This story has an appeal that is uniquely powerful for young males, elementary school up through middle school or junior high – those kids who most love body sounds and revolting odors and general grossness. It is one of the things that made the Captain Underpants series of novels such a huge success. There is nothing quite like Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets (by Dav Pilkey). And, wouldn’t you know it, right here in Jeremiah the prophet we discover his secret identity. Jeremiah is “Captain Underpants”. That “linen loincloth”? That’s ancient world “Fruit of the Loom” or “Hanes”, whichever you prefer.
In Jeremiah’s case, the audience isn’t a room full of 5th grade boys and it’s purpose isn’t humor. It is pretty serious stuff, especially when you consider that everything is going wrong in Jeremiah’s world. Judah is, to use the vocabulary of Captain Underpants, circling the drain, swinging back and forth from alliance with Egypt to alliance with Babylon, running far afield after foreign gods, and breaking the heart of the LORD God of Israel.
Let’s take a look at the structure for a moment. The first half of the passage is a symbolic act by the prophet. The second half interprets it. The first half has three stages, each with a command by God followed by obedience by Jeremiah. The second half has three stages of interpretation or commentary on the symbolic act. And the interpretation follows the same order as the three command/obedience segments, but in reverse. So, the first interpretive comment is focused on the last stage of the act, the second comment on the middle stage, and the last comment on the first stage.
The first half, the symbolic act
Stage 1: Put on some new underwear, and don’t wash it.
Stage 2: Bury it far, far away at the Euphrates.
Stage 3: Dig it up (and you just know it’s ruined).
The second half, the interpretation
Comment 1 (on Stage 3): God will ruin our pride.
Comment 2 (on Stage 2): Going far, far away after other gods will make you good for nothing.
Comment 3 (on Stage 1): You were made to cling to God, like a pair of fresh underwear.
I want to focus on the comments, in the order given.
First, “Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem” (13.9).
I have struggled reading this, thinking it depicts God in one of my bad moods as a parent – vindictive, scheming, a bit nuts. But put the commentary in line with the symbolic act, and the comment takes on a very different tone. Remember, the underpants are ruined because they have gone far from home. God’s people, instead of sticking with God, have gone far from home, gone after other gods . . . and will end up in Babylon, in captivity, by the Euphrates River. Yes, they were taken into exile. Yes, their pride was ruined. And, rather than the plotting of a devious God, their ruin was the result of their own waywardness, a natural consequence.
One other dimension is revealed when we line up the commentary with the symbolic act. When are the underpants revealed as ruined? Only AFTER they have been dug up, only AFTER they have been found. Part of being found by God, part of being dug up for resurrection, is truly facing our ruined condition. Unless we can be honest about the sin in our life, and the impact of the sin in our life, we can’t move forward. The first step in the 12 Step process: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Elsewhere, Jeremiah says it this way: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (17:9)
Second, “This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing” (13.10).
When we go after other gods, when we live in our stubbornness, we are digging our own grave, burying the underpants in a far country.
Third, “For as the loincloth clings to one's loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the LORD, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen” (13.11).
We weren’t made for other gods, we were made for the LORD. We were made to “cling” to God, like a new pair of underpants, or like a “cling” peach clings to the stone, or like . . . .
The first use of this Hebrew root for “cling” is in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” It is a word for holding on tight, a word for sticking together, a word for intimate union. We were made for God, made for oneness with God. Robertson McQuilkin, describing the biblical term “made in the image of God”, speaks of human beings as “God-compatible” (Columbia International University podcast, “Consecrated: The Story of My Spiritual Pilgrimage). This line in Genesis is about the compatibility of the first couple, truly made for each other if any couple ever was. And Jeremiah is telling us that we are made for God in the same way that first couple was made for each other. We are God-compatible.
That’s why going after other gods – whether the gods of Babylon or Egypt, the gods of the screen or music or sports, the gods of financial stability or career success, the gods of dysfunctional relationships or substance abuse – going after other gods ruins us because are designed for God. We are designed for Jesus.
To go back to the language of “pride”, Jeremiah connects pride and knowing God in Jeremiah 9:23-24, “Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.”
That’s the God with whom we are designed to be compatible. That’s the God to whom we are called to cling. That’s the God who comes to rescue us, even when we’ve been ruined. That’s the God who digs us up, exposes all our filth to the light of day, and calls back home.
Even ruined, good-for-nothing underpants Judah finds itself restored. Toward the end of the book, as Jeremiah reels off one judgment oracle after another, he includes this promise for his destroyed and ruined nation: “In those days and at that time, says the LORD, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and none shall be found; for I will pardon” (Jeremiah 50:20).