be accomplished by a demonstration of irresistible divine power (16:21). “Therefore, behold, I will make them know . . . and they shall know .”

E. Keep the Sabbath 17:19–27—See above, “A.” 

There are not any of the ten commandments that Judah has not broken by obvious practice as a settled way of life. They show the utter deceitfulness of their hearts and disregard for their blatant evil conduct by asking (16:10), “What is the sin we have committed against the Lord our God?”


III.  Sermons from Objects Lessons

A. Jeremiah is told to observe the technique of the Potter with the Clay (18:1–11).

The Lord commanded Jeremiah to go observe how the potter pursued his craft, and then he would give Jeremiah words to say.”

    1. The potter reshapes the clay as he sees fit, 1–4. God views all the nations and individuals in general and each nation and individual in particular as broken. All are in his hands to do with as he sees fit and none has the right to say, ”Why do you do this?” Our lives already are forfeit and God may demonstrate our sin and his justice through showing that we rebel against clear commands and despise promises given upon condition of obedience. Paul used this analogy in Romans 9:21 as part of an argument for God’s absolute prerogative in election. “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”
    2. Verses 5–11: God is free to issue covenants based on conditions that he determines; when these conditions are unmet God may proceed with absolute arbitrariness in his interaction with that nation, or person. The house of Israel, because of its rebellion against God’s intentions to bless on the basis of obedience, is like clay in a potter’s hand (18:6). Thus, though God intended to bless, and surely will do it, this generation will feel only the vengeance of divine wrath for their disobedience – “I am fashioning calamity against you” (18:9–11).
    3. God might indicate that he has calamitous designs against a nation, and if the nation repents, he will relent. He has designed the threat as means under the operations of the Holy Spirit, to achieve the repentance.  Jonah was commissioned to bring an announcement of evil design from God, and the threat worked repentance, and thus divine blessing to a generation of Ninevites. Jonah sensed that such would be the result of his preaching and was thus reluctant to be the means of the sparing of Nineveh (Jonah 3:10; 4:1, 2).
    4. An announcement of blessing and great privilege marred by hard-hearted disobedience – Judah, Jeremiah 18: 11–17
      • The threat with a call to avoid calamity by repentance resulted in more insistent commitment to sin (11, 12).
      • God shows how senseless and unnatural this folly of Judah is, 13–16. The snow stays in its native environment and the natural springs of a mountain cannot function away from the source of their effusion. But Judah has gone after gods that are not gods, that not only have no power and have bestowed no blessings and have provided no rescue, but that have utterly no existence. The mind easily consents to logic or a demonstrable fact in the natural realm but becomes strangely contorted by the corrupted passions of the heart when set forth in the spiritual realm. The God who has saved them from bondage, provided for their fathers, and who presently calls to them to repent by the mouth of the true prophet Jeremiah, is ignored. They are determined to ignore Jeremiah (18:18) but also to devise plots against him [see III below]

B. The broken flask—(19:1–13) An unrepentant nation sees a message of the irremediable state of their rebellion

    1. God commanded Jeremiah to buy a potter’s earthenware flask. It is important to note that the theme of the potter continues in this next dramatic prophecy.
    2. He bought a potter’s flask, gathered some of the elders from the people and from the priests and preached to them at Ben-Hinnom [1–3]. This was a combination of word and symbol to a select group. Surely the vivid action of the symbol would etch the message in the minds of these elders, and they would spread this message to the people throughout Jerusalem and call for sincere and immediate repentance! To the contrary, it would serve only to solidify their opinion that Jeremiah was a radical not to be trusted or believed. They bowed their backs and became impervious to the threats contained in the earnest and true message of Jeremiah.
    3. He preached to them about their conscienceless cruelty. This message addressed both the kings and the people for a sustained line of pagan religious conduct. Evidently, only a small number had responded in conscientious repentance to the reforms of Josiah.
      • They had used the valley for rituals designed to appease other gods (4a). Its name would now be “the valley of slaughter,” (6) for that is what they had done and that is what God would commission Babylon to do to them.
      • This worship had involved the sacrifice of their own children (2 Kings 21:5,6; 23:5, 6), much like Americans sacrifice the unborn to the gods of their own pleasure and convenience. Josiah had destroyed these places (2 Kings 23:10) during his reform and had destroyed the priests responsible for conducting these ceremonies (2 Kings 23:5, 8, 20). According to Huldah the prophetess, (2 Kings 22:14–20), the reforms of Josiah formed a short parenthesis in the fine-grinding movement of divine judgment that was coming on Judah.
      • Part of the judgments would be a replication of the terror and slaughter that had been an act of religious worship for the people. They would now experience a slaughter in which their blood would run, and a siege that would press them to the edge of starvation and cause them to eat their sons and daughters and neighbors (Jeremiah 19:6–10).  
      • Jeremiah broke the flask and said Judah would be broken so it could not be mended – This image is a vivid follow-up on the potter/clay image in chapter 18. This image says that the flask can no longer be collapsed and reworked but because it is now hard it can only be broken. The priests were among those that saw this sermonic drama of certain judgment for their perversions.

4. This generation will be taken from the land of promise and thus symbolically out of the blessings of the covenant. A new generation after seventy years will return in order to keep alive the covenantal promise through a remnant.

C. Jeremiah now issued a short but pungent word. He  preached in the Temple court and applied of the image.  (19:14, 15).

He issued another announcement of disaster because of their unrepented wickedness and recalcitrance of the people in general. They no longer could be molded by the revelation of prophetic truth but “stiffened their necks” and ignored God’s words.


