Sacrifice Without Sorrow.

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
    look and take note!
Search her squares to see
    if you can find a man,
one who does justice
    and seeks truth,
that I may pardon her.
Though they say, “As the Lord lives,”
    yet they swear falsely.
O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?
You have struck them down,
    but they felt no anguish;
you have consumed them,
    but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to repent.

Then I said, “These are only the poor;
    they have no sense;
for they do not know the way of the Lord,
    the justice of their God.
I will go to the great
    and will speak to them,
for they know the way of the Lord,
    the justice of their God.”
But they all alike had broken the yoke;
    they had burst the bonds.

Therefore a lion from the forest shall strike them down;
    a wolf from the desert shall devastate them.
A leopard is watching their cities;
    everyone who goes out of them shall be torn in pieces,
because their transgressions are many,
    their apostasies are great. Jeremiah 5:1-6 ESV

In order to prove to Jeremiah just how bad things had gotten and to justify the need for  the coming judgment, God gives him a challenge. He tells the prophet to run through the streets of Jerusalem and see if he can find a solitary individual who does justice and seeks truth. Just one man. That’s all Jeremiah had to find. But God warns Jeremiah not to be deceived. They will try to convince Jeremiah that they are God-fearers, but God tells him, “But even when they are under oath, saying, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ they are still telling lies!” (Jeremiah 5:2 NLT). They’ll say and do anything to get out of the disaster headed their way, even swear on a stack of Bibles. But God told Jeremiah not to believe them, because He knew their hearts. This is reminiscent of Abraham’s conversation with God when it had been revealed that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed because of their unchecked immorality. Abraham knew that his nephew Lot and his family were living in Sodom, so he tried to beg God not to destroy the cities. He started out asking God to spare the cities if there were at least 50 righteous people living in them. And God said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake” (Genesis 18:26 ESV). Then Abraham, seemingly knowing that the likelihood of finding that many righteous individuals in the two cities was unlikely, began to bargain with God until he got the number down to ten. And God responded, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:32 ESV). In the end, Abraham was simply trying to spare his nephew and his family. But even when they were safely out of the city, God destroyed both Sodom and Gomorrah. There were not even ten righteous people left in either city.

The situation in Judah also brings to mind the days just before God destroyed the earth with a world-wide flood. The book of Genesis tells us:

The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:5 NLT

And as a result, He wiped out every living thing on the earth, sparing only Noah and his family, and those animals he had sequestered away on the ark. In those days, unrighteousness had run rampant on the earth. And the same sad state of affairs was true of the capital city of Judah. Wickedness was everywhere. Unfaithfulness marked the lifestyles of all those who lived in the city. It was just as Solomon had written:

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

And David echoed this same sentiment when he wrote:

Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you. – Psalm 143:2 ESV

Who can say, “I have cleansed my heart; I am pure and free from sin”? – Psalm 20:9 NLT

And the apostle Paul would pick up on David’s less-than-flattering assessment of mankind when he wrote:

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

Man is incapable of performing righteous acts apart from God’s help. Anything and everything we do, in our own flesh, ends up being tainted and polluted by sin. That reality is what led the prophet Isaiah to write:

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

But God had graciously provided the people of Israel with His law to show them His holy expectations of them. And knowing they would be incapable of keeping His law perfectly, He provided them with the sacrificial system as a means of finding atonement for the sins they would inevitably commit. But despite God’s grace and mercy, they still chose to rebel against Him, turning to false gods and treating His sacrificial system with contempt. God knew their hearts. They had long ago fallen out of love with Him, which is what led Him to say of them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.”  – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And Jeremiah’s search for one solitary individual who sought after truth proved to be harder than he thought. He soon admitted:

You struck your people,
    but they paid no attention.
You crushed them,
    but they refused to be corrected.
They are determined, with faces set like stone;
    they have refused to repent. – Jeremiah 5:3 NLT

But in an attempt to be optimistic, Jeremiah concludes that it was the poor who posed the problem. They were uneducated and uninformed. They didn’t know any better. So like Abraham, he makes a deal with God.

“But what can we expect from the poor?
    They are ignorant.
They don’t know the ways of the Lord.
    They don’t understand God’s laws.
So I will go and speak to their leaders.
    Surely they know the ways of the Lord
    and understand God’s laws.” – Jeremiah 5:5 NLT

He was going to check out the upper class, the well-educated cultural elite of the city. Surely, they would produce at least one man who was righteous. Yet Jeremiah would sadly conclude: “But the leaders, too, as one man, had thrown off God’s yoke and broken his chains” (Jeremiah 5:5b NLT). Jeremiah had struck out. His attempt to find just one faithful person had come up empty. And as a result, the judgment of God was assured.’

Therefore a lion from the forest shall strike them down;
    a wolf from the desert shall devastate them.
A leopard is watching their cities;
    everyone who goes out of them shall be torn in pieces,
because their transgressions are many,
    their apostasies are great. – Jeremiah 5:6 ESV

Like apex predators, the Babylonians would come into Judah, viciously and unmercifully ravaging the people of God, because of their open rebellion against Him. Their many sins would have dire consequences. Their failure to respond to God’s many invitations to return to Him in repentance would result in His just and righteous discipline of them. And God had proven to Jeremiah that what was about to happen was anything but undeserved. The prophet had been unable to find a solitary soul within the whole city of Jerusalem who could qualify as righteous before God. Unrighteousness and unfaithfulness go hand in hand. God had never intended the people of Israel to live righteous lives on their own. That’s why He had given them the law and the sacrificial system. One provided them with God’s holy expectations of them. It showed them how they were to live. But God knew they would be unable to live up to His righteous standards, so He gave them the sacrificial system to provide them with a means of atonement or cleansing for the sins they would commit. But these two things were to produce in them a complete dependence upon God. One represented God’s law, while the other represented His grace. And the two were designed to work in tandem, creating in the people of God a complete reliance upon Him for any hope of living righteous lives before Him. But when they determined in their hearts to live unfaithfully, by seeking other gods instead of Him, they revealed that they really didn’t need Him. And their sacrifices lost their value. They could make them. They could offer up their lambs and bulls, shedding their blood in an attempt to receive atonement and forgiveness from God, but the lives of these animals would be given in vain. Because what God really wanted from the people of Judah was true repentance for their sins. David expressed the desire of God well when he wrote:

Certainly you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it;
you do not desire a burnt sacrifice.
The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit—
O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT

Sacrifices without true sorrow for sin are meaningless. The apostle Paul put it this way:

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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God’s Inscrutable Ways.

