Jeremiah 29, and the title is 'Coping With The Contradictions Of Life'. The chapter of Scripture that we read from Jeremiah's prophecy is the account of the time of Jeconiah, King of Judah, around 597BC. This is, in this chapter, a letter that Jeremiah wrote to the captives who were in Babylon. The people of Israel, for their sins and disobedience to God, had been disciplined and are under the chastening hand of Jehovah. They are led captive into Babylon, and Jeremiah writes this letter to them, and his message more than anything in verses 4-6, as we read, is this: "Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom", notice this, "I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon", here is His instruction, "Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace".
God tells them: 'Build your houses, form and establish your families, abide there, be content there; for it is God's will that you should be there until 70 years shall pass, and I will lead you out again'. Now I'm sure that some of you know what it is like to get a letter of encouragement when you really need it. But imagine what it would be to get a letter from God Himself - this is what, effectively, we have in chapter 29 of Jeremiah. The prophet has penned it, but it is inspired by God - verse 4: 'Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives'. Imagine if you went down to the porch tomorrow morning, and there was a celestial letter, and it was directly from God.
Now we don't want to get fanciful in our imaginations, but we have to say this: we all have a letter from God. We all have God's word directly and personally to ourselves, the problem is heeding it, isn't it, and obeying what we find in the Scriptures? But here we have in Jeremiah 29 a letter directly from God, penned by the prophet, to the people who are captives - but it is not only a message of encouragement, but it's a mixed message. It's a message that includes aspects of good and bad news. It is mixed with dark and light, with sweet and bitter, with positive and negative, and I have concluded in my study of it in the past week that this is a most realistic letter. It is a letter that is filled with realism, because after all our lives are not all encouraging, are they? They are not all filled with good days, life is not one long experience of pleasantness. But even when the blue skies break, often they are interrupted by intermittent showers, grey showers of many an evening storm. Yet many of us have a disposition, whether it's of mind or heart, to think that God almost owes us good times and none bad - that all our days should be filled with joy, and health, and happiness, and wealth.
The poet captured well what I believe is much of the sentiment of this letter in Jeremiah 29 when he said:
'God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain'.
But believe it or not, some people have interpreted God's word - especially among the charismatics today, and the health and wealth movement - that God has promised these things in this life to us: that He has promised joy without sorrow, He has promised sun without rain, He has promised peace without pain. Herein lies exactly the same problem that Jeremiah had in his day: false prophets who were preaching 'Peace, peace', when there was no peace. They were not being realistic regarding the reality of their present experience. Here we have exposed for us right away two extreme dangers, pitfalls that all of us can fall into in this life here on earth. What are they? Well, the first is desperation. We can think, whatever circumstances we enter into, that there is no hope at all, and we imbibe a kind of pessimism that everything is dark, there cannot be any light at the end of the tunnel - no silver lining around the cloud, it is an impossible situation that you cannot get out of, and therefore you resign yourself to it and give up.
That is one dangerous extreme that we can adopt in the contradictions of life. The second, and I believe this is the one that the prophet is drawing our attention to this morning, is an overconfidence in false expectations - expecting something that God has never promised. Then, when that thing that you think God has promised is not realised, you become disillusioned and perhaps even depressed because you feel that God has let you down, or you become confused regarding what God's will really is. You could sum it up that the two extremes that we can fall into in life are: fatal pessimism, thinking that all is lost and there is no hope; or a foolish optimism, believing that God has promised you something that He has clearly not done.
Now Jeremiah wrote this letter to put down what were false hopes in the hearts of the people of Judah in Babylon. He wanted to silence the messages of false prophets that were telling them that their deliverance would be imminent any day, and the armies would come from Jerusalem and deliver them and bring them back to their promised land. Jeremiah wanted to silence that foolish optimism, and he wanted also to raise their hope in God and have faith in what God had actually promised them, rather than what they thought, and what false prophets had told them He had promised them. In other words, Jeremiah's message is telling the people: do not expect more than God has promised, but look at least for what He has promised.
