The hardest parts of Scripture, in my experience, are not the bits you don’t understand. Failing to understand can be good; it can prompt thought, investigation, and discovery. No, the real trouble comes when you know exactly what is going on, and it doesn’t look good, true, or beautiful. Think, for instance, of the prophetic oracles of judgment against the nations, which run for page after terrifying page, with (apparently) no hope, no contemporary application, and no end in sight.
The last seven chapters of Jeremiah are a case in point. How can a book containing such glorious promises have such a depressing ending? There are nine oracles of judgment against the nations—Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar and Hazor, Elam, and Babylon—followed by Jerusalem’s destruction. The judgments are severe and sometimes graphic. Four nations receive a one-verse promise of future mercy (46:26; 48:47; 49:6; 49:39), but these are just four droplets of hope in a seven-chapter desert of disaster. How do we find goodness, joy, and gospel in these passages? As happens so often in the Old Testament, we find an answer in the exodus story.
The final chapters of Jeremiah contain ten divine judgments: nine against foreign nations, and the last upon Judah itself. Ezekiel 25–33 runs through an equivalent sequence: nine oracles against nations and their kings, followed by Jerusalem’s destruction. And a similar pattern occurs in Isaiah 13–23. That is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Ten, of course, is a very significant number in the exodus story. We all know the Ten Commandments, and we may recall the wilderness generation forfeiting entry to the Promised Land by disobeying God ten times ...1
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