“For this the earth shall mourn,
    and the heavens above be dark;
for I have spoken; I have purposed;
    I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”

At the noise of horseman and archer
    every city takes to flight;
they enter thickets; they climb among rocks;
    all the cities are forsaken,
    and no man dwells in them.
And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
    that you adorn yourself with ornaments of gold,
    that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
    Your lovers despise you;
    they seek your life.
For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
    anguish as of one giving birth to her first child,
the cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
    stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before murderers.” Jeremiah 4:28-31 ESV

God had spoken, and He made it very clear to Jeremiah that all He had said would come to pass. He would not change His mind or relent. None of the warnings of coming destruction had been idle threats. They were real and every prophecy spoken by Jeremiah was going to come true, right down to the last detail. And the mourning over Judah’s fall would be great. God even personifies nature as joining in the sorrow over the fall of the people of God. The coming disaster was going to have far-reaching implications. The sins of Judah and their consequences were going to impact that region of the world for centuries to come. The fall of Judah was going to dramatically alter the religious, political and sociological landscape of that region of the world. The fall of Jerusalem was going to have tremendous geopolitical implications. Despite their unfaithfulness, Israel and Judah had both managed to influence the world around them. Their worship of Yahweh, while sporadic and spotty at best, had still played a role in establishing the cultural dynamics of the region. Now they would be going into captivity, their capital would be turned to rubble, and their once glorious temple would be destroyed and, as a result, their access to atonement through the sacrificial system would be eliminated.

These were going to be dark days. When the Babylonians arrived, people living all over the land of Judah would find themselves running in fear for their lives, attempting to hide from the oncoming devastation.

They hide in the bushes
    and run for the mountains.
All the towns have been abandoned—
    not a person remains! – Jeremiah 4:29 NLT

The prophet, Isaiah, gives even more details about what this mass flight of the people of Judah will look like.

And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
    and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth.

In that day mankind will cast away
    their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
    to the moles and to the bats,
to enter the caverns of the rocks
    and the clefts of the cliffs,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth. – Isaiah 2:19-21 NLT

The idols they once turned to for hope and help will be thrown aside in their rush to find safety. The false gods who abandoned them will be abandoned by them. These lifeless deities will prove powerless to stand before the wrath of God Almighty. The pitiful and somewhat ironic image is of the people running for thelr lives while carrying their lifeless idols in their hands. Not only were these gods incapable of doing anything about the tragedy facing the people of Judah, they couldn’t even save themselves. These inanimate objects had to be rescued by the very people there were meant to save. What a sad picture of the futility of idol worship.

Judah is described as a prostitute, all decked out in fancy clothes, covered in makeup, and adorned with jewels, in an attempt to entice the aid of other nations. But God warns that their actions would prove futile. No one was going to come to their defense. In fact, the surrounding nations would be glad to see them fall. All Judah’s efforts to woo and win aid from Egypt and other nations would result in nothing but an unwanted pregnancy. That is the image God uses next. he describes Judah as a pregnant woman, agonizing over the pains of childbirth.

I hear a cry, like that of a woman in labor,
    the groans of a woman giving birth to her first child. – Jeremiah 4:31 NLT

Their unfaithfulness was going to result in pain and suffering, and they were going to give birth to destruction. Like a prostitute who finds herself pregnant as a result of her promiscuous ways, the nation of Judah would find their pleasure turned to pain and their unfaithfulness giving birth to unexpected suffering. But their cries of anguish would go unheeded and unanswered. No one was going to be able to save them. God was not going to change His mind regarding them. He had given them ample opportunity to repent and return. He had sent prophets like Jeremiah to warn them. He had allowed King Josiah to rediscover the law and attempt to enact religious reforms among the people. But their hearts had remained unchanged and their faithlessness, undiminished.

The result would be Judah’s demise. They would end up like a woman dying in childbirth, “gasping for breath and crying out,Help! I’m being murdered!’” (Jeremiah 4:31 NLT). Their end would not be pretty. Their demise would be painful and bloody. Many would end up dying as a result of their stubborn refusal to accept God’s call to repentance. They would turn up their noses at His offer of mercy and end up suffering the consequences. But it’s fascinating how many read the stories surrounding Judah’s fall and get angry with God. They wrestle with the idea of a loving, gracious God treating His people in such a horrific fashion. And in doing so they fail to grasp the deep significance and gravity of sin. We tend to tolerate sin. We learn to live with it. We even excuse it and justify it. But God can’t. He is holy. He is righteous. And as the God of the universe, He must deal justly with sin. He can’t overlook it or ignore it. To do so would be like a judge refusing to mete out justice on a criminal deserving punishment for a crime for which he was guilty. To overlook a crime is not justice, it is injustice. It is a crime in and of itself. For God to tolerate our sin would be sin and He would cease to be God.

The problem is that we tend to read the Bible in snapshot fashion. We pick up an photograph depicting an event that happened thousands of years ago, and we judge God based on that solitary image. We fail to see the bigger picture. God’s treatment of Judah was a moment-in-time glimpse into God’s much larger plan for the redemption of mankind. We can look at the events surrounding the fall of Judah and wonder how a good God could do such a thing. But if we step back and examine the full scope of God’s redemptive plan, we see that He has something far greater in store than we could ever imagine. To get angry at God because we don’t like the way in which He has handled a particular moment in our lives reveals that we have a myopic image of God. We live in the moment. God lives in eternity. We can only know the present, while He knows the future and the eventual outcome of all things. The people of Judah had no idea what was going to happen to them. All they knew was that God had predicted their doom. But He had something far greater in store for them as a people. He had the plan for the Messiah in place and the time for His arrival already set. It is a dangerous thing to judge God based on the limited information we have at a given moment. We must trust that He has bigger plans than we can see or even grasp. What may look hopeless and purposeless to us is nothing of the sort to God. It is all part of His sovereign plan.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Doom, But Not All Gloom.

My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
    Oh the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
    I cannot keep silent,
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
    the alarm of war.
Crash follows hard on crash;
    the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are laid waste,
    my curtains in a moment.
How long must I see the standard
    and hear the sound of the trumpet?

“For my people are foolish;
    they know me not;
they are stupid children;
    they have no understanding.
They are ‘wise’—in doing evil!
    But how to do good they know not.”

