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Lessons on Discipline from the Book of Jeremiah

Michael Hardt

T&T 2014 Q1

Jeremiah may not be the first book that comes to mind when we speak of discipline, and yet discipline is at the centre of the book. In this article we focus on seven symbolical actions Jeremiah had to perform,[1] each of which teaches us an important aspect of discipline and an important message for us as Christians today.


Jeremiah prophesied during the sunset decades of the Jewish kingdom: over the course of the last 40 years, starting in the 13th year of the reign of Josiah (629 BC). He had to show up the deplorably low state of the people even under godly king Josiah (3:6ff). He then had to experience the ungodly kings Jehoahaz, Johoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. He had to witness the beginning of the ‘times of the Gentiles’ (Luke 21:24) under Nebuchadnezzar and the three deportations that ensued (606 BC, 599 BC, 588 BC), the last of which occurred under Zedekiah and resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem.

Against this sad backdrop Jeremiah was called to present an unwelcome message: the king of Babylon will come; it is no use even trying to fight his armies or even to escape. What was the reason? God had determined to discipline His people for their sins and the best thing they could do was accept this and trust Him that if they repented then He in His grace would yet lead them into blessing.

1.The Potter and the Clay

One of the actions Jeremiah had to perform to illustrate his message was to go to the potter’s house and watch him produce a vessel (18:1–10). Jeremiah witnessed how the potter produced a vessel on the wheel and how it was ‘marred’. The potter then used the same clay to produce another vessel. What was the lesson Jeremiah was meant to learn from this? God Himself gives the answer: ‘At the moment that I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to break down, and to destroy, if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil, then I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at the moment that I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant, if it do evil in my sight, that it hearken not unto my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.’

The message was clear: there was still time for Judah to repent. If so, God would ‘repent’. Otherwise, He would need to chasten and discipline them. God ‘is not a man … that he should repent’ (Num. 23:19) but He does repent when man changes, especially when man repents.

Things had gone wrong with Israel. Idolatry had become prevalent. The vessel had been marred. But the clay was still soft. There was still time to turn to God.

2.The Broken Vessel

In the next chapter (ch. 19), Jeremiah has to perform another symbolic action. This time his assignment involves buying an earthen vessel, taking some of the elders of the people with him and going to the valley of the son of Hinnom. This dreadful place was renowned for the idolatry that involved sending children through the fire and sacrificing them to Molech (see 2 Ki. 23:10). Jeremiah had to announce judgment there: ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle’ (v. 3). Then he had to break the vessel: ‘Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee, and shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again’ (vs. 10–11).

This time it is not clay that can still be formed but an earthen vessel that has been hardened in the fire. It can only be broken. The message is a clear but solemn one: there is a time when discipline can be accepted for profit and there is a time when it is too late. The warning not to harden the heart (Heb. 4:7) applies.

Prophetically, God announces in this way that He will judge Israel (the earthen vessel) but also that he will form a people that He will ‘build’ and ‘plant’ again (the Jewish remnant: see Isa. 10:20–22; Jer. 23:3; 31:7; Rom. 9:27).

These first two symbolic incidents (the clay and the vessel) have a solemn application to unbelievers as well. There is an acceptable time when God gives opportunity to repent but when the heart is hardened (or death intervenes) it is too late and the inevitable consequence is the smashing of the potter’s vessel (‘as one breaketh a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again’ (Jer. 19:11)). Yet, the same principle applies to discipline — and this appears to be the primary thought here.

3.The Baskets of Figs

In chapter 24, Jeremiah is shown two baskets of figs. This happened after the second deportation. The first one had occurred under Jehoiakim. Now, around ten years later, ‘Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon had carried away captive Jeconiah[2] the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah, and the princes of Judah, with the carpenters and smiths, from Jerusalem, and had brought them to Babylon’ (v. 1), and Zedekiah was king. It is at this time that Jeremiah is shown the two baskets of figs: ‘one basket had very good figs, like the figs first ripe; and the other basket had very bad figs, which could not be eaten for badness’ (v. 2). What did this mean? Again, God provides the explanation. Regarding the good figs He says, ‘Like these good figs, so will I regard for good them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans; and I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up’ (vs. 5–6). The bad figs, on the other hand, are compared to ‘Zedekiah the king of Judah, and his princes, and the remnant of Jerusalem, that remain in this land, and them that dwell in the land of Egypt’ (v. 8).

How could this be? Surely, one might have thought, those who remain in Jerusalem are the better Jews and those in Babylon are the bad ones. Why does God say the opposite? Because those who wanted to stay in Jerusalem were refusing to accept God’s discipline. They thought they could evade it, either by staying in Jerusalem to fight or by fleeing to Egypt. One needs to bear in mind that, since the first deportation in 606 BC, God had entrusted government in the world to Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 28:14; Dan. 2:37–38; 5:18–19). The only right course of action was to acknowledge this fact and to confess the sins that had led to it.

