Exactly one hundred years ago, on Sunday morning April 15, 1912 at 1:30 a.m., something happened that continues to fascinate the world. After two hours of steady flooding, the huge, unsinkable luxury liner, the Titanic, began to submerge into the icy waters of the Atlantic four hundred sea miles off the coast of Newfoundland. There were over twenty-two hundred people on board on this massive ship’s maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York.
On the previous night, Sunday April 14, just before midnight, those who were still awake could hear a faint scratching sound from the bow. The ship had sideswiped an iceberg on a peerless starry night, with the ocean as flat as a mirror. The starboard side of the hull was ripped open for over three hundred feet, exposing six watertight compartments to the deep, dark sea. The only effect on board was a tinkling of cutlery and glasses. The late night card games and chatting could go on. Most of the passengers were already fast asleep, also the poorer ones who were hoping for a new life in a new world on the other side of the Atlantic.
Why should we pay attention to a maritime disaster that occurred one hundred years ago? Because what happened to the Titanic was so hugely symbolic for what was about to happen to Christian Europe—and the entire world—during the century that would follow. It was a sign from above, I believe, of what was going to come unless the nations of Europe would humble themselves before the Almighty. A vessel with so much pride was sprinting so smartly to a new world with such promise, only to be mortally nicked by something as old and cold as a drifting iceberg. The result was utter consternation and chaos, a disaster of mammoth proportions, resulting in fifteen hundred souls perishing and a stunned silence on both sides of the ocean.
Very few understood the lesson. It was all soon forgotten, and hence the twentieth century became the bloodiest in all of history, and Christian Europe changed into secular Europe, with massive effects on every one of us here today.
The prophecy of Jeremiah, and especially its 13th and 29th chapters, helps us to view this sad tragedy from a biblical angle.
The God of Jeremiah Is the God of History
The prophet Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet or the prophet with the broken heart. He lived in a small village called Anathoth and was called by God at a time when Judah and Jerusalem were unusually stubborn and set in their evil ways. Yet God in His great mercy sent this prophet to His people with a stark message of clear warning. In this message God made it abundantly clear: “I am the sovereign Ruler of the destiny of my people, and not only of my own people, but of all nations and peoples on the earth. That’s why you need to listen to Me.”
Jeremiah did not have an easy task. It was so hard that he sometimes wished he had never been born. In chapter 20 he cries out: “Cursed be the day that I was born. Why did I ever come forth from my mother’s womb to see all this labor and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?”
So what made his life so hard? It was this: He was sent by the living God to His covenant people with a message about the future that they did not want to hear. They did not want to touch the topic of the future, at least not from Yahweh’s point of view. The God who determines the destiny not only of individuals and of families but also of tribes and nations was calling for their attention, but they would not listen.
We see this already in the opening chapter in his calling. The word of the Lord came to the Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, in the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, the king of Judah, and also in the days of his son Jehoiakim, until the eleventh year of Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, until Jerusalem was carried away into captivity (cf. 1:1–3). “Then the Word of the Lord came to me saying: ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I sanctified you, I ordained you a prophet to the nations’” (1:4–5).
Jeremiah resists, claiming that he’s not a good speaker, that he’s too young. But the Lord says: “Don’t say that. Don’t say that you are too young, Jeremiah, for you shall go to whomever I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to deliver you.” And so the Lord stretches out his hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says to him: “Behold I have put my words in your mouth. See I have this day set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant” (1:10)
Right after that the Lord shows him two signs. The first is an almond branch. It carries a very simple message. The Lord is saying: “I am watching over my word to perform it” (The word for almond and for watching is the same in Hebrew).
The second sign is a boiling pot, tilting over from the north. This also carries a simple message: Out of the north disaster is going to come on the inhabitants of the land. “For behold I am calling all the tribes and the kingdoms of the north, and they shall come . . . to execute my judgments upon this wayward people.” Why? Because they have forsaken the fountain of living waters, only to hew for themselves cisterns that can hold no water. They have forsaken their Glory for those that are no gods.
While Jeremiah is still overwhelmed by his new task, the Lord then says to him: “Dress yourself for work! Arise and go and tell them all the words that I tell you.” Is there a single one among us who would envy that calling? Certainly not I! And yet this call came from a God who determines the destinies of nations and who loves his people with an everlasting love. That’s why He sent this man with this solemn message to His people.
Who predicted the imminent destruction of Jerusalem? Was it not the same Jesus who wept over the city? Who warned us so repeatedly against judgment day and hellfire? Was not the One who died for us on the cross?
