Robert B. Chisholm
Some parts of the Old Testament are familiar to us. The stories of Genesis have inspired the writers and artists of children’s Bibles—Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel that confused languages and dispersed people. We can follow the comforting cadence of Psalm 23 and quote a pithy proverb that inspires us. However, some portions of the Old Testament—often those that raise uncomfortable questions we’re afraid to voice—remain unknown to us. While reading Jeremiah, we might be challenged to raise the following questions.
Can God be surprised?
In Jeremiah, God’s reaction to Israel’s unfaithfulness is that of a scorned spouse or parent: “Yet even after she had done all that, I thought that she might come back to me. But she did not” (Jer 3:7 NET). He laments, “I thought you would call me, ‘Father’ and would never cease being loyal to me. But, you have been unfaithful to me” (Jer 3:19–20 NET). We’re not surprised by Israel’s rebellion, but we don’t know how to respond to a God who seems surprised.
The Bible teaches that God knows everything—a trait known as “omniscience” (Psa 44:21; 139:1; Jer 17:10). Why then would He act surprised? The answer is that God seeks a relationship with His people. He relates to Israel like a husband to a wife or a parent to a child, and He plays out that role. He speaks as a husband or a parent would speak so Israel will understand the destructive effects of their actions. Not only does God express His pain—He makes it clear that He has been wronged and He has the right to punish Israel: “You have polluted the land with your vile whoredom. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed” (Jer 3:2–3).
Does God deceive people?
As Yahweh’s prophet, Jeremiah says things we wouldn’t expect: “Ah, LORD, you have surely deceived these people and Jerusalem by saying, ‘You will experience peace,’ when in fact a sword is even now at their throats” (Jer 4:10, author’s translation). Would the God of truth really deceive people?
The Bible teaches that God is truthful (Titus 1:1). His faithful people can rely on His word. But throughout the Bible, God enacts judgment on sinners by allowing them to be misled. In 1 Kings 21, Elijah tells King Ahab that God is ready to destroy him because he has committed himself to doing evil. God has used Ahab’s own prophets to confuse him: “Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you” (1 Kgs 22:23). Paul says that God will someday judge sinners by sending “a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess 2:11–12). However, those who are faithful to God can trust Him. The psalmist says to God, “with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous” (Psa 18:25–26).
Would God really tell a prophet not to pray for people?
God tells Jeremiah to stop praying for Israel because He is bent on destroying them. Their time of grace has ended—they have rejected God’s mercy: “The LORD said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence” (Jer 14:11–12). To emphasize His point, He says, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go!” (Jer 15:1). This certainly doesn’t sound like the God of mercy we see elsewhere in the Bible.
God takes no delight in the death of souls (Ezek 18:23, 32; 33:11). Over and over again, He accepts and forgives His people when they repent and turn to Him. Likewise, in Jeremiah’s day, God is willing to restore the people. However, the more He reaches out to them, the more they rebuff Him and harden their hearts. When Israel intentionally rejects God and His mercy, He decrees their demise: “You have rejected me, declares the LORD; you keep going backward, so I have stretched out my hand against you and destroyed you—I am weary of relenting” (Jer 15:6).
Would God really change His plans?
God seems to change His mind as He speaks to Jeremiah: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jer 18:7–8). This raises another question: Would the unchangeable God seemingly change His mind and alter His plans?
God is patient. He gives people ample opportunity to turn from their sin. He teaches Jeremiah this truth by sending him to the potter’s house. At times, the clay will not “cooperate,” so the potter makes it into a different kind of pot than he originally designed. So it is with nations. God may announce judgment, but if people repent, He’ll alter His plan and show mercy. Or, He may intend to bless a nation, but if they reject Him, He’ll judge them instead (Jer 18:5–10). God is unchangeable—immutable—in His essence, but He is not inflexible. Because He is predisposed to mercy, He even grants people the freedom and dignity of contributing to their own destiny.
Jeremiah’s portrait of God might seem unfamiliar and puzzling to us. Although these questions reveal traits of God we’re uncomfortable with, they are, at the same time, encouraging to us. The portrait of God in Jeremiah shows us we shouldn’t take God’s mercy for granted; it also shows us that God offers His love and loyalty—He desires us to return to Him. While He is not a God to trifle with, He is also not a static force who will not listen to the cries of His people. If we are willing to encounter the God of Jeremiah, we will find that He desires to be in relationship with His people.
Unless otherwise noted, biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).