Vol. 4, No. 6, Nov. – Dec. 1975
Arthur E. Gove
Reading: Jeremiah 13:1-11
IN my consideration of Jeremiah’s prophecies I have come to see that one of his qualities was to be God’s Visual Aid expert. Like so many old time preachers, Jeremiah was bent on getting his messages across. Some preachers do not seem to bother whether or not their messages have any impact on the hearers. That would not do for Jeremiah. He had something to say and he intended to say it in such a way that the people would remember it. The sad fact of the matter was that in spite of his earnest preaching the people had stopped their ears so that his words had no effect upon them. They had grown hard and indifferent to the preached Word. It therefore seemed necessary to do something unusual to make them sit up and take notice.
God knew all about this exercise of His servant’s and for this reason He told Jeremiah to give them another object lesson. He told the prophet how to approach this evil people who refused to hear His words and walked in the imagination of their hearts. He said to Jeremiah: ‘I want you now to take a linen girdle, not to wash it in water at all but to wear it and wear it, so that everywhere you go people will know you as the man who wears the linen sash. Never mind how dirty it gets; go on wearing this girdle so that in time everybody will recognise you as the preacher with the linen sash. Never mind how grimy it gets; never wash it.’
Jeremiah faithfully carried out these instructions until God told him then to take the long 250 mile journey to the Euphrates and there to bury the girdle in a hole of the rock. He did this, completed the long return journey and waited until after many days the Lord told him to go back again, dig up the linen girdle again and see what had happened to it. Obediently Jeremiah undertook the tiring journey once more and when he had dug up the buried girdle: “Behold, the girdle was marred, it was profitable for nothing”. He came back once more, so completing 1,000 miles, and all to make sure that the people took notice of his message. No doubt they thought him crazy. First they got used to seeing their preacher wearing his growingly grubby girdle, and then they found that he was without it and must have enquired what had happened to it. ‘What a fanatic the man is,’ they probably commented. ‘What is he going to do next?’ That was the whole object of the exercise, to arouse them from their apathy and to shock them into listening to what God had to say to them.
I heard of an evangelist who was being criticised for his message and methods. One day one of his critics came to him and said: ‘I don’t like your evangelistic methods!’ ‘Oh, that’s strange,’ replied the evangelist, ‘neither do I. How do you do it?’ Then the critic was overcome with embarrassment and answered: ‘Well, as a matter of fact I don’t [111/112] do it at all,’ to which the evangelist responded: ‘Well, I must say that I prefer my way of doing it to your way of not doing it.’ Of course the supreme thing is for a man to be under orders from God, as Jeremiah was. They doubtless said that he was out of his mind, mad. But then they have always said that about God’s servants. Festus said it of Paul: “… thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad” (Acts 26:24). Even our Lord was accused by His own human relations of being beside Himself, mad.
I don’t think that at this stage Jeremiah was too bothered about what his listeners said about him. I feel that he was so filled with love and a desire for the glory of God that he was ready for anything that would make the people listen. What then was the object of the exercise? What was God’s idea in telling Jeremiah to do these things and journey all that tremendous distance? Is there any message for us? I answer this question without any need to use my imagination or to consult commentaries or other books. God Himself gives me the explanation: “For as the girdle cleaveth to the loins of a man, so have I caused to cleave unto me the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah, saith the Lord; that they might be unto me for a people, and for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory: but they would not hear”. So there are two plain lessons. The first is to show what God had designed for all His people, and the second to point out how sin and disobedience had destroyed His plan. They are two simple but very forceful lessons; the glory of God’s design of grace and the tragedy of His people’s sin.
God’s design for His people is superlatively wonderful. It has these four aspects:
1. There should be a binding relationship between the Lord and His people.
Just as a girdle was worn in order to bind together a man’s clothing, so God intended that there should be a binding relationship between Him and His people. The Bible has many illustrations of the use of such a girdle, for this was an essential part of an Eastern man’s attire. After the fire on mount Carmel and the fall of abundance of rain on the land, Elijah had need of his girdle so that he could run before Ahab’s chariot: “And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab …” (1 Kings 18:46).