Now I think if we take ourselves back into the historical context of this letter, we should never underestimate the impact of the bad news of this particular correspondence. God is effectively telling the Judah captives in Babylon: 'You must submit to your enemy'. Submit to the enemy of the Jews, they regarded Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar as the enemy of God and the Jewish faith, and God Himself is coming in and saying: 'You must submit'. We haven't got time to look at it, but if you were to go back to Jeremiah 25 verse 9, God actually calls the Imperial leader of the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar, 'My servant, Nebuchadnezzar'. God tells them to submit, and you would imagine that this would lead them to confusion: 'Why is God asking us to submit to our enemies, and indeed His enemies, the enemies of His law and His revealed word?'. Maybe that confusion led to doubt: 'How can God do this?'. Then that doubt lead to a disillusionment about God's will: 'Well, what is God's will then, if God apparently can go against it Himself?'.
When you begin to try and understand the Jewish mind regarding, first of all, the promised land, you understand the predicament that they're in. Right from Abraham, from the inception of the Jewish race, God's people have been promised a promised land - and now it has been a provided promised land, they've been living in it, and now God has taken them out of the promised land into a foreign land as captives and slaves, and it is God who promised the land who tells them: 'Settle down in this land'.
Then secondly, when you understand the Jewish mind regarding the Gentiles, how they are the heathen, just like the church regards unsaved - not in a dismissive way, but as those who are without God, without hope in the world - that's how the Jews regarded the Gentiles in the Old Testament. Yet God now is asking them to submit to the rule of a Gentile Emperor, a heathen who worships foreign idols and gods who are not the Living God. Now you can understand why these Jews are deeply confused, and feel that in their present circumstances there are great and real contradictions that they cannot cope with.
Imagine this: God's will here in this letter appears to contravene everything He has ever said before! Now put yourself in their shoes, perhaps it's not too hard to imagine how it feels because maybe you personally, where you are today, find that God's providential leading in your life is very very difficult to understand. Maybe it even appears to you that God is contravening His own will in your life, it just seems to go against everything that God has said and what you believe God has willed for you. You see evidently these contradictions, and these contradictions have led to confusion in your mind, maybe even doubt in your heart. You're finding yourself today wondering: 'How do you cope in such extraordinary circumstances? This is a new situation!'.
Because it was a new situation for the Jews it needed special direction, and that is exactly what we have in Jeremiah 29, and we can apply it to our own lives today I believe. There are four lessons of how to cope in the contradictions of life. Here's the first: submit. How do you cope in the contradictions of life? Submit. I think this is perhaps the most important lesson within this passage of Scripture, and what Jeremiah is telling these captives in Babylon is: you have to accept it, you have to embrace what is taking place for you. They are commanded to submit implicitly to Nebuchadnezzar, not only told 'Look, don't be rebelling against him', that's a negative command; but they were actually told positively to obey whatever the Emperor said. Here they are, no longer Jews under the direct government of God in their own promised land, they're having to recognise the authority of a Gentile pagan king, they're having to do what he says, what he tells them, fulfil his bidding. They are asked to accept it, to embrace it!
Now we may ask, and sometimes we do ask in our lives: on what basis should we submit to such intolerable circumstances? If these Jews really did believe that what God was telling them to do contravened His own revealed will in the past, and if what I'm going through today doesn't seem to make sense in the promises that I feel God has given me, and what is my right as a child of God, on what basis should I submit to it and accept it? Here's the basis: God is in heaven, and we are on earth. As Isaiah said in Isaiah 55 and verses 8 and 9: 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts'.
