“As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the LORD, we will not hearken unto thee. But we will certainly perform every word that is gone forth out of our mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings unto her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven, and pouring out drink-offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine” (Jeremiah 44:16-18).
The fateful day of reckoning had come and passed, and the people of Judah were left to sort out what happened. Their land was taken; their city destroyed; the Temple of YHWH obliterated. How could this have happened? Where was God in all of this?
Most of the Judeans were taken into exile to Babylon, but some were left in the land. After more misfortune, they decide, against God’s will, to go to Egypt. There many again serve the “Queen of Heaven,” among other gods and goddesses. After all, their reasoning went, life was good in Judah when they served the Queen of Heaven. It was when Hezekiah and Josiah interrupted that service that everything turned for the worse! Thus, they reasoned, there was no point in obeying the word of the LORD.
Their logic may be understandable, but that does not make it right. Notice that the “Queen of Heaven” did not tell them any of this; instead, they are reasoning based only on what they perceive. Meanwhile, Jeremiah is speaking directly from God, not only condemning their current deeds, but making it clear that this disaster did not come without sufficient warning. God made it very clear through the prophets that Jerusalem would be destroyed and the people exiled if they did not change their ways (Jeremiah 44:1-14). The people do not deny any of that. But they still justify their wives’ behavior and idolatry!
What ends up happening to these Judeans? We do not know. We do know that those who believed in YHWH and put away their idols were those who returned to the land of Judah, and a large proportion of more idolatrous Judeans simply assimilated into the cultures among whom they were exiled and thus no longer part of the covenant. A sad fate indeed!
These Judeans are not the only ones to experience great trauma and difficulties and left to sort out what it all means. Unfortunately, many maintain a hardened heart toward God throughout the process, and latch on to whatever reasoning exists that justifies their continued behavior. The reasoning might even make sense. But does that make the reasoning right?
While we cannot and should not say that all difficulties and sufferings that we experience mean that God is punishing us, we are to remember God throughout the process, and realize that it is not within ourselves to direct our own steps, and that we are not sufficient in and of ourselves (cf. Jeremiah 10:23). When God does discipline us, we ought to endure it for our own good (Hebrews 12:3-11). Will we have the faith to turn to God regardless of our circumstances, believing that they will all work out for good somehow (Romans 8:28)? Or will we try to find some way to justify our God-dishonoring behaviors to our own hurt? Let us listen to God’s message and live!
Ethan R. Longhenry