When God tells us to choose "A", why do we want to choose "B"?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 42
In this very depressing passage that marks the end of Jeremiah's story, the surviving Jews ask God (through Jeremiah) if they should flee from Nebuchadnezzar. God says no, and if they do, they will die. Guess what they do? And these were the people who said they would obey God! It's a lesson in how people justify their disobedience and rebellion.
Don’t be afraid of the king of Babylon whom you now fear (42:11)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Taking the Wrong Advice
We've done variations on this topic because it's so rich and relatable, so here's a twist (that may require too much thought -- you can always keep it simple). Have you ever taken the wrong advice? Two friends give you different advice on which job to take / which college to attend / which person to date / which stock to invest in, etc. What happened and what was the fallout?
Here's where the overthinking comes in: did you ever wonder why the friends gave you the different advice in the first place? And the really-deep-overthinking-hindsight question: should you have known to take the other advice?
In my experience, most of the time the "bad advice" I've taken was well-intentioned; it just didn't work out. That person didn't have all of the facts, or the circumstances changed after the advice was given.
But sometimes the person who gave me the "bad advice" set off some warning lights that I ignored -- I wasn't convinced that they really knew what they were talking about / I wasn't sure they really had my personal best interests at heart / I didn't really know that much about them in the first place.
Today, we're going to read about a group of people who took the wrong advice. (In this case, they listened to their own hearts rather than God, and that can be its own topic which I'll put below.) It cost them everything. Often, when we take the wrong advice, the stakes aren't as high as they are in this week's passage, but we can still set ourselves back a great deal.
If you want to push this topic to its conclusion, end with this question: what are the characteristics of someone whose advice you should trust?
A Time When You Blatantly Ignored God
This week's passage is startlingly simple: God gave some people some very clear, very reasonable advice, and they did the opposite. The outcome was disastrous.
We don't have prophets like Jeremiah today (don't listen to anyone who suggests otherwise) who will be an intermediary between people and God (ask a question, get an answer). Why? Because we have the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We don't need a Jeremiah when we have God's Spirit. Anyway, that's what I have in mind when I propose this question: what was a time you ignored God's advice?
I'm not necessarily thinking of a time you ignored a command in the Bible. That's sin. We all do that all the time. No, I'm thinking of a time you "went to God for advice" (that might be in prayer or in Bible study) on the kind of decision you might go to a friend for advice. How to respond in a certain situation. What job to take. Which church to join. A decision that didn't have a clear guideline in the Bible. And then you felt like God gave you that advice. But you didn't take it. "I believe I know what God would want me to do in this situation, but I don't want to do it." Have you ever done that? What were the circumstances, and what was the outcome?
In my experience, doing that is motivated by the idea that "I know better what I need than God does". When you say it out loud, it sounds pretty dumb. But that's how our sinful, prideful rebellion works. "God's gonna be too late." "God doesn't understand how I feel." "God's gonna tell me to do something I don't wanna do." "I'll come out better for myself if I take matters into my own hands." Have you ever said any of those things to yourself?
If you just want a more lighthearted way to get into this lesson, maybe go with something like this. I can't stress enough how straightforward this week's passage is. People ask God for advice. God says to do "A". And then God adds, "And if you do 'B', you'll die a horrible death far from home." Guess what the people do?
That happens around us all the time, doesn't it? You tell your kids, "Don't do this." What do they immediately want to do? It's such an annoying problem that we've come up with this "reverse psychology" thing in which we tell someone to do the opposite of what we really want them to do. As Hobbes said, "Kind of risky, don't you think?"
There are two ways you could go with this topic:
Have you ever successfully used reverse psychology? What made it work?
And the more serious question that leads into the lesson: why would people want to do something they've been told not to do?
Important note: if you choose to use this topic, make it clear that there is no "reverse psychology" going on in the passage. I'm simply using the existence of "reverse psychology" to demonstrate our propensity to sin.
Another version of this would be to describe a time you gave (or so you thought) simple, clear, reasonable instructions that were not followed. I'm sure you've been in a situation where you know you were extremely clear about what you wanted (to a child in your class, an employee, a family member) only for them to not do it. How frustrating! Why do you think it happened? Were they not paying attention? Did they not understand? Not care? Were they just being rebellious?
In this week's passage, there were no potential excuses. The people understood exactly what God told them to do. And they chose deliberately to do the opposite. (They justified it by saying that God hadn't really told them to do that, but more about that below.)
Where We Are in Jeremiah
Not only is this week's passage straightforward, it's also utterly heartbreaking.