I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
    and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
    and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.Jeremiah 4:19-27 ESV

As has been discussed before, the role of a prophet of God was far from easy. They were not automatons who mechanically went about their business. They were not heartless, unfeeling robots who simply mouthed the words given to them by God. They were flesh-and-blood human beings who were being required by God to deliver devastating news of pending destruction to their own people. In this section, we have the first of Jeremiah’s laments or confessions of anguish over what is about to happen to the people of Judah. He fully believed that what God said He was going to do, He would do; but he found no joy in that fact. He was emotionally distraught over the prospect of his people having to endure the suffering that was headed their way. His description of his physical condition speaks volumes concerning his mental and emotional state:

My heart, my heart—I writhe in pain!
    My heart pounds within me! I cannot be still. – Jeremiah 4:19 NLT

Whether God had given Jeremiah an actual vision of the coming invasion by the Babylonians is not clear. But Jeremiah describes those future events as if he has already witnessed them.

For I have heard the blast of enemy trumpets
    and the roar of their battle cries. – Jeremiah 4:19 NLT

For Jeremiah, the future events that God has prescribed were unavoidable, but also unbearable. He was already tired of hearing about them and having to constantly describe them to the people. So, he calls out to God:

How long must I see the battle flags
    and hear the trumpets of war? – Jeremiah 4:21 NLT

It was all too much for him. But God reminds Jeremiah not to forget why he is having to suffer so much inner turmoil. There is a very good reason for his visions of destruction and his personal grief. Rather than point the finger at God, Jeremiah needed to recall the true cause of his unbearable sorrow. So, God tells him:

“My people are foolish
    and do not know me,” says the Lord.
“They are stupid children
    who have no understanding.
They are clever enough at doing wrong,
    but they have no idea how to do right!” – Jeremiah 4:22 NLT

God speaks a powerful word of accusation over the people of Judah, claiming that they don’t even know Him. He describes them as ignorant and devoid of understanding. The only thing they know how to do well is sin. But they lacked the capacity to do what is right. This is a description of a people who had gone off the moral cliff and plunged themselves into a black hole of sin and immorality. They were not coming back. God knew that they were not going to repent of their sins and return to Him. Their destruction was not inevitable, it was unavoidable. As a righteous, holy and just God, He was obligated by His very nature to deal with their sins and keep the covenant He had made with them. He had told them that disobedience would bring curses upon them and He had been quite explicit in what those curses would entail.

“Because you have not served the Lord your God joyfully and wholeheartedly with the abundance of everything you have, instead in hunger, thirst, nakedness, and poverty you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. They will place an iron yoke on your neck until they have destroyed you. The Lord will raise up a distant nation against you, one from the other side of the earth as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand, a nation of stern appearance that will have no regard for the elderly or pity for the young.” – Deuteronomy 28:47-50 NLT

God had done what He had promised to do. He had brought them into the land of promise. He had given them victories over their enemies. He had blessed them in innumerable ways, just as He had said He would do.

“The Lord will designate you as his holy people just as he promised you, if you keep his commandments and obey him. Then all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you. The Lord will greatly multiply your children, the offspring of your livestock, and the produce of your soil in the land which he promised your ancestors he would give you. The Lord will open for you his good treasure house, the heavens, to give you rain for the land in its season and to bless all you do; you will lend to many nations but you will not borrow from any.” – Deuteronomy 28:9-12 NLT

But the people of Judah and Israel had proven to be unfaithful and disobedient. They had not kept their side of the covenant. And so, God was bringing on them the very judgment He had said would come. He was keeping His word. And, evidently, God gave Jeremiah a look at the pre-release trailer of the coming destruction.

I looked at the earth, and it was empty and formless.
    I looked at the heavens, and there was no light.
I looked at the mountains and hills,
    and they trembled and shook.
I looked, and all the people were gone.
    All the birds of the sky had flown away.
I looked, and the fertile fields had become a wilderness.
    The towns lay in ruins,
    crushed by the Lord’s fierce anger. – Jeremiah 4:23-26 NLT

This was not going to be a slap on the wrist. What Jeremiah saw was total and complete destruction. The Babylonians were going to leave behind when they were done was a barren wasteland that was full of destroyed cities, but void of life. This was going to be an apocalypse. The once-great city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, would have its walls completely destroyed. The city would be laid waste. Even the beautiful temple built by Solomon would be turned into a pile of rubble. Anything of value would be taken as booty by the Babylonians, and the people of Judah would be gathered up and marched off as slaves. And it would all be the result of God’s righteous anger. But the cause of His anger would be the sins of the people. This was not going to be some arbitrary, unprovoked outburst of uncontrollable anger from God. It was going to be His judgment against the open rebellion of the very people He had set apart as His own and blessed in unprecedented ways. The nuclear winter-like vision Jeremiah saw was the direct result of the sins of the people. They were getting what they deserved.

But wait. There is a silver lining to this dark cloud. God gives Jeremiah a glimpse of the good news that lay hidden in all the darkness.

This is what the Lord says:
“The whole land will be ruined,
    but I will not destroy it completely. – Jeremiah 4:27 NLT

It’s not much, but in this one verse lies a message of hope. As bad as things might have appeared in Jeremiah’s vision, there was a glimmer of light. God was not going to destroy the land completely. This was not going to be a complete destruction. While the people of Judah deserved nothing but total annihilation for their sins, God was going to show them mercy. He was going to extend them grace. A remnant would survive the coming holocaust. Not all would be killed or taken captive. God was still going to bless the people of Judah – in spite of them. His love for them would not fade. Yes, He was going to punish them for their sins, but He was not going to abandon them. He was not going to give up on them. Because He is faithful. And because He had a plan for the nation of Judah that was bigger than that one generation. He had a purpose for them as a nation for which they were unaware. He was going to raise up a king from the nation of Judah who would rule and reign in righteousness. God had made a covenant with King David, telling him:

“Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.’” – 2 Samuel 7:16 NLT

And that promise would eventually be fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, as Gabriel made clear to Mary:

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” – Luke 1:30-33 NLT

Judah would be preserved. Yes, they would end up in captivity in Babylon, but God would one day restore them to the land. Why? Because He had made a promise and He was going to keep it. He had a much bigger plan in store for the world. He was going to bring a Savior into the world who would bring a solution to the very sin problem that got Judah in trouble in the first place. Through His Son, God was going to provide a means by which mankind might find release from their slavery to sin and death. So, while Jeremiah saw only doom and gloom, God wanted him to know that this story was going to have a very happy ending.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Wash Your Heart.

