One word that described all of our children when they were young was persistence. As toddlers, they never gave up getting my attention: “Dad, Dad, Dad…DAD!” Though it took on different forms, they exhibited persistence well beyond their toddler years. In all honestly, though sometimes frustrated by such persistence, I was mostly appreciative of their sticktoitiveness.

From Merriam Webster – Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Persistence can be a positive thing – firm continuance. Or negative – obstinate continuance. Two types of persistence with day and night outcomes.

I’ve slowly been reading chronologically through scripture using a less familiar translation, The Voice. “Slowly” is the operative word. I’m using a chronological “read through the bible in a year” plan that I started in January 2021 and am presently in the book of Jeremiah. Slowly.

Jeremiah, the prophet, was the epitome of persistence. Yahweh, the One True God, called Jeremiah into service as a prophet in 626 BC, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign as king of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). He continued serving God as a prophet until the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC. He served God under five different kingly reigns in Judah – Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. As a prophet, Jeremiah’s main job was to speak to the people on God’s behalf, regarding both present situations and future events.

Jeremiah’s call as a prophet seemingly came at an opportune time. Josiah had been instituting religious reforms and the people of Judah were returning to God. It was a good time to be a prophet in Israel. But the reforms would be short-lived. The region was already in upheaval. The Assyrian Empire, soon to fall to the Babylonian Empire, had captured the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeremiah and his countrymen found themselves caught in the chaos of “international” changes. The shalom of the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), her leaders, and her capital, Jerusalem, was in jeopardy.

Did Judah’s leaders look to God in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty? Not at all. Jehoahaz disregarded his father, Josiah’s, reforms and things went downhill from there. Each of the subsequent kings followed suit. They were persistent in doing things their way, ultimately returning to false prophets and idols. Jeremiah’s role during this? To speak to the people – kings, and commoners alike – on behalf of God. It came at great personal cost. But he hung in there. He was persistent.

“For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the Lord persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets, saying, ‘Turn now, every one of you, from his evil way and evil deeds, and dwell upon the land that the Lord has given to you and your fathers from of old and forever. (Jeremiah 25:3-5, ESV)

Persistence abounded – on every level. God had been persistent in his loyalty (hesed) to his people for generations, a persistence not lost on the people. He was persistent in reminding them of the simplicity of his covenant formula – I want to be your God, I want you to be my people (cf. Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 26:11-12, Deuteronomy 29:13). Through Jeremiah, God repeatedly and persistently reminded the people of the security associated with adherence to the covenant formula. For example:

Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do everything as I say, and all will be well! (Jeremiah 7:23 NLT)

Unfortunately, the people obstinately continued to ignore God, replacing him with images they had created. They replaced the God of creation with gods they created – gods that they thought would serve their purposes. And all was not well. King Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian armies overran Judah, laid siege on Jerusalem, decimated the Temple, and carted a majority of the people away into exile.

None of this was a surprise to Jeremiah nor should it have been to the people. Jeremiah had firmly continued to warn the people. They persistently (obstinately) chose not to listen as evident in the chapter 25 passage above. Oh, and they persistently abused Jeremiah for delivering God’s message. Throughout the book of Jeremiah, we can feel his anguish, also evident in the above passage.

But God is persistent in his covenant loyalty. Though exile would last 70 years, a whole generation, he promised to bring the people back from captivity and restore them in the land with a new covenant which Jesus ultimately brought to fruition:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people
” (Jeremiah 31:33 NIV)

God’s covenant formula transfers from the old to the new covenant. Let me be your God (He’s’ good at that) and all will be well. He never said, “all will be easy.” But he did say “all will be well.” It’s the essence of the Lord’s Prayer.

Eugene Peterson wrote a book about 20 years ago, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. Peterson captured the essence of the covenant formula from our perspective: persistence in letting God be God. Perhaps Merriam-Webster needs revising…

Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition; a long obedience in the same direction.

Smoking Pot in the Old Testament

In the previous post (Dot-to-Dot) we discussed a theme woven throughout scripture: “I will be your God and you will be my people” stated in some manner, shape, or form. This was God’s covenant promise to the people he called (Abraham and his decedents) to to be a blessing to the world and participate in his project of “putting creation back to rights” (NT Wright).

One of the most obscure, unknown stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is probably one of the most significant stories.  In Genesis 15, Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) asked God a question we all ask from time to time: “How do I know what you are saying is true?” So the LORD (Yahweh) said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”  Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

Wait!  Abram cut the animals in two and arranged them in two rows?  God didn’t tell him to do that!!  Why did he?   Because in Abram’s world 4000 or so years ago, this was how contracts were signed.  The parties would each bring and split animals in two, arrange them in rows, putting the birds together in a single pile at the head of the two rows.

The two parties would then each take a smoking pot or torch of some sort and simultaneously light their respective rows of animal parts on fire.  They would meet at the end of the rows and together light the pile of birds afire.  Basically they were saying, “If I should break this covenant, may I be drawn and quartered and burnt in a similar fashion.”  They took their contracts pretty serious!

Abram apparently knew that God was about to sign a promise or covenant with him.  What he didn’t know was how the signing would take place. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.  Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain…” and then went on to describe the future and His commitment to Abram and his descendants.  When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.

GOD SIGNED BOTH SIDES OF THE AGREEMENT WHILE ABRAM SLEPT!  That’s a covenant, Yahweh style.  God did/does it all.  All Abram did was show up.  God did the rest. It was all about God and not so much about Abram. God was serious when he said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He is the promise-maker. 

And he is also the promise-keeper. Fast forward a couple thousand years and we witness God as promise-keeper, this time through Jesus. God’s first promise was to Adam and Eve.  He promised them everything (including the tree of life) but their desire to become like God cost them their life.  They chose death over life. God honored their choice and death reigned – ultimately resulting in His own son’s death.  With Jesus’ resurrection, death was defeated and the original promise was again on the table. Humanity didn’t hold up its end of the promise, but God held up his end of the covenant and fulfilled our part! “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

In Jesus, we see the smoking pot all over again. Jesus did it all. We just show up. It’s that simple. Imagine our world if we remembered to just show up and give him permission to hold up his end of the deal! It’s really all about God, not so much about us.  “For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants.” (Philippians 2:13, TLB)