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‘Despair in a Dungeon’ transcript continued…


You can listen to Stephen’s talk here as you read the transcript below.

Within the Scriptures there are many examples of God’s people suffering in isolation. We will try to gain a brief glimpse into the life of one such individual, the Prophet Jeremiah, who like our present circumstances found himself in unwanted solitude. Unfortunately, he was forced into isolation on more than one occasion and we will attempt to reflect on just one of those experiences.

In studying the life of the prophet, it can be seen that his life was a reflection of the coming Messiah: he came from a lowly origin, spoke God’s words, was arrested and threatened, endured betrayal, was beaten, cried  over Jerusalem, prayed for his people, pleaded with God, and suffered the hatred of the priests. All of these circumstances resembled the life of Messiah Jesus. This is why the Apostle Peter, when asked by Jesus to describe who people thought He was, responded by declaring that “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah…”

However, it is more the title given to him – the Weeping Prophet – which will form the centrality behind this brief study. It is noteworthy that Jeremiah has been given this title due to his lamenting and confessions. Indeed, the book following Jeremiah is the book of Lamentations, believed to have been written by him and bearing this theme of suffering.

Paradoxically, though the book of Jeremiah also contains a number of laments, it can be clearly seen that the prophet has a joy deep within. How often we discover that joy and suffering go ‘hand in hand’ throughout Scripture. Even in thefirst chapter we are made aware of his joy, reflected in his delight of YHWH’s word. Even despite the persecution he receives, he finds a glimmer of personal elation in the spiritual realm.

We discover through this narrative that the hostility he encounters is the reason for his lamenting as he continually faces opposition, which inevitably begins to affect and wear him down. This clearly teaches us that faith does not guarantee immunity from distress and need as we encounter this pious man bold before his fellow Hebrews but broken before his God. Yet, in this we can see that this brokenness gives birth to strength. Jeremiah takes YHWH’s word more seriously than any human word and obediently delivers a series of very unpopular messages to the nation of Israel, and in particular the leadership. He discovers that the cost of being faithful to YHWH drives him further and further into a life of suffering and loneliness, often resulting in isolation. It is interesting to note that the society and the rulers mocked and ignored his message of coming judgement, believing confidently that they would not be overcome by an outside enemy – in this case Babylon.

Jeremiah faces oppression, not only from the invading Babylonian army, but also from the remaining Hebrews – his own people. This causes Jeremiah to ask many questions of YHWH. He questions why he was even born. He questions the leniency of forgiveness being shown by his God to a people who refuse to repent. He questions the very nature of YHWH. I sense this encourages us not to be timid of asking Him questions too. He is a big God and experience tells me that asking questions is often the route to better understanding His ways, His plans, His methods. In fact, it is often the questions themselves that provide us with answers. However, in asking questions, we gain a glimpse from Jeremiah that there is a ‘fine line’ which should not be stepped over! He bemoans the mysteries of YHWH, but after almost assaulting His majesty, YHWH graciously tells Jeremiah that he has almost crossed that line, but that YHWH is willing to forgive him… if he repents! The prophet obeys and counts the cost of his prophetic position before the nation and prepares himself for a time of public suffering as he confronts the chosen people with God’s prophetic message. YHWH is still in control, and within that control He will use His “servant” Nebuchadnezzar to rule. Jeremiah is encouraged to live faithfully, even within life’s undesired circumstances, which he had no control over. Similarly, during these unique and discouraging circumstances we find ourselves in, over which we have little or no control, He still desires His people to also live faithfully.    

Within this context, Jeremiah endures much hardship and opposition, and must have felt extremely lonely on many occasions. His opponents did not always come from the invading enemy, as one may assume. Take his rival Hananiah as an example. This prophet of YHWH declared that the Temple treasure, taken by the Babylonian army, would be returned within 2 years as well as the king and the Hebrew captives. In contrast, Jeremiah declared that it would be much longer and that the king would not return. The dilemma for the leaders and the people was – whom should they believe to be a true prophet and whom should they believe to be a false prophet?

It is shortly after this encounter with a false prophet, that we find Jeremiah facing two of several imprisonments. We read in Jeremiah 37 the following narrative:

And it happened, when the army of the Chaldeans left the siege of Jerusalem for fear of Pharaoh’s army, that Jeremiah went out of Jerusalem to go into the land of Benjamin to claim his property there among the people. And when he was in the Gate of Benjamin, a captain of the guard was there whose name was Irijah the son of Shelemiah, the son of Hananiah; and he seized Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “You are defecting to the Chaldeans!”

