Everyone has a king and we all serve somebody. When Jesus was in custody, Pilate presented the Jews with two basic options:
Then he told the Jews, “Here is your king!” They shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Should I crucify your king?” “We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priests answered (John 19:14–15).
Everyone has a king—either Jesus is our king or some version of Caesar is. I think we all know Jesus should be our king but how can we know if he really is? If Jesus is our king then we will want to be like him. That’s what today’s passage is about.
First, let’s look at four kings we do not want to be like.
Four Kings That Failed
The first failure of a king was Shallum or Jehoahaz as he’s called in other places in the Bible. He was the son of King Josiah but he did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes. In other words, he committed idolatry. Jeremiah 22:11–12 says of him, “He will never return here again, but he will die in the place where they deported him, never seeing this land again.” Shallum failed as a king and his punishment was severe.
The second failure of a king mentioned is Jehoiakim who was also Josiah’s son. Jeremiah 22:18–19 says of him, “They will not mourn for him…he will be buried like a donkey, dragged off and thrown outside Jerusalem’s gates.” This is another severe, but just, punishment for a king who failed to protect his people.
The third failure is Jehoiachin, Josiah’s grandson who is also called Coniah in Jeremiah 22:24–27. The Lord declares that “I will hurl you and the mother who gave birth to you into another land, where neither of you were born, and there you will both die. They will never return to the land they long to return to.”
The fourth failure mentioned in chapters 21- 22 is Zedekiah. Zedekiah is the king that was ruling when Nebuchadnezzar completed his conquest of Jerusalem. God says in Jeremiah 21:7 “I will hand over to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, to their enemies, yes, to those who intend to take their lives. He will put them to the sword; he won’t spare them or show pity or compassion.”
The point of listing these four kings is to remind us not to put our ultimate trust in any human leaders. Sometimes leaders lead their people in the right direction but most often they do not. These four kings all led Judah into idolatry and as a result the people they were supposed to protect and serve suffered horribly.
Specifically, why didn’t God show compassion to the leaders? It’s because they were practicing idolatry. Their idolatry was manifesting itself in one particularly offensive way to God.
The God of Luxury
In Jeremiah 22:8 Jeremiah asks “Why did the Lord do such a thing to this great city?” and in verse 9 the answer is given “Because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD their God and bowed in worship to other gods and served them.”
But which god? In the context of these two chapters, it’s the god of luxury. Jehoiakim, was a failure of a king because he had the wrong priorities. In Jeremiah 22:14 he said...
“I will build myself a massive palace, with spacious upstairs rooms.” He will cut windows in it, and it will be paneled with cedar and painted bright red.
Jehoiakim did what was evil in God’s eyes because his primary focus was on building his dream home and accumulating luxurious things.
Nothing’s wrong with enjoying nice things but accumulating worldly possessions doesn’t sit well with God. In Jeremiah 22:7, God says to Jehoiakim, “I will set apart destroyers against you, each with his weapons. They will cut down the choicest of your cedars and throw them into the fire.”
So, we can spend our whole lives accumulating the equivalent of “the choicest of cedars” but God says it’s a wasted effort. Instead, in Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus says “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Cruelty and Luxury
Now, it’s important to see the connection with striving after treasures on earth (luxury) and treating people cruelly, or unjustly. I believe this connection is the main point of these two chapters.
See, these four kings were focused so much on acquiring luxury that they were cruel in how they ruled their people. Jeremiah 22:13 makes the connection…
Woe for the one who builds his palace through unrighteousness, his upstairs rooms through injustice, who makes his neighbor serve without pay and will not give him his wages,
Those who had a lot were taking advantage of those who had less. They were building their fortune on the backs of others.
Jeremiah 22:17 continues…
But you have eyes and a heart for nothing except your own dishonest profit, shedding innocent blood and committing extortion and oppression.
These four kings, and the people following their awful example, were practicing idolatry. It was a kind of idolatry that manifested itself in loving things more than people and resulted in social injustices.
Their way was the way of Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein, and every other person who chooses to sacrifice the needs of others for personal gain.
