Experienced mountaineers have a quiet, regular, short step – on the level it looks petty; but then this step they keep up, on and on as they ascend, whilst the inexperienced townsman hurries along, and soon has to stop, dead beat with the climb… You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? You will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain step-plod and ascent…
In John Fowles short story – ‘The Ebony Tower’ he has one of his characters saying this: “I want Everest in a day; if it takes two, I have no interest.”
Jeremiah began his ministry about the age of twenty. He ministered until his death at 65. The record of his prophecies – as structured in our English Bibles – consist of 50 chapters. Here inchapter 25 at the centre of this book we find this time note: ‘…twenty three years it’s been!’That means he is halfway through his career as a prophet; this is the midpoint of his ministry. And at this midpoint we make a critical discovery of how he made it those first 23 years, how he would make it the next 22 and a half years, and the only way we are going to make it today. That discovery is in a single word.
Mark Twain once said: ‘The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.’ At the centre of Jeremiah’s life there was a right word. That word is revealed at the centre of the book that bears his name. In our English Bibles we have this phrase: ‘…from early each morning to late every night.’ In many translations that reads like this: ‘again and again.’
In the Hebrew text that phrase is expressed in a single word. We will look at its history and meaning in just a moment but for now let me present the single word in the English language that best translates that Hebrew word; it is ‘persistent, persistently or persistence’.
Here is the Hebrew word: shakam (shaw·kam). We know that there is a certain evolution when it comes to the meaning of words. This word has a picture behind it and that picture is in the name of a place: Shechem. Shechem means: shoulder or between the shoulders. It was a village located at the centre of Palestine right between two shoulder shaped mountains. One was named Mount Ebal, the other Mount Gerazim. This was the place to which Joshua brought Israel and divided them – half on one mountain and half on the other. From one mountain they declared the promises of God’s blessings upon those who honoured and worship Him as God. From the other mountain they declared the curses that would come upon them if they turned away from God and followed after other gods.
From this we see that the first shade of meaning regarding this word was that of the centre – the exact middle between the shoulders (the shoulders indicating strength). And at that centre place of strength there was the word of God – declared and listened to.
Eventually the word was used to define what took place when making a day’s journey. The provisions for the trip were: ‘loaded on the shoulders of a donkey or the shoulders of the person making the trip.’ The noun ‘shoulder’ now developed into a verb that meant: ‘loading the shoulders of beasts for a day’s journey.’
And finally, of all things, because journeys were made from very early morning to about noon – so as to avoid the severe heat – this word was used to describe people ‘who rose well ahead of the sun and set out with heavy burdens on a long journey.’
However – and this is where we get to the particular meaning of the word in Jeremiah’s use of it – the root šākam sometimes has nothing to do with the idea of “earliness” but rather“diligence, persistence, eagerness.” Thus Jer. 7:13 reads, “You did not listen though I spoke to you ‘earnestly/continuously/ persistently’ ” This idiom occurs eleven times in Jeremiah. Also in 2Chr 36:15 and Zeph 3:7 we find the same word in the scriptural statement: “They corrupted ‘continually/persistently’ their deeds.”
This will take a bit of time but I want us to look at the eleven occasions where Jeremiah used this word ‘persistent or persistently. I will present these from The Message.
Jer.7:13 – “ ‘So now, because of the way you have lived and failed to listen, even thoughtime and again [hashkem] I took you aside and talked seriously with you, and because you refused to change when I called you to repent..’
Jer.7:25 – 26 From the time your ancestors left the land of Egypt until now, I’ve supplied asteady stream [hashkem] of my servants the prophets, but do you think the people listened? Not once. Stubborn as mules and worse than their ancestors!’
Jer.11:7 – 8 I warned your ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt and I’ve kept up the warnings. I haven’t quit [hashkem] warning them for a moment.
Jer.25:3 From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—God’s Word has come to me, and from early each morning to late every night [hashkem] I’ve passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!
Jer.25:4 Not only that but God also sent a steady stream of prophets to you who were just as persistent [hashkem] as me, and you never listened.
Jer.26:5 …and if you continue to refuse to listen to my servants the prophets that I tirelessly[hashkem] keep on sending to you…
Jer.29:19 They’ll end up in slum ghettos because they wouldn’t listen to a thing I said when I sent my servant-prophets preaching tirelessly and urgently. [hashkem] No, they wouldn’t listen to a word I said.’