Then Jeremiah said, “False! I am not defecting to the Chaldeans.” But he did not listen to him.

So Irijah seized Jeremiah and brought him to the princes. Therefore the princes were angry with Jeremiah, and they struck him and put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe. For they had made that the prison.

When Jeremiah entered the dungeon and the cells, and Jeremiah had remained there many days, then Zedekiah the king sent and took him out. The king asked him secretly in his house, and said, “Is there any word from the Lord?”

And Jeremiah said, “There is.” Then he said, “You shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon!”

Moreover Jeremiah said to King Zedekiah, “What offense have I committed against you, against your servants, or against this people, that you have put me in prison? Where now are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, ‘The king of Babylon will not come against you or against this land’? Therefore please hear now, O my lord the king. Please, let my petition be accepted before you, and do not make me return to the house of Jonathan the scribe, lest I die there.”

Then Zedekiah the king commanded that they should commit Jeremiah to the court of the prison, and that they should give him daily a piece of bread from the bakers’ street, until all the bread in the city was gone. Thus Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.

We see here, entering onto the stage of history, the last king of Judah – King Zedekiah. He was installed by Nebuchadnezzar as the ruling monarch of the southern kingdom but made bad choices – he resisted the word of YHWH. It doesn’t appear that he was irreligious. On the contrary, he desires to hear what the God of the Hebrews has to say. He does not come across as hostile or vicious, but more fearful and perhaps weak. The hostility comes more from a Hebrew duty-officer named Irijah. The prophet had taken advantage of a temporary halt in the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians to attempt visiting his native village. As he tried to leave the city, and probably in response to earlier calls for Judah to surrender from the lips of the prophet, Irijah arrests him with a charge of defection. Many of the people had already absconded and so this was no surprise to the officer. The result was imprisonment.

And so, Jeremiah finds himself in a dungeon, which was probably an underground place of confinement. More than likely, it was an old cistern which had been converted into a cell. This is the solitary and inhospitable surroundings into which Jeremiah was isolated. And, like many of us today during a period of lockdown, he was somewhat scared and afraid. We see from v20 that he anxiously pleads with the king. He says to Zedekiah: “Please let my petition be accepted before you, and do not make me return to the house of Jonathan the scribe [i.e. the converted prison] lest I die there.” I’m sure many of us can relate to the uncertainty and fear currently gripping our world, as we live in isolation. The worry which Jeremiah experienced is strangely uniting much of society, as we all, together, face a unique time in history.

The experience of Jeremiah, and our current experiences, urge us to obey the Scriptures. In particular, we are drawn towards the words of the New Testament and asked to “remember the prisoners as if chained with them” (Hebrews 13: 3). Many are the number of Christian prisoners who find themselves forced into the isolation of a dungeon, simply for being followers of their God. Please allow me to highlight the plight of our dear brother Zafar Bhatti.

Zafar is a Pakistani believer in Jesus and is currently imprisoned in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.. His wife currently visits him every Thursday taking him much-needed food. Until we began to reach out to this family, Zafar had been locked away for 7 years, isolated from society apart for the weekly visit of his wife. He was no doubt fearful and his fear had been compounded by several attempts on his life, during his incarceration.

Zafar was originally imprisoned under the Blasphemy laws. His story is that of working as a journalist, when a colleague took his phone and sent blasphemous texts to a Muslim fundamentalist. This was reported to the authorities and Zafar was arrested, tried, and sentenced to imprisonment. After being isolated in his cell, he was allowed no Bible due to the nature of his alleged offence but continued to worship his God by reciting the Psalms within his isolation (eventually he was allowed a Bible).    

Please pray for Zafar as he continues to live in forced lockdown, simply for being a follower of Jesus. Pray that his faith will continue, despite death threats and other hostilities. Remember too his wife, Nawab Bibi, who is trying to maintain financial provision for them both by working as a house cleaner for a number of homes. However, sometimes she does not have enough money to visit her husband or take him provisions. 

In the response section of our Lockdown Church webpage, you will find several ways to enable you to “remember” our brothers and sisters who suffer, in similar ways, to brother Zafar and Nawab Bibi. This webpage will allow you to:

  • Pray… sign up to  receive our regular prayer emails and/or our free quarterly magazine (which includes our Prayer Shield  diary with prayers for each day of the month). 
  • Give… consider supporting one of our projects working directly with Christian prisoners and their families.
  • Share… recommend these Lockdown Church resources to your Christian friends and church small groups and get them praying too. You can help to support our brothers and sisters in so many ways.

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