End of the World: Jeremiah 43 – 52

I spent the greater part of my childhood actively fearing the end of the world. It began at my first Christian concert.

My friend David invited me to his church’s screening of the brand new VeggieTales movie about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – aptly rebranded for children as “Rack, Shack, and Benny.” For those of you unaware of this Christian cultural phenomenon, VeggieTales was (and still is) a hugely successful show for children which takes Bible stories and re-enacts them with animated fruits and vegetables to comedic and soulful effect. It was a perfect plan for a Saturday afternoon. David and I usually spent our weekends playing video games (Metal Gear Solid, if you remember), so we were long overdue for an outing. They popped popcorn and gave it to us kiddos – but we weren’t allowed to bring it into the sanctuary, where the viewing would take place. And as the sun set, so lights came down, and we watched.

The silly songs… the heartfelt message… the dancing veggies…

The lights came up, and the portly pastor told us that the tour bus was waiting out in the back for anyone who would be joining in for the “main event,” as he described it. I turned to David, who shrugged. We turned to our neighbor – “We’re going to the Promise Keepers concert. [A Christian band I can’t possibly remember] is playing. It’s like 12 bucks. Back by midnight.”

I used the church secretary’s phone first to call my Mom. She had no issues – I needed to graciously borrow the cash, and knock loudly on the door when I got back. David’s parents didn’t “give a crap,” according to him. And we were off to The Spectrum.

Nosebleed seats, but we didn’t care. I leaned over the railing and looked at the heads below. David dared me to spit over the edge, but I said no. He gave me a piece of popcorn still stuck in his jacket pocket, and I threw that. It missed, and no one noticed.

The band only played a few songs – all praise songs, meant to be sung together with arms raised. And then they thanked us all and left the stage. Even at 13-years-old, with my limited concert experience, it felt short and certainly not worth the 12 bucks. Then, the speaker stepped out, dressed full on in black with a strap on microphone hanging at the side of his mouth. I didn’t know this, but “Christian concert” actually meant “church service in a stadium” (a true phenomenon – most concert tours with Christian bands feature a sermon). I thought this would be a good time to go get a hotdog, but one of the leaders shushed and pushed – back to your seat.

He immediately dug into the Rapture and how the end of the world would unfurl. He started in Jeremiah, where the first prophecies stood, then a passage in Daniel, then some so-and-so signs in Matthew, and then on to Revelation. A giant black-and-white clock hung above the stage, inching closer to midnight with each passage he read. We marveled at the megalith tick-tocking right in front of us, wondering its purpose. He wrapped it up once we hit the faux midnight – times almost up, he said. Where will you end up when the world comes to an end?

I did not realize until later that this was a cheesy rip off of the “real” Doomsday Clock – which scientists use as a representation to show how close we are to global destruction (it currently sits at three minutes to midnight). But anyway, this notion scared the shit out of me. I instantly became obsessed with this idea, that without warning, it all could just end, straight into the Judgment Day. How did a night that began with dancing vegetables end with the weight of the world on my shoulders? Church. That’s how.

I imagine that the men and women of Jeremiah had the same feeling…

While this may feel like the apocalypse to our Jeremiah-era Bible characters, we all know that it isn’t even close. Let’s just wait for Revelations for the real thing…

The Bearer of Bad News: Jeremiah 32 – 42

Trapped in the Courtyard. Zedekiah to Fall. Unwanted Prophesies. Judah Taken. The Remnant Remains.

Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I give you an answer, will you not kill me? Even if I did give you counsel, you would not listen to me.”

Jeremiah 38:15 (NIV)

No one likes to hear bad news, let alone believe it without proof. Jeremiah personifies that old Spiderman adage of “With great power comes great responsibility.” Sure, he has a direct line to the Lord Almighty Himself, but it comes with an obligation. He has to tell everyone that the world is falling apart, and who wants to hear that?

Let’s dig into a specific example. Zedekiah rules over Judah just as the conquest of Nebuchadnezzar inches closer and closer to him. Before long, he hears a rumor floating around his temples that one of his governors has imprisoned a prophet named Jeremiah who has been preaching the upcoming downfall of his nation. Zedekiah calls for him and asks for God’s word, but Jeremiah replies, “If I give you an answer, will you not kill me?” Zedekiah promises his safety.

The good word? God is placing a choice before the king. If he surrenders to his enemy Nebuchadnezzar, then God will spare him and his family. However, if he retaliates or flees, then his safety will not be guaranteed. Either way though, his kingdom will flounder.

