"Jeremiad." Definition: an elaborate and prolonged lamentation; a cry of woe; and expression of righteous indignation.
"Nehemiad." Definition: an elaborate and prolonged humiliation; a cry of grief; an expression of righteous repentance.
How do fads suddenly sweep through an entire culture, becoming practically ubiquitous overnight? What makes one craze abruptly passé and gauche while another instantaneously becomes chic and trendy? How do epidemics spread from small, contained, and isolated segments of a population to infect an entire region or nation or continent? What accounts for sudden changes in cultural behaviors-an unexplained drop in the crime rate, an unexpected demand for a particular commodity, or an unprovoked shift in public opinion? How do fashions take hold of an entire segment of the global marketplace? What is it that makes a heretofore obscure writer or musician or artist or film-maker into a bestselling international celebrity? Can any of these phenomena be understood in merely mechanical processes? Is it possible to foresee and predict such trends? Or perhaps even more importantly, is it possible to create and control them?
These are the questions advertisers, demographers, and social anthropologists wrestle with constantly. They are the obsessions of entrepreneurs, politicians, and pollsters. They are the stock and trade of marketing consultants, strategic planners, and futurists.
According to journalist Malcolm Gladwell, "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."1 The mechanism that actually makes them spread is what he calls "the tipping point." It is this illusory explanation, this unnoticed cause, this elusive mechanism that all those experts are searching for so desperately. It is that little trick, that small nudge, that opportune break, or that glorious epiphany that brings about momentous change.
The tipping point is what actually brings about breakthroughs, aha moments, and eureka developments. It is the catalyst. It is the fulcrum of innovation. It is the straw that breaks the camel's back. It is the beacon light of dawn. It is the transforming advancement that changes everything.
The Need for Repentance
In that sense, repentance is the ultimate tipping point. It is the mechanism that puts genuine change into action in our lives and in our culture. It is what enables us to move beyond the past-and all of the mistakes of the past-and into the future with bright hopes and new dreams. Repentance is the fulcrum upon which transformation turns.
One of the central messages of the Scriptures is a call to repentance. It is not to predict the future. It is not to offer new moral mandates. It is simply to declare the "words, statutes, and commandments of the Lord" that the people might "be overtaken and repent" (Zech. 1:6). It is that they might "put on sackcloth and lament" (Joel 1:13). It is that they might "repent and turn" from all their transgressions "lest iniquity be their stumbling block" (Ezek. 18:30). It is that they might "return to the Lord" for "healing and restoration" (Hos. 6:1). This is the constant refrain of hope in the Scriptures:
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. (Isa. 1:27)
Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.
Of course, this was not exactly a welcome message-even if it was a refrain of hope. It wasn't in the days of the prophets and it still isn't today. As the renowned English preacher of the last generation, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once remarked, "The great effect of preaching repentance is to make everybody feel condemned, and nobody much likes that."2
None of us wants to hear that our hearts are "deceitful and wicked above all things and beyond cure" (Jer. 17:9). We don't want to hear that "we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) or that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). We don't want to hear that our corrupt lives have resulted in a corrupt culture where the innocent are exploited, the helpless are despoiled, and the downtrodden are utterly forgotten. We don't want to hear that there are very real and tangible consequences to our sin that ultimately must be dealt with. We would much rather find a series of steps that would "enable" us, "empower" us, or help us to "recover," than we would to hear the clear message of grace:
In repentance and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. (Isa. 30:15)
According to Lloyd-Jones, if Jesus "had come and told us that the way of salvation was to consider a great, noble, and wonderful teaching and then to set out and do it, why, we would have liked it. Thoughts of imitating the Lord always please mankind, because they flatter us. They tell us that if we only use our wills we can do almost anything ... The world today in its state of trouble is very ready to listen to sermons that tell it somehow or another about the application of Christian principles. No one is annoyed at them. ‘What wonderful thoughts' people say. ‘What a wonderful conception.' But the message of the Gospel is that, ‘The world is as it is because you are as you are. You are in trouble and confusion because you are not honoring God; because you are rebelling against Him; because of your self-will, your arrogance, and your pride. You are reaping,' says the Gospel, ‘what you have sown' ... We all dislike that, and yet it is always the message of Christ-He called upon men and women to repent, to acknowledge their sin with shame and to turn back to God in Him, but the message of repentance always has been and still is a cause of offense."3
The scriptural call to repentance is inescapably clear. Alas, our resistance to it is profoundly entrenched in our hearts, our lives, our homes, and our culture.
We know that the gospel is "foolishness" to some (1 Cor. 1:18). It is a "stumbling block" to others (1 Cor. 1:23). But it is an "offense" to all who disbelieve (Gal. 5:11). It is an offense to us for precisely the same reason the prophets were persecuted (Matt. 5:12; Acts 7: 52). It is an offense to us because the message of repentance fails to flatter us. And so like the people in the days of the prophets, we cry, "Do not speak out," and "Do not prophesy about these things" (Mic. 2:6). We shy away from the harsh truth-thinking that surely the Word of the Lord only brings "good things" (Mic. 2:7).
