Jeremiah’s Action Sermons: Buried Stones and A Sunken Scroll

This article concludes our studies on Jeremiah’s Action Sermons, a series of messages dramatized to reinforce the importance of their content. By them the Lord spoke to the disobedience and stubborn idolatry of people who for centuries refused His entreaties of grace and ignored His warnings of judgment. Although the two passages before us (Jer 43:8-13; 51:59-64) are recorded as the penultimate and final action sermons, chronologically they occurred in reverse order.

Buried Stones

Jeremiah recorded three deportations from Jerusalem to Babylon during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (52:28-30). An earlier deportation probably took place in the spring of 605 BC when the young Babylonian prince swept south after his victory over the Egyptians at Carchemish (in modern Turkey). He removed Jehoiakim, who was crowned vassal king by Pharaoh Neco some three to four years earlier in place of his pro-Babylon brother, Jehoahaz. Daniel and his three young friends were likely deported at that time but detained in Babylon after Jehoiakim was reinstated.

When the latter rebelled, Babylonian armies returned to Jerusalem a second time. Jehoiakim died in the subsequent siege and was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin. He surrendered three months later and was taken to Babylon. Mattaniah was made king in his stead and renamed Zedekiah by Nebuchadnezzar. When he also revolted, the Babylonians returned for a third time. Zedekiah suffered an ignominious defeat and was brought captive to Babylon with his eyes gouged out after witnessing the execution of his own sons.

Rather than install another problematic puppet king, Nebuchadnezzar made Gedaliah governor in Judea. As Jeremiah had earlier urged Zedekiah to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar and serve him (Jer 38:17-20), so now Gedaliah assured the remaining inhabitants of Judea that Nebuchadnezzar had peaceful intentions towards them. Nevertheless, pro-Egyptian insurgents, led by a member of the royal family, murdered the governor and other members of the administration at Mizpah. Fearing Babylonian reprisals, and against Jeremiah’s explicit warning (42:9-16), they fled to Egypt, forcing the prophet to accompany them.

It was there that Jeremiah was instructed to deliver the penultimate dramatized message. The Lord told him to take large stones and hide them in the mortar of the pavement of the Egyptian palace at Tahpanhes. He was to do this in sight of the men of Judah, explaining to them that Nebuchadnezzar would come to strike their Egyptian hosts, in whom they had put their trust, and set up his royal pavilion on the spot where the stones were buried. There would follow “pestilence,” “captivity” and “sword.” The Egyptians’ idol temples would be torched and their sacred pillars destroyed.

A Sunken Scroll

The sermon of the sunken scroll predated the sermon of the hidden stones but is recorded eight chapters later as the final words of Jeremiah and the climax of the book (Jer 51:59-64). During the 4th year of Zedekiah’s reign, around the time he became vassal to Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah made a journey to Babylon in the company of Seraiah, brother of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch. Jeremiah had dictated a lengthy oracle (chs.50-51) predicting the utter destruction of Babylon at the hands of the Medes (51:11). He instructed Seraiah to take the scroll and read it aloud on arrival in Babylon, before weighting it with a stone and casting it into the Euphrates River. This action was less about destroying the evidence than it was about symbolizing that Babylon would “sink to rise no more” because of the disaster that the Lord was bringing upon her (51:64). Although it’s unclear whether Seraiah read the scroll in the hearing of the Babylonians, nevertheless it must have taken great courage to make such a pronouncement in the heartland of his captors.

In process of time, the Babylonian empire was indeed overthrown. Following the famous vision of the handwriting on the wall, the prophecy of Daniel records, “That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed” (Dan 5:30).[1] This set the scene for the emergence of Cyrus the Great, by whom the proclamation was made for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

The Sovereignty of God

A few decades earlier, Habakkuk had struggled as he observed the rise of wicked nations who were persecuting God’s covenant people: “So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (1:4).

Habakkuk was to learn that God was at work: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own” (vv5-6).

The Lord had previously said of unborn Cyrus, by whom He would bring recovery and blessing to Jerusalem, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfil all my purpose” (Isa 44:28). Now through Jeremiah, on three separate occasions, He referred to “Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant,” by whom He would bring judgment on Judah and the surrounding nations (Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). God’s people must learn, as Nebuchadnezzar himself did through bitter experience, “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Dan 4:32).

The Jews who fled to Egypt refused to believe that the Most High rules the kingdom of men. Knowing that the Lord had already said through Jeremiah that it was in their best interests to submit to Nebuchadnezzar, they chose instead to subvert God’s plan by seeking Pharaoh’s protection.

Perhaps as never before in our lifetimes, we must remind ourselves that God Most High still rules the kingdoms of men. As our world becomes increasingly godless and chaotic, we may be inclined to despair, or to seek support in sinful men and failed political systems. Instead, we ought to remind ourselves that our sovereign God still uses the basest of men to accomplish His own will, as He did in ancient times (Dan 4:17). As we witness wickedness wax strong, God gives confidence and comforts our hearts with the words spoken to Habakkuk and quoted three times in the New Testament, “The just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4 KJV). Just as it was God’s purpose that His people should submit to the Babylonians, so we are exhorted to be subject to the established authority of our day, live godly lives before them, and pray for them so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1Ti 2:2).

God is still on the Throne.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.