Jeremiah’s Yoke: His and Ours

The official study guide for this week’s lesson uses “yoke” in two different ways. The more concrete usage focuses on Jeremiah’s wearing of a wooden yoke to boldly illustrate his plea to the kingdom of Judah and to the surrounding nations to submit to the yoke of Babylon (Jer. 27).

The false prophet Hananiah, preaching the return of the temple vessels and the restoration of Jehoiachin to the throne of Judah, came up to Jeremiah and forcible broke the wooden yoke from his neck, declaring that within two years the yoke of Babylon would thus be broken. Jeremiah responded by speaking of a yoke of iron – the text is not clear whether he actually made another visual aid – but it does refer to a “yoke of iron” (Jer. 28:13).

Jeremiah had the last word, too, reminding Hananiah that true prophets usually predict disaster. But if a prophet is so bold as to predict peace, his ministry can only be confirmed with the fulfillment of the prophecy (Jer. 28:9). As for Hananiah himself, Jeremiah predicted that he would die within the year for rebelling against Yahweh. That’s exactly what happened. Hananiah died two months later (Jer. 28:15-17).

The study guide’s other use of “yoke” suggests a more contemporary – albeit troubling – application in our day because of the ever-present call to ascetic self-denial that haunts the lives of the devout. The starting point is God’s command to Jeremiah to lay aside every trace of happiness: no marriage or family (Jer. 16:2-4), no feasting, no sounds of joy and gladness (Jer. 16:8-9). Indeed, Jeremiah was forbidden to show emotion of any kind: no mourning for the dead, no participation in a memorial funeral meal (Jer. 16:5-7). From a New Testament point of view one thinks of Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). Somewhat related is his offer of rest in Matthew 11:28-30. Rest – but with a yoke, an easy yoke, to be sure, but still a yoke.

So how do we know if our life is burdened with too much self-denial or not enough? Admittedly, that question could perhaps be settled on the basis of temperament. It may be easier to introduce a streak of melancholy into the life of the joyous than to introduce joy into the life of the melancholy. But in Scripture we can find passages to reinforce both positions.

On the joyful side of the ledger, we can appeal to Jesus’ active participation at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2). Jeremiah had been forbidden such pleasure (Jer. 16:9). But not Jesus. In fact, he was such a party person that his enemies could call him a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). Ecclesiastes 3:11-13 can also be cited in support of the cheerful life: “God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God” (NLT).

By contrast, especially among grumpy non-Christians, the Christian way is often viewed as a life of joyless self-denial. Several years ago, for example, Nick Hornby wrote a novel entitled How to Be Good (Penguin, 2001) in which he describes the transformation of David Carr, “a bitter under-employed intellectual” who was converted by a faith healer, DJ GoodNews. Carr gives away money, works with the homeless, and even invites DJ to move in with him. But note the punch line: “He also becomes utterly humorless.”

Similarly, Mark Twain (1835-1910) reflected that “popular” view of the disciplined life, even when religion was not explicitly involved. My daughter once sent me a card with this line from Twain: “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”

Interestingly enough, the card came from Borealis Press which noted on the back: “We print with soy inks, on acid-free, totally chlorine-free recycled paper, which produces no dioxins in the mill waste.” It is remarkable that such a “conscientious” press would feature a quote from Twain suggesting that the only way to prolong life is to live in unhappy self-denial.

In Adventism, the gloomy perspective on religion as a life of self-denial is rooted in the early experience of Ellen White. Many years ago, during my doctoral studies in Edinburgh, one conscientious church member asked me what he could do help him snap out of what he described as “spiritual depression.” I asked him what he had been reading. “Early Writings,” he replied. “I’ve read it dozens of times.”

“No wonder you’re depressed,” I exclaimed, “that’s when Ellen White was depressed. If you read from writers who were depressed, you’re likely to join them in their depression.”