Behold, he comes up like clouds;
    his chariots like the whirlwind;
his horses are swifter than eagles—
    woe to us, for we are ruined!
O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil,
    that you may be saved.
How long shall your wicked thoughts
    lodge within you?
For a voice declares from Dan
    and proclaims trouble from Mount Ephraim.
Warn the nations that he is coming;
    announce to Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
    they shout against the cities of Judah.
Like keepers of a field are they against her all around,
    because she has rebelled against me,
declares the Lord.
Your ways and your deeds
    have brought this upon you.
This is your doom, and it is bitter;
    it has reached your very heart.” Jeremiah 4:13-18 ESV

God was demanding change. He called them to repent and expected that repentance to entail more than just an external change in behavior. God knew that their real problem was much deeper than that. They suffered from a heart condition. Which is why God had Jeremiah warn them:

“O Jerusalem, cleanse your heart
    that you may be saved.
How long will you harbor
    your evil thoughts? – Jeremiah 4:14 NLT

The day of their destruction was coming, like a fast-approaching storm, bringing devastation and destruction in the form of war horses and chariots. And if the people of Judah had any hopes of avoiding the inevitable outcome of a Babylonian invasion, they were going to have to cleanse their hearts. But was that even possible? And was God really expecting them to be able to do so? The prophet, Isaiah, who was also sent by God to warn the people of Judah regarding their wickedness and God’s impending judgment of them, had a very similar word from God:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
    learn to do good;
seek justice,
    correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
    plead the widow’s cause. Isaiah 1:16-17 ESV

Notice what Isaiah writes. They were to wash themselves. They were to make themselves clean. It was up to them to get rid of their evil behavior and to start doing what God commanded. Their purification was to have external proofs that they had indeed changed. But again, was what God demanded of them even possible? Could they purify themselves? Well, the next verse gives us the answer:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.” – Isaiah 1:16-18 ESV

It was as if God said, “Let’s think about this.” Their ability to purify their own hearts was non-existent. They were incapable of changing their ways – on their own. If fact, later on, in the book of Jeremiah, God makes the following assessment of their ability to change:

You will probably ask yourself,
‘Why have these things happened to me?
Why have I been treated like a disgraced adulteress
whose skirt has been torn off and her limbs exposed?’
It is because you have sinned so much.
But there is little hope for you ever doing good,
you who are so accustomed to doing evil.
Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin?
Can a leopard remove its spots? – Jeremiah 13:22-23 NLT

Their predilection to sin was ingrained, a part of their DNA. Like every other human being, they had inherited the sin nature of Adam. Disobedience to God came naturally. A propensity toward evil was built into them. They could no more change their nature than a leopard could remove its spots. Like a person’s genetic makeup determines their skin color, the people of Judah had a built-in predisposition toward sin. But God was also telling them that He was willing and able to do something about their condition. He lets them know that even though they have been stained by their sins. He can make them white as snow. He has the ability to wash them clean from all their iniquities and make them pure. Isaiah wrote these words of God to the people of Judah:

“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
    and I will not remember your sins.” – Isaiah 43:25 ESV

God would remove their sins, not because they deserved it, but simply because He wanted to show His grace and mercy. They would not be able to earn His forgiveness through human effort, but God did expect them to turn back to Him and acknowledge their need for Him. Like the great king David, they would have to call out to God and ask Him to do for them what they could not do for themselves.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean, wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. – Psalm 51:7 NLT

It is only when we come to grips with our own incapacity to redeem ourselves, that we turn to God as our redeemer. When we finally realize that we are incapable of improving our own behavior and cleaning up our act, that is when we become desperate enough to call on Him. But for some reason, we stubbornly hold on to the idea that we can change ourselves. We mistakenly cling to the hope that we can muster up enough strength to do enough good things that will earn us favor with God and hold off His punishment of us. But just a few verses later, Jeremiah writes this painful assessment of the people of Judah:

“My people are foolish
    and do not know me,” says the Lord.
“They are stupid children
    who have no understanding.
They are clever enough at doing wrong,
    but they have no idea how to do right!” – Jeremiah 4:22 NLT

Once again, the prophet Isaiah makes a chilling assessment of Judah’s complete inability to mend their hearts and change their behavior.

You assist those who delight in doing what is right,
who observe your commandments.
Look, you were angry because we violated them continually.
How then can we be saved?
We are all like one who is unclean,
all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.
We all wither like a leaf;
our sins carry us away like the wind. – Isaiah 64:5-6 NET

Isaiah seems to be saying that God comes to the aid of those who long to do what is right, what God demands. But the problem is that those very same people can’t turn their delight into action. Even their most righteous actions end up looking like bloody rags before God. They are completely controlled by the sin in their lives. They want to do what is right, but lack the capacity to turn their desires into reality. The apostle Paul described having a similar frustration:

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. – Romans 7:15-21 NLT

Paul fully realized that, if left to himself, he was incapable of doing what he really wanted to do. In the flesh, he couldn’t produce the kind of life God demanded. He could desire it, but his sin nature would fight him every step of the way. So, Paul cried out:

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 7:24-25 NLT

Paul knew His hope was external, not internal. His Savior was Christ, not himself. He needed Jesus Christ to do for him what he could not do himself. And the people of Judah would have to reach the same conclusion. They would have to turn to God for their salvation, but also for their cleansing. In fact, they were going to need to desire cleansing more than salvation. While they all wanted to avoid the coming destruction, they weren’t all that keen on changing their behavior. They wanted God’s salvation, but didn’t seem to think they were so sinful that they needed His cleansing. But God wanted them to grieve over their sins. He wanted them recognize their sinfulness and their own inability to do anything about it. Then they would turn to Him for help. King David learned that very lesson after having sinned against God by having an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, then having her husband eliminated so he could marry her. He recognized His sin against God and realized that what God wanted was a broken and repentant spirit.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

And it was his own brokenness and his recognition of his complete dependence on God to purify him that led David to write:

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin! – Psalm 51:2 ESV

And the sad indictment God made against the people of Judah was that their sin had permeated them to the very core of their being. Their hearts were stained by their wickedness. In fact, their wickedness was a byproduct of their sin-filled hearts. Which is why God said:

“Your ways and your deeds
    have brought this upon you.
This is your doom, and it is bitter;
    it has reached your very heart.” – Jeremiah 4:18 ESV

They would need God to do for them what they could not do for themselves. But first they would need to turn to Him. They would need to rely on Him for the power to cleanse and forgive.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

“You Will Be Safe!”

Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say,

“Blow the trumpet through the land;
    cry aloud and say,
‘Assemble, and let us go
    into the fortified cities!’
Raise a standard toward Zion,
    flee for safety, stay not,
for I bring disaster from the north,
    and great destruction.
A lion has gone up from his thicket,
    a destroyer of nations has set out;
    he has gone out from his place
to make your land a waste;
    your cities will be ruins
    without inhabitant.
For this put on sackcloth,
    lament and wail,
for the fierce anger of the Lord
    has not turned back from us.”

“In that day, declares the Lord, courage shall fail both king and officials. The priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God, surely you have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ whereas the sword has reached their very life.”

