Take It to Heart

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Whenever we hear God’s Word, something is likely to get torn. 

Either our hearts will be torn – even to the point that our lives will be disrupted in some way – or we will figure out some way to tear up God’s Word.

Those two alternatives are on display towards the end of the book of Jeremiah, the most famous Hebrew prophet during the final days of the Judean monarchy, about 600 years before Christ.  It was an ominous time for God’s people.  The Babylonian army was devouring Palestine, engulfing one village after another.  The fall of Jerusalem appeared inevitable.  The entire population was on its knees.

But would the people turn to Yahweh for help – the Lord who had always provided for them – or would they bet their lives on one of the myriad pagan deities who also promised deliverance? 

The stage had been set for this moment in history by Josiah, the last king of Judah who loved God with all his heart.  “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his father David [in this context, “father” means ancestor], not turning aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2). 

When the king ordered a long-overdue housecleaning of the Temple, some of his officials found what they called “the Book of the Law.”  Scholars believe they probably uncovered a dusty copy of the book of Deuteronomy, which presents in stark detail the blessings of walking with God – along with the serious consequences of failing to do so.

When they read the manuscript aloud to Josiah, his response was instantaneous.  He tore his robes – a sign of deep anguish (2 Kings 22:11).  Then he promptly instituted Judah’s last great national revival.  Hopefully it wasn’t too late to seek the favor of the God who loved them. 

Jeremiah grew up during this brief spiritual golden age.  Perhaps there was actual hope that Jerusalem might enjoy a happy future.

But Josiah unexpectedly died in battle.  His successors, members of his own family, proved to be bankrupt with regard to faith.  Judah staggered back into idolatry.    

So God took action. 

“In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin’” (Jeremiah 36:1-3).

Here was another chance. 

Jeremiah dictated God’s message to his friend Baruch, who wrote the words on a scroll and read them aloud in the Temple.  Unsurprisingly, the listeners were gripped by fear.  “We must report all these words to the king.”   

This moment is reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s urgent efforts in 1939 to send a personal note to President Franklin Roosevelt.  He warned that Nazi Germany was trying to build an atomic bomb, and the U.S. had better beat them to it.  FDR listened. 

Now everything hangs in the balance for Judah.  Will Jehoiakim listen, too? 

The answer is no.    

It’s the month of December, and the king is sitting in his winter apartment in front of a firepot – essentially a portable heater.  Jeremiah’s scroll is read aloud in his presence.  But when the servant “had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.  The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes” (Jeremiah 36:23-24). 

Whenever we hear God’s Word, something is likely to get torn. 

We can let God’s message tear into our hearts, prompting us to “tear our clothes” in some respect as an act of repentance.  That’s what Josiah did.

Or we can tear up God’s Word and pretend it has nothing to do with our lives.  That’s what Jehoiakim did.    

Mark Twain once quipped, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” 

Wouldn’t it be great to take a sharp knife and cut away certain parts of the Bible?  We can slice and dice what Scripture says about sexual boundaries and throw those texts into the fire.  We can carve out what Jesus says about praying for our enemies – that God wants us to bless them, no less.  Why don’t we just burn up the verses about accountability and judgment in the next world?

There’s no need for an actual knife, of course.  Just close your ears.  Stop listening to God’s prophets and apostles when they bring up subjects that make you fearful, angry, or confused. 

Of course, that will leave you in the same boat as Jehoiakim – a man whose abject failure as a leader spelled doom for his entire nation.

But there’s another path. 

Listen to God’s Word.  Take it to heart.  Let it penetrate your most ancient defenses, even if it feels that your heart might never be the same.  Taking God’s Word to heart means that our inner worlds will have to be remade, rebuilt, restored.

Thank goodness God just happens to be the Great Surgeon.  And he offers this promise:

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).