What I find so intriguing and helpful are the resources which enable us to trace Ellen White’s growth from a perspective of haunting self-denial to one characterized by full joy in the Lord. That development is wonderfully illustrated by her successive descriptions of John the Baptist’s experience, 1858, 1878, 1897, and 1898. The key phrases are in bold type:

1858 Spiritual Gifts 1:29, 30-31: “John’s life was without pleasure. It was sorrowful and self-denying. . . . His life was lonely. He did not cling to his father’s family, to enjoy their society, but left them in order to fulfill his mission” (SG 1:29).

“I was pointed down to the last days, and saw that John was to represent those who should go forth in the [30/31] spirit and power of Elijah, to herald the day of wrath, and the second advent of Jesus” (SG 1:30-31).

Note:This early quote yields not a glimmer of joy. All is gloom and self-denial.

1877 Spirit of Prophecy 2:69: “John’s life, with the exception of the joy he experienced in witnessing the success of his mission, was without pleasure. It was one of sorrow and self-denial. . . . John’s voice was seldom heard, except in the wilderness. His life was lonely” (SP 2:69).

Note: Now, John at least had joy at work!

1897 Youth's Instructor, 7 Jan. 1897: “John enjoyed his life of simplicity and retirement.”

Note: The contrast with Spiritual Gifts (1858) is now complete. Ellen White actually states that John “enjoyed” his life of simplicity.

1898 The Desire of Ages, 150: “God had directed John the Baptist to dwell in the wilderness, that he might be shielded from the influence of the priests and rabbis, and be prepared for a special mission. But the austerity and isolation of his life were not an example for the people. John himself had not directed his hearers to forsake their former duties. He bade them give evidence of their repentance by faithfulness to God in the place where He had called them”

“Aside from the joy that John found in his mission, his life had been one of sorrow.His voice had been seldom heard except in the wilderness. His was a lonely lot. And he was not permitted to see the result of his own labors” (DA 220).

Note:Simply the deletion of the phrase “without pleasure” dramatically changes the tone of the whole narrative.

When I shared these comparisons with one of my classes, a student blurted out a marvelous one-liner: “You mean the more Ellen White enjoyed her walk with God the more John the Baptist enjoyed his!” Indeed.

I am convinced that we need to see all of Scripture more in the sense of illustrative authority, rather than absolute authority. That is particularly true of an austere book like Jeremiah. We retain all of Scripture as a book illustrating how God has worked with his messengers in various times and places. But application to any one of us is neither automatic nor absolute.

Often as a community of believers, we can be helpful in giving guidance to one another. Those who are inclined to be too flippant can be brought back to earth by their more serious-minded fellow believers, and those inclined to be too melancholy can be buoyed up by their more positive-thinking colleagues.

That approach could transform attitudes toward Ellen White’s writings. Many in the church find themselves oppressed by what she has written because they have been schooled to see her words in terms of absolute authority rather than illustrative authority.

The role of community is particularly important in the teaching of classes in religion. In that very connection, this paragraph from Ellen White’s counsel to “The Bible Teacher” is crucial: “It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson book, comparing scripture with scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service” – Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 433 (1913).

Note the phrase, “subordinate all preconceived opinions.” We can’t rid ourselves immediately of our biases, but we can seek God’s help in subordinating them to the point where we can actually hear what others are saying.

If we could move toward such an approach in the church, the writings of Ellen White could be a great blessing – instead of a curse. And if we can learn that in connection with Ellen White, we might be able to come back to Jeremiah and read it productively instead of with dread.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7209
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I appreciate the insightful comments by Alden Thompson, as they freely acknowledge some of the difficulties of the text we study. His illustration on how interpretations can shift and differ - and need to be differentiating - is a timely reminder that biblical interpretation can never be a “one size fits all” (would you really want to make the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar make the prototype of the yoke of Christ? It wouldn’t even serve well as an anti-type!)

Having said this I find it noteworthy that it is the biography of Ellen White which apparently is needed to convince the reader. This in itself is suggesting something about the state of the church. And it will be a wonderful means to sidetrack the discussion (“Ellen depressed? Never!” or similar side issues…)

Personally I am still struggling and wondering about the meaning of God utilizing foreign nations as means of correction and discipline - knowing full well that these nations would attribute their success to their gods. What witness is this? Isn’t God meant to show his greatness, his superiority over all the gods? But then … it is this God who ultimately ends up on the cross - for our sake.