In the New Testament we are given the commandment in the light of Christ’s return: “Let your loins be girded about and your lights burning” (Luke 12:35). The girdle was used to bind together the flowing garments of a man so that nothing could hinder him or trip him up. The Lord wanted His people to know that just as the sash bound the clothes of an Oriental to its wearer, so His plan and desire was to bring His people and Himself together in the closest possible unity. He wanted their whole life to be linked up with Himself in this intimate way. Is this a new thought to you? Well then, how thoughtfully have you ever sung that well-known old hymn about ‘Standing on the promises’? There is a verse of that hymn which speaks about being ‘Bound to Him eternally by love’s strong cords’, and this suggests the very same thought as that illustrated by the linen girdle. Between the Lord and His true people there is this wonderful binding relationship. Paul asks several questions in Romans 8: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? God justifies. Who is he that condemneth? Christ makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Thank God that we know the answers. There is no guilt, no condemnation and no separation for those who are bound together with the Lord in the bundle of life. This is the comforting message of the linen girdle.
2. A priestly ministry is committed to all God’s people.
We notice that the girdle was made of linen. When God so commanded, His purpose was to make it plain that His people were not only bound closely to Him but by that very fact called to a priestly service. This reminds us of the glorious truth of the priesthood of all believers. Linen was the material from which the priestly garments were made, and the sash indicates that to every Christian there is committed a life of access and ministry, especially in the matter of intercession. You enjoy being close to the Lord, bound up with Him, but have you accepted the implications of exercising a ministry of intercession for needy sinners and saints? Priestly ministry is inevitably associated with the idea of sacrifice. How are you fulfilling your calling? Have you heeded the call to present your body as a living sacrifice? Are you constantly fulfilling your privilege of offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise? This is what God reveals as His plan and desire. He told His people: “Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and through Peter He tells us that we are “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9.). The linen sash, then, reminds us of our call to priestly ministry. [112/113]
3. God’s people should be free to serve Him.
In the East one of the purposes of a man’s girdle was to lift and secure the flowing garments which he normally wore, so that he could move freely. At periods of idleness or inactivity its use was largely ornamental, but for movement and for work it served an essential purpose. So then, this figurative use of the linen girdle was an indication that God’s design is that His people should be freed from all hindrance so that they can be active in His service.
There are those who, in their zeal to magnify the glorious sovereignty of God, would urge us to cease from our labours and leave everything to Him. They assure us that He will take the initiative in His own time and way without interference from us, and in so doing they tend to discount all evangelism and missionary enterprise. Perhaps a classic example of this attitude was given by the old Baptist minister who countered William Carey’s plea for the needs of those without the gospel by saying: ‘Sit down, young man. When God wishes to evangelise the nations He will do it without help from you or me.’ We do not want to be unfair to this old minister. He recognised that God is sovereign — and so must we. He recognised that God does not take orders from man — and so do we. Furthermore he understood that if men did not help God, God would be no weaker as a result of this. We should also understand that. But the great mistake of the old minister was that he so stressed certain Scriptures that he lost sight of the fact that Christ had given a definite commission to His Church, a commission to preach the gospel everywhere and to make disciples of all nations, and that His Spirit is ready to empower us to obey this command.
‘Saved to serve’ may not be a text of the Bible but it is a truth made very plain and illustrated for us by this need to gird ourselves with the linen girdle that we may be without hindrance in His service. We must gird up our loins even as Christ girded Himself with a towel, so that we can serve God and men. The Lord’s purpose is to make His disciples those who can gather other disciples, to save sinners so that they be used to make Him known as Saviour to other sinners. While I preach without hesitation the sovereignty and omnipotence of God, I also preach Christ as Head of the Church which He has ordered to go into all the world and make disciples. Now it is certainly true that at Corinth God said to Paul: “I have much people in this city”, men who are elected and whom I will save; but He did not tell Paul who they were, but rather commanded him to keep up the good work of witnessing: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace” (Acts 18:9-10).
