DEALING WITH DOUBT

 

Week of February 19, 2006

 

Bible Passage:  Jeremiah 20:1-18.

 

Biblical Truth:  God strengthens believers in their times of weariness and doubt.

 

Speak God’s Truth:  Jeremiah 20:1-6.

 

[1] When Pashhur the priest, the son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the LORD, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things, [2] Pashhur had Jeremiah the prophet beaten and put him in the stocks that were at the upper Benjamin Gate, which was by the house of the LORD. [3] On the next day, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, “Pashhur is not the name the LORD has called you, but rather Magor-missabib. [4] For thus says the LORD, Behold, I am going to make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends; and while your eyes look on, they will fall by the sword of their enemies. So I will give over all Judah to the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will carry them away as exiles to Babylon and will slay them with the sword. [5] I will also give over all the wealth of this city, all its produce and all its costly things; even all the treasures of the kings of Judah I will give over to the hand of their enemies, and they will plunder them, take them away and bring them to Babylon. [6] And you, Pashhur, and all who live in your house will go into captivity; and you will enter Babylon, and there you will die and there you will be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have falsely prophesied.”  [NASU]

 

[1-2] Jeremiah 20 is the low point of Jeremiah’s ministry, his dark night of the soul. In it he blames God, rejects his calling, and curses the day he was born. The man to blame for Jeremiah’s despair was a priest named Pashhur, chief officer of the temple. The chief officer ranked next to the high priest. His duty was to see that no unauthorized person entered the Temple, that no disturbance or nuisance was committed within the sacred courts. Pashhur had heard that Jeremiah had dashed a clay pot to the ground in the Valley of Ben Hinnom [19:1-15]. He also heard the prophecy Jeremiah uttered in the precincts of the temple, that Jerusalem was about to be smashed to the ground. That sounded like treason, so Pashhur had God’s prophet arrested and tortured. Jeremiah had been threatened before, but this time the authorities took action. First they beat him, and then they tortured him. Putting Jeremiah in stocks meant more than just locking him up. The Hebrew word refers to twisting. They put Jeremiah on the rack, clamping his wrists and twisting his body into painful contortions. Upper Benjamin Gate is a wide gate most frequently used by the people, leading from the Temple court upward toward the city. At this gate the prophet was exposed to the sneers and curses of the people, who hated this prophet of doom.

 

[3-6] Apparently Pashhur felt some remorse for torturing Jeremiah because he freed him the next morning. Upon his release, Jeremiah greeted Pashhur with a message of judgment from the Lord similar to that of 19:3-11. This prophecy is significant for what it says about Judah. Jeremiah often warned that judgment would come from the north, but until this point he had not mentioned the invader by name. Here, for the first time, we learn that Babylon will be the instrument of divine judgment. From this point on Jeremiah will mention that fierce city more than 200 times. The prophecy also had significance for Pashhur. His punishment would be even more severe than the torture he had given to Jeremiah. Pashhur’s friends would fall by the sword or die in captivity. His lies would be exposed and his crimes repaid with death. Jeremiah even gave Pashhur a new name: Magor-Missabib. Pashhur means “fruitful on every side”, but Magor-Missabib means “terror on every side”, one surrounded by horror on all sides and who becomes an object of horror and fear to himself and others. This prophecy was fulfilled most likely at the deportation of Jehoiachin, 597, as shortly after this Zephaniah is addressed as the chief supervisor of the Temple [29:25-26].

 

Be Honest in Your Doubt 20:7-10.

 

[7] O LORD, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. [8] For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the LORD has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. [9] But if I say, “I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name”, then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it. [10] For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror on every side! Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!” All my trusted friends, watching for my fall, say: “Perhaps he will be deceived, so that we may prevail against him and take our revenge on him.”   [NASU]

 

Pashhur’s shrewd plan to break down the courage of the prophet by means of physical torment and mental and spiritual anguish had not failed altogether. While dealing with the people and with Pashhur, Jeremiah had remained an iron pillar and walls of brass. But in the solitude of his home a reaction sets in. Alone with his God, he breaks down completely. Forgotten was that great honor bestowed upon him to be an ambassador of the Most High, a spokesman of the Lord of Lords. His office appeared to him as an intolerable burden. Forgotten was God’s word that he was also called to build and to plant. He charges God with having deceived him. This charge is without foundation, for God had very definitely foretold trials against which it would be necessary to stand like an iron pillar and brazen walls, and had promised to be with him. Jeremiah’s flesh is speaking here, chafing under the constant opposition and derision of God’s Law and curse. There are at least three valuable lessons about suffering in these verses. They are relevant for all times because God’s people always suffer, but they are especially relevant for our own times.

 

The first lesson is perhaps the most important: Suffering may be taken to the Lord in prayer. Jeremiah had good reason to be discouraged. For one thing, he was in danger. The priests gathered in the corners of the temple. Jeremiah heard their nasty whispers. Even his friends waited for him to take a false step so they could pounce on him. He already had been beaten and locked up. The prophet was also discouraged, because he had become a laughingstock: I have become a laughingstock all day long [7b]. Jeremiah was despised and rejected. His friends betrayed him. Even, he thought, the closest friend of all: O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed [7a]. Jeremiah started to doubt whether God’s Word was really true after all. God forced him to prophesy, and he prophesied, but where was the promised judgment? Had Jeremiah become a false prophet? He thought he had been speaking the Word of the Lord, but maybe the Lord had deceived him. The only thing Jeremiah could do with his doubts and sufferings was take them to the Lord in prayer. He offered the prayer of a suffering believer. God gives us permission to take our sufferings directly to him. This is what godly people have done throughout history. It is what Job did on the ash heap, when he lamented the loss of his family [Job 3]. It is what Elijah did under the broom tree when he wanted the Lord to take his life [1 Kings 19:4]. It is what David did in the cave when he fled from Saul [Psalm 57]. It is what Jonah did in the belly of the great fish, when he ran away from God [Jonah 2]. It is even what Jesus Christ did on the cross when he was crucified to atone for his people’s sins: My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? [Matthew 27:46]. Take your sufferings to that secret place where you meet God in prayer. That is where you must take them. Where else can you unburden your heart so freely? Who else will comfort you so tenderly? There is no need to hide your troubles. Take them to the Lord in prayer, the way Jeremiah did.

