Jeremiah 4: Grace in Judgment

My first three posts on Jeremiah’s “Adventist” ethic reviewed the role of prophets as moral irritations (post 1) against the status quo. Prophets are holy and morally sober in the presence of widespread moral confusion and intoxication. Such a stand takes a life of grit and deep courage (post 2) and  a steady moral faithfulness to serve others with endurance (post 3).

“Adventist” ethics is like Jeremiah’s ethics. We modern day prophetic people have to keep clear about moral truth and respond to the call for “a long obedience in the right [same] direction” (to paraphrase Eugene Petersen’s definition of a disciple).

Such a prophetic ethic is vital for our well-being individually and corporately. We need to be and seek advice from truth seekers, finders and tellers. A prophetic ethic is like a moral conscience to a whole community.

However, people need more than prophets and consciences to make a life. A potential pitfall of a prophetic impulse is it can be so focused on using its “bony finger” to point out error that it misses the corresponding work of priests who foster reconciliation and kings who finesse order (see Allender’s last chapter of his great book on leadership, Leading with a Limp). Prophets are needed by communities but a prophetic impulse can quickly become critical, harsh, and self-righteously self-centered.

Two stories–Jonah and the “elder brother” of Luke 15:11-32–help me when I get self-righteous. Both remind me that right can lead to legalism and harshness and condemnation. I have published on the similarities of these two stories elsewhere.  Both Jonah and the Elder Bro have a moral rightness in how they view the world.  We don’t read a lot about their “bad behaviors,” but we get a strong draft of the nasty attitudes by the absence from celebration. Their great sin is evident in a deep antagonism to the character of a merciful God and a lack of deep love to their fellow humans. Jonah didn’t extend the grace and mercy he had experienced to the people of Nineveh. The elder brother couldn’t come close to the father and his brother in reconciliation. We never know if Jonah or the Elder Brother made it to the party!!

These stories are a stark reminder that high moral sobriety may not be sufficient for a full life. Being morally sober in an intoxicated world that is drugged, indulged, entertained, and adulterated out of its mind is a calling. But a prophetic calling without mercy can get really really nasty.  We wantto be sober so we can “drive the car home” for others so they can have the good life we have. But we have to be more than morally right to be able to help. We have to love the sinner. That takes God’s grace.

As I noted in another blog, living a good moral life is right but the inclusion of grace in judgment keeps right within a context of righteousness. “Right” is about moral purity and holiness and doing what is good for oneself and others out of loving obedience to God’s moral ideals, natural laws, and well-reasoned norms. It is about keeping morally fit. Righteousness is more radical in that it gets to the heart of morality, which is love to others, even those who, like Jonah’s Ninevah, are deeply socialized to making terrible moral mistakes. 

The people of Nineveh and the prodigal brother were making bad ethical and spiritual decisions. We shouldn’t sugar coat the facts. Those lifestyles kill people and whole nations. But the fact they didn’t know their right hand from their left (Jonah 4:11) suggests God saw their condition as a training opportunity. So he sent a trainer: Jonah to Ninevah, and hardship to the prodigal. I think Adventists can be great teachers–salt in the world–if they take such a place of healing.

Which brings us back to Jeremiah and judgment. If you read Lamentations as you read Jeremiah you see how Jeremiah was less like Jonah and more like Jesus, who had “tears… in His voice as He uttered His scathing rebukes” (Ellen White, DA p. 353). Sadly, Jeremiah did it with tears, but instead of repentance, he only got resistance. (Hmmm, I just realized I need to think about this more. If Jonah was more effective with a bad attitude and harshness than the Jeremiah-Jesus approach of crying with judgment, should I be defending the more harsh approach?).

So, I see grace in Jeremiah’s judgment in…..

1. Jeremiah was himself a sign of grace. Jeremiah was called to give warning. He was the teacher sent. Sending is grace. To teach “left” and “right” to people is all about mercy. He was ridiculed, beat, sunk into a death trap of mud, labeled a traitor, and generally threatened constantly with death. There is a lot of mercy going on by that prophet.

2. Warnings are themselves mercy. Why keep warning? Why keep talking? By the time I read Jeremiah 42 I was ready to tell Jeremiah to save his voice. They are on the run because they didn’t listen to Jeremiah and so they say this time they will so he tells them the truth and they think and act differently. Why should he keep throwing pearls before swine? It is a combined faithfulness to truth and to them. That is mercy!!!

3. God, through Jeremiah, couched the warnings and judgments in amazing promises of restoration. Angry people pack judgments in spit and cussing. This is packing them with gold!!! “The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” Chapters 29, 30, and 31 are a gold-mind of hope producing love talk. Mercy warns. Mercy gives options. Mercy holds out hope. What angry God promises “to build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit.”

4. Throughout there is a refreshing focus on God’s justice as healing.  “Correct me, O Lord, but with justice; not with Your anger, or You will bring me to nothing.” (10:24, NASB). Justice is different than anger. It is NOT getting what we deserve but a chance to create a better outcome by being allowed to “come to our senses,” as the prodigal did. This is why I reject a naturalistic view of final judgment. God is in charge of the whole mess we put ourselves into and he is working it out the best he can for our good. Ultimately, he takes ownership of the whole process to keep it sane, divine, merciful. If human courts try to make painless executions, how much more a God who loves the human race will figure out the best way to bring this whole mess to a conclusion.  The message of Micah 7:9 and many other places (1 John 1:9 is a favorite) is that God’s wrath toward sin can be dis-aggregated from his justice by our simple longing for repentance, which is itself a gift.

Grace is defined as “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings” (Google dictionary). Or as a web page put it so well,  “The word translated “grace” in the New Testament comes from the Greek word charis, which means “favor, blessing, or kindness.”

That grace is everywhere in Jeremiah’s prophetic judgments. Is it in yours?

Would-be prophets who want to join Jeremiah in such pronouncements against kings and nations would do well to read his Lamentations and learn to mix in equal parts of tears!!!



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