God will give His people rest ... and His enemies unrest.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 50
This is our final study in Jeremiah, and we cover part of an oracle that should come as no surprise. Though Babylon was God's chosen instrument to bring judgment on His people, their haughty enjoyment of that tragedy will bring God's judgment upon them as well. And in the end, God's people will be forgiven and restored.
Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of Armies is his name. (50:34)
[heartlight used a different translation then we do for this poster, but I liked their image]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
This week's passage is about the inevitable destruction of Babylon. We have covered this topic before (multiple times) in Ezekiel, Daniel, the Minor Prophets ... and also Revelation (but more on that below). I'm gonna guess that any discussion ideas I come up with could be something you've already used. So, let me throw a few ideas your way, and maybe that will help you brainstorm something that will work for your group.
Famous Last Words
Here's the idiom dictionary: "said when someone makes a statement that is shown very soon, and in an embarrassing way, to be wrong". Some examples: "I told my roommate that I would never get into a serious relationship with that guy. Famous last words!" "He said that no one would ever hit 60 home runs again. Famous last words!" "He said that I would regret not investing in bitcoin. Famous last words!"
Have you ever said any "famous last words"?
A lot of people around Jerusalem were saying that Babylon was going to be the greatest power the world had ever seen. Famous last words!
A variation of that would be Have you ever "eaten crow"?. Go with whatever saying is in your group's vernacular.
God really doesn't like "evil empires". They believe that might makes right, and that they are above accountability. Inevitably, the emperor of said empire starts to be treated as a god.
But goodness, writers sure love to put them into space operas!
What the "empire" you most loathe in fiction? And what do you hate the most about them? I have a particularly "soft spot" in my heart for the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. George Lucas wasn't trying to make them anything other than extremely obviously evil. Well done.
The "evil empire" this week is Babylon. We've talked a lot about Babylon. God talks a lot about Babylon. Much more to say about them below.
One last easy/obvious idea is to talk about "just desserts" ("they got what was coming to them"). What's your favorite book/movie scene in which the antagonist got his just desserts? I always loved the scene in Goonies where the jerk-preppy-boy-wannabe-boyfriend was thrown off the toilet by strange movie magic (never mind how absurdly crass the movie is upon rewatch as an adult). And the scene in Aladdin where Jafar is sucked into the lamp. And Rhett's line in Gone with the Wind -- pretty epic. Anyway, I digress.
Babylon is going to get their just desserts. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of their life. (Sorry, couldn't help it. I also enjoy when Nazis get their just desserts.)
Where We Are in Jeremiah
The end! The final chapters of Jeremiah leave the narrative and include some oracles:
Chapter 46 -- about Egypt
Chapter 47 -- about the Philistines
Chapter 48 -- about Moab
Chapter 49 -- about Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Elam
Chapter 50-51 -- about Babylon
(I don't know anything about the Quickview Bible, but this map is quite useful.) The oracle about Babylon is by far the longest in the book, and it's pretty overwhelming. The point is that Babylon will fall, and we'll get more into that below. What's fun about this is that Jeremiah sent this oracle to Babylon with a delegation (that might be too strong a word -- it seems that Nebuchadnezzar called on Zedekiah and his court to "visit" Babylon). These words were read aloud in Babylon itself!
Some of these oracles some with timestamps, and they are not in chronological order. I think the purpose of saving them until the end is straightforward -- God's people have fallen; the end is nigh; God's enemies (maybe even God's people!) will see this as a sign of God's weakness.
Nope. Set aside that childish thinking.
Everything that happens on the earth happens according to God's plan for human history. And everyone will be held to account for their actions, wicked or gracious.
Aside: don't sleep on chapter 52! Chapter 52 is clearly identified as a postscript that Jeremiah didn't write. It was probably written well into the exile by one of Jeremiah's followers who wanted to explain all of the ways that Jeremiah's prophecies had been fulfilled. It is a quick summary of the final years of Jerusalem -- the end of the line of Zedekiah, the destruction of Jerusalem, the sacking of the temple, and the exile of the people.