There were no intermediate figs. They were either ‘very good’ or ‘very bad’. This shows that God would not accept a middle ground or a neutral position. The good figs were the ones that accepted the discipline and bowed under it. God would bless them and bring about a complete change in their hearts: ‘And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am Jehovah; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart’ (Jer. 24:7).

As has been said: ‘In a day of ruin faith always recognises the chastening of God and bows to it. Unbelief always resists.’[3]

4.The Bonds and the Yokes

This message is reinforced and illustrated by the next symbolical action, when Jeremiah has to take ‘bonds and yokes’ and put them around his neck (27:2). Zedekiah[4] and the kings of other nations nearby (v. 3) were given an unambiguous demonstration: ‘the nation … which will not … put their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation will I visit, saith Jehovah, with the sword …’ (v. 8).

This message was not popular and opposition was not lacking. Hananiah, one of the many false prophets plaguing the people of God at the time, ‘took the yoke from off the prophet Jeremiah’s neck, and broke it. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, Thus saith Jehovah: So will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon within two full years from off the neck of all the nations’ (28:10–11). Jeremiah did not take it upon himself to answer this lie. We simply read: ‘and the prophet Jeremiah went his way.’ But God spoke: ‘Thou hast broken the yokes of wood, and thou hast made in their place yokes of iron. … I have put a yoke of iron upon the neck of all these nations, that they may serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and they shall serve him’ (vs. 13–14). And the false prophet was judged for his opposition. He ‘died in the same year in the seventh month’ (v. 17).

We can make two mistakes in relation to discipline. One is to ‘faint’ under it, the other is to ‘despise’ discipline (Heb. 12:5). Hananiah, and many others with him, clearly despised it. The only right course of action is to be exercised by it. This is the message of the ‘bonds and yokes’. When God acts in discipline and we are exercised by it, it will bring the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11).

5.The Purchase of the Field

In chapter 32, Jeremiah is given a task that seems the most unreasonable of all. It was the tenth year of Zedekiah — just months before the final destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was besieged. The Chaldean army was encamped around the city. As Jeremiah himself knew: ‘Behold the mounts, they are come unto the city to take it; and the city is given into the hand of the Chaldeans, that fight against it’ (v. 24). To make things worse, if that is at all possible, Jeremiah was a prisoner (v. 2) — a prisoner within an imprisoned city.

In this dire situation, the prophet is told by the Lord that Hanameel, Jeremiah’s cousin, would come and offer him a piece of land for sale (vs. 6–7). If there ever was a bad time to invest in land it was then. Jeremiah knew the outcome of the battle. The enemies would win and take the city and the land of Judaea. What use was it to buy a plot of land? We should not imagine that this was an easy thing for him to do (read his prayer in verses 17–25). But Jeremiah obeyed.

In all this there was there was a beautiful message of grace. God would put an end to the dominion of the Gentiles. A time of blessing would come. Land should be bought and sold again. Jeremiah had spoken about the new covenant (31:31–40) and how God would act with His people in grace (in a day that is still future), following the repentance of a remnant of the people. Now God puts him to the test by making him buy the land. If Jeremiah believed his own prophecy he should act on it and ‘put his money where his mouth was’, and he did.

In this way, the seemingly unreasonable task of buying a field had a wonderful significance: ‘Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger, and in my fury, and in great wrath; and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: and I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: and I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul. For thus saith the Lord; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them. And fields shall be bought in this land, whereof ye say, It is desolate without man or beast; it is given into the hand of the Chaldeans. Men shall buy fields for money, and subscribe evidences, and seal them, and take witnesses in the land of Benjamin, and in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah, and in the cities of the mountains, and in the cities of the valley, and in the cities of the south: for I will cause their captivity to return, saith the Lord’ (32:37–44).

This remarkable incident illustrates one of the most beautiful aspects of discipline: grace. Whilst it is true that, in God’s governmental ways, whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap’ (Gal. 6:7), even in government and discipline God acts in grace.[5] Whilst there may be inevitable consequences from failure (like the 70 years of captivity) God’s design is to bless.

6.The Stones in the Brick-kiln

After the destruction of Jerusalem (the occasion for his composition of the Lamentations), Jeremiah, ironically, ended up the only free man in the country. Some were taken by Nebuzaradan and some were ordered to stay but Jeremiah was given the choice (40:4).

At one point, those who were told to stay in the city decided to escape the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar by fleeing to Egypt. The background was that Gedaliah, the governor whom the Babylonians had set over the few who remained in Jerusalem, had been murdered (41:16–18). At the last minute, it occurred to them that they had not asked the Lord whether this was His way for them. So they quickly asked Jeremiah to consult Him. When the answer came, and was negative, they refused to listen (you can read this interesting story in Jeremiah 42).