Let me illustrate it to you like this: if you take a little child over to the City Airport, and take them to the viewing gallery at the window where they can see all the planes departing and arriving - the child is looking in wonder, isn't he, as all of the planes take off? If you were to set him down at one of the coffee tables, and say: 'Now, look son, can you explain to me what is happening and why it's happening?'. He doesn't have a clue! He knows it's happening, and perhaps even more than you he is filled with the wonder of it all; he doesn't know, but he knows that someone knows! Who is that someone? The creator of the plane, maybe an aviation engineer. What we are seeing here within the revealed will of God in chapter 29 of Jeremiah, and within Isaiah 55, is that God is saying what He has also revealed in the New Testament, that 'truly the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God'. In other words, there are some mysteries in life that only God knows. God alone understands Himself, therefore God alone understands His thoughts. Whilst we must not silence our own questions in life, we must make sure that we never get to the point of questioning God from the disposition of doubt.
Remember what Paul said in Romans 9 and verse 20: 'O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?'. You see, what God requires of us, even in the most confusing circumstances, is not to understand what is happening, but as Peter said: to submit ourselves, humble ourselves, under the mighty hand of God. That's hard, in fact it was hard for the Jews, because under the Babylonian yoke they rebelled, they plotted, certain false prophets arose from their ranks in order to fan the flames of their rebellion with lies that there would be imminent deliverance soon, and that a deliverer would come and rescue them and bring them back to Jerusalem. But God's word to them was not that, it was the opposite: settle down, submit, accept it, embrace it, be content.
Their duty was not to understand or to try and reconcile God's wisdom with their own, it was simply to learn the art of contentment. Let me read a number of New Testament portions to you on the theme of contentment. The first is found in Philippians 4, you can turn to it if you choose, Philippians 4 verse 11. In the life of the great apostle, and considering all the contradictions that he endured, and all the things that he suffered, he says in verse 11 of chapter 4 of Philippians: 'Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me'. His confidence and security were not in his circumstances, but he embraced the circumstances of want and wealth, whatever they happened to be, as the will of God - and he knew in the midst of them Christ would strengthen him.
Then in 1 Timothy, he says to that young pastor, 1 Timothy 6 and verse 6, out of his own experience serving God he said: 'But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content'. Then in Hebrews 13, many believe it is indeed the apostle Paul writing here also, in verses 5 and 6 he gives us another word on contentment: 'Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me'.
Even when we look, politically, within our land at what is going on, and within our world at its affairs - we must remember, as children of God, that it is clearly taught within the Scriptures that the powers that be are ordained of God. Our calling is not to be rebels, we are not even called - whilst we may be involved in politics, and I'm not legislating against that from the Scriptures, I don't think you can - but we are not called as believers to assert ourselves, or to stand up for our rights. For our Saviour, and the Captain of our salvation who endured a contradiction of sinners on this earth, He was the one who taught us: 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's'. Paul said: 'Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake', and in Bible days that meant that you were submitting to Caesar - that godless imperial power, submit to him! Do not confess that he is Lord, but if it should mean that your head is carried off with a sword, you must do what he says.
Now what is all this really saying? It's saying what Jeremiah said to the children of Judah in his day: you've got to take all your circumstances as from the hand of God. We do not live as Christians according to chance or misfortune, but we have a heavenly Father who, in love, chastens us and disciplines us. Hebrews says: 'For what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?'. Here is one of the greatest lessons that any of us could learn in the Christian life: the greater discomfort comes to us in trials when we struggle against them, when we have an unwillingness to accept the reality of our circumstances, when we live in a mental denial and therefore our lives actually are lived against the natural grain of God's providence that He is leading us in.
Have you ever tried to scrape your nails down a blackboard? Have you ever tried doing that? If you haven't, you have to do it, you can't die and never have done that! But the discomfort it comes to, the unease, the pain is great, it's not advised. It is not advised to struggle against God, and the antithesis of this is a great holy dignity that we find in men and women of God in scripture and Christian history who, when they are going through trials, find grace from God to even go about their daily business to glorify Him. Like Jeremiah said: plant your vegetables, build your houses, marry wives, marry off your family, have children, stay where you are, be content, embrace God's will - it may not seem perfect for you, but it is God's will nevertheless.
