JUDAH’S SINFUL HEART Jeremiah 2–6
“They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good” (Jer. 4:22).Judah’s sins are spelled out, and the judgment due is defined. Jeremiah found his ministry bitter, for his anguished heart knew that the people of Judah would never listen or repent.
Judah had forsaken God in favor of pagan idols, despite His loving care (2:1–37). Even so, spiritually unfaithful Judah was urged to return (3:1–25), before judgment came from the north (4:1–31). Josiah’s religious reformation had not touched Judah’s heart (5:1–31), and the enemy was commissioned to punish the Holy City (6:1–16). Everyone listening to Jeremiah stood at a crossroads: the way he or she chose would determine his destiny (vv. 17–30).
Understanding the Text
“The devotion of your youth” Jer. 2:1–8.
Last week my wife and I walked on the beach in the little Michigan town where we met. It was a very special time, as we remembered how that meeting had grown into love and the discovery that God intended us to wed. This is what looking back to first love is supposed to be like. Yes, our love has changed as we’ve lived together. But the change has been one of growth and maturity. We are closer now. Yet remembering that early love still has the power to make us smile, and look at each other with even deeper affection. What a contrast we see here. God feels only pain when He looks back on His relationship with the people of Israel and Judah. The love of the bride who followed Him then has not simply faded. Despite all the blessings God poured out on His own (vv. 6–7), the people He loved had strayed far from Him, and “followed worthless idols.” Only a person who has been betrayed by a husband or wife he or she loved can understand the depth of God’s pain—or the seriousness of Judah’s sin. We need to look back on those days when we first came to know the Lord, and remember our first love for God. We may not feel exactly the same as we did then, or express our love in just the same way. But if we have grown in our relationship with the Lord, looking back and remembering can bring us that same feeling of renewed intimacy that my wife and I experienced in Michigan. And if remembering brings us no joy, we may take it as a warning from God to check and see if we have strayed. “My people have committed two sins” Jer. 2:10–37. This passage takes the form of a rib, or an indictment presented in court. God brought two serious charges against Judah. God’s people had forsaken Him, the “spring of living water.” It was water alone that made the Holy Land produce crops. Thus water was the one necessity Judah required for prosperity. Despite the fact that God was the one utter necessity in the life of His people, they “long ago broke off Your yoke and tore off Your bonds; [they] said, ’I will not serve You’ ” (v. 20). Judah’s even more serious sin was to dig “their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Cisterns were plastered underground pits where water was stored for use during the dry season. Here they represent the pagan gods to whom Judah turned. The twin choices to reject God and to turn to idolatry are inexplicable. No pagan nation ever changed its gods. Yet Judah abandoned the Lord. The closest thing to an explanation is given in verses 23–24. The people of Judah had behaved like a female camel in heat, in the grip of an uncontrollable urge. There is no rational explanation for anyone to reject God, much less to seek spiritual or other help elsewhere! Perhaps this is the message of this lament. Human beings are not “rational” in making choices. Rather we often find ourselves in the grip of sin, which expresses itself as an instinctive rejection of the one true God, and in a hunger that leads men to turn anywhere in search of substitutes. Only the grace of God can preserve any of us from the power of indwelling sin. Only the grace of God can help us remember His benefits, and honor the Lord as the one essential source of our well-being. “You have the brazen look of a prostitute” Jer. 3:1–13. These early messages of Jeremiah were given during the religious revival promoted by godly King Josiah. This reform is described in 2 Chronicles 34–35. Josiah repaired the temple and reinstituted worship there. When the lost book of Old Testament Law was found, Josiah called for national repentance. He held a Passover service that the people joyfully participated in, and did all he could to stamp out idolatry by desecrating places of pagan worship. Yet, as this chapter shows us, all his efforts failed to touch the hearts of the people of Judah. The failure is portrayed in Jeremiah’s reference to a specific Old Testament law. A person who divorced his wife might remarry, but could never marry the first wife again if either of them had been married to another in the interim. Judah, like a faithless wife, had abandoned her Husband, God, and gone on to join herself not to just one but a series of lovers. Even so God was willing to take faithless Judah back! And Judah seemed to come back. But the people of Judah treated the whole thing lightly. It was as if their spiritual unfaithfulness didn’t matter at all! Judah came back smirking, saying, “My Father, my friend from my youth.” These were words that a young wife often spoke to an older husband. But they were not appropriate for Judah to speak, as if she were still an innocent and had not rejected the Lord and turned to idols! And so God said through Jeremiah, “You have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame.” God’s grace is overwhelming. Even after we have been unfaithful to Him, He is willing to take us back. But we are to come as a penitent, deeply aware of our sin and bowed with shame. We are not to come brazenly, or lightly, as if our unfaithfulness to God had no significance at all. “Yes, we will come to you” Jer. 3:14–25. Jeremiah’s