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.” Jeremiah 4:5-12 ESV

Back in chapter one, God gave Jeremiah a vision of a boiling cauldron that was spilling over. And He told Jeremiah:

“Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah.” – Jeremiah 1:14-15 ESV

Now God is going to give Jeremiah a much more detailed description of what is going to happen, and Jeremiah is to share this less-than-comforting news with the people of Judah. God tells Jeremiah to metaphorically “blow the trumpet.” He was to issue an alarm to the people, warning them to send signals to the entire nation to seek shelter in the fortified cities. Disaster was coming. A destroyer of nations was coming out of the north “to make your land a waste; your cities will be ruins without inhabitant” (Jeremiah 4:7 ESV). And all the people could do was wait for the inevitable and unavoidable outcome. All they could do was mourn their fate and regret the folly of their ways.

So put on sackcloth!
Mourn and wail, saying,
‘The fierce anger of the Lord
has not turned away from us!’” – Jeremiah 4:8 NET

But before we go on, let’s take a minute to consider something that is often overlooked. First of all, how do you think Jeremiah felt about having to deliver this message? Talk about being the bearer of bad news. What a difficult task it must have been for Jeremiah to obey God and speak these words to people he knew and loved. And how do you think Jeremiah was received? What kind of reception did the prophet encounter when he gave his message of doom and gloom to the people of Judah? He was ,undoubtedly, a very unpopular person. It is unlikely that he was invited to a lot of dinner parties. People probably avoided him on the street. No one wanted to be seen with Jeremiah. And no one wanted to be around when Jeremiah went on one of his rants.

We sometimes forget that the prophets of God were mere men. And yet, they had been called by God to deliver very difficult news to the people of God. They were human and had feelings just like anybody else. They didn’t enjoy being despised and rejected. But they put a higher priority on obedience to God’s will than they did on being liked by the people. God’s words were difficult to deliver, and even more difficult for the people to receive. But they knew God was speaking truth the people needed to hear. So they spoke – faithfully and fearlessly.

But back to God’s message. He also told Jeremiah to tell the people:

“When this happens,” says the Lord,
“the king and his officials will lose their courage.
The priests will be struck with horror,
and the prophets will be speechless in astonishment.” – Jeremiah 4:9 NET

The leadership of Judah would find themselves in a state of shock. Responsible for the well-being of the nation, they will be unprepared to deal with the enormity of the problem when it comes. The king and his court won’t know what to do. The priests won’t know where to turn. After all, they had a plethora of gods they worshiped, so they had do decide which one was going to help them? The false prophets, who had been predicting ongoing peace, would be tongue-tied, unable to explain how they had gotten it so wrong. And Jeremiah alludes to the deceptive message of these false prophets when he responds to God:

“Ah, Lord God, you have surely allowed the people of Judah and Jerusalem to be deceived by those who say, ‘You will be safe!’ But in fact a sword is already at our throats.” – Jeremiah 4:10 NET

While God had not raised up these false prophets, He had allowed them to present their deceptive messages promising safety and security. He had let the people be lulled into a false sense of comfort, all the while knowing that their unrepentant state was going to lead to their destruction. But the time had come for God to speak and to bring an end to Judah’s overconfident, unrepentant attitude.

“At that time the people of Judah and Jerusalem will be told,
‘A scorching wind will sweep down
from the hilltops in the desert on my dear people.
It will not be a gentle breeze
for winnowing the grain and blowing away the chaff.
No, a wind too strong for that will come at my bidding.
Yes, even now I, myself, am calling down judgment on them.’ – Jeremiah 4:11-12 NET

Judgement was coming. The party was over. The fake gods, false prophets, faithless priests, godless officials, and adulterous people were going to find themselves facing the wrath of the God they had taken for granted and treated with disdain. He would no longer tolerate their blatant disregard for His will and His ways. And He makes it clear that He will be the one who calls down judgment on them. This will not just be a case of fate. God will be the one who sends the Babylonians. This coming destruction will be the direct result of God’s sovereign will and providential plan.

There is a not-so-subtle message in these verses for those of us who consider themselves God’s chosen people in this day. We who claim to be Christ-followers and lovers of God must take heart God’s words of warning. While our sins are forgiven and our right standing with God has been fully taken care of by Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, we must not take our secure standing lightly or treat the glory of God flippantly. He is still a holy God who expects His people to live in accordance with His will. He not only expects us to be holy, He has given us His Spirit in order that we might BE holy. But the greatest danger we face is that of complacency and a false sense of comfort. Just because we know where we’re going when we die doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want while we’re alive. The fact that we have forgiveness available to us when we sin is not to be an incentive to continue to live in sin. And Paul makes the absurdity of this kind of thinking quite clear in his letter to the Romans.

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:1-4 NLT

God has called us to live new lives, and He has provided us with the power to make it possible. But how easy it is for us to reject God’s call to live holy lives and to choose to live slightly improved versions of our old selves. That is NOT what He has called us to. That is NOT what His Son died to make possible. We have been redeemed from captivity to sin and set free to live Spirit-empowered lives of holiness and spiritual wholesomeness. We are to be faithful to God and committed to His will and His ways. We are to be His representatives on this earth, providing living proof that His Son’s death truly does provide new life – both here and in the hereafter. We must never become complacent or overly comfortable with our status as God’s children. God will discipline us. Why? Because He loves us too much to allow us to continue to live in sin. But we must always remember that His love for us, even in the form of His discipline of us, will be for our good. The author of Hebrews reminds us:

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. – Hebrews 12:5-7 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

If You Return…

“If you return, O Israel,
declares the Lord,
    to me you should return.
If you remove your detestable things from my presence,
    and do not waver,
and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’
    in truth, in justice, and in righteousness,
then nations shall bless themselves in him,
    and in him shall they glory.”

For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem:

“Break up your fallow ground,
    and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord;
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
    and burn with none to quench it,
    because of the evil of your deeds.” Jeremiah 4:1-4 ESV

God’s continued call for the people of Judah to return to Him was conditional. In other words, He was fully expecting them to change their ways. It wasn’t going to be enough for them to display some half-hearted effort at reform. They were going to have to destroy their idols, tear down the pagan alters, and as God so graphically puts it, “circumcise their hearts.” And God knew their hearts were the sources of their idolatry addiction. As God complained through the prophet Isaiah, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13 NLT). Any worship the people of Israel did direct toward God was tainted by legalism and man-made decrees. Their hearts weren’t really in it. They were going through the motions, while also worshiping the false gods of the nations around them.