Yoke texts for me are not about asceticism (a form of self-optimization … Adventists taught for a much longer time than the term is around), but about an attitude of submission for the purpose of a greater good (here in Jeremiah the salvation of Israel from mass destruction).

Looking forward to the discussions in Sabbath school.

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Alden Thompson strikes again! The insights and ideas he brings out from the Sabbath School Lesson study are amazing! He said: “If you read from writers who were depressed, you’re likely to join them in their depression.”

I agree that there is a direct cause and effect relationship with writing and depression. Writing, editing, and revising require a near obsession with self-criticism, the leading quality for depressed patients. Considering the sheer amount of writing that Ellen White did in her lifetime I am not surprised that she also had to battle depression.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that this flood of thoughts and introspection is apparently vital to creative success. In Touched with Fire, a touchstone book on the relationship between “madness and creativity,” Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins, reported that successful individuals were eight times more likely as “regular people” to suffer from a serious depressive illness.
If you think about it though, this “mad success” makes sense.

Great writing requires original thinking and clever reorganization of varied experiences and thoughts. The common theory for why writers are often depressed is rather simple and basic: writers think a lot and people who think a lot tend to be unhappy. Add to that long periods of isolation and the high levels of narcissism that draws someone to a career like writing, and it seems obvious why they might not be the happiest bunch.

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Here we go again. Who determines what is “illustrative” and what is “absolute?” One would think that if anything is absolute, it would be the 10 commandments, but no, the majority of posters at Spectrum argue against the perpetuity of the 10 C’s.

Certainly sections which speak of not reaping one’s fields every 7 years would be illustrative, since most of us are not farmers anymore. And leaving some crops at the edges of the field or fruit on the trees for the poor would be illustrative, since, again, of us are not farmers, and don’t see the poor wandering around gleaning fruit (although this sort of thing does occur in rural areas in this country) or grain. Also the command to free one’s servants at the end of 7 years would also be illustrative, since none of us (hopefully) keeps slaves anymore. Unless one wants to interpret it to mean that an employer should lay off his employees at the end of 7 years. But, that can’t be, since they are not working for free, and could choose to quit at any time.

All the author has done is provide more ambiguity to what should, for the most part, be fairly plain. But, with this kind of uncertainty available, one can decide for themselves what is absolute and what is not. Very convenient.

And to Bud Duncan, who said, “I disagree with your statement Mr. Birder ‘that the majority of
posters at Spectrum argue against the perpetuity of the 10 C’s.’”--------you haven’t been in the lounge recently, have you?

I liked the article. As usual Alden is right on. I don’t know him personally, but listen to his other Sabbath School comments. I disagree with your statement Mr. Birder “that the majority of posters at Spectrum argue against the perpetuity of the 10 C’s.” My guess is that they/I, see the “10” as a way to maintain a healthy, friendly relationship with the creator, rather than do as I say or die.

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It is always a pleasure to read from the pen of Dr. Alden Thompson. This is a gem! tom z

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Exactly as I was thinking the same while reading this article. Appreciate the nuance and challenge for ever more mature study of God’s Word.

Birder - I am not sure how reading some portions as “illustrative” and some as absolute differs much from what Alden has written.

i think absolute vs. illustrative authority is a useful distinction…god deals with everyone as individuals…the command to abraham to sacrifice his son isaac, in keeping with the culture of the time, and adapted particularly to abraham’s long wait, can’t be taken to be a command to anyone else…

i agree completely that confusion between absolute and illustrative authority is at the root of where many people veer off into the deep end when it comes to egw…we must remember that overly literalistic readings have the potential to lead to psychological damage…a PBHC hermeneutic makes more sense…

Modern stats for Christianity reveal 75-90% of churchgoers have never read the whole bible. I dare any to do a survey for SDA.

The lesson focuses on 3 chapters this week…16, 27 & 28.
What % do you think read any of these or for that matter any of the SS lesson?

The SDA church has so long had sermons mentioning that the SDA church is Laodicean… that they are programmed to accept that and are not aware that most are like the church in Sardis…spiritually dead.
Too late to do a survey for this week.
The most important lesson is # 11 coming up…all of the others are basically diagnostic. Lesson #11 is remedial or the solution.

