The time is 587 BC, and Jerusalem is besieged. In a few months the nation will be no more, and Jeremiah’s 40 years of unheeded warnings will be vindicated. Not that this brings him any pleasure. He is currently in prison as a traitor, for telling the people that the Babylonians are instruments of God’s judgment, so they should surrender. He is lucky to be alive.
And in this dark place God sent him a very confusing message – he instructed Jeremiah to buy a piece of land already occupied by enemy soldiers! This bewildered the prophet, but not because he doubted God could secure the property for him. His problem was the reason for God’s instruction. The purchase was a sign to Judah that houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land. (Jer. 32:15). A symbol of future hope. Has God changed his mind about judging Israel? Does sin not matter any more? Was there any point to those fruitless decades of preaching and hostility? Has Jeremiah wasted his life?
And so Jeremiah prays. But what should he pray? He doesn’t understand what’s happening and he doesn’t know what to ask for. So he begins with what he knows, about himself (very briefly) and about his God.
Alas, Sovereign LORD! , he begins (Jer. 32:17a). In Hebrew this is an expression of perplexity, of incomprehension. Jeremiah models honesty before God; he is not afraid to say his confusion or his disappointment (see Jer. 15:18; 20:7). I m not happy about this, God. Why did you let this happen to me, Lord? God wants to hear us say how we feel. And then he wants us to look at him:
You have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for you! You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the parents sins into the laps of their children after them. Great and mighty God, whose name is the LORD Almighty, great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds. Your eyes are open to the ways of all mankind; you reward each person according to their conduct and as their deeds deserve. (Jer. 32:17b-19)
Jeremiah takes his time describing God’s character. He uses Scripture to help him, with allusions to Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy. And he puts things into his own words too. But why tell God what God already knows? Yes, this is an important reminder for Jeremiah. But more than that – it’s by telling another person what they are like that we praise them, and it is in the act of praising God that we give the highest expression to who we are, and fulfil the purpose of our existence. This is not about Jeremiah finding reassurance, it is Jeremiah reclaiming his life from the spectre of meaninglessness by being the person he was made to be – one who finds their being in God.
Has this been you? Everything has gone wrong. You can t see where God is in all this. So pray! Begin with some honesty, and go straight from there to the safe harbour of you heavenly Father. Remember what God is like, Father, Son and Spirit. Say it out loud. By this act of praise you will be dropping anchor in the city of the God who helps as morning dawns (Ps. 46:5).
Jeremiah now turns in prayer from God’s character to his mighty acts of the past. Again, it might seem odd to tell God what he already knows, but think of a fan meeting their sporting hero as you read these words, and their praisefulness will be clear:
You performed signs and wonders in Egypt and have continued them to this day, in Israel and among all mankind, and have gained the renown that is still yours. You brought your people Israel out of Egypt with signs and wonders, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror. You gave them this land you had sworn to give to their ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey. (vv. 21-22)
What Jeremiah admires about God is not just his power, but the kindness and faithfulness with which he wields it. The time Jeremiah has spent focusing on God in his prayer has helped him to see the present situation through God’s eyes. No punishment can be too severe for a people that abuse God’s love in the way Israel did:
They came in and took possession of it, but they did not obey you or follow your law; they did not do what you commanded them to do. So you brought all this disaster upon them. See how the siege ramps are built up to take the city! By means of the sword, famine and plague, the city is being given into the hands of the Babylonians who are attacking it. What you said has happened, as you now see.
But this is exactly the problem! What on earth does God mean by holding out hope, now of all times?
Yet, Sovereign LORD, you say to me Buy the field with silver and have the transaction witnessed , while the city is being given into the hands of the Babylonians! (vv. 23-25)
I love the delicacy of Jeremiah’s complaint here. The time he has spent in praise has filled him not only with appreciation of God’s power and justice, but also of his goodness and his longing to make us whole, and so Jeremiah never for a moment suspects God of trickery, or injustice, or cynicism. He just wants to understand how God can be God in this situation. How he can be true to his own justice and true to his own kindness. For God’s wonderful reply, I leave you to read the rest of the chapter.
Prayer is about reestablishing relationship. This is me, here I am. This is you, my powerful, wise and loving God. I am in trouble. I don t understand what is happening. But I know you well enough to trust you completely. Just show me how you are God in this situation and God of this situation, and that will be enough. As for me, the nearness of God is my good (Ps. 73:28).
A final thought: why not consider doing what Jeremiah and the Psalmists did, and sharing your prayer with others once God has answered it, so that your personal journey from perplexity to praise can shine a light on God’s splendour and draw his people to sing his praises together.