Extortion and oppression were the way of Caesar and what the Jews chose instead of Jesus. They rejected Jesus’ way of love for the poor and needy and instead embraced the way of Caesar and accumulating wealth at the expense of others.
How Does Jesus Rule?
Jesus doesn’t rule the way Caesar did. Simply said, Jesus rules with justice. He doesn’t rule with cruelty in order to make his life more luxurious. He rules with humility, seeking justice for others.
Listen to what God tells his people in Jeremiah 21:11–12.
‘Hear the word of the Lord! House of David, this is what the Lord says: Administer justice every morning, and rescue the victim of robbery from his oppressor, or my anger will flare up like fire and burn unquenchably because of your evil deeds.
Rescuing the victims of oppression is what God cares about and it’s what his people were failing to do.
Now, what kind of justice is he talking about? He isn’t talking about justice for sin. He’s talking about justice for the oppressed, for those who the world takes advantage of. He’s talking about justice for those who—because of their ethnicity, the country they were born in, their IQ, their lack of family or type of family, their vulnerability, or their health—suffer in ways that other people do not.
In Jeremiah 22:3 God adds this for emphasis…
This is what the Lord says: Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from his oppressor. Don’t exploit or brutalize the resident alien, the fatherless, or the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood in this place.
If we listen then God says to expect a blessing and protection from enemies. But if not, “Then I swear by myself—this is the Lord’s declaration—that this house will become a ruin” (Jeremiah 22:5).
So how does Jesus rule? Jesus rules justice, but not just any justice. This is justice for the poor, for those individuals and groups that have been oppressed, and taken advantage of.
Social justice isn’t a term that is very popular among conservative Christians but there is a biblical version that we must embrace. Christians must unite against abortion, slavery, human trafficking, poverty, homelessness, and racism, etc. because the Bible does. We must refuse to exploit or brutalize the resident alien, individuals or groups that society devalues, the fatherless, or the widow, and instead do all we can to help them because that’s the way our Savior rules his kingdom.
The basis for biblical social justice is that all people are made in God’s image and no person should be treated in a dehumanizing manner. We are all sinners, and we are all—regardless of the country we belong to or the color of our skin or the amount of money in our checking account, etc.— made in the image of God and therefore deserving of respect.
Jesus rules his kingdom by loving the poor, the destitute, the uneducated, and the unhealthy. He doesn’t mistreat or devalue them. He saves them. He loves them and so should those who are a part of his kingdom.
Is Christ Your King?
One way to tell is if you are experiencing persecution (2 Tim 3:12) but another way to tell is found in Jeremiah 22:15. Here God is talking to Jehoiakim, King Josiah’s son, and he asks,
Are you a king because you excel in cedar? Didn’t your father eat and drink and administer justice and righteousness? Then it went well with him. He took up the case of the poor and needy; then it went well. Is this not what it means to know me? This is the Lord’s declaration.
What is the sign that you know the king? Is the amount of cedar you have accumulated? No. From God’s point of view, doing justice — justice for the good of the poor and needy — and knowing God are the same thing. When we defend the poor, it is equivalent to knowing God. And by implication, if we do not defend the poor it means we really don’t know Christ.
Defending the poor is more than not causing them any harm personally. It’s more than just leaving them alone. It involves active involvement with them. It means rejecting the notion that the homeless person we walk by is probably just getting what they deserve.
Yes, the Bible does teach personal responsibility, but there are many things that happen to people that they have no control over. Is it a refugee’s fault that they were born in Afghanistan? Is it the Iraq veteran’s fault that he came back to the United States with PTSD and is now living on the streets? Certainly not entirely. What about unborn children or those that are born in impoverished countries? Does our responsibility for them as Christians end with saying a quick prayer?
See, if Christ is our king then it means we too become an advocate for the poor, in much the same way that Jesus is an advocate for us. It’s what James meant when he said “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”
So, if Christ is our king, and we really know him, then we will care about what matters to him. When Christ is our king, then we too will take up the case of the poor and needy.