But the conditional nature of God’s call also had a positive side. If they would return, in sincerity and with the proper proofs of their determination to make God their only God, then He would bless them. God would take a rebellious, unfaithful people, who were doomed to destruction, and place them once again at the center of His will and affections. And when the other nations saw the radical reversal of Israel’s fortunes, they too would turn to God.

“…the nations will pray to be as blessed by him as you are
and will make him the object of their boasting.” – Jeremiah 3:2 NLT

When Israel had been delivered by God from captivity in Egypt, the other nations heard about what had happened. The news of Israel’s salvation by their God spread quickly. And as they made their way through the wilderness to the land of Canaan, the nations occupying the land became increasingly more fearful of this nation and its God. In fact, when the two spies went into Jericho to check out the fortifications of the city, they were protected by Rahab. And she told them:

“I know the Lord is handing this land over to you. We are absolutely terrified of you, and all who live in the land are cringing before you. For we heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you left Egypt and how you annihilated the two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, on the other side of the Jordan. When we heard the news we lost our courage and no one could even breathe for fear of you. For the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.” – Joshua 2:9-11 NLT

God’s power was impressive. His care for those who worshiped Him was like nothing these pagan nations had ever seen before. And God is telling Israel that those very same nations will be blown away when they see how forgiving the God of Israel can be when they repent. But again, God was very specific. He was going to require legitimate heart change.

“Like a farmer breaking up hard unplowed ground,
you must break your rebellious will and make a new beginning;
just as a farmer must clear away thorns lest the seed is wasted,
you must get rid of the sin that is ruining your lives.” – Jeremiah 3:3 NLT

One of the things we tend to leave out when we confess our sins is the legitimate intention of changing our ways. For many of us, confession is nothing more than a required step to get to what we really want: His forgiveness. Our objective is to keep God happy, not to pursue holiness. We know we have screwed up and we also know God is not pleased with us. So, to escape His anger and possible discipline, we confess. It is the equivalent of saying, “I’m sorry.” But what is typically missing is our intention to change our behavior. We simply want to escape God’s wrath, but we have no real desire to pursue holiness. But God had a serious warning to the people of Israel.

“…you must genuinely dedicate yourselves to the Lord
and get rid of everything that hinders your commitment to me,
people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.

If you do not, my anger will blaze up like a flaming fire against you
that no one will be able to extinguish.
That will happen because of the evil you have done.” – Jeremiah 3:4 NLT

Just as God had done all the way back in the days when Moses leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land, He gives the people of Israel a choice. They could choose to keep His commands and enjoy His many blessings, or they could choose to disobey Him and face the consequences of His curses.

“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish!” – Deuteronomy 30:15-18 NLT

Once again, they had a choice to make. And as before, it was between life and death. And God is trying to get them to understand that their choice of life will require a dedicated commitment to follow Him faithfully, but it will be well worth the effort. But it is interesting to note, that even in light of all the God has promised to do for the, we know that Israel will prove too stubborn to take God up on His offer. They will choose death over life. Why? What would cause them to be that stubborn and self-destructive? The simply answer is sin. Their hearts are wicked. Yes, they had been set apart by God and been deemed His chosen people. But their hearts were far from Him. By the giving of the Law, God had made it perfectly clear what He expected of them. He had made His requirements for holy and acceptable living plain as day. But they couldn’t live up to them. Not only that, they couldn’t stop themselves from chasing after other gods. Their natural inclination was toward sin and away from God. And that has been man’s problem since the fall. Mankind has been on a trajectory away from God, not toward Him. Paul puts it this way:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

The amazing thing about God is that He knew Israel would fail to return to Him. He knew they would continue to sin against Him and doom themselves to suffer His discipline. But He was not going to give up on them. In fact, God is far from done with Israel. Their track record of apostasy is undeniable. But God’s faithfulness to them is unalterable. He will one day redeem them and place within them the capacity to do what they have never been able to do from the beginning: Love Him with all their hearts. In the book of Ezekiel, we have recorded a promise made by God to the people of Israel that has yet to be fulfilled.

“For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:24-27 NLT

God knew Israel would not return to Him. But He also knows that there is a day when they will. But it will be the result of His sovereign work and His Spirit’s transforming power. He will do for them what they could never have done for themselves: Change their hearts.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

We Come To You.

And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.

“‘I said,
    How I would set you among my sons,
and give you a pleasant land,
    a heritage most beautiful of all nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
    and would not turn from following me.
Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband,
    so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel,
declares the Lord.’”

A voice on the bare heights is heard,
    the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons
because they have perverted their way;
    they have forgotten the Lord their God.
“Return, O faithless sons;
    I will heal your faithlessness.”
“Behold, we come to you,
    for you are the Lord our God.
Truly the hills are a delusion,
    the orgies on the mountains.
Truly in the Lord our God
    is the salvation of Israel.

“But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our fathers labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters. Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us. For we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God.” Jeremiah 3:16-25 ESV

God has called the people of Israel to return to Him. He told them, “‘Come back to me, my wayward sons,’ says the Lord, ‘for I am your true master. If you do, I will take one of you from each town and two of you from each family group, and I will bring you back to Zion.’” (Jeremiah 3:14 NLT). The word for “master” that God uses is actually the Hebrew word ba`al and it is obviously similar to the name of the false god, Baal, whom the Israelites worshiped. The word ba`al can be translated as “master or husband” and carries the idea of dominion. It seems that God was using a play on words, telling His people that if they would give up their false gods (Baal), and return to Him, He would be there real master and faithful husband. And unlike a lifeless idol, God would give them blessings. He would provide them leaders who would prove faithful to him and capable of providing knowledge and insight. And even though God predicts that just a remnant will end up returning to Him, He promises to multiply them in the land. 

In 538 B.C., after the people of Judah had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years, God arranged for a remnant of them to return to the land of promise. Cyrus, the Persian king, issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return the their land and even funded their trip.

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the Lord’s message spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord stirred the mind of King Cyrus of Persia. He disseminated a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom, announcing in a written edict the following:

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia:

“‘The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone from his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the Lord God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. Anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner must be helped by his neighbors with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem.’” – Ezra 1:1-4 NLT

Not all of the Jews took Cyrus’ offer to return to Jerusalem. After 70 years of captivity, they had acclimated to life in Babylon and preferred to stay where they were. Many were probably turned off by the prospect of the long journey home and the prospect of returning to a destroyed city with few, in any, amenities. They were not interested in doing manual labor in a land with no king, no army and trying to survive in a city that had been completely destroyed 70 years earlier. But a few did return. They made the long trek back and, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reconstructed the temple.