Why is it that being in the SDA denomination seems to not give incentive to reading the bible?

Ask your pastors & conference leaders.

Hey Steve…I am editing to answer. What you posted about SS classes is accurate as far as my experience. When I teach, one whole chapter is read, in class, on the chapter that is most relevant. And I do exposition with class on that chapter plus input other bible verses that are on topic. The class I teach is 50-100 attendees

Gideon
DO SDA Sabbath School members [the actual % of SDAs who DO attend Adult Sabbath School after their kids are old enuf to drive themselves to church] actually hear much of the Assigned Bible for the week read in Class?
If they do it is only a couple of verses, and all the rest is reading the notes on the Quarterly and commenting on them.
So it is a Canned Program, very little room for exploration by the members, and the members of the class are essentially told what to ask, what to believe that the texts say.
Even the Memory Verse. Do any Teachers ask the class what the Memory Verse speaks to them?

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There is always another backstory to illustrate the d0wn-tp-earth human concerns of many reified Bible heroes. This insight on the prophet Jeremiah comes from none other than the prophet’s own scribe BARUCH. Baruch records (Words of Baruch chapters 3 to 5)that it was the night when Nebuchadnezzar’s forces were encamped around Jerusalem . Jeremiah who was Captain of the Temple Guard was sneaking in the dark with his team . They were attempting to hide Temple treasures (including the most treasured stone on which Jacob had slept)from the invaders, who they expected to attack at first light. Suddenly a bright light coming from a “heavenly” vehicle interrupted their mission. The prophet then came forward and asked to be taken to the “almighty” He was taken to the Commander of the vehicle and instantly bowed and made a request. This was that his pupil and friend Abimilech the young Ethiopian be spared the carnage expected during the invasion, because he had once saved the prophet’s life when he had fallen into a well and would have drowned. Jeremiah was told to tell Abimilech to be at Naboth’s vineyard (which was some distance from the city centre)at first light. The lad did as his master advised and while there decided to pick some figs to distribute to the poor. He then sat down for about five minutes it seemed to him. When hen gathered himself he realized that he had dozed off. Panic struck at what Jeremiah would have to say about this lapse he hastened cityward. BUT everything seemed strange; he could not even find the house where he had lived , nor of course, the prophet. He went back to the vineyard much perplexed and then came back to the city several more times. The figs were still fresh. Finally he asked an old man what had happened to the city ? how come it had changed so much in a few minutes? The old man bowed to Abimilech and said " SON, God is with you!!! Jeremiah and the others have been taken away 66 years , but you have been saved". I was baffled by this story, and just for fun I decided to write a letter to Commander Sanni Ceto the Captain of the fleet of alien ships which had crashed in New Mexico Known as the Roswell crash. She had been “sentenced " by her father to live out the remainder of her life on earth to educate mankind on space matters as punishment for not obeying orders to withdraw her fleet from exploration on earth and thereby going down during a severe lightning storm. Her father is apparently in a hughe spaceship in orbit around Jupiter. She took a job as a columnist for EARTHSTAR PUBLICATIONS where she answers all questions sent in by readers about space matters. I was a regular correspondent and even became quite close to her. I asked her if she knew what had happened to the lad ? and she replied in her column “ASK AN ET”: Dear… This young man was taken to Lyra in the Pleiades system as the Captain who is a high commander over several fleets was from the Pleiades planet of Meropia which Lyra is next to” Namaste Commander Sanni. I also asked her more about the exile, such as the rescue of the Jewish boys from the fire , Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and she did explain how they were saved . Jeremiah is said to have eventually escaped to Europe taking Jacob’s stone with him. It eventually was used in the coronation of Scottish kings and then was captured by the English and used for the same purpose. I believe the English called it the Stone of Scone or some such nickname, before it was stolen by (suspected) Scottish nationalists. Commander also said she had formerly been a long distance space pilot carrying goods between planets and even galaxies. Some ships were over ten earth miles long and there were others three times or more in length.