Jer.32:33 They’ve turned their backs on me—won’t even look me in the face!—even though Itook great pains [hashkem] to teach them how to live. They refused to listen, refused to be taught.
Jer.35:14 But look at you! I have gone to a lot of trouble [hashkem] to get your attention, and you’ve ignored me.
Jer.35:15 I sent prophet after prophet to you, all of them my servants, to tell you from early morning to late at night [hashkem] to change your life, make a clean break with your evil past and do what is right…
Jer.44:4Morning after morning and long into the night [hashkem] I kept after you, sending you all those prophets, my servants, begging you, “Please, please—don’t do this, don’t fool around in this loathsome gutter of gods that I hate with a passion.”
How would you like to be called into a ministry where God basically tells you that no one is going to believe a word you have to say; no one is going to believe what you prophesy? In fact they are going to fight you every step of the way and try to kill you. And guess what – you are going to be doing this ‘fun thing’ for about the next 50 years of your life.
Here’s the question: What do you think you will most need to make it in such a ministry? In the eleven references we just looked at we discover the single most important characteristic required for success. It is plain, old, unattractive and non-flamboyant persistence.
Persistent faithfulness is not about novelty, celebrity and the glamour of romance. You don’t make it in a “Jeremiah ministry” by being distracted by every dog and pony show that moves through town. Religious celebrity will continue to come and go and most of it will collapse in scandal and dishonour. And through it all the Jeremiahs of the Kingdom will just keep putting one foot ahead of the other in ascending the mountain of God’s Kingdom purposes for them.
But in our culture persistence, commitment, endurance, consistency, long term anything has gotten a bad wrap – a bad name. Very often we meet people who are stuck in a rut and confuse that with an attitude of persistence. Believe me – the two are worlds apart. People who are stuck in their marriage, their job, their profession, their ministry are not expanding in life but shrinking back into reduction and diminishment. To such people life is a burden and drudgery that sucks up energy and kills imagination.
But persistence is an attitude of soul that generates energy and fuels the imagination to dream beyond present experience. Feel sorry for the guy in the rut, but not for the persistent Jeremiahs of the world who engage each new day as the next exciting episode in the unfolding purposes of the eternal God.
You may or may not be familiar with a writer named Joel Henderson. Evidently he had some very challenging hardships to overcome. But despite this he became a prolific writer. People would ask him how he wrote all the books he did. His response was that he had never written a book in his life; all he did was write a single page each day of his life. When a year was complete, he had a 365 page book. That is an illustration of true persistence.
In closing this message let me ask this question: Where did Jeremiah develop this persistence? Did he learn persistence by looking at the people around him – even the people he ministered to? Did he learn it by counting numbers and totalling responses to his preaching? Did he learn it by measuring the results of his preaching and prophesying? When our life is dependent upon surrounding events we will never learn persistence.
In the meaning of this Hebrew word we have been looking at there is present the idea of early morning – the idea of sunrise. Right here we touch the core secret of persistence and perseverance. It is not so much when you get up as why you get up. Do you get up to meet your day, or to meet the God of your day? Do you rise to perform your ministry, or to worship the God of your ministry? Do you get up to get into your job, or to get into God’s word so that God’s word can get into you?
Jeremiah learned persistence in one place – his relationship with God. By that I mean that Jeremiah learned to live persistently toward God because God lived persistently toward him.
For Jeremiah it was twenty three years, for me it has been forty years. What I know for certain is that whatever I presently know of true persistence is based entirely upon what I have discovered to be true of my God over these years. He has been infinitely persistent toward me. He has persisted in His love when I was totally unlovable. He has persisted in His correction when my own heart continued in rebellion. He has persisted in directing me when I dug in my heels and resisted His direction. And having experienced His unrelenting persistence brings me to a single issue: How can I give up on God when He refuses to give up on me?
The more I come to that place where my life is not about ministry but about God, not about people’s responses but about God, not about the events of the day but about God, not about the judgements of others but about God – the more I come to that place the more like God I will become in this incredible quality of persistence.
To be persistent in my worship of God – my communion with God – and to be persistent in my obedience to God will translate into persistence in ministry and Kingdom purpose.