(Note: The thought here is related to that of my earlier piece “You Must Die!” This is just a further meditation that could be tacked onto that.)
Toward the end of the book of Jeremiah we read how everything that Jeremiah had said concerning Judah and Jerusalem came to pass. The king of Babylon came and destroyed the temple, Jerusalem, and Judah. He left only a small number of the very poorest in the land. After the king of Babylon departed Ishmael son of Nethaniah killed Gedaliah son of Ahikam whom the king of Babylon had left as governor of the land. The remaining leaders in Judah pursued the murderer Ishmael and he fled to the Ammonities.
Then Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers who were with him led away all the survivors from Mizpah whom he had recovered from Ishmael son of Nethaniah after he had assassinated Gedaliah son of Ahikam: the soldiers, women, children and court officials he had brought from Gibeon. And they went on, stopping at Geruth Kimham near Bethlehem on their way to Egypt to escape the Babylonians. They were afraid of them because Ishmael son of Nethaniah had killed Gedaliah son of Ahikam, whom the king of Babylon had appointed as governor over the land.
Then all the army officers, including Johanan son of Kareah and Jezaniah son of Hoshaiah, and all the people from the least to the greatest approached Jeremiah the prophet and said to him, “Please hear our petition and pray to the Lord your God for this entire remnant. For as you now see, though we were once many, now only a few are left. Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do.” (Jeremiah 41:16-42:3)
The people promise with an oath to do whatever Jeremiah says, whether favorable or unfavorable (Jer. 42:6). So Jeremiah brings back the word from the Lord that they must not go down to Egypt but stay in the land of Israel and God promises that the king of Babylon will treat them favorably.
This is a favorable message from the Lord. He is telling the poor bedraggled group of survivors that they don’t have to flee down to Egypt. He is telling them they may stay in the Promised Land and be blessed, if only they trust Him and believe God when He says they have nothing to fear from the king of Babylon.
So, it is a favorable message, and who is bringing it? Jeremiah, who through his life and actions has been demonstrated as a faithful and holy servant of the Lord. Not only has his own life and character commended him, but his past prophecies have been proved true to the people of Judah so recently and dramatically before their very eyes.
And what is the people’s response to this favorable message from this highly accredited prophet of the Lord?
When Jeremiah finished telling the people all the words of the Lord their God–everything the Lord had sent him to tell them–Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there.’ But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.” (Jeremiah 43:1-3)
Somehow, it seems all the more stupid and rebellious to say such a thing after all that has happened to the people. After all that has happened, we might say, “Doesn’t common sense dictate that you listen to the guy?”
But they were afraid, and the common sense of fleshly man very much dictated that you didn’t listen to such lunacy.
There are a lot of observations one could make from this occasion, but my thoughts go to this: To the people of Judah Jeremiah and his words were the stench of death.
To understand what I mean we have to go to what Paul says in the New Testament when he writes,
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2 Cor. 2:14-17, NKJV)
Paul is using some very interesting imagery here to convey his thought. He uses the imagery of triumphal procession and the imagery of smelling (aroma, fragrance). He uses both of these to show how radically faith transforms how we receive the truth. The triumphal procession Paul brings to the mind of his readers is the triumphal processions of the Romans after great military victories. In these processions the victors marched along to great acclimation . . . and with them marched the captured prisoners, doomed to death. Everyone sees the procession, but what do they see? Those with eyes of faith see Christians in a triumphal procession in Christ to victory at the end of this age. The world looks at us and sees all the suffering and death we face and they see a procession of Christian prisoners doomed to die for a failed cause.
Then Paul continues this thought with the idea of fragrance. We all know that some people like the smell of certain things while other people find the same smell repulsive. And so we are the fragrance of Christ in this world, and to those who are being saved we are the fragrance of life, and to those who are perishing we are the fragrance of death. To the former we are the fragrance of life leading them to life eternal, to the latter our aroma (witness) speaks to them only of death, and so they continue ever onward into their death as they reject the witness of Christ in us.
So the edge of faith divides us. To those with eyes of faith they see life in us, to those without faith they only see a procession of prisoners led to death. They only smell the stench of death in us. They see us and they can only think, “If I go that way I will die the death of a fool.”
That is what the people of Judah were demonstrating in their reaction to Jeremiah. They were demonstrating the hardness of their hearts in that they could only see death in Jeremiah’s words. It required faith to believe the wonderful news of Jeremiah, and they had no faith.
It is interesting to consider the imagery of this occasion, and what it says for even us. The king of Babylon was the vessel and expression of God’s wrath. The people saw the wrath of God and they were afraid. They had two choices. They could believe God who said, “Believe me. Stay in my Promised Land and I will protect you from my wrath.” Or else the people could go down to the “Egypt” of depending on their own works and ability for their salvation from God’s wrath.
The promise of God that they would be saved if they believed and obeyed Him didn’t look very reasonable or wise to the eyes of men. To them it looked like the sure way of putting yourself ever closer to, and in the direct path of, the wrath of the king of Babylon–who had a very good reason to be furious. In the same manner we look about and see God has every reason to pour out His wrath on us. Recognizing this, we can either attempt to take refuge in our own works of attempted salvation, or we can believe God when He says, “I am with you and will save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 42:11).
But that belief requires the eyes and heart of faith, because to fleshly sinful man all they see is the king of Babylon coming, sure to punish them–that is, a procession of death, and the stench of death.
Now, on the one hand this passage of Jeremiah is a call to us to believe the promise of God and put our trust in Him for our salvation. But it also says something to us as the declarers of God’s salvation to the world. We, like Jeremiah, are declaring to the world the salvation of God if they trust in Him, and, if not, their coming utter destruction if they continue down to the “Egypt” of attempted salvation by their own works. Jeremiah, like us today with the revelation of Jesus Christ, had the action of God backing up his declaration. Jeremiah had an impeccable character and witness. And yet for all of that he was the stench of death to his listeners.
I don’t think we usually think about our own witness from this perspective.
People will often talk about us being “A light in the darkened world,” and of others being attracted to the light shining in our lives. That is very true, but it is only looking at half of the picture. To those whom God is calling to himself we are a light brightly shining and they are drawn to the light. But to the rest, we are an aroma of death. That is strong language, isn’t it? A little odd to think about oneself that way. It’s kind of nice and flattering to think of oneself as this nice bright light that everyone enjoys, but how about being an ugly stench of death? That gives a little different perspective.
Being the light of God to those whom He is calling to Himself is very true, and is a truth we must never lose sight of. But I think a large problem for much of Christianity is they get so caught up in thinking of themselves as a bright light that everyone is drawn to that they fail to keep in mind all of God’s warnings about persecution and rejection. They fail to keep in mind God’s words on how we are a stench of death to those who are dying. If one appreciates how our lives are a stench of death to so many people out there it’s hard to be surprised by their hostile reaction. Our reaction in such circumstances would be then to recognize the truth and remember that, yes, we smell like death to so many people.
So, go out and live as a light brightly shining for God. Just don’t forget God has also called you to go out at be His stench of death as a witness to the dying world. Don’t be surprised at the reaction of the world. Stink for Christ.