A Praying Prophet
Jeremiah has often been called “the weeping prophet,” but perhaps he should also be called “the praying prophet.” Like many prophets, Jeremiah regularly asked God for guidance on behalf of others in the Israelite community (cf. Jeremiah 37 and 42). He also brought his own troubles to the Lord, lamenting both his calling and its context in history.
There is, however, another aspect to Jeremiah’s prayer life, one that inevitably raises some difficult questions for our own practice of prayer. Apparently, Jeremiah regularly prayed for the people of Israel. Like Moses before him, he regularly interceded for Israel with God, pleading with the Lord not to bring upon them the tragedy that He had promised.
An Unsettling Response
And that is where the problem comes in. You see, on three different occasions, God told the prophet not to pray for the people (Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). It is hard for us, on this side of the cross, to imagine a turn of events like this. It must have been difficult for Jeremiah to imagine as well.
And yet, God had already demonstrated that He was more than willing to punish His people when He exiled the northern kingdom to Assyria more than a century earlier. As God explains to Jeremiah, Judah’s conduct, like that of the northern kingdom, had reached new lows. Corruption, injustice, and idolatry characterized the lives of far too many in Judah. And the fact that they had the gall to show up at the temple and proclaim the covenant (implicitly asserting their own faithfulness to God and explicitly calling upon God to uphold His end of the bargain with respect to the Babylonian juggernaut) only made things worse.
Jeremiah and God’s Redemptive Agenda
The whole sad affair is fascinating. It calls into question some of our most treasured assumptions about who God is and how God acts. It stands in stark contrast to so much of the preaching that we hear today, obsessed as it is with stroking our self-esteem and telling us that God is on our side.
But the question that I keep pondering is this. What, if anything, does this mean for my own practice of prayer? Frankly, I need radical grace. As do the people in my neighborhood and on my social media accounts. So does my nation. Are there really times when God would say to me, “Stop praying for them?”
Of course, we need to recognize that we stand on the other side of the cross from Jeremiah. That fact changes not only how we understand God but also how we interact with God in prayer. Nevertheless, I think that we need to keep in mind that we are not the ultimate determiners of what is appropriate when it comes to our prayer life. Our baptismal proclamation is, “Jesus is Lord,” and that means that he has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (to borrow language from Matthew 28:18). God’s agenda, and not our own, must be the guiding principle for our prayers.
Moreover, as difficult as it may be to understand, Romans 9:6-29 seems to say that not every person, group, or nation has the same role in God’s unfolding agenda for history. Our job is to pray for the good of those around us (cf. Jeremiah 29:7), even those who set themselves at enmity with us (cf. Matthew 5:43-48). That having been said, we cannot fight the will of God, and, indeed, it would be unrighteous for us to do so. If God has determined that a particular person, group, or nation must experience the negative consequences of their actions, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that God might inform the sensitive and mature disciple of His decision and command that disciple not to oppose this decision in prayer.
More to the Story
Even as I type these words, I feel squeamish about them. But they remind us that repentance is a blessed gift that ought to be treasured. They also remind us that God’s grace is not to be presumed upon.
Fortunately, Jeremiah is not the final word. Yes, the Babylonians raped and pillaged their way through Judah until the entire nation had been destroyed. Yes, many good and faithful people were caught up in the tidal wave of God’s anger and carried into exile (or worse). But the Babylonians were eventually conquered by the Persians. Great leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah helped the Jews re-establish their national identity. More hard times would come with the rise of first Greek and then Roman civilization, but the composite culture that emerged, along with its material artifacts, would make it possible for a man named Jesus to not only come as Israel’s Anointed One but also to change the world forever as its Savior and Lord. It is his life of prayer to which we will turn next week.