generation did not return to God. But the prophet looked ahead, and foresaw a day when God’s people would turn to Him again. In these verses he described what repentance and true return involve. There is a decision to return to God (v. 22b). There is a fresh grasp of the futility of past ways (vv. 23–24). And there is an overwhelming sense of shame, as the greatness of past sins overwhelms (v. 25). None of these marks of repentance were present in Judah. May they be found in our lives whenever we stray and then turn back again to the Lord. “The whole land will be ruined” Jer. 4:1–31. Despite God’s call to Judah to wash the evil from her heart, the people refused to heed. Jeremiah had no choice but to announce the judgment that must come because of “your own conduct and actions.” This is an important concept for us to grasp. God does not punish people without cause. It is our own actions, not God, that bring disaster on us. And what a disaster awaited Judah. Through His prophet the Lord said, “The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent.” “They have lied about the Lord” Jer. 5:1–17. The particular lie that Jeremiah drew attention to challenged God’s justice and His power. Judah had been “utterly unfaithful” to God. Their spiritual adultery had been matched by their moral deterioration. They had abandoned morality, and acted like “well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife” (v. 8). They had abandoned justice: Jeremiah could not find “one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth” (v. 1). Despite this, Judah complacently said, “No harm will come to us” (v. 12). This is the lie that Jeremiah identified. They had said that God “will do nothing.” Let’s never forget that God is the moral judge of humanity. He not only can, but will act to judge sin. “Let us fear the Lord our God” Jer. 5:18–31. To fear God means to hold Him in awe: to take Him seriously. Here God reminded Judah of His greatness. He is the One who set the seas in their beds, and established the boundaries of the land. “Should you not tremble in My presence?” Today there are many in America who have no real awe of God. This is truly tragic. Yet the greatest tragedy of all is described by Jeremiah. “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and My people love it this way.” There may be little we can do to affect the secular tone of modern life. But what is most important is to retain our own awe of God, and to take His presence and His power seriously. We must constantly say to ourselves what the people of Judah refused to utter: “Let us fear the Lord our God.” “This city must be punished” Jer. 6:1–15. Judah refused to listen to God’s word. So now Jeremiah, using the authority God gave him over nations, commissioned Babylon to attack the Holy City. Because the word of the Lord was offensive to the people of Judah, the “city must be punished.” “Stand at the crossroads and look” Jer. 6:16–30. The invitation here is a call to consider. The “ancient paths” represent the ways laid down in God’s Law. These are good ways, for when a person walks in them he or she “will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah now outlined the consequence of the only other choice available. One must either walk in the ancient paths, or strike out to find a new path for himself. Yet the new paths offer no one rest. Instead, as we peer with Jeremiah down that alternate highway, we see in the distance clouds of dust raised by marching men. We see the sun glinting on the points of spears, and hear the thunder of hooves as cavalry approach in battle formation. And suddenly we are gripped by fear, for we realize that along that road judgment rushes to meet us. How thankful we can be that we have chosen the good way, the ancient way, and that we walk in it.
With Compassion(Jer. 3–4)
It’s easy to become self-righteous when looking at others’ sins. We can become quite passionate about injustice and wickedness. And in the process we can sound more than a little judgmental. Reading these two chapters that sum up Jeremiah’s early preaching we do sense righteous indignation. The prophet was brutally frank. Israel and Judah were “faithless.” God’s sinning people were brazen and shameless. The idols they had worshiped were detestable, and the people wickedly harbored evil thoughts. Yet despite the blunt confrontation which marks this prophet’s style, he shouts out his angry words with a broken heart. Listen, as Jeremiah echoes God’s own bitter pain. Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry (4:19). What moved the prophet was not only a concern for righteousness. He was moved by compassion for a people whose own wicked choices destined them for disaster. How both God and His prophet yearned for Judah to repent. There was no joy for either in being right. There was no surge of satisfaction at the thought of the judgment that must surely fall on the people of Judah for their sin. Instead there was anguish and pain. There are times when we Christians must confront others over wicked acts. There are times we must take a firm stand against sin. But at such times we must carefully guard our hearts. There is no room then for even a hint of spiritual pride. There is no room for even a glint of gladness that the wicked will get theirs in God’s time. Instead, we are to feel, as Jeremiah did, the pain that God knows—not only at the sin, but also at the necessity of judging the sinner. If we have compassion even as we announce the coming judgment, others may sense in our words what God most wants to convey. His greatest desire is not to punish, but to redeem. Not to condemn, but save. Not to reject, but to welcome the sinner home, forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.
Speak boldly to others. But always in love and with compassion, remembering that we too are vulnerable to sin.