Note: the numbers given for each wave of exile is smaller than listed elsewhere (i.e., 2 Ki 24:14). The most likely explanation: Jeremiah 52 is focused solely on the ruling families in Jerusalem (as we know, the book has given us a lot of names of officials and other people of prominence). Many more Jews than just these were taken to Babylon, but these were the ones that Nebuchadnezzar "targeted".
Finally, note the odd addendum about Jehoiachin. This does two things: it provides a measure of hope (the Jews would find kindness in Babylon), and it sets the stage for the return of the line of David.
This Week's Big Idea: Babylon
Jeremiah 50:1 is directed against "the land of the Chaldeans". That's because Nebuchadnezzar was from the people group called the Chaldeans (and then he became emperor of the whole kit and kaboodle). We've covered Babylon in depth in the not-too-distant past, so I'm going to send you to those posts if you want more information.
All about Babylon (the city and the empire)
All about Nebuchadnezzar
All about the "chain of empires" in Daniel
In the time of Jeremiah, Babylon was the greatest empire the world had ever seen, Babylon was the most important city in the world, and Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful man in the world.
Persia built on top of Babylon, Greece on Persia, and Rome on Greece. But at the time of Jeremiah, Babylon was the "evil empire to end all evil empires".
That's what makes the prophecies in Jeremiah 50-51 so very interesting. The fall of Babylon is one of the most important events in human history, and the accounts of how it happened do not agree on the details (the ones that survived were commissioned for political purposes). After Nebuchadnezzar's death, Babylon slowly decayed under poor leadership. This emboldened the tribes to the north (Medes and Persians) to rise up. They amassed a huge army that terrified the weak leaders of Babylon. According to predominant legend, that army (under Cyrus the Great) marched in and took control of Babylon without a fight, such was their terror.
Both the Persians and the Greeks maintained Babylon as an important regional capital. But as power shifted further and further west, Babylon became too costly to maintain. By 200 AD, it was abandoned.
Read these chapters with that brief history in mind.
This Week's Bonus Big Idea: Babylon and Revelation
I can't help but think about John's Revelation when I read this. We studied Revelation in 2015 (I know, that was a while ago). Not surprisingly, Lifeway added it to a quarter on the rest of John's letters, meaning that we only had a few lessons in the book. I just put the two lessons up that have anything to do with Babylon:
"Babylon" has clearly become code for all of the enemies of God. It is the quintessential "evil empire" of humanity. Why?
I can come up with three reasons:
In the heyday of the great Old Testament prophets (think about it -- Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel), Babylon was their actual big bad. God is "silent" during the fall of Persia, the rise and fall of Greece, and the rise of Rome. Bible readers are left with the indelible memories of Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.
In the New Testament times, possessing anti-Roman propaganda was considered a crime (Jeremiah would not have been tolerated). So, authors substituted "Babylon" for "Rome" in order to protect the people who carried those letters.
For me personally, I can't help but focus on the connection between Babylon and Babel. Babel (which was almost certainly located near the site of Babylon, see Dan 1:2) represents humanity's combined rebellion against God. Babylon was the "successor" to Babel in many ways. To keep pointing the reader all the way to Babel, God maintained Babylon as the "apex evil empire".
The "why" really isn't that important. What matters is that God decided that Babylon was the appropriate representation of human rebellion against Him. We are to read chapters 50-51 as against Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon (and thus fully fulfilled), but we can note that God already knows that He will use Babylon as a future illustration of His judgment.
Part 1: Vengeance Exacted (Jeremiah 50:11-16)
11 Because you rejoice, because you celebrate— you who plundered my inheritance— because you frolic like a young cow treading grain and neigh like stallions, 12 your mother will be utterly humiliated; she who bore you will be put to shame. Look! She will lag behind all the nations—an arid wilderness, a desert. 13 Because of the Lord’s wrath, she will not be inhabited; she will become a desolation, every bit of her. Everyone who passes through Babylon will be appalled and scoff because of all her wounds. 14 Line up in battle formation around Babylon, all you archers! Shoot at her! Do not spare an arrow, for she has sinned against the Lord. 15 Raise a war cry against her on every side! She has thrown up her hands in surrender; her defense towers have fallen; her walls are demolished. Since this is the Lord’s vengeance, take your vengeance on her; as she has done, do the same to her. 16 Cut off the sower from Babylon as well as him who wields the sickle at harvest time. Because of the oppressor’s sword, each will turn to his own people, each will flee to his own land.