Then, in Egypt, where he had been taken, apparently by force, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah again. This time he was asked to fix largestones in mortar: ‘Take great stones in thy hand, and hide them in the clay in the brick-kiln, which is at the entry of Pharaoh’s house in Tahpanhes’ (43:9). He had to do this in the sight of the Jews, and to say to them, ‘Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will send and take Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will set his throne upon these stones which I have hidden, and he shall spread his royal pavilion over them. And he shall come and smite the land of Egypt …’ (vs. 10–11).

Is this not a striking message? The stones would have been well fixed in the mortar as a solemn witness of these words. Some time later[6] Jeremiah’s prophecy was fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar came and took Egypt — the same Nebuchadnezzar they had been afraid of in Jerusalem so that they ran away from him.

God’s discipline is not always immediate but it is always perfectly designed, proportionate and effective. If we run away from discipline the problem that caused it will catch up with us (and the outcome is likely to be even worse). Had these people remained in Jerusalem and accepted the Babylonian yoke, they could have lived quietly in their own country. But, having fled to Egypt, they were still in Nebuchadnezzar’s reach and would die (42:22).

7.The Book in the River

Finally, we come to the book in the river. Jeremiah 51 takes us back in time to the fourth year of Zedekiah (v. 59). Jeremiah was still in Jerusalem. When King Zedekiah travelled to Babylon (which took place before his revolt against Nebuchadnezzar as recorded in 2 Kings 24:20) he was accompanied by his travel organiser, Seraiah.

Jeremiah received a message from the Lord concerning Babylon and wrote this message in a book. It concerned all the judgments God was going to bring on Babylon — the nation He had chosen to use to discipline His people. ‘And Jeremiah said to Seraiah, When thou comest to Babylon, see that thou read all these words; and say, Jehovah, thou hast spoken concerning this place, that thou wilt cut it off, so that none shall dwell in it, neither man nor beast, but that it shall be desolate for ever. And it shall be, when thou hast ended reading this book, that thou shalt bind a stone to it, and cast it into the midst of the Euphrates; and shalt say, Thus shall Babylon sink, and shall not rise, because of the evil that I will bring upon it’ (vs. 61–64).

The judgment on Babylon was going to be final. It would ‘sink, and shall not rise’. How different are God’s dealings with Babylon from His dealings with His own people. His own people He chastened with a view to restoring them (or, more precisely, the part of the people with whom the discipline would be effective, i.e. the remnant). Babylon, on the other hand, would receive a final judgment.

Here it is by way of contrast that we learn an important feature of discipline: it is not designed to destroy but designed to restore and to lead to blessing (see the section on the purchase of the field). Believers may be disciplined, but they are not condemned like the world. Paul expresses this very pointedly: ‘But if we judged ourselves, so were we not judged. But being judged, we are disciplined of the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world’ (1 Cor. 11:31–32).

The Word ‘Discipline’ in Jeremiah

In addition to these symbolical actions and God’s use of Nebuchadnezzar to discipline His people, Jeremiah also refers to God ‘correcting’, ‘chastising’ or ‘instructing’ — i.e. disciplining — them. The same Hebrew word for this occurs seven times in the book: 2:19; 6:8; 10:24; 30:11; 31:18 (twice); and 46:28. Chapter 30:11 states: ‘For I am with thee, saith Jehovah, to save thee: for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have scattered thee; yet of thee will I not make a full end, but I will correct thee with judgment, and will not hold thee altogether guiltless.’


The book of Jeremiah teaches us a number of moral lessons in relation to discipline:

  • When the hearts of His people turn away from Him God may have to act in discipline.
  • The objective of discipline is to restore, correct and bring about repentance.
  • The correct reaction to God’s discipline is to accept it (not by being indifferent but by learning the lesson God wants to teach).
  • Running away from discipline will only make it worse.
  • Bowing under God’s discipline brings blessing.
  • God condemns the world but disciplines His own.
  • Even in discipline God shows grace.

[1] There are a number of other symbolical actions in Jeremiah which we do not refer to in this article (see, for instance, 13:1–10; 16:1–2; 35:2).

[2] This is Jehoiachin (compare 2 Chr. 36:9, 10).

[3] William Kelly, Jeremiah.

[4] Some translations refer to ‘Jehoiakim’ in verse 1 but it is clear from verse 3 and the report that follows that Zedekiah is meant.

[5] This was the case with Jacob, the patriarch whose life gives a most vivid illustration of God’s ways in discipline. After deceiving his father he was deceived, but he saw Joseph again. After deceiving Esau he had to flee the country, but God brought him back.

[6] A clay tablet, now in the British Museum, states: ‘In the 37th year of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the country of Babylon, he went to Mitzraim (Egypt) to wage war. Amasis, king of Egypt, collected [his army], and marched and spread abroad.’ (Wikipedia)