Israel was hopelessly outnumbered. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon "and all his army, with all the kingdoms of the earth that were under his dominion and all the peoples, were fighting against Jerusalem" and its remaining cities (Jer. 34:1). Because of Israel’s sin, apparently even the Lord, Israel’s protector, had withdrawn. For nearly forty years, Jeremiah the prophet pleaded with God’s people to repent, but they would not have it. Israel was nearly apostate, and the dire warnings of the prophet Jeremiah were about to come to pass.
However, hidden in the ways of God was a plan, a redemptive strategy that would reverse Israel’s direction. If the Jews implemented a "Year of Remission" (see Deut. 15:1-18), God would show to them the same mercy they showed to one another. What was required was that "each man [would] set free his male servant and each man his female servant . . . so that no one should keep them, a Jew his brother, in bondage" (Jer. 34:9).
Not only did they agree to this year of release, but "all the officials and all the people obeyed." Then, in earnest faith, they "entered into the covenant . . . so that no one should keep them any longer in bondage; they obeyed, and set them free" (Jer. 34:10).
The Bible says the Judeans cut a calf in two and then passed "between its parts" (Jer. 34:18). This was the same kind of covenant ritual Abraham had made with the Lord centuries earlier (see Gen. 15:10, 17-18.).
The redemptive plan of God was this: If the Israelites set free their slaves, they would not be taken as slaves. If they showed mercy, God would show Himself merciful to them as well. Even though they were, by all counts, nearly apostate, the act of releasing the debts of others would have averted the destruction of their cities, for "mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13)!
As they were releasing one another, something marvelous occurred. Supernaturally the Lord drew "the king of Babylon…away" (Jer. 34:21). At the very moment the people were releasing the debts of others, God was reducing their debt to Him. What they did on earth was actually being replicated for them in Heaven!
In all the years since the establishment of the Law, Israel had never celebrated a year of release. Yet now, even with their enemies within striking range, Israel covenanted with God to free every man his slave.
Unforgiveness In the Church
How does the above story relate to us? We too are facing overwhelming foes. Our society is overrun with corruption; our heroes have fallen, and he who speaks truth makes himself a prey. The prophets warn of coming judgment, and still we provoke the Lord with our harden hearts.
Yet, it is not too late. We can likewise embrace a covenant of release. If we forgive all we hold as debtors, the Lord promises He will forgive us as well. Did He not enshrine this truth when He taught us to pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Did He not say, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father . . . will also forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25)?
We need a national covenant of forgiveness and release. Let us begin with those in our homes and families. Let us extend forgiveness to our neighbors, and proclaim release to those who in our churches. Let us sow mercy in our land, and do so quickly that the mercy of God will fall again on our land.
Search our hearts, O Lord, even as we kneel at the altar, reveal those who may still old a debt against us. Help us to be reconciled with others! (see Matt. 5:23-24). Indeed, let us take this one step further: let us release those who have supported political candidates with whom we strongly disagree.
It is time to rebuild our lives in Christ, and reunite in the power of forgiveness and redemption. Let us bring Christ’s covenant of forgiveness into the fabric of our inter-racial relationships and so prove ourselves servants of the Lamb.
The Sad End of the Jeremiah 34
In spite of the great breakthrough Israel experienced, their story ends badly. For when the enemy left and the pressure was off, each man "took back his" male and female servants " . . . and brought them into subjection" (see vv. 13-16).
Beloved, hear me please: if only the Jews would have followed through and held fast their release, the Book of Lamentations never would have been written! Mercy would have triumphed and remained, but such was not the case.
Still, for us, our final chapters are yet to be written. We can learn from the example we see in Jeremiah 34. If we will embrace mercy, if we can sincerely release one another, we will escape the dire consequences coming toward our world. Our actions today, even now, will determine whether our society is blessed or judged. Let us, therefore, release the debts of every man and covenant for mercy for our land.