So, here we go! Nothing that requires too much explanation. The people of Babylon celebrated its expansion (at the expense of the conquered peoples, including God's people).
I love the image of a cow frolicking in the grain. I love it so much that I tried to get Dall-E to create it for me. It had no idea what I was talking about (though these fake Dall-E graphics look disturbingly real):
The idea behind the image is that as cows treaded the grain on a threshing floor, they would also eat it ("do not muzzle an ox..."), which must have made them pretty happy. So, yes, this is about the people of Babylon crushing and eating their neighbors. 😲
[Side note: some scholars believe this should be translated as "frolic like calves in pasture". Boring!]
Their "mother" is the Babylonian Empire. And this was quite literally fulfilled.
Here's Babylon today. The Iraqi desert. What happened? Historians will tell you that a combination of repeated invasions, crop mismanagement, and shifts in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers turned the region into a desert wasteland. That might be how God accomplished it, but we know that God is how this happened.
Verse 15 sounds a lot to me like the bloodless surrender of the city under Belshazzar (see "the writing on the wall" in Daniel 5).
It's all a very poetic description of the end of Babylon, as it should be. Lesson: being used to bring about God's greater purposes does not excuse/forgive someone for their sin.
Current Event Caution
Someone in your group may be tempted to bring up the destruction in Maui (or Ukraine or Niger or name any other current event destruction) as an illustration. And that's understandable! The devastation certainly seems like the devastation wrought in Babylon over the centuries.
If anyone does that, just be sure to say this: we have not been told that Maui's destruction is God's judgment on their sin. There are plenty of good Christians in that area who have sacrificed their own well-being to help their neighbors. It's an illustration but not a parallel. Does that make sense?
Part 2: Return Promised (Jeremiah 50:17-20)
17 Israel is a stray lamb, chased by lions. The first who devoured him was the king of Assyria; the last who crushed his bones was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
18 Therefore, this is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: I am about to punish the king of Babylon and his land just as I punished the king of Assyria.
19 I will return Israel to his grazing land, and he will feed on Carmel and Bashan; he will be satisfied in the hill country of Ephraim and of Gilead. 20 In those days and at that time—this is the Lord’s declaration— one will search for Israel’s iniquity, but there will be none, and for Judah’s sins, but they will not be found, for I will forgive those I leave as a remnant.
First, this is a helpful history lesson. Last week, I linked to some lessons we had in Isaiah in which the leaders in Jerusalem were tempted to rely on Egypt (rather than God) when Assyria came in to destroy the northern kingdom (Israel/Samaria). That was only about 100 years before Jeremiah's day.
I'd say the most important thing to note is the reference to what we studied a few weeks ago:
31:33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their iniquity and never again remember their sin.
The cynic will look at the return of Israel with skepticism: "they were in the land before, and look what happened; what will be different the next time?" In other words, why will the return to the land go better than the last time?
A parallel question is this: when is this going to happen? The idea that the people will be without sin makes me think of the new heaven and the new earth (which is partly why I made those connections to Revelation above). Thus, this is an end-of-days prophecy that hasn't been fulfilled yet.
But it's also possible that God is talking about a post-Jesus day. Jesus has given Christians His righteousness, so when God "looks" at us (in judgment), He does not see us but Christ. In other words, God might be "searching" for our sin, but only finding Christ's righteousness.
I think that latter is probably the better way to look at this passage. Verses 17 and 19 make it clear that the image is metaphorical. In verse 17, the people are lambs -- notable for their utter helplessness. In verse 19, the people are the cows of Bashan -- notable for being extremely fat (in a happy way).
That would suggest to me that verse 20 is also poetic -- God isn't "searching" for our sin because it no longer exists (as it will be in heaven) but because it has been "hidden" ("covered" by the blood of the Lamb, just as our lives are now hidden with Christ in God).
