Maybe it’s just me, or maybe I’m making excuses, but I feel like it’s getting harder to find hearts receptive to the gospel message. Not only is it more difficult to find people willing to devote time to studying the gospel—a process which cannot be shortcut (Rom. 1:16)—but those studies more frequently end in a polite, “no thank you,” than a new birth.
I’m tempted to think we should stop reaching out to our communities, keep to ourselves, and manage the decline.
Then, I read the prophet Jeremiah, and I realize it’s never God’s design for His people to keep out of sight and remain silent, regardless of the results we expect.
Jeremiah received perhaps the most challenging assignment in the Bible: deliver a stern message of repentance to people who would not pay attention.
“Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people … that it may be well with you…” You shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you; and you shall call to them, but they will not answer you… Therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when … the land will become a ruin (Jer. 7:21-34).
What a fruitless, discouraging assignment! If no one is going to listen and repent, why should Jeremiah waste his time?
He preached anyway. He blocked the way into the temple grounds and demanded the people repent (7:2-15). They ignored him and pushed past; “no man repented of his wickedness” (8:6). He stood in the city gates and reprimanded those conducting business on the Sabbath (17:19-23). They “stiffened their necks in order not to listen or take correction.” He wrote the inspired words of God on a scroll for King Jehoiakim and his ministers (36:1-26). They “were not afraid nor did they rend their garments,” and the king promptly burned the scroll.
At best, the people played dumb. “For what reason has the Lord declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, and what is our sin?” (16:10). But Jeremiah wasn’t just beating his head against a wall—often, the wall fought back! They sought to hurt and kill him. Jeremiah lamented, “everyone curses me” (15:10). He faced organized opposition (18:18), received death threats (11:21, 26:8), was beaten by the chief priest (20:1-2), spent weeks in prison on at least two separate occasions (32:2, 37:15), and was thrown into a deep well with a quicksand bottom (38:6). Even after all that, Jeremiah would not change the message of God (38:14-24) nor keep quiet.
Preaching Prepares People for Judgment
God’s word must be spoken to every person even if no one is obeying it, for it will serve to condemn. “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day” (John 12:48). Yes, that’s part of the Bible’s work—sealing people up under judgment. God’s word is a fire (23:29), and as the saying goes, the same fire that melts wax hardens clay. We might imagine Jeremiah’s complaint to God being something like, “God, why did you command me to preach? I didn’t convert anyone!” and God’s response being something like, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to convert anyone. I just wanted you to take away their excuses.” Whether it converts or condemns, God’s word never returns without accomplishing its work (Isa. 55:11).
Someone Will Always Listen
Though Jeremiah’s generation as a whole was lost, there were individuals who responded. A few elders took Jeremiah’s side against the mob (26:17). Ebed-melech the Ethiopian risked his neck to let down ropes and rescue Jeremiah from the well (38:7). Even just a few weeks before final judgment, God still held out hope, saying, “perhaps the house of Judah will hear all the calamity which I plan to bring on them, in order that every man will turn from his evil way” (36:3).
Indeed, some individuals—“one from a city and two from a family” (3:14)—proved faithful, and God guarded their lives in distant captivity. They became the remnant who rebuilt Jerusalem and continued the Messianic line. Jeremiah preached for them, too (chs. 29-31). Even if most of the nation ignored Jeremiah, the remnant could not be left on autopilot.
It Maintains Outrage and Strengthens Faith
Sometimes as we watch society falling into disrepair, we become desensitized to its crudeness and shame. We may soften our stance, blur the lines, edge a little closer. We may even decide, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” But Jeremiah spoke in the language of outrage, using illustrations that even the most debased would find shocking. He compared the sinful people to an adulterous spouse (3:16-20), to mountain rivers that leap out of their ancient courses (18:13-14), to a camel in heat (2:23-25). Though wickedness had become commonplace, it was still a big deal to God! Bold preaching strengthens our resolve to remain on the right side of things (Rom. 5:3-5).
So, there’s always reason to keep preaching, even when it seems like no one is listening. Have the faith and courage of Jeremiah, who prayed to God:
Remember me, take notice of me… Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; For I have been called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts. I did not sit in the circle of merrymakers, nor did I exult. Because of Your hand upon me I sat alone, for You filled me with indignation (Jer. 15:15-16).