In chapter 27 of the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet was compelled to loan his body to the Lord as an object lesson in submission. Jeremiah had to construct “bonds and yokes,” and then wear them around his own neck. Moreover, in the King James version of the bible (and, I am informed, in most Hebrew manuscripts), the divine instruction is said to have come early in the reign of King Jehoiakim (Jer. 27:1), and the prophet is said to have obeyed until the yokes were destroyed by a false prophet during King Zedekiah’s reign (Jer. 28:10). This would mean Jeremiah bore the weight of those yokes for over a decade!
Now the dating of these events are disputed by some modern bible translators, who identify the king in Jeremiah 27:1 as Zedekiah rather than Jehoiakim. Nonetheless, although the duration of his object lesson may be debated, its meaning is not. The prophet was so fettered to illustrate how God had brought Judah under the authority of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The Lord had ordained the Babylonian conquest of Israel and the neighboring countries. Every nation was now warned to acquiesce to Nebuchadnezzar’s rule: resistance would only bring famine, pestilence, and violent retribution (Jer. 27:8).
The Israelites were promised that their obedience would enable them to remain in the land (Jer. 27:11), but Judah could never muster such servility. King Jehoiakim resisted the Babylonian invaders, and was ultimately taken captive and carried away with the first group of exiles. Nebuchadnezzar actually tried to retain Judah’s physical integrity, setting up kings (first Jehoiachin, then Zedekiah) to rule as his vassals. Both men rebelled, however, prompting the Babylonian ruler finally destroy Jerusalem and end the Israelites’ threat to his empire.
Judah found it as difficult to submit to the Babylonians as it was to submit to God. That, I suppose, is what the Lord sought to expose: their disobedience to divine authority. Jeremiah’s trustworthiness as a prophet had been well-established; the call for submission was crystal clear. The nation neither failed to understand the command nor to recognize that it came from God. They just refused to obey.
I ask myself whether the church is today failing a similar test in obedience. The New Testament echoes the call for submission that Jeremiah made to his people. Epistles by both Paul and Peter instruct Christians to “submit” the secular authority. In Romans 13:4, Paul describes the ruler as “the minister of God to thee for good” (KJV), which probably shocked his audience when applied to the Roman Emperor as much as Nebuchadnezzar being called God’s “servant” (Jer. 27:6) bewildered the Israelites. Peter and Paul jointly taught believers to obey the Emperor and the local authorities who ruled in his name (see 1 Peter 2:13,14 and Titus 3:1, respectively). This obedience came at a great price for these two apostles. Tradition teaches that both men were executed by the Roman government.
And so I shudder at the discipline and self-sacrifice usually necessitated by obedience to civil authorities. The admonition to render honor to whomever it is due (found in Rom. 13:7) is a yoke. It should constrain the impulse to lambaste a president who champions government-run health care, or a judge who overturns the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but so many in the Christian community have fallen short in this area recently. The instruction to obey “every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13) is a yoke. Sincere Christians in every American movement for social justice—from Abolitionism, to Civil Rights, to the anti-abortion protests of the ‘80s—have chafed under this command, asking whether it is ever permissible to break man’s laws for a greater good. Obedience to secular authority can still be a struggle for the people of God.