Being the Lord’s servant is a calling that impacts life in very personal ways. In this chapter we see how this was true for Jeremiah. In the opening verses of chapter 16, God commands Jeremiah “not to marry and have sons or daughters in this place” (2). Further, God instructs him to avoid the normal social gatherings associated with sorrow and joy. He is not to go to funerals (5) or feasts (8) in the homes of his countrymen. On top of all this, he is to continue to broadcast a message of severe, coming judgment that seems both unwanted and unjust to all around him (10).
When resisted and rejected by his fellow-Jews, Jeremiah would have no wife or kids to comfort and support him. He would “sit alone” (15:17), misunderstood (breaking social conventions by avoiding funerals and feasts) and miserable. In 15:17, when Jeremiah was pouring out complaint to God, he alluded to how isolated he felt: “I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation.”
But God’s instructions and impositions were not irrational or capricious: they were protective and prophetic. Abstaining from marriage and family was to protect Jeremiah from the grief of watching disease and death hit those he loved most (3-4). Avoiding funerals and weddings was a way to foreshadow the coming devastation when death would be so widespread that proper funerals (6-7) and joyful feasts would cease to happen (9). Jeremiah’s absence at these events would give occasion for conversations where he would underscore the message of coming destruction.
The destruction of the city and people is said to be due to the “stubbornness” of their “evil hearts.” The phrase, “stubbornness of your evil hearts”, occurs 8x in the book: 3:17; 7:24; 9:13; 11:8; 13:10; 16:12; 18:12; 23:17. In each case the phrase is virtually the same except for 7:24 which adds the word “inclinations” to the phrase—“stubborn inclinations (plans, schemes) of your evil hearts.” This phrase highlights the need for the new covenant which changes the heart: “I will put my law in their minds (literally, “inward parts”) and write it on their hearts” (31:33).
In previous chapters, we saw how the people of Judah responded to Jeremiah’s dire pronouncements with anger; here they respond with amazement. “Why has the Lord decreed such a great disaster against us? What sin have we committed against the Lord our God?” (10). They seem baffled, unaware of how they could have offended God. Their hearts are not only corrupt but also callous. They have no sense of sinfulness or shame. They see themselves as basically good people who have been faithful to God’s commands. But God sees it differently. “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes” (17).
Here is a reminder that stubborn, sinful people don’t always see themselves as either stubborn or sinful. We humans have a capacity to excuse and exonerate ourselves. This makes the job of a prophet (preacher) more difficult. No wonder Jeremiah was such a pariah. The false prophets were telling the people all was well, giving them a false view of their spiritual condition, assuring them God was on their side. By contrast, Jeremiah was a critical contrarian; his words were not only received as unwelcome but also seen as unwarranted.
This is why the Spirit’s ministry of convicting sinners is essential for fruitful preaching. Since the Spirit uses the Word of God to bring repentance (Acts 2:37), preachers must continue to “preach the Word” even when people are looking for and listening to teachers who tickle their ears (2 Timothy 4:2-4). Still, unless God’s Spirit brings conviction and gives repentance, even those living in flagrant sin will see themselves as guiltless and on good terms with the Almighty.
One of the more sobering lines in this chapter is the Lord’s declaration to Jeremiah in verse 5: “Do not enter a house where there is a funeral meal; do not go to mourn or show sympathy, because I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people.” The Hebrew text reads, “I have gathered and removed my peace (shalom), declares the LORD, the loyal love (hesed) and the mercies.” Perhaps the reason the reference to loyal love and mercies is separated from the word “peace” is to highlight these two terms or to clarify what kind of “peace” was being withdrawn. Loyal love can be withdrawn by God, which would seem to go against the idea that God’s love is unfailing and always loyal. However, the reason God’s loyal love (hesed) is still loyal is that it is not permanently withdrawn from His people. Verses 14-16 speak of a time when God will bring His people back to their land in a dramatic, memorable way.
One implication from this passage is that God’s loyal love is not a safeguard from devastating discipline (even death). Nor is it a license to sin and expect shalom. Not all who claim to belong to God’s people actually do (“Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel”—Romans 9:6; which could be paraphrased, “Not all who go to church are the Church”). Only those who are part of the New Covenant—who have new hearts that know and obey the Lord—can be assured that nothing will separate them from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38-39).