This is not stoicism. Stoicism is that philosophy that makes you indifferent to pleasure or pain, this is a realism that faces pleasure or pain, but yet godliness is found in the character because the individual is drawing upon divine grace to get through it. This is not a denial of pain, neither is it a lying down underneath it, but this is a coping with the contradictions of life through the grace of God which gives to us a godly contentment. Remember David? His little son is dying, he starts to pray and he starts to fast, and he cries upon God for the life of that child. Then eventually the servants come in, and he can read by the look on their faces that the child is dead. Once that news is transferred to his mind and heart, we read in the Scriptures: 'Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat'. He went about his daily business, accepting the will of God for him.
Submit, I have three more, but they're more brief. Secondly: wait, or be patient. In verse 10 he told them: 'The day is coming, in 70 years time, when I will deliver you. My timing is all worked out' - and we know that from the prophecy of Daniel. But God is saying: 'I have my time framework worked out, and it will not fail. I know how long it will take until you are delivered, I know how much you will have to go through, but you've got to not only submit and accept what you're experiencing, but you've got to be patient in the midst of it and wait upon me'. I never cease to be amazed when I read Psalm 40 and verse 1, you're familiar with it like this: 'I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry'. Well, if you have an Authorised Version of the Scriptures and look to the margin, you will see that the Hebrew 'I waited patiently' is actually rendered 'In waiting, I waited'. 'In waiting, I waited', how would you like to wait like that? Patiently upon the Lord!
Now, we don't know whether it'll take seventy years or seven years until our affliction be past - and because we do not know how long it will be, therefore not only do we submit, and we must wait, but thirdly we must trust. Verse 11 is a wonderful verse: 'For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end'. What words to claim if you're in exile today, that God is thinking about you personally, that God is planning for you. This verse says His plans are for peace, not war, so you need not fear the future. His plans are purposeful, so let Him work out His will in your life. Don't waste your time fighting against the suffering and trials that God allows to come your way - what a verse! What a verse that you could claim today if you feel the contradictions of life keenly!
Here are three things, even four, in this verse to think about very seriously. Here's the first: God is thinking about you. Verse 11 says: 'The plans and the thoughts I have toward you'. It doesn't say 'had toward you', the sense is 'having', 'I am presently having toward you'. Yes, God thought about you before the hills in order stood, or earth received its frame, but what about this thought: God is presently thinking about you! Your case is spread across His table! It's not even the thought that God knows what's going to happen to you, and so God gives you everything in advance that you need, the things that you need provided in grace and strength and comfort and everything like that, and then He steps back and leaves you to cope and use those graces that He has given you - no! The sense is that God is continually caring, His eye is always upon you, His hand actually, momentarily, in every piece of your need, will guide you through each day. David put it like this: 'I am poor and needy, but the Lord thinketh upon me'. One paraphrase puts it lovely: 'But the Lord is thinking about me right now'.
How does that make you feel? David quoted a verse: 'Thy thoughts which are to us-ward: they cannot be reckoned up in order unto thee: if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered'. God is thinking about you. Secondly, God's thoughts are for you. In captivity they might have thought: 'God has forgotten us, God has forsaken us, the Golden City is behind us, the temple is no longer in sight, our ears are hearing a tongue that we cannot understand or recognise. We're confused, we are bewildered, what has God done to us?'. Listen, they had to learn: there is never a thoughtless action of God toward His children. That means you too: whatever you will go through, whatever you are going through, His thoughts are for you. In every affliction and trouble, it is timed and measured personally for you. In every blessing or every trial, the thought of the divine mind is good for you in the end. If God be for us...God is for us!
