Not Forsaken – Jeremiah 51:5
By: Northern Seminary
Few people do much in the way of self-examination when everything is going well. The person who feels in great health isn’t highly motivated to go through rigorous medical tests. The young man or woman with plenty of dates doesn’t take time to examine their appearance or interpersonal skills. The management of a company with more business than it can handle doesn’t worry whether their product or marketing strategies are right.
When all’s well, people feel good and press on in the same way as the past.
But when the body starts aching, or the dates cease, or profits dip, that’s when people ask the hard questions. Perhaps everything hasn’t been as good as they’d thought.
The years after Jerusalem fell in 587 or 586 BC were certainly time for the people of Judah to ask hard questions. Many had starved to death, many were tortured or murdered, the city was plundered and Solomon’s Temple destroyed, most of those who survived were taken off as slaves to Babylon, the king’s sons were murdered, the king’s eyes were blinded and he was taken off as a prisoner, and what remained of the city was razed to the ground.
These events occurred during the last days of Jeremiah. He had warned the people over and over to repent and return to the Lord, but he’d watched them self-destruct more than once. There must have seemed no hope for such a rebellious people, people who never learned or at least never changed. So easily Jeremiah could have pronounced their final end, a benediction on failed people now abandoned by God.
Except they weren’t abandoned by God. Though they had failed spectacularly, and judgments had fallen on them, God’s people were not to be buried and forgotten.
One verse sums up what God wanted his people to reflect on during their darkest days, a verse that offers hope and a future to all who despair they will never get past their failures.
5 For Israel and Judah have not been forsaken
by their God, the LORD Almighty,
though their land is full of guilt
before the Holy One of Israel.
Occasionally, when someone’s crimes are the worst imaginable, the phrase is used, “Lock him up and throw away the key.” In the western world, that would never happen literally. In the ancient world it might have been true: imprisonment in a dank, dark cell with the door never opened. No prospect of release. No possibility of even being allowed out ever again into fresh air. Perhaps a prisoner would have hope for one, two, or even three years, but the day would come when hope would evaporate, and the prisoner would become resigned to a slow, lingering, and horrible death in that tiny cell.
The people of Judah could easily have been that prisoner. For them Babylon was a prison cell with no prospect of release. How could slaves ever rise up against the massive forces of the Babylonian army? How could they ever escape this foreign and hostile place and see their own beloved land and city of Jerusalem again? For a few years, perhaps they hoped. But then…? All too easily they would sink into mental and spiritual decline and accept that their fate was to die far away from their homeland.
It had all been their own fault. Time after time they’d been called to repent, to put God first, but nothing had changed and God was subjugated to a low place in their lives. Hence the destruction of Jerusalem. Hence their imprisonment by the Babylonians. Now they were lost, alone, unloved, and wanted only for their slave labor.
But Judah was not lost, not alone, not unloved, and not unwanted. God would send a foreign army against Babylon, an army that would bring as much destruction on Babylon as that nation had brought on others. The mighty Babylonian army would be annihilated and no one would be spared (Jer. 51:1-4; 6-8).
And Judah will be rescued. God says to his people: ‘You are not forsaken.’ He has not given up on them, and he makes that clear in verse 5 of Jeremiah 51 in a very powerful and caring prophecy.
First, consider the people who received this prophecy.
In the world of sport, there are always people who will cheer for winners, whether individuals or teams. Whoever is at the top in baseball, basketball, football is a superstar, and the best teams have no problem getting sponsors or packing in the crowds for their games. People like winners.
But where are the fans for the losers? Who wants to watch the team at the bottom? And the players who fail in every game get jeers, not cheers. No one supports them.
God supports those who fail. The people of Judah he won’t forsake are as far as you can get from being devoted followers. Over and over and in situation after situation they’ve let God down. He’d brought them to their knees and they’d promised change. They’d give up the worship of false gods; they’d restore justice in the land; their worship would be sincere; they’d live holy lives.
But they hadn’t. Instead of faithfulness and purity in their love and their lives, they were characterized by injustice, hypocrisy, immorality, and idolatry. Prophet after prophet had made their sin clear, and in verse 5 Jeremiah describes their land as “full of guilt.”
Like crowds deserting a losing team, vowing never to come back, God could have turned his back on his losing people. Over and over he’d tried with them. Over and over they’d failed him.
But instead of leaving, God declares to these failed people that he’s staying:
“Israel and Judah have not been forsaken
by their God, the LORD Almighty.”
Through the prophet Isaiah God has said to them:
“‘For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,’
says the LORD your Redeemer.” (Isa. 54:7-8)
I have counseled many Christians who have let God down. For some it was immorality. For some it was a failure of relationships. For some their addictions had taken them into dangerous and bad behavior. For some, it was denial of their faith. Though they had confessed their sin to God, many could not believe God would want them back. My counsel to them was this: ‘Before God ever saved you, he knew not only the worst you had ever done but the worst you would ever do, and still he chose you.’
God is never taken by surprise, including by our failures. He loved us before; he loves us now; he will always love us. People who have let God down are not abandoned. He does not give up on his people.
Second, consider the timing of this prophecy.
Who doesn’t want to be told that they’re loved, that they matter, that they’re important? It’s a strange person who doesn’t want to hear caring words as often as possible.