Quite the decision.

Zedekiah ultimately flees. From our perspective, the choice is idiotic; since when has God spared those he has promised destruction? And it comes to pass that Nebuchadnezzar catches up with the foolish king, kills his sons in front of him, and then plucks out his eyes.

If you like torture porn, look no further than the Old Testament.

Zedekiah is not the only one to ignore these warnings of “bad times ahead.”

Jeremiah chastises the Rekabites for following their forefathers rather than God – they mock him.
Jeremiah sends Jehoiakim, a former King of Judah, a scroll containing all of God’s rebukes – Jehoiakim burns it.
Jeremiah announces the coming fall of Judah – they beat and jail him.

No one heeds his words, and they all suffer for it. Same song, different verse for the Bible. See, I always erred on the side of believing the shouts of doomsday, because it felt safer for me. That’s why I always erred on the side of Christianity.

But more on that tomorrow…

Negative Reinforcement: Jeremiah 21 – 31

Judgment All Around.

My heart is broken within me;
    all my bones tremble.
I am like a drunken man,
    like a strong man overcome by wine,
because of the Lord…

Jeremiah 23:9a (NIV)

Well said Jeremiah. My heart is broken within me… metaphor, drunk metaphor, emphasis of drunk metaphor… because of the Lord. This book is a bona fide downer, as we have now had solid 29 chapters (out of 31) devoted to the general vileness of mankind. What makes this more difficult is that almost everything is spoken in generalities. You adulterers, we are told. You false prophets, we hear. And through all of this, Jeremiah does not recall one specific instance of sin – no Sodom and Gomorrah attempted gang rapes, no base of Mount Sinai idol worship. Nada. Just general disgustingness.

I get it though. If we are to understand the biblical narrative, than Jeremiah’s prophesizing lines up with the tail end of Kings and Chronicles, which recounts the fall of Judah and Israel right before the infiltration of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Furthermore, we are setting the stage for Jesus to descend onto the scene, so things need to be properly screwed up.

This analysis also depends on me assuming that the Bible follows the plot arc of any Tom Cruise actioner.

I joined the rowing team in high school in order to emulate my gay brother (him being gay has nothing to do with the story, but he is in fact gay, and this is a “gay” blog, so whatever). He went in frail the year before – boney, lanky, petite, further adjectives he’ll hate me for later – and by the end of the season, after a mere four months, he was downright muscular. Hell, I wanted that. I was lanky; I was boney. I was also queer (unrelated, but still).

A new coach joined that year as well to take on the “frosh” boats. We called him “Captain” at his request; he never smiled and wore sunglasses inside, which, if no one ever told you, is crazy intimidating. Collectively as a team, we hated him, because he openly mocked us. I should match you up against the girls team so they can show you how it’s done, he said. I’m not even coming to your race, because I know you’re going to lose, he said. You guys suck, he said. Pure negativity.

We typically won, but that didn’t stop his rants, his disparaging comments. After our final race of the season, as we held up our first place medals, he cracked a smile. All a ruse, he said. I actually like you guys, he said. I had always planned to make you hate me.

It had worked – we typically won. But I didn’t sign up the following year. Sure, Into the Woods rehearsals conflicted with practices, and I needed to start the transition into being a proper gay person (unrelated). No, it wasn’t that. The winning just didn’t seem worth… the struggle. The ruse.

Maybe that story is unrelated. I don’t know.

God Does Change (Sort Of): Jeremiah 10 – 20

A Desperate Prayer. Broken Covenants. Jeremiah in Danger. False Prophets.

Lord, I know that people’s lives are not their own;
    it is not for them to direct their steps.
Discipline me, Lord, but only in due measure—
    not in your anger,
    or you will reduce me to nothing.
Pour out your wrath on the nations
    that do not acknowledge you,
    on the peoples who do not call on your name.
For they have devoured Jacob;
    they have devoured him completely
    and destroyed his homeland.
Jeremiah 10:23-25 (NIV)

Jeremiah walks into a fishy situation. Within seeming moments of his appointment, plots arise to usurp him as well as overthrow the sanctity of God. False prophets emerge, spouting opposite messages as Jeremiah. They plan to silence him – to kill him. At this time, Judah has plummeted into a culture of idolatry, particularly with Baal, and this incenses God to snap his covenant with them. He tells Jeremiah several times in several different ways that He will no longer protect His chosen people or their birthright, and a violent reign of terror will end in their destruction.

