Imagine yourself in the following set of circumstances: you were living in a good land that you have heard was given to your ancestors by your mighty God. You heard the stories of how God delivered your people from a terrible king, vanquished the land before your people, and constantly delivered and preserved your people. Nevertheless, in your own day a great empire came to your land, destroyed your cities and the temple of your God, and your people have either fled to neighboring countries or were exiled into the empire’s homeland. In this circumstance, what would you think? How would you respond to this series of events?
This is precisely the situation that faced the exiles of Judah in and around the year 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple (2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 39; 52). The people of Judah for years trusted that God would never allow the heathen Babylonians to violate His Temple or profane His land (cf. Jeremiah 7:4). Nevertheless, these very things happened. How did the people of Judah respond?
Jeremiah 44 records for us two examples of responses to the events that occurred. While the context demonstrates that Jeremiah is speaking with some of the exiles who traveled to Egypt, we can be sure that the same issue is under discussion for those in Babylon and other places.
God expected a certain response from the people. He makes it extremely clear why all of these calamities came upon Judah and Jerusalem: the people did not listen to Him through His prophets, continued to worship other gods, and therefore incurred God’s wrath (Jeremiah 44:1-6). Nevertheless, the exiles in Egypt continue to worship other gods, and God demands that they stop this, lest they also be destroyed (Jeremiah 44:7-15). The people, however, responded as follows in Jeremiah 44:16-19:
“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. And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink-offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour out drink-offerings unto her, without our husbands?”
The people of Judah exiled in Egypt did not respond to the calamity according to God’s desire; remaining in their darkened minds, they rather ascribed the calamity to the end of worshiping the Queen of Heaven and not because the people forsook the LORD. One can understand some of the “logic” involved; after all, it was only in the time of Hezekiah, who returned to worshiping the LORD only, that the Assyrians attacked (2 Kings 18-20), and the time of Josiah, the next such reformer, saw the beginning of the end of Judah (2 Kings 22-25). After all, these same Israelites are the ones who constantly rejected the message of Jeremiah in the land (cf. Jeremiah 26:10-12, etc.); should we be surprised when they continue to not listen?
The Scriptures and history, however, are the final judges of these people: all such Jews who worshiped other gods were killed or simply become a part of the populations around them and are lost to history (Jeremiah 44:20-30). Other Jews, more repentant and humbled, did indeed return to the land of Israel in the time of Cyrus the Persian and afterward (cf. Ezra 1-2). Despite all of the idolatry in the land before the Exile, the historical and Biblical evidence is clear that no such idolatry continued when the people returned to the land.
As we can see, many of the Jews would not be humbled in the sight of the LORD but instead found justification in their idols; many other Jews were humbled in the sight of the LORD as He intended (Jeremiah 44:1-6). When we suffer from calamity, how do we respond? Will we, as many whose minds are darkened by the world, blame God, find a reason to deny or reject the faith, or in some other way turn to some modern idol (cf. Romans 1:21)? Such persons are lost forever! On the other hand, we can learn from calamity and be strengthened in our faith, being more like James and finding reason to rejoice in the testing of our faith (James 1:2-4). We must remember that God chastens those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6-11). Let us turn our minds toward God and away from all idols!
For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regret: but the sorrow of the world worketh death (2 Corinthians 7:10).