4. God’s people should be to the praise and glory of His name.
The Lord specifically stated that His chief purpose in binding His people so close to Himself was: “that they might be unto me for a people, and for a name, and for a praise and for a glory”. When men of old who were of royal blood or high standing wore such a girdle, it was bedecked with jewels and ornaments to denote their high rank. This meaning is also implicit in the visual aid used by Jeremiah, for it showed men that he was a servant of the most High. What a tremendous responsibility for each one of us who profess to know living union with Christ that we are bearers of the Name! We must never forget that holiness is the visible part of our salvation. Your friends did not see the miracle of your conversion. Your acquaintances cannot see your faith, however much you talk about it. But what all can and do see is whether or not you are living a holy life. There is a wonderful verse about the future which tells us that the Lord Jesus is coming: “… to be admired in all them that believe” (2 Thessalonians 1:10). Admired! Is this possible? Yes, by grace it will be, as He is glorified in His saints. A practical question, posed by the linen sash, is as to whether He is being admired in us day by day. Is it happening now? Is there praise and honour to His name in our daily living? “We … do those things which are pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22). What an amazing privilege that we should be able to bring pleasure to the heart of God here and now. This is God’s intention. That is why He binds us so closely to Himself with the linen girdle.
I do not propose to spend much time with the second and negative lesson, though it is of solemn importance. Jeremiah’s actions were designed to make God’s people see that their sin and disobedience had destroyed God’s plan for them. That is why He said to Jeremiah: ‘Don’t wash the linen girdle! Let it be seen in all its defilement. However dirty it gets, don’t wash it!’ What a tragic thing it is when a Christian goes on grieving the Spirit and disobeying God’s Word without coming back to God for daily cleansing. It is like a bit of grit in my shoe, marring a whole day’s outing, even though it is small enough in itself. [113/114] There is nothing to do but to stop and get rid of it unless the whole journey is to be spoiled. And for the Christian, unconfessed sin is bound to rob and hinder the whole progress in the spiritual life.
Because the linen girdle was never washed, the defilement went on and on increasing. Not cleansed! So far as Jeremiah was concerned that was a divine commandment to stress the point, but for God’s people it is quite contrary to His will. It reminds me, though, that as a preacher, I can go on preaching to others, and yet be uncleansed. You may go on as a Bible class leader, leading others, and yet yourself uncleansed. You can go on as a Sunday School teacher, teaching others, and yet uncleansed yourself. How tragic if we are telling others the way of salvation, while there is some sin coming between us and God! Sin spoils God’s designs.
Jeremiah had to take that long journey to the Euphrates to bury the foul girdle. There are, alas, those who once walked close to the Lord but who are now buried, far away from Him. There are those who honoured God’s name and brought it praise by their devoted Christian lives, who are now uncleansed and forgotten. Instead of being for a praise and a glory, they are a shame and dishonour to Him. Even the apostle Paul kept this tragic possibility always in mind: “… lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Beware of defilement which is unconfessed and so uncleansed! Beware of anything which can come between you and the Lord. “Profitable for nothing!” That is the solemn challenge of Jeremiah’s visual aid.
However I cannot close on such a sombre note, so I invite you to consider a glorious contrast to the ignominious end of Jeremiah’s girdle. Thank God for the gospel. Thank God for the New Covenant, foreshadowed and promised by Jeremiah later in his ministry. There is still a way of cleansing for every sin-stained soul and every marred Christian witness, and such cleansing and full restoration can be found at the cross of the Lord Jesus.
See the last words of this chapter: “How long shall it yet be?” (Jeremiah 13:27). It was God who uttered this yearning question, and it proves to us how much He longs after His sin-stained people. It is as if He cried out in pain: ‘How much longer do I have to wait, before My people bring their marred lives back to me for cleansing and restoration?’ This assures us that God yearns greatly over every one of His own. His first purpose for them was that they should be: “for a people, and for a name, and for a praise and for a glory”, and that purpose has never changed. It is as true as ever and it is made possible of realisation by the fact that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Our own failure makes us: “good for nothing”, but divine grace can make us to be a source of deep pleasure to the heart of our Lord.