Last week's passage took place sometime during Jehoiakim's first ill-advised rebellion against Babylon in ~605/4 BC. The chronology of things is roughly agreed upon:
~602/1 BC -- Jehoiakim's second ill-advised rebellion
598 BC -- Nebuchadnezzar finally gets around to crushing the rebellion; Jehoiakim dies and is replaced by his son Jehoiachin
597 BC -- the second deportation; Nebuchadnezzar carts off Jehoiachin and Ezekiel and many others to Babylon and installs Jehoiakim's brother Zedekiah
588-6 BC -- a third ill-advised rebellion results in Nebuchadnezzar wiping out everybody, destroying Jerusalem, and installing Gedaliah as regional governor
not long after -- Jewish extremists assassinate Gedaliah and kidnap Jeremiah and flee to Egypt (this week's chapter)
The section of the book we are in right now roughly follows that chronology:
Chapter 36 (last week) -- during Jehoiakim's rebellion
Chapter 37 -- during Zedekiah's rebellion, Jeremiah is thrown in prison on a false charge of desertion
Chapter 38 -- describes some heinous treatment while Jeremiah is in prison; Jeremiah secretly tells the king that if he surrenders, he will survive
Chapter 39 -- after Zedekiah is captured and Jerusalem is conquered, Jeremiah is treated respectfully by Nebuchadnezzar
Chapter 40 -- Jeremiah is placed under the care of Gedaliah who tells the people to submit to Babylonian rule and live in safety
Chapter 41 -- Jewish extremists assassinate Gedaliah and kidnap everybody who was with him in his capital, including Jeremiah
Chapter 42 -- the surviving Jewish army rescues Jeremiah and asks him what God would have them do, and he tells them to stay in Israel and submit to Babylon
Chapter 43 -- some loudmouths reject Jeremiah's advice and flee to Egypt with Jeremiah; along the way, Jeremiah tells them it will not end well for them
Chapter 44 -- a prophecy to everybody who fled to Egypt: death
The rest of the book is a collection of oracles/prophecies. The chronology isn't particularly important at that point.
This Week's Big Idea: What Happened to Jeremiah?
This is the million-dollar question, and the truth is that we don't know. I'd say that it's almost certain that Jeremiah died in Egypt -- perhaps (according to oral tradition) he was killed by the people who kidnapped him!
The weeping prophet indeed. The world was not worthy of him.
For my part, here's where things get weird. 43:6 tells us that the deserters also took Baruch with them. But in chapter 45, we read a prophecy God gave to Baruch (during the events of last week's passage) to stay strong, that he would not be killed. Why would Baruch (if he was indeed a later editor of this book) put that there? If Jeremiah was killed in Egypt, why wouldn't Baruch say anything about that?
Maybe Baruch felt like he didn't need to state the obvious. Maybe he escaped. Maybe he was separated from Jeremiah on the journey. We just don't know any of the details.
Such a depressing end for Jeremiah.
Part 1: There Is a Right Choice (Jeremiah 42:7-12)
7 At the end of ten days, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, 8 and he summoned Johanan son of Kareah, all the commanders of the armies who were with him, and all the people from the least to the greatest.
9 He said to them, “This is what the Lord says, the God of Israel to whom you sent me to bring your petition before him: 10 ‘If you will indeed stay in this land, then I will rebuild and not demolish you, and I will plant and not uproot you, because I relent concerning the disaster that I have brought on you. 11 Don’t be afraid of the king of Babylon whom you now fear; don’t be afraid of him’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘because I am with you to save you and rescue you from him. 12 I will grant you compassion, and he will have compassion on you and allow you to return to your own soil.’
Long story short:
Jewish extremists had assassinated the Babylonian governor and kidnapped everybody in the capital
Jewish army commanders decide that was a bad idea, and they rescue everybody who was kidnapped (including Jeremiah), but they're afraid that Nebuchadnezzar will kill them all anyway
They ask Jeremiah what they should do, and after ten days, God sends His answer to Jeremiah
Be super clear about this -- these are the people's own words to Jeremiah:
42:5 And they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we don’t act according to every word the Lord your God sends you to tell us. 6 Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, we will obey the Lord our God to whom we are sending you so that it may go well with us. We will certainly obey the Lord our God!”
Really simple. The people ask Jeremiah what God wants them to do, and they say they will obey the word of God.
And God tells them to stay in the land. It is implied that God will deal with Nebuchadnezzar in such a way that he will not blame these Jews for the actions of the extremist (whose name was Ishmael, btw).
I don't know what else to say. The people ask God if they should flee from Nebuchadnezzar, or if they should stay in Israel. God says to stay. That's it.
Part 2: And There Is a Wrong Choice (Jeremiah 42:13-18)
13 “But if you say, ‘We will not stay in this land,’ in order to disobey the Lord your God, 14 and if you say, ‘No, instead we’ll go to the land of Egypt where we will not see war or hear the sound of the ram’s horn or hunger for food, and we’ll live there,’ 15 then hear the word of the Lord, remnant of Judah! This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you are firmly resolved to go to Egypt and stay there for a while, 16 then the sword you fear will overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine you are worried about will follow on your heels there to Egypt, and you will die there. 17 All who resolve to go to Egypt to stay there for a while will die by the sword, famine, and plague. They will have no survivor or fugitive from the disaster I will bring on them.’
18 “For this is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘Just as my anger and fury were poured out on Jerusalem’s residents, so will my fury pour out on you if you go to Egypt. You will become an example for cursing, scorn, execration, and disgrace, and you will never see this place again.’
And then God makes things extra, extra clear.
You have two options.
Choose option A and live.
Choose option B and die.
No need to make this complicated.