 

The second lesson Jeremiah 20 teaches about suffering is that believers sometimes suffer for God’s sake. Jeremiah knew why people hated him. People were getting sick of hearing him preach judgment all the time [8]. God was to blame for Jeremiah’s problems. It was not the prophet’s fault that he was insulted all day long. He just said whatever God told him to say. Although people like Pashhur blamed the messenger, their real problem was with the message. Jeremiah suffered for God’s sake. As Jeremiah reflected on his problem, he came up with a possible solution: I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name [9a]. There was only one problem with trying to keep God’s Word bottled up inside. He cannot do it: In my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it [9b]. The Word of God would not allow him to remain silent. This reminds those who teach to say only what God says in his Word. This is one of the great lessons of Jeremiah’s ministry. He was surrounded by false prophets who said whatever people wanted to hear. But Jeremiah was a true prophet. The distinguishing mark of a true prophet is that he preaches nothing except God’s Word. Proclaiming the true Word of God may lead to opposition, hostility, and even persecution, as it did for Jeremiah. He needed to take courage from the promises God had made when he first commissioned him to be a prophet: I have made you today as a fortified city and as a pillar of iron and as walls of bronze against the whole land … They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you [1:18-19]. That commission made it clear that Jeremiah would suffer for God’s sake. Yet the Lord promised more than suffering; he promised that his prophet would be saved.

 

Remember Who’s in Control:  Jeremiah 20:11-13.

 

[11] But the LORD is with me like a dread champion; therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed, with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten. [12] Yet, O LORD of hosts, You who test the righteous, Who see the mind and the heart; let me see Your vengeance on them; for to You I have set forth my cause. [13] Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD! For He has delivered the soul of the needy one from the hand of evildoers. [NASU]

 

Jeremiah took heart during his dark night of the soul. Suddenly he interrupted his complaint to hold a mini worship service. He was alone and afraid, depressed and discouraged, but he offered a short psalm of praise to God. Form this a third lesson is to be learned: God is always to be praised, even in the midst of suffering. Jeremiah’s worship service was short but complete. His psalm contained three elements – a confession of faith [11], a prayer for deliverance [12], and a hymn of praise [13].

 

Jeremiah did not understand what was happening to him. Even the Lord seemed to be against him. Yet he continued to testify to what he knew to be true about God’s character. Jeremiah knew that the Lord was with him even though it felt as though God was far away. The prophet knew that the Lord is strong even if he seems powerless. He knew that the wicked would be defeated even when they appeared triumphant. So the prophet boldly confessed that the Lord would save him.

 

Next, Jeremiah prayed for help. He did not take matters into his own hands but committed his cause to the Lord. Look at what the prophet teaches us in his prayer. He acknowledges that nothing is hid from the One who sees all that is in the mind and heart. Jeremiah recognizes that it is useless to try and hide anything from God. Next the prophet asks for God to test him in order that he might come before God with a pure heart and with real integrity. Then Jeremiah prays for vindication, while his enemies were punished. Only after praying for the all-knowing God to test his motives does Jeremiah pray for God’s judgment to fall upon his enemies.

 

Jeremiah closed his worship with a hymn of praise. He breaks out into an open expression of joy. He not only gives thanks himself to God, that he had been freed from the violence of the wicked, but he also summons others, and encourages them to sing praises to God. It is striking that his psalm refers to the needy person in the singular. Literally, the Lord delivered the soul of the needy one, meaning the prophet himself. He came through his doubts to a place of strong confidence in the Lord. Thus we see a great change in the prophet since verse 7. His complaints are all silenced and turned into thanksgivings. He has now an entire confidence in that God whom he was distrusting. He stirs up himself to praise that name which he was resolving no more to make mention of. It was the lively exercise of faith that made this happy change, that turned his sighs into songs.

 

Jeremiah thus shows how to praise God during the dark night of the soul. It is always good to praise the Lord, but especially when one is suffering. The best thing to do when discouraged is to go to worship. Keep confessing, keep praying, keep singing. Even when you have a complaint to make to God, confess your faith in him, pray for deliverance, and praise his name.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.     How does Jeremiah react to his beating and torture? What strengths and weaknesses do you see in Jeremiah’s response? What can we learn from Jeremiah about how we should handle doubt, despair and suffering for serving the Lord?

 

2.     In verses 7-10, what did Jeremiah forget? What inner conflict did he experience? What three lessons about suffering do we learn from verses 7-13?

 

3.     What caused the change in Jeremiah from verses 7-10 to 11-13? How could he be complaining about God at one moment and then praising God at the next? What do we learn from Jeremiah’s prayer in verse 12?

 

References:

Jeremiah, John Calvin.

Jeremiah, Matthew Henry.

Jeremiah, Theo Laetsch, Concordia Publishing.

Jeremiah & Lamentations, Philip Ryken, Crossway Books.