Nevertheless, repentance remains the tipping point. It is the solution to our grave societal problems, the antidote to our endemic cultural pathogens, and the counterweight to our brazen political tyrannies, and can only be undertaken as we humbly yield to the truth of the gospel. This is the starting place. This is square one.
What Doesn't Work
In stark contrast to this distinctly Christian conviction, many men and women today-both conservative and liberal-believe that by skillfully combining incentives and disincentives, or by artfully devising advantageous circumstances, or by fabricating a compelling matrix of sociopolitical programs, all our problems can be solved and all our woes can be ameliorated. This, they believe, can be achieved by enacting the right bills, electing the right politicians, reclaiming the right legacies, initiating the right reforms, recalling the right precedents, or restoring the right priorities.
On October 3, 1789, George Washington commenced the fledgling American republic's first administration with a decree of Thanksgiving:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor-and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks-for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation-for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed-for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted-for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.4
Interestingly, his decree did not end with a call for the people to merely demonstrate their gratitude and thanksgiving. It also challenged them to turn from their sins and repent:
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually-to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed-to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord-To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us-and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.5
In days gone by, America's social and cultural tipping point has always been repentance. If ours is to remain a genuinely free, prosperous, and civil society, it must always be so in the days ahead as well.
Well might we plead the case for an outpouring of Jeremiads from Reformed and evangelical pulpits in our day. What with inhuman humanism and patronizing pietism launching a tandem assault upon all that is near and dear, such a prophetic stance seems all too appropriate. Expose the evils. Demonstrate the inconsistencies. Broadcast the hypocrisies. Denounce the barbarities. Set forth with zeal the clear consequences of God's wrath, God's retribution, and God's judgment. Hurl upon the land Jeremiad after Jeremiad like unto none that man nor beast has ‘ere seen.
Alas, as fitting as all that may seem to be, the modern church is in no position to carry it out. Trivialized and crippled by praisalluia-poppycock, hermeneutical hot-dogging, church-growth skullduggery, and intellectual hodge-podgery, our churches are probably incapable of much more than the braggadocio balderdash and eschatological bosh that long has been our stock and trade. Jeremiads are thus probably well beyond the realm of possibility for us. Our obsession with brainless bric-a-brac and business meeting bilge has made our ineffectiveness and unproductiveness all but a foregone conclusion. Jeremiads? No way.
So, how should we then live? What can we then do?
A Call to Humility
Perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of taking the course of the Nehemiad. In contradistinction to the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad, though never reticent, does not merely rip into those who flaunt ungodliness. Its first concern is our own repentance. Humility before our Sovereign God is its stock and trade. The Nehemiad is not simply negative or indictive. Its primary concern is restorative. Again, the Nehemiad is not largely tied to a critical spirit. Its foremost concern is constructive.
The Jeremiad is beautifully modeled by the prophet Jeremiah when he cried out, "This is what the Lord says about this people: they greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the Lord does not accept them; He will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins" (Jer.14:10). This is altogether right, good, true, and needful. May the Lord afford us voice in the days to come to sound such prophetic alarms.
In the meantime though, may He grant us the courage and vision to have recourse to the Nehemiad.
The Nehemiad is modeled by the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, Nehemiah, when he cried out,
O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands, let your ear be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night ... I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against You. We have acted very wickedly toward You. For we have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and statutes You gave Your servant Moses ... O Lord, hear, O hear this prayer and give Your servant, who delights in revering Your Name, success. (Nehemiah 1:5-11)
Undoubtedly, our corrupt culture is in dire need of the work of zealous Jeremiad-pronouncing churches, but comprehending that our piffle pulpits are not yet fit for such a robust task, the place of the Nehemiad is all the more prominent. The walls are down. The rubble is nigh unto impassable. All is in a shambles. So let the Nehemiads begin.
Let the Nehemiads take a priority place in our worship. Let the Nehemiad mark our heretofore paucitous preaching. Let the Nehemiad replace the Sunday school swill and training tatter-nasters. Let the Nehemiad proceed from our life and work.
It is only when a haughty church comes to grips with its theological, cultural, and intellectual impoverishment, does humiliation open the door for humility. And that is a position of vulnerability that we churchmen are, sadly, none too anxious to embrace-which explains why humility is a gospel virtue in desperately short supply, and why the Nehemiad is, to us, an alien concept.
But, considering the crisis that girds us round about, no risk is too great, no commitment too bold. Let the Nehemiads begin. And may the tipping point make its appearance in the House of God, amongst the People of God.
For such is the need of the hour. O God, grant us repentance.
After all, the church is Plan A, and there is no Plan B.
1. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000), 7.
2. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Heart of the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 61.
3. Ibid., 62.
4. George Grant, ed., The Patriot's Handbook (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1996), 178.