Jeremiah preaches this. His detractors – these false prophets – announce God’s continued allegiance. Who would go with the negative message? God’s people choose the positive, that destruction is not imminent. They disparage Jeremiah.

God reaches His peak of wrath during these passages – far surpassing any sort of anger He emoted before – even at man’s worst. And throughout this, God reveals on element of His nature that is simultaneously hopeful and terrifying. Chapter 18 takes us there:

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. (7-10)

God changes His mind. I guess I’ll need a new title for my blog.

Well, maybe not. I could split hairs and say that the very admission from God here raises many more questions than answers. If God is omniscient, why would He need to change His mind? Doesn’t God seem a little dominated by His own emotions? You see where I am headed…

But on the flip side, the intent of this passage reads as God extending His power rather than contradicting it. Here we have a God who can punish indiscriminately (Job), enact arbitrary rules of conduct (the Law), and now renege His word without warning. We truly are not worthy.

And what a dilemma this leaves with us. Take a look at the opening quote for today’s entry. Jeremiah laments that “people’s lives are not their own.” True: Control is a quality that slips from all of our grasps. No one is God or even God-like.

So how do we know? There are false prophets everywhere. How do we know? The false prophets sound just like real prophets. Who knows? God does change.

The heart is deceitful above all things
    and beyond cure.
    Who can understand it?
Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV)

The heart is a deceitful organ and the mind is the source of all logic that sends us to Hell.

What a fishy situation for us all.

The Valley of Slaughter: Jeremiah 1 – 9

 WARNING: This entry will require you to actually read a section of the Bible. I know, I know, I usually summarize it and pop in little quotes so you don’t have to, but not today. Apologies in advance.

Jeremiah is young and inexperienced in speaking, but the Lord calls Him anyway. God claims that before Jeremiah was conceived, He had already chosen him to be a prophet of His words to many. God touches His fingers to Jeremiah’s lips and BAM, His words have entered his mouth and mind. So let the prophesizing begin.

It is quite bleak to start off, and honestly, with Isaiah being as bleak as it was, I was hoping for a bit of a respite. Gotta have the rainy days to appreciate the sunny ones, I suppose, but this is getting to be a bit difficult to engage with. Chapter after chapter, day after day, these prophets (and before… these kings, and before them… these priests) find slightly varied ways of saying the same thing:

HUMANS ARE THE WORST.

Listen, as an observer of the shallowness of the Twitter generation, I understand the sentiment. But is this fire and brimstone strategy really effective in attracting followers? I counted the instances of some negative words in these nine chapters, and the results are unsurprising:

Forsaken: 6
Anger: 5
Waste: 4
Sin: 12
No/Not: 150+

That’s a whole lot of “no,” and it gets to be overwhelming, especially when taken in in such a small amount of time. One particular passage got me down, one that straddles the clove of chapters seven and eight. The section is titled in the New International Version translation as “The Valley of Slaughter.”

(Here is the part where you have to actually read the Bible)

“‘The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate. At that time, declares the Lord, the bones of the kings and officials of Judah, the bones of the priests and prophets, and the bones of the people of Jerusalem will be removed from their graves. They will be exposed to the sun and the moon and all the stars of the heavens, which they have loved and served and which they have followed and consulted and worshiped. They will not be gathered up or buried, but will be like dung lying on the ground. Wherever I banish them, all the survivors of this evil nation will prefer death to life, declares the Lord Almighty.’”

Jeremiah 7:30 – 8:3 (NIV)

The Judaists have been bad, bad people, and so God will enact His holy rage by piling the dead so deep that they will flow into the streets, where birds will eat them, and then the previously dead kings will have their bones desecrated by snapping them into the sun.

I have never had a stomach for violence, and this section turned my guts over. We must currently live in a kinder and gentler time, because in the modern American society, that would be deemed “cruel and unusual punishment.” Murderer-Rapists suffer in prison or die by injection (or firing squad – thanks Utah!). Nothing about letting their bodies be eaten by vultures.

I have trouble reconciling a loving God with such carnage. I brought this up recently to a Christian friend, and he replied, “Well those were really bad people.” Okay, let’s accept that logic. Really bad people. God punishes really bad people by dumping their bodies in the streets and letting birds eat their remains. That is proof of a powerful God. It proves a vengeful God.

But it does not even hint at the existence of a loving God.