God is thinking about you, God is thinking for you, thirdly: God's thoughts toward you are peace. What a revelation it is that God is not anxious about your circumstances today. He's not worried, it's far from His concern - Spurgeon called it 'perfect complacency of God', simply because there's nothing to worry about. He has your life in His hands. I read some time ago the diary of a believer, and it went like this: 'I am in deep despondency. Is this a trap of my accuser? Is it a trial sent for my good from God? Or is this the pure undiluted vanity of my sinful flesh? I fear it is not one, but all of these. There are times recently when I would just leave this body, when I would long for this spirit to be detached from my tormented mind, yet I believe' - now listen to this - 'that God is doing something far greater than my feeble understanding can grasp'. That's it! God is doing something far greater than your feeble understanding can grasp, but this is what you need to grasp: God has no evil thoughts toward you, no matter what the Devil says, His thoughts are only peace. As old Spurgeon said: 'Though your head ache with heaviness, not one of your hairs will perish'.
He thinks only good for you, fourthly - God is thinking about you, God's thoughts are for you, God's thoughts toward you are of peace - and fourthly: God's thoughts are towards a good goal, a good goal. 'For we know', Paul says, 'that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose'. What has God been thinking up for you? What is His plan for you? Will it involve sickness? Will it involve bereavement? Will it be death? Will it be family concerns or business problems? I don't know what it is, I can't tell what it is, and you can't either I suspect - but one thing I can tell you from God's word is that He has plans to give you hope and to give you a future. In other words, literally it means 'to give you hope in your final outcome'. You can only see the beginning, you can only see the middle chapters, and your biography is disclosed from you regarding its conclusion and its end, but God knows! God's goal for these people in Babylon was that He would be their God, and they would be His people. Whatever befalls us in this life, isn't it wonderful to know that that is our end? The light affliction of this time is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. Who could have thought that from the horror of Calvary's bloody gruesome scene, that He was enduring the cross, despising the shame, for what? For the joy that was set before Him - that is why he tells us: 'Look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith'.
Can I give you the final point? Submit, wait, trust, and beware. Avoid false hopes, that's one way you can cope with the contradictions of life - it may not be a very popular one, but nevertheless it is human in all of us to indulge in false hopes and to grasp at every straw, but that approach only leads to despair. Jeremiah was telling his people in captivity: don't submit to the subtle voices of the false teachers with their false hopes. But there's a good message out of this, and Jeremiah was wanting to communicate to them that our future in God is a real future! It is not the future of airy-fairy tawdry dreams or fanciful visionaries, it is not some unreal spiritual realm, but it exists not only in eternity which is real, but in the reality of normal everyday life! Hence the marrying, building of houses, and eventually in 70 years time the return to the land.
Now listen: what are you going through today? You might have an awful disease, you might have a widowed heart, you might have a broken marriage, you might have problems with your children, you might have dwindling profits in your business, you might have failed your exams, ruined your future - but listen: you've got something that this world does not have, cannot give you, and cannot take away. You have Jesus! Is that all you can tell us?
'What tho' all my earthly journey
Bringeth naught but weary hours,
And, in grasping for life's roses,
Thorns I find instead of flow'rs -
If I've Jesus, "Jesus only",
I possess a cluster rare;
He’s the "Lily of the Valley",
And the "Rose of Sharon" fair'.
He is our peace, He is our hope, He is our expected end; and none can take Him away from us.
Our Father, we pray that You will help us to learn the lessons that Judah failed to learn: how to cope with the contradictions of this life, when we feel it Thy divine providence is leading us into a place that we do not understand, and we may even object could not possibly be Thy will. Lord, we pray that You will help us, if it is indeed Thy will, to submit, to accept and embrace it, to wait upon Thee, to trust in Thee - the One who has only plans of good, plans for peace, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us an expected end. Help us to beware of false hopes. Lord, help us only to listen to Thee, for all other ground is sinking sand other than the Rock, Christ Jesus. We thank Thee that if everything is stripped from us in this life, that nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whose name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording titled "Coping With The Contradictions Of Life" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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