[Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon] will come and attack Egypt, bringing death to those destined for death, captivity to those destined for captivity, and the sword to those destined for the sword.
Jeremiah 43:11 (NIV)
One of the grand, never-ending, conflict-inducing debates in theology is that of the dance between free will and predestination. Am I really free to make my own choices, or are my choices and their outcomes predestined by God? This is the stuff about which theologians find themselves getting all worked up about. Like most hotly contested debate topics, along my journey I have observed small groups of individuals staunchly rooted at both extremes and a whole lot of people who occupy the gray area in-between. Like most hotly contested theological debates, I find the debate itself can be a huge waste of time.
Nevertheless, the question does occasionally present itself in the quiet on this chapter-a-day journey, as it did this morning. In yesterday’s chapter, there was a remnant of Hebrews who gathered in Mizpah after the Babylonian army left the area. Many people and soldiers fled elsewhere before and during the Babylonian siege. They avoided captivity the first time, but after the assassination of Governor Gedeliah they’re afraid Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar will send his army back to kill them or take them into captivity as well. Jeremiah gives them a message from God telling them to stay put and trust that God will deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar.
One of the things I found interesting in yesterday’s chapter is that Jeremiah twice addressed this remnant considering a move to Egypt as “determined to go” (vs. 15, 17). Then Jeremiah says at the end of his message that they “made a fatal mistake” when they sent him to seek the word of the Lord and said they would obey whatever the Lord said through Jeremiah. It was a bit of foreshadowing. Jeremiah seemed to know that these men had already made their decision and were looking for a rubber stamp from the Almighty.
Sure enough, in today’s chapter the leaders of the remnant reject God’s word through Jeremiah. They not only fly to exile in Egypt, but they force Jeremiah and his scribe, Baruch, to go with them.
The group settles in an Egyptian border town called Tahpanhes which was an important stop on the major trade route between Egypt and Judah. It would have been like Americans fleeing to Canada in Vancouver or to Mexico in Tijuana. It was just over the border. Tahpanhes would have been a popular destination for Hebrews fleeing to the land of Egypt and there was likely an active Hebrew community already in residence. there.
Upon arrival, God gives Jeremiah a message for those who drug him there again his will. It’s a repeat of the message from yesterday’s chapter that Nebuchadnezzar will indeed attack the city “bringing death to those destined for death, captivity to those destined for captivity, and the sword to those destined for the sword.” I couldn’t help but focus on the word “destined.” Because of my many experiences with the “free will vs. predestination” theological smackdowns, the word “destined” set off some alarms in the back of my brain. So, I dug into the original Hebrew text. Interestingly, there is no Hebrew word that translates into English. Rather, the direct word-for-word translation of the Hebrew is “death whoever death, captivity whoever captivity, sword whoever sword.” The translators have added the English word “destined” by implication.
In the quiet this morning, I found myself mulling over these “arrogant men” (vs. 2) who were determined to go to Egypt. It appears to have been their will to do so even before asking Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord. Once they settle in, God doubles down in pronouncing judgment. Nebuchadnezzar will attack. People will die, be taken captive, and will be struck down by the sword. By the way, there are textual references regarding Nebuchadnezzar attacking Egypt during two different years late in his reign. History records very little about the campaigns. While he didn’t conquer Egypt, Neb certainly would have attacked towns along the border such as Tahpanhes. We will have to wait for archaeologists to excavate any further evidence in order to know more.
So was the remnant free to will themselves to Egypt or were they destined to do so as part of God’s larger plan?
I have found on my spiritual journey that there is a certain humility required of me as a disciple of Jesus. The humility comes from acknowledging that there are certain spiritual mysteries that lie beyond my earthly, human comprehension. The mystery of the “Trinity” (greek word: perichoresis or literally “circle dance”) is a great example, and I love the word picture of a dance. It moves, it turns, it spins, it weaves and flows. I find that we humans love our simple binaries. The more fundamentalist I becomes in my thinking , the more black-and-white my lens will be in how I view both God and the world around me. The further I get in the journey, the more mystery I find in the dance between black-and-white, the more truth I find in the tension between the extremes, and the more humble I become in trying to cognitively understand that which lies further up and further in than my earthly synapses allow.
Today, I make my own choices. My choices have consequences. How God weaves that into the grand design of the Great Story is beyond me, though I am sure that He does.
Today, I make my own choices.
Lord, allow me the grace to choose well
and… May“Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.