But much of what God promises in these verses has yet to happen. This is typical of many Old Testament prophecies. There is a now/not yet aspect to this prophecy. It will be partially fulfilled when the people return to the land in 538 B.C., but it will not be fully fulfilled until a later time. God says:

“At that time the city of Jerusalem will be called the Lord’s throne. All nations will gather there in Jerusalem to honor the Lord’s name. They will no longer follow the stubborn inclinations of their own evil hearts. At that time the nation of Judah and the nation of Israel will be reunited. Together they will come back from a land in the north to the land that I gave to your ancestors as a permanent possession.” – Jeremiah 3:17-18 NLT

It isn’t difficult to see that this has not yet happened. The nations have not gathered in Jerusalem to honor the Lord’s name. In fact, in anything, the nations have gathered around Israel in order to destroy it. There are countless nations that would like to see Israel eliminated and its sovereign status annulled. This portion of God’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But it will be.

From the day God determined to make Israel His own, He has longed to see them serve Him faithfully and love Him unconditionally. But despite all that God had done for them, they had proven to be anything but faithful.

“Oh what a joy it would be for me to treat you like a son!
What a joy it would be for me to give you a pleasant land,
the most beautiful piece of property there is in all the world!’
I thought you would call me, ‘Father’
and would never cease being loyal to me.
But, you have been unfaithful to me, nation of Israel,
like an unfaithful wife who has left her husband,”
says the Lord. – Jeremiah 3:19-20 NLT

These verses seem to indicate that God was totally caught off guard and surprised by Israel’s unfaithfulness. But He wasn’t. God knew they would prove to be unfaithful, and He had planned all along for their eventual destruction and captivity. When He had given them the Mosaic law, God knew they would fail to keep it. He had warned them that they would need to be obedient in order to receive His blessings. And He had told them that disobedience would lead to curses. And He had been very specific about what those curses would entail.

The Lord will force you and your king whom you will appoint over you to go away to a people whom you and your ancestors have not known, and you will serve other gods of wood and stone there. You will become an occasion of horror, a proverb, and an object of ridicule to all the peoples to whom the Lord will drive you. – Deuteronomy 28:36-37 NLT

God had not been surprised by Israel’s apostasy. He had planned for it. Left to their own devices, Israel had proven to be like every other nation: sinful and stubborn. While they had been chosen by God, their sinful natures had led them to choose false gods. Sin came naturally to them. And as a result, they turned their backs on God.

Indeed they have followed sinful ways;
they have forgotten to be true to the Lord their God. – Jeremiah 3:21b NLT

But God proved faithful to them. In fact, throughout their history, God has shown His love for Israel by constantly calling them to repentance.

“Come back to me, you wayward people.
I want to cure your waywardness.” – Jeremiah 3:22 NLT

God simply wanted them to return to Him and admit the folly of their ways. He was looking for confession, not a complete reversal of their behavior. He wasn’t expecting them to fix all their problems on their own and clean up their act before He would accept them. He just wanted them to confess what they had done to offend Him.

“Say, ‘Here we are. We come to you
because you are the Lord our God.
We know our noisy worship of false gods
on the hills and mountains did not help us.
We know that the Lord our God
is the only one who can deliver Israel.’” – Jeremiah 3:22-23 NLT

Notice those four simple words: “We come to you.” They are reminiscent of the words of Jesus spoke to the people of Israel when He appeared on the scene: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 NLT). God and His Son both invited Israel to come to them with an attitude of dependency, with arms outstretched. They simply needed to admit their weariness and confess their wickedness. Their turning to God was to be an acknowledgement that He was their only source of deliverance. 

“Let us acknowledge our shame.
Let us bear the disgrace that we deserve.
For we have sinned against the Lord our God.” – Jeremiah 3:25 NLT

Come to me. That is God’s standing invitation and it always has been. He invites us to come to Him in humility and brokenness, ready to receive from Him what we could never have found anywhere else: Help, hope, strength, forgiveness, mercy, love and eternal life. But we have to come. And when we do, the benefits are unbelievable.

“Come, let’s consider your options,” says the Lord.
“Though your sins have stained you like the color red,
you can become white like snow;
though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet,
you can become white like wool.” – Isaiah 1:18 NLT

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say: “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wants it take the water of life free of charge. – Revelation 22:17 NLT

Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. – John 6:37 NLT

Seek the Lord while he makes himself available;
call to him while he is nearby!
The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle
and sinful people their plans.
They should return to the Lord, and he will show mercy to them,
and to their God, for he will freely forgive them. – Isaiah 55:6-7 NLT

Israel had a standing invitation from God. And they had an unbreakable promise from God. He would one day restore them. He would one day do for them what they could not do for themselves. He would redeem them and restore them to a right relationship with Him. He would give them new hearts and a new capacity to live faithfully and love Him fully.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Return!

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.”

And the Lord said to me, “Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say,

“‘Return, faithless Israel,
declares the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
    for I am merciful,
declares the Lord;
I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt,
    that you rebelled against the Lord your God
and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree,
    and that you have not obeyed my voice,
declares the Lord.
Return, O faithless children,
declares the Lord;
    for I am your master;
I will take you, one from a city and two from a family,
    and I will bring you to Zion.’

“And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” Jeremiah 3:6-15 ESV

At this point, God shifts Jeremiah’s attention to the northern kingdom of Israel, which for all practical purposes, no longer existed. They had been defeated and taken captive by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.. So, by the time  Jeremiah began his ministry in 627 B.C., the people of the northern kingdom of Israel had been living in captivity for 95 years. What was likely a second generation of Israelites, born in captivity in Assyria, had probably given up any hope of seeing their land again. God had brought about their defeat and destruction because of their blatant disregard for Him. And He didn’t have to remind Jeremiah what had happened to them or explain why He had done it. Everyone in Judah knew the circumstances behind their fall. But God went ahead and refreshed Jeremiah’s memory.

You have seen how she went up to every high hill and under every green tree to give herself like a prostitute to other gods.” – Jeremiah 3:6 NLT

And God also reminded Jeremiah just why they were in the sorry state they were in. He refers to the as faithless. The Hebrew word is mĕshuwbah and it literally means “apostasy.” They were the epitome of what it means to be apostate, to have turned away and rejected God. Long before they went into exile, God had called them to repentance. He had sent prophet after prophet to deliver his message of warning.