IV. Jeremiah’s Persecution

A. The people would make plots and spread slander (18:18). 

B. At the hands of Pashur (20:1, 2), they contrived to “beat him and put him in stocks.” 

C. Jeremiah mentions other tactics for defamation, ridicule, and deterrence  (18:20, 23 “plotting to kill him;” 20:10m “Denounce him”).


V. Jeremiah’s Prayers—note the counterpoint of God’s wrath and Jeremiah’s anger.

A. For protection from adversaries—On the basis of Jeremiah 1:17–19; 15:20, 21 

    1. In 17:14–18, Jeremiah affirmed his dependence on God as the giver of all blessings (14; cf. 5–8, 12–13).
    2. He is being ridiculed because his prophecies apparently are not coming true.
    3. In response to this reviling, Jeremiah asked God to vindicate him and the truthfulness of his message in the process of punishing them (17, 18). 

B. In 18:19–23, Jeremiah again feels the weight of his being a recipient of the malice of the people toward God and the message delivered.

Does he feel the offense against him is greater than the offense against God? He preached the truth to them so they could avert disaster. They responded with malice. Jeremiah calls for punishment for these people both here and in eternity (21–23).

C. In the vivid demonstration of the worthiness of wrath manifested in the vicious and recalcitrant conduct of the people, Jeremiah finds reason to give praise to God (16:19-20).


VI. We observe also Jeremiah’s praise and complaint in 20:7–18. This involves a combination of the elements of prayer above.

A. The word he preaches seems like such an exaggerated concoction that he is ridiculed, and seemingly embarrassed, for its extravagance (7, 8). 

B. If he tries not to speak, he is unable to restrain himself (9).

So onerous was this treatment from his countrymen, that Jeremiah determined that he would discontinue proclamation of his message. It was a vain effort. When he tried not to speak, he was unable to restrain himself. Spiritual truth presses on the mind and affections in such power, that the physical impact is observable. Jeremiah could not keep it in without physical damage. Compare with the physical impact that conviction of sin had on David in Psalm 32.

C. They ridicule his message and plot against him (10).

For the sake of revealed truth, Jeremiah had sacrificed a relationship with “close friends” [?!] who now led in the plots to provoke his downfall; they sought to deceive him somehow, perhaps playing on their past friendship and put him into a position where they could easily destroy him in an act of vengeance for his relentless accusatory and unflattering prophecies. 

D. God will vindicate him and punish evildoers; Jeremiah cannot escape the necessity of praise to God for the obvious manifestations of surprising deliverance (20: 11–13).

His deliverance from their plots is a precursor of the nation’s deliverance from its oppressors. 

E. Jeremiah, in the most pathetic images, wishes he had never been born (20:14–18).

He curses the day that he was born and the man that brought news to his father of the birth of a male child. That man, the bearer of good news at the moment of his birth, becomes the focus of Jeremiah’s distress. Rather than announce the news of birth, the man should have killed Jeremiah in his mother’s womb. Surely Jeremiah has in mind his own plight (18:20b) and shifts the treatment that he is receiving to the unnamed announcer of his birth. Is it just for such responsibility to rest on those that announce events, either as good or bad, so that they are cursed for eventualities over which they have no control? That is what has happened to him and if it is right for the mere announcer of truth to be endangered for his faithful announcement, then Jeremiah feels justified in cursing the man that announced his birth. These dynamics, both in Jeremiah and in his perception of the cursedness of his birth-announcer, were duplicated in the life of Christ and his designated messengers, the apostles (See Colossian 4:2–4; 1 Thessalonians 2:2).


VII. Questions for Application

  1. Do attitudes of some professing Christians today correspond to the attitudes of Judah? See Hebrews 4:11–13 and 6:7, 8.
  2. What circumstances can arise that make us feel God has deceived us? John Newton wrote, “A pardoned sinner ought never to complain.”
  3. Are we more offended and deeply moved by personal mistreatment than by the lack of love for, irreverence toward, and disobedience to God?
  4. In what ways can we prepare ourselves to bear the reproach that often comes from announcing the message of truth to which God has committed us? See 2 Corinthians 4:16–18.
  5. Do some circumstances give legitimate cause to respond before God concerning our enemies the way Jeremiah did? Look at 2 Corinthians 11:12–15. Look at Galatians 1:8, 9; 5:10–12. Are these parallel to the challenges Jeremiah faced?
  6. Why is the New Covenant not susceptible to the changes of the various manifestations of the old? It is not dependent on the purity and perseverance of the human will in its fallen state but on divine covenant mercies that are effectual in their spiritual purpose and immutable in their certainty of application (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Lamentation 5:21, 22; Ezekiel 36:16–28).


When put to the test of heart-felt devotion
And measured in terms of purity or dross, 
Omniscience sees filth as deep as an ocean, 
Perversity only erased by a cross.

With broken and brittle material in hand,
And love and obedience absent from soul,
Omnipotent power must now take its stand 
And by sovereign love make the fragmented whole.

The call of the gospel meets rank unbelief;
Its terms are offensive to proud human minds.
They scoff at its mercies and laugh at its grief,
For unreasoned, unfeeling thoughts are combined.

The faithful proclaimer of eternal love
Must hope for the Spirit in covenant power.
The Father’s election brings grace from above,
The Son’s death for ransom effects the right hour.

They come, they believe, they love through all strife,
New hearts, new affections, new minds holding sway. 
They grasp the glorious eternal new life
In Jesus, the truth, whose own death is the way.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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