But, for most, they especially want to hear someone say ‘I love you’ when they’re down, when they’re feeling low, when life has gone wrong. And they particularly want to hear it when it’s all been their own fault, when they’ve messed up and perhaps hurt or upset others. Recognizing failure is good, but it hurts. And it can damage self-esteem. Someone asks of themselves, ‘What kind of person am I that I could have done that?’
Then, right then, is the moment when it means so much to be told that you’re loved, accepted and wanted. It can be life-saving. That reassurance and encouragement gives a reason for living and hope for better days to come.
God’s word came to his people in their darkest moments. The nation’s life had fallen apart, and Judah had lost her land, her freedom and her pride.
But right then, at that lowest moment, God’s word through Jeremiah was that he still loved them, and they were not forsaken. In Hebrew, the word translated ‘forsaken’ literally means ‘widowed.’ ‘You are not widowed,’ Jeremiah told them. ‘You’re not alone. God has not died and he has not abandoned you.’
This was a defeated nation. There were no heroes left and no army left. They were prisoners with no strategy for escape. Their situation was hopeless. But it was ‘hopeless’ only if everything depended on them. Yes, courage was gone. Yes, confidence was gone. But Jeremiah said: ‘Yet your God, the LORD Almighty… the Holy One of Israel, he has not forsaken you. There is hope. There is a future. You have not fallen out of his hand, and in time your captivity will end and you will be restored.’
That word came to them when everything seemed bleak, when it looked like nothing could ever change, when nothing but oblivion seemed to lie ahead.
But God’s people – of ancient times and modern times – are never abandoned. Like Judah of old, we also fail and fall into deep despair. We see no way forward, and it seems life will never be better. That could be true if everything about the future depended on us. Thankfully, it doesn’t. “I am with you always,” said Jesus (Matt. 28:20). Therefore there is always hope.
Third, consider the significance of this prophecy.
Sometimes people survive an initial disaster, but not its aftermath. Let me explain by inviting you to use your imagination to picture a scenario. Your cruise ship has sunk in a storm. You are now adrift with a few others in a leaky but floating lifeboat. You’ve survived, but you’re anything but safe. Fresh water supplies are low, the boat has to be emptied of water constantly, more storms could strike like the one that sank the cruise ship, and you are in the middle of a vast ocean. Your only chance of long-term survival is rescue.
You’d been excited at first because the lifeboat had a radio. But the radio had been damaged by sea water and though you and others try over and over again it won’t transmit. You can’t send a distress message. But it works enough that you can hear communications between rescue parties. They’re searching for survivors, first in one sector and then another sector. It has to be only a matter of time before they search your sector, and you and your companions will be found. After a day, and then two days, your water is nearly gone. But rescue must be coming.
On day three you listen again to the radio. You can’t believe what you’re hearing. The message being sent to all planes and ships is that there’s no longer any chance of finding survivors, so the search is being called off. You scream, “No – we’re here! Keep searching.” But they don’t. Ships head off to their destinations. Search planes return to their bases.
Now, you and your companions are truly alone. No one is looking. No one is coming. Soon you will die. Despair and sadness consume you.
The captives in Babylon felt exactly like that. But God’s word through Jeremiah blew despair and sadness away. God was not just looking for them, he knew exactly where they were and he would rescue them.
The same Lord who had brought their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt, given them the covenant, led them into the promised land, and rescued them from fierce enemies time and time again, that Lord had not given up on them. Their sins would be removed. Their city would be rebuilt. Their life with God would be restored. They had a future worth believing in, a future worth living for.
God leaves no one abandoned, adrift and alone. He never calls off the search to find his people and bring them to a place of forgiveness, safety and hope. I was the ten-year-old child who kicked the soccer ball recklessly and smashed our bathroom window. I didn’t want to see my Dad! I wanted to hide! But he found me, and of course he was angry at my foolishness, but he also opened up his arms and drew me in.
God opens up his arms to sinners who feel lost, to people who think God would never have them back again. If he would want the people of Judah after their serious rebellion and rejection of him, he would want any of us too. He does. We are not forsaken.
Fourth, consider the implications of this prophecy.
If someone sticks by you even when you have rejected them.
If someone reaches out to you – tenderly, with comfort and care – at your deepest moment of need.
If someone searches until they find you to help you into a new and better future.
What does all that imply?
It means they forgive. It means they care. It means they will do whatever it takes for your sake. Above all, it means they love you, with a very deep and lasting love.
God’s heart yearned for his people. Their captivity was a consequence they had brought on themselves. Certainly they deserved it. But he was not letting go. He was not abandoning them. His desire now was that they would again put their trust in him and be restored to wholeness as a nation, walking in God’s light and God’s ways.
His love is no less for people today. Many have ignored him for the greatest part of their lives. Some have come close at some time, but then turned their back. Promises have been broken. Loyalty has been betrayed. The relationship has gone.
Except that God has not given up on the relationship. His love has never been dependent on our goodness or even our faithfulness. His love has been a compassion that never fades, matched by the greatest rescue plan of all time when his Son died on the cross for our sins, followed by the offer of a new beginning for all who will give him their lives.
‘You are not forsaken,’ God says. It was a life-transforming and hope-inducing prophecy to his people of old. They were still loved, and God would save them from their captivity.
For all who have walked away from him, for all who find themselves lost without hope, for all who long for a life filled with God’s goodness, he pours out his love and promises a future worth living for. We are not forsaken.