It’s only a God of love who can send a man like Jeremiah with a message of such warning to a people so wayward. Many of us think a God of love must always speak softly and comfortably. The false prophets of Jeremiah’s day also thought so. We also think the living God is only (or mainly) concerned about our personal salvation, and maybe for our families and churches. The Bible however, reveals to us a God who cares for this world, a God who is the God of history, a God of the nations. This much is abundantly clear not only from Jeremiah but also from all of Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe before Him,” says the Psalmist (33:8).
I got an unexpected telephone call from an old friend back in South Africa the other day. We know each other from our army days. He has been doing quite well in business and was just calling to hear how I am doing. Halfway through our conversation he said this: “I am finished with the church. Not with God, but with the church. My wife still wants to argue, but I am done with it. I will just continue to worship God in my home with family.”
I asked him why. What made you decide to take such radical step, my friend? His answer was simple. I have heard it many times before over the last decade or so. It is this: “The church (in South Africa) let us down. The church never spoke to our deepest crisis, our country’s crisis. It let us down. It let us down in the old dispensation, and it lets us down even more so today. The church is irrelevant. It has no prophetic message for our crisis. The church is only concerned about itself. Ministers want to please everybody. They hang around on golf courses and tea parties instead of sounding the clarion call for a day like this. I am finished with it all.”
Unfortunately I had no answer. I knew he was right. For the most part, the church in the country of my birth has indeed been a lame duck over the last forty years or so. No wonder the people walk away in droves. But is it really so much different here? Don’t many of us suffer from a kind of pietism that prevents us from facing the future and the world we are living in? And what is behind this sad situation? Is it not the idea that the church’s task is only spiritual? Is the church here only to speak to my little world, my family, my salvation, my comfort, and perhaps my morality, and that’s it? The country is heading for a cataclysm, the world is falling apart, but the church is basically silent about it all!
You see the same thing in the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The church in Germany, for the most part, was in a state of total paralysis during the rise of Hitler. It did not and could not and would not hear God’s voice in the midst of the crisis. And the reason was that it never had a history of speaking as Jeremiah did. Their God was not the mighty God of the nations and of history. He was an idol of their making, a God who’s there to make sure we go to heaven.
That is why we can’t let the Titanic sail pass us like a ship in the night, for even the world sees a clear message in its sinking. Listen to the words of James Cameron, the man who made the movie: “The Titanic is a drama about reliance on technology, illustrating the bankruptcy of the things that are promised in the name of progress. I consider its story as symbolic of the twentieth century. We are all sailing on some sort of a Titanic.”
The God of Jeremiah Is the God of the Humble
“Thus the Lord said to me: Go and get yourself a linen sash, and put it around your waist, but don’t put it in water” (Jer. 13:1). The linen cloth, or loincloth, was a single piece of cloth that men wrapped around their waists, below the ribs and above the hips, under their garments. On a hot day, they would wear only the linen cloth, as we see often in illustrations in children’s Bibles of the disciples catching fish.
So Jeremiah is told to go and buy one of those, since he had no wife to make him one, and to put it around his waist. After he wore it for a while, the word of the Lord came to him a second time: “Take the linen cloth, and go to the Euphrates and hide it there in a hole in the rock [that is, in some crevice by the waterside]” (1:3).
Scholars wonder whether it was really the Euphrates that’s meant here, or whether it’s not rather a fountain near Anathoth called Perath, since the journey to the Euphrates would have taken Jeremiah at least three months. If we remember though that this was meant to serve as a powerful symbol to God’s people, then it makes very good sense. So Jeremiah did as the Lord commanded him. He took the linen cloth and hid it in a crevice, just above the water level of the Euphrates.
“Now it came to pass after many days that the Lord said to him: Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I have commanded you to hide there” (13:6). So Jeremiah tells us: “Then I went there and dug, and I took the loincloth from where it was hidden, and behold: The loincloth was spoiled; it was good for nothing!” The word spoiled literally means destroyed. It was totally ruined. It still existed, but it was good for nothing, useless.
It’s a very simple sign isn’t it? Almost too simple. Here is a loincloth in rags, ruined by months of expose to the elements. What in the world could that mean? Well here is its message: “Then the word of the Lord came to me saying: In this manner will I ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem!” (13:9). This is stunning!
Now if you read around this chapter, you will soon realize that this is really a central message of Jeremiah’s prophecy. God hates human pride. He hates the vainglory of His people, and if they don’t listen to his voice and humble themselves, then He will certainly come to humble their pride.
In other words, what goes up must always come down. And nowhere is this truer than of human pride. Either we bring it down ourselves, or God brings it down. God calls us to humility and trust, to submit to Him and to each other, for He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble, says Peter the apostle. ‘Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).