Why would the people consider fleeing to Egypt? They wanted to put as much distance between themselves and Nebuchadnezzar as possible. A logical decision. A logical decision until you realize it's driven by fear, underestimates Babylon's reach, and goes completely against the Word of God. So, actually, an illogical decision.
And we can't try to put this into today's terms with a phrase like "when your head says one thing and your heart says something else, listen to your heart" because that's terrible advice. Our hearts are terribly fickle! And our heads can be persuaded of any number of falsehoods.
These Jews thought the "smart" thing to do was to run away from Nebuchadnezzar. But when they asked God, God told them to do the opposite.
So then, this passage becomes an exercise of faith vs. doubt. We've talked about that a lot. I doubt I need to give you anything more to turn that into a 30 minute discussion.
Here's a tagline from a previous Bible study:
This week: Judah seemed to think it would be wiser to rely on Egypt's army rather than God for defense against Assyria.
Whoa -- is that from this week? Nope, that's from Isaiah 31.
It was a parallel situation to ours this week. Assyria had conquered Samaria (the northern kingdom) and was threatening Jerusalem. The king of Jerusalem was tempted to make an alliance with Egypt for self-protection. God said that He will protect Jerusalem. All the Jews have to do is trust Him.
Hezekiah chose to trust God, and God miraculously saved the city:
The discussion questions we used were things like:
Who do you trust?
Where do you go for advice?
You can certainly use those here, but I think a better way to go would be a question like "When was a time your 'head/heart' told you to do one thing, but you knew that the Bible told you to do something different?"
[Aside: Let me point out one example and use that to explain where this topic so often goes off the rails. Gender transitioning. Some people who call themselves Christian try to make "logical" arguments in favor of letting doctors do these things to children. They pull in science and psychology and whatever. But they also know that the Bible says that God made us male or female and that God loves us the way He created us. They are choosing "science" above God's Word. That's not logical! That's the heart rebelling against God and justifying it with scientific jargon. God is the Author of truth and reality, so any attempt to pit science vs. God, is just masking the real issue: sin. It's a rebellion against God very much like the people in this week's passage.]
In this week's passage, the situation is very overt: God gave the people two choices and told them that one of the choices was the right one.
It's not always that obvious in our own lives. You might have to stop and think to come up with a personal parallel (and it probably won't be so dire!).
Part 3: Make the Right Choice (Jeremiah 42:19-22)
19 The Lord has spoken concerning you, remnant of Judah: ‘Don’t go to Egypt.’ Know for certain that I have warned you today! 20 You have gone astray at the cost of your lives because you are the ones who sent me to the Lord your God, saying, ‘Pray to the Lord our God on our behalf, and as for all that the Lord our God says, tell it to us, and we’ll act accordingly.’ 21 For I have told you today, but you have not obeyed the Lord your God in everything he has sent me to tell you. 22 Now therefore, know for certain that by the sword, famine, and plague you will die in the place where you desired to go to stay for a while.”
For the sake of this lesson, I'm going to call these verses redundant. "I just told you what God says, so you had better do what God says."
In other words, make the right choice. "Do the right thing."
It's easy, right? Cut-and-dried, right?
Then why do we so often do things that we regret? Why do we so often "make the wrong choice"?
I strongly encourage you to go into the next chapter to see how this (inevitably) turned out:
43:1 When Jeremiah had finished speaking to all the people all the words of the Lord their God—all these words the Lord their God had sent him to give them— 2 then Azariah son of Hoshaiah, Johanan son of Kareah, and all the other arrogant men responded to Jeremiah, “You are speaking a lie! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to stay there for a while!’ 3 Rather, Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Chaldeans to put us to death or to deport us to Babylon!” 4 So Johanan son of Kareah, all the commanders of the armies, and all the people failed to obey the Lord’s command to stay in the land of Judah. 5 Instead, Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the armies led away the whole remnant of Judah, those who had returned to stay in the land of Judah from all the nations where they had been banished.
Wow. That wasn't just the wrong choice -- that was walking up to the cliff's edge, building a ramp, buying a motorcycle, and then hurtling yourself into oblivion at top speed. (Unlike Tom Cruise, you don't have a parachute.)
What I think is worth getting into is the reasoning: How did these people justify rejecting the clear instruction of God? "God didn't really say that. You're putting words into God's mouth."
This is a variation of the oldest lie:
“Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:2)
For people who claim to care about God, isn't that what they say to justify how they can land on the side of an issue that seems to be to us far away from God?
That's not what God meant.
God didn't actually say that.
The locus of all of these debates is the Bible, isn't it?
That's why we teach and study the Bible. We want to know the best we can what God said so that we can live by it as best we can.
The purpose of this week's passage is primarily historical. This lets you know what happened to the Jews who were living in Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar finally destroyed the city and razed the temple. But it's also a valuable warning: even at the "end of the world", people will still find a way to rebel against God.
Make a commitment to obey God, even when you think you have reasons not to.
Ask yourself how you tend to act in a crisis. If it's not a calm, selfless, faithful following of Jesus, ask God to help you change.
God loves you and wants what's best for you. Listen to Him!