I take verse 20's "in those days" to refer to the world after the cross. God's people (who would soon include the Gentiles) would all enjoy the fulfillment of this prophecy.
I think it's worth diving back into God's covenant with the Jews and how it is echoed in His covenant with us in Jesus. I talked about this in more detail in the lesson on Ezekiel 11 (linked above). The following is a quote from that post:
"But the idea of a Promised Land is a big deal in the Old Testament. The idea of "promise" dominates the book of Genesis. God repeatedly makes a three-fold promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
The promise of children (an heir)
The promise of a land (an inheritance)
The promise of a blessing (a heritage)
The promise doesn't make any sense unless you take all three parts together.
In the New Testament, we are given a spin on that promise:
Jesus is the ultimate "promised child"
Our inheritance is the eternal riches of God
The gospel is the blessing to the world
In other words, we realize that the idea of a promised land foreshadows our eternal home and rest in the presence of God."
The promise God made to His people is that they would have
When you really boil that down, what more could anyone want? Its ultimate fulfillment will be in the new heaven and earth, but we enjoy the reality of it even now. Thank God that He allowed us to be born in a day when we can know the fulfillment of these great promises.
Part 3: Redemption Assured (Jeremiah 50:33-34)
33 This is what the Lord of Armies says:
Israelites and Judeans alike have been oppressed. All their captors hold them fast; they refuse to release them. 34 Their Redeemer is strong; the Lord of Armies is his name. He will fervently champion their cause so that he might bring rest to the earth but turmoil to those who live in Babylon.
There is a perfectly understandable skip of verses 50:21-32. Those verses really just flesh out the imagery of the fall of Babylon. Because this is our last week in Jeremiah, you gotta pick and choose, I suppose.
Secular historians will argue that the Jews were released from their Babylonian captivity by the benevolence of Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror who endeared himself to the peoples of the Babylonian Empire by releasing the captives, giving them freedom, autonomy, and the right to their own identity. And he did that! He's called "the Great" for decent reasons.
Why do you think God put him in charge of the Persian armies at that time? God, the Lord of all armies, had a plan, and Cyrus was "the man for the job".
I don't normally encourage this, but because I have already emphasized the foreshadowing of Revelation, I'd like us to read verse 34 "spiritually". Take the historical context out of it. If you were to read the New Testament, then read this verse by itself, what would it mean to you?
Let me cut to the chase -- I find this verse so incredibly powerful and encouraging. It encourages faith in God. It tells me about God's strength. It gives me a picture of heaven and of judgment. Really -- talk about all of the things that this verse captures.
[Aside: "rest" and "turmoil". These are super-important words to the Jews, and this should be even more clear knowing that the word "turmoil" is literally "un-rest". God will bring rest to His people and unrest to His enemies. I'm going to let you do this homework -- what is important about the Hebrew concept of "rest", and what does it have to do with heaven?]
Truth be told, this is all stuff that we should know and know well. Unfortunately, we live in a world that is rapidly ignoring these truths. This poll was released a month ago, and I haven't found a place to work it in (until now).
To give you a peak into how cynical I've become, these numbers re actually higher than I expected. But my goodness, the drop in just 20 years' time is ridiculous. Where will we be in another 20 years?
For the purposes of my point, I'm looking at the numbers for "Hell". If you don't believe in hell, you certainly don't believe in a Last Judgment. And that's what this passage is beautifully capturing: God will hold all people to account for their actions. There will be a final judgment. And that judgment is for the good of His people -- it's the only way to remove sin and yet be consistent with His mercy and holiness.
In other words, this week's passage covers basic truths that all Christians should know. But I think it is safe to wonder if everyone in your group actually knows (and believes) them.
You leader guide says to memorize verse 34. Definitely! I also think you should close out this week's group time with a walkthrough of all of the truths contained in it. List all of the doctrines we learn and ask what questions your group members might have about them. You might not have time to share the answers then, but you can put it on your list to cover over a nice lunch! :)