So what does God have in mind here? The Lord says He is going to ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem, like that linen cloth has been ruined. The word pride here can also be translated glory. “I am going to ruin the glory of Judah and the great glory of Jerusalem!”
Pride and glory go hand in hand, don’t they? What makes us boastful and proud? The stuff we depend upon and the things we glory in. It could be anything, our money and possessions, cars, homes, boats—you name it—our healthy bodies and pretty looks, or our skill with words, our friends and contacts, our learning or experience, our image and status, our tools and technology . . . and, of course, do not forget our national pride and symbols!
Slowly but surely we rely on these things and glory in them, and they determine who we are. No, not the Lord, not his grace and His promises, but all this stuff defines our very identity, attitude, and demeanor. God and His Word get pushed out slowly but surely because we have to bring our sacrifices to keep all these things in place. Just think for a moment: what makes you feel good about yourself, whether as an American or a Canadian, or as a subculture of Dutch Reformed folks? What are those things that give us a sense of importance, so that we feel just little bit better than others, not only other individuals, but other social classes and nations? What are those things that cause us to push the Lord and his glory aside, day after day?
Do you know what all these things are? They are our gods! That’s what Jeremiah called them. Those things that give you your sense of prestige, of being somebody, they are your gods. And God hates them with a vengeance. Humble gratitude is what He is looking for, not pride. Do you now see where the Titanic comes in?
And when we begin to feel smug about all this stuff, then we begin to walk wherever our fancies lead us, to whatever our hearts get excited about. We are going after our gods. And that was the reason for the Lord’s judgment. Listen to verse 10: “This evil people who refuse to hear My words, who follow the dictates of their own hearts, and walk after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this linen cloth, which is profitable for nothing.” Do you get the point?
Tell me, what’s a linen cloth for? It was meant to cleave to your body, around your waist, to protect you and cover your shame, was it not? Listen to verse 11: “For as the sash clings to the waist of a man, so I have caused the whole house of Israel and Judah to cling to me, that they may become my people, for renown for praise, and for glory . . . but they would not hear.” Judah’s calling was to cleave to the Lord. God made His covenant with them. They were His people. They were made and called to cleave to Him. They were intended to be His praise among all people. Is this not why God also sent His only begotten Son into this world, so that we should cleave to God and make His Name great? Our Form of Baptism tells us we are saved through Jesus and by the work of His Spirit to cleave to this One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Listen to God’s word in Jeremiah 9:23–24: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches, but let him who glories glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight, says the Lord.” And so the Lord’s message is that He is going to ruin the pride of Judah, and the great pride—please notice—of Jerusalem, her temple and royal palace, her priests and her kings, yes, her national symbols of pride, everything that made her feel so good about herself.
Was the Titanic not the pride of its builders and nations? Was it not considered unsinkable? But indeed a vessel so proud, sailing so smartly, toward a world so wonderful, was slit by something so cold and ordinary as ice. And that became the story of the whole century.
One hundred years ago, the Christian West was filled with untold optimism, not in God, mind you, but in man and his achievements. There was this indomitable confidence in technological progress because of things like elevators, automobiles, airplanes, and wireless radio. Everything seemed to be in a wondrous upward spiral. A well-known academic in Groningen of those days even said that all our learning and education would mean the end of prisons and crime.
One hundred years ago Europe was Christian. There was no rival for Christianity anywhere in sight. Missionary leaders gathering in Edinburgh in 1910 spoke of winning the globe for Christ in their generation. Reformed leaders in Holland dreamed about the Reformed faith covering the earth.
But then it all came crushing down. And look where we are today. Millions upon millions died in two world wars. Europe turned its back on God. Moreover, we are now living in the age of the greatest persecution of Christians. The entire moral fabric of the West is in total rags, just like that linen cloth, worthless. And behind it sits one thing: man’s pride and glory, his unlimited confidence in what he can do to control his own world and to shape his own destiny. Not the Lord, whose Word made Europe and America so great, was its glory, even though everyone was stilling going to chapels and cathedrals one hundred years ago. Even though the Bible was still read in most Protestant homes, not the Lord but man was the measure of all things.
But then the Great War broke out as a direct result of the immense pride of rulers and nations. And the rest of the earth stood in shock as these Christian nations went for each other’s throats. Protestant nations that were known to send out missionaries in their hundreds to a lost world were now slaughtering each other in the trenches, and the pagan world could only look on in shock.
World War II followed as a direct result of the continued idolatry and the pride of Hitler’s Third Reich. And after the two world wars an entirely new man arose from the rubble, first in the Europe and later in America. Secular man. Godless man. Man with no place for God and His Word in his life, yet no less haughty than his predecessors, and still worshipping the idol of technology, trusting that it will bring him ultimate happiness.
Surely, the prophecy has been fulfilled. The Lord has made our Christian nations like that linen cloth, useless, good for nothing. He humbled the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. A sinking ship in God’s merciful providence was intended to be a timely signal to an evil people who refused to hear His words but who followed the dictates of their own hearts.
3. The God of Jeremiah Is the God of the Future
Should all of this leave us in despair? Absolutely not! The God of Jeremiah and the God of Scripture is above all the God of hope. He has the future in his hands. Let our youth take this to heart. All of what has been said should not make you morbid or sad. It serves as a powerful reminder to us all to get our focus right and to live the life God has given us in humble wisdom and patient joy.
There is no reason for despair. The God of all creation, the God of all history, of all the nations, is our God. He is telling us to rid our hearts of every idol. He sent Jesus His Son into this world not only to deliver us from His ultimate judgment but also to place our feet on a rock while the world is rushing down in the slipstream of history.
Listen to the Word of God in Jeremiah 17:5–8: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places of the wilderness, of a salt land not inhabited . . . but blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads its roots out by the river; he will not fear when the heat comes, but his leaf will be green, and he will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will he cease from yielding fruit.”
The future belongs to Jesus, to Him who conquered sin and hell and who was seated in glory above every power and principality, both in this world and the next, who has defeated death and destruction through his cross and resurrection. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Our God reigns. He is absolutely in control.
He gave the exiles in Babylon—that small hopeless remnant—a message of hope when they had no idea what in the world was going to happen to them. We see that in chapter 29. In the midst of their deep humiliation, God said to them: “For I know the thoughts that I have concerning you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Praise God for these words! And that hope is not only for each person in that remnant of Israel but also to all of them as the nucleus of God’s redeemed people for all generations. He was yet going to take them back to their own land after seventy years, for to that land, and to that city, God’s Messiah must soon come to save the world.
God will have a future for his people in this world. He will yet again exalt them and use them to His praise and glory. He tells the believing remnant in chapter 29 not to stop living, not to look around in panic, but to dwell in Babylon and keep on living with hope. Build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children and seek the peace of this city, for the future belongs to Me. I am watching over my Word to bring it to fulfillment.
If that was true for them, how much more for us living on this continent! Don’t stop living; raise your children in hope. And please, seek the peace—the wellbeing—of the place where God has put you. Don’t abandon your country or city. Pray for its wellbeing and peace, and reach out to its people. They too need to see that our God is righteous and merciful.
Jeremiah is also saying that those whom God is giving a future will live in a close and intimate relationship with him. They will never again follow their own hearts and bow to the idols of this world. No, they will seek Him and find Him because they will seek him with all their hearts. They will cling to the Lord only, as they were supposed to, like that linen cloth to a man’s waist. And the Lord promises He will let Himself be found by them. He will gather us and bless us as He gathered his people and brought them back to their own land.
The future belongs to the Lord, both in this age and in the age to come. He will prosper us, and He will provide for us whatever we need. If God is for us in His Son, who or what can be against us? Your leaf will always be green, and you will yield your fruit, for you have been planted by the stream, and even in the year of drought, the Lord will be on our side to cause us to bear fruit for His name. But then we must understand one thing very clearly: we are here on this earth not for ourselves but for Him, until Jesus comes to make all things new.
There was a young man on the Titanic named Jack Phillips. While everybody was rushing to the deck, he stayed at his post in the stern of the ship, sending out distress signals. Were it not for his heroic bravery, many more than fifteen hundred would have perished. But he stuck to his difficult task to the very end. His last signal went out at seventeen minutes past two in the morning, three minutes before the stern sank. His body was never found.
Apart from living wisely and trusting God alone, apart from listening to His voice and to no other, our calling in this world is to do exactly what that young man did. Put duty first, always, duty to God, to your neighbor, to your family, to your church, to your country. Never put first your own desires or ambitions, not even to survive, but duty, even when the ship is sinking. You may know for certain that the ship of this world is going down. But make sure you send out those distress signals to the very last moment, the wonderful message of salvation in Jesus Christ—for those who heed will never be pushed away. They will never find the lifeboat too full or too far away. The Lord will most surely save whoever calls on His name! Let us therefore sing the song that the band played as that great ship went down: Abide with me.
Rev. Christo Heiberg is pastor of Zion United Reformed Church of Sheffield, ON.