“Yet even after she had done all that, I thought that she might come back to me. But she did not.” – Jeremiah 3:7 NLT

This is not an indication that God was somehow ignorant of what Israel might do. He knew all along they would not return. He had already raised up the Assyrians to do His bidding and bring an end to Israel’s apostasy. God is simply speaking in human terms to which Jeremiah can relate. From a human perspective, what Israel had done was hard to imagine. How could they have forsaken God the way they had? Why had they so stubbornly resisted His calls to repentance? But God remind Jeremiah:

“Her sister, unfaithful Judah, saw what she did. She also saw that I gave wayward Israel her divorce papers and sent her away because of her adulterous worship of other gods. Even after her unfaithful sister Judah had seen this, she still was not afraid, and she too went and gave herself like a prostitute to other gods. – Jeremiah 3:7=8 NLT

The southern kingdom of Judah had been an eye-witness to the fall of Israel. And they knew exactly why they had fallen. But instead of learning from Israel’s mistakes, they had followed her lead. The actual Hebrew word God uses to describe Judah is bagowd and it means “treacherous” or “deceitful.” They had known exactly what they were doing and they thought they could get away with it.

“…she took her prostitution so lightly, she defiled the land through her adulterous worship of gods made of wood and stone.” – Jeremiah 3:9 NLT

When Jeremiah had begun his ministry, it was during the reign of King Josiah, who had instituted a number of religious reforms in Judah. Josiah had legitimately tried to turn the people back to God, and while the people pledged to return to God and give up their false gods, they lied. Outwardly, they had showed signs of repentance, but inwardly, things remained the same. The people had no intention of giving up their false gods. It had all been a show. And by the time Josiah passed off the scene, things had gone back to the way they had been before. And God tells Jeremiah that He knew exactly what Judah had done. They hadn’t deceived Him.

“Israel’s sister, unfaithful Judah, has not turned back to me with any sincerity; she has only pretended to do so.” – Jeremiah 3:11 NLT

God even describes faithless Israel as less culpable than Judah. The southern kingdom had been able to watch what happened to their northern neighbor. They had been given the opportunity to learn from Israel’s mistakes, but had proven to be less-than-eager students. So, God tells Jeremiah to give a message to the people still living in the desolated remains of the northern kingdom. In other words, God turns His focus away from Judah and toward the former nation of Israel. And His message was clear.

“Come back to me, wayward Israel,” says the Lord.
“I will not continue to look on you with displeasure.
For I am merciful,” says the Lord.
“I will not be angry with you forever.
However, you must confess that you have done wrong,
and that you have rebelled against the Lord your God.
You must confess that you have given yourself to foreign gods under every green tree,
and have not obeyed my commands,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 3:12-13 NLT

What is God doing? Why is He having Jeremiah spend his time prophesying to a nation that no longer exists? Because He is using this message as a reminder to the people of Judah that He is a faithful and forgiving God. In spite of all that Israel had done, He was still willing to forgive and restore them – if they would only confess their sins against Him. And if they would, God tells them exactly what He would do.

“If you do, I will take one of you from each town and two of you from each family group, and I will bring you back to Zion. I will give you leaders who will be faithful to me. They will lead you with knowledge and insight.” – Jeremiah 3:14-15 NLT

This message, while directed at the people of the north, was really intended to have an impact on the people of Judah. They would hear Jeremiah’s words and, if they were remotely sensitive to what God was saying, respond to them. If God would be willing to let Israel return to Him after 95 years in exile, perhaps He would relent in bringing punishment on Judah. And He would, if only they would be willing to repent and return to Him. It was not too late. They had not completely fallen from His graces. He was a merciful God who was incredibly patient and kind. In spite of all the atrocities and apostasies of Israel, He was still willing to accept them back. All He asked for was confession and contrition. He wanted them to admit their sin and recommit their affections to Him. And the same thing was true of Judah. It was not too late.

But we know how the story ends. Judah would fail to heed God’s call. They would stubbornly refuse His offer of mercy and forgiveness. Rather than learn from the mistakes of Israel, Judah would simply repeat them and prove to be even more unfaithful than their northern neighbors. But none of this diminishes the fact that God was willing to forgive. The very fact that He sent Jeremiah to call them to repentance was a sign of God”s heart. He did this, even though He knew what the outcome would be. And if we fast-forward to the day when God returned to Israel a remnant of the people of Judah from captivity in Babylon, it wasn’t because they had repented or returned to Him. He did so because He had promised to do so. He restored them to the land of promise, not because they deserved it, but because He had made a covenant commitment to do so. What an incredible contrast between the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of men. Judah was undeserving of God’s mercy. They didn’t merit the presence of Jeremiah in their midst. They had no right to be given a second and third chance. But God is faithful. God is merciful. God is gracious. Not because of us, but in spite of us.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Familiarity Breeds Contempt.

“If a man divorces his wife
    and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife,
    will he return to her?
Would not that land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers;
    and would you return to me?
declares the Lord.
Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see!
    Where have you not been ravished?
By the waysides you have sat awaiting lovers
    like an Arab in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land
    with your vile whoredom.
Therefore the showers have been withheld,
    and the spring rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore;
    you refuse to be ashamed.
Have you not just now called to me,
    ‘My father, you are the friend of my youth—
will he be angry forever,
    will he be indignant to the end?’
Behold, you have spoken,
    but you have done all the evil that you could.” Jeremiah 3:1-5 ESV

There was little sign that the people of Judah were going to repent and return to God. But God emphasized just how difficult it would be for Him to accept them back should they do so. He compared their unfaithfulness to that of a wife who walked out on her husband and gave herself to another man, even marrying him. According to the Mosaic law, the first husband was forbidden to take his wife back, even if he wanted to.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

If a man tried to take back his wife after she had committed adultery and married another man, he would be adding to her original sin. In God’s eyes, he would be making matters worse, not better. His actions, while well-intentioned, would only bring further judgment from God.

And God makes it quite clear that the actions of the people of Judah were far more egregious. They were guilty of having multiple lovers, not one. They were more like a prostitute who willingly and blazenly threw herself at every man she could find, with no sense of remorse or guilt. In fact, God says of the people of Judah: “you are obstinate as a prostitute. You refuse to be ashamed of what you have done” (Jeremiah 3:3b NLT). Their defiance of God’s will and willful determination to seek other gods had resulted in God’s judgment on the land. He had brought famine on the land, a fate He had warned them about hundreds of years earlier.

“I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze.” – Leviticus 26:19 ESV

This was just one of the curses God promised to bring on the people of Israel if they proved to be disobedient and unfaithful.

And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed. – Deuteronomy 28:23-24 ESV

But they proved to be stubborn and hardheaded, unrepentant and without remorse. And they took their relationship with God for granted. They simply assumed that He would always be there and He would always forgive and forget. After all, they reasoned, He had stuck with them through the wilderness years, putting up with their whining and complaining. He had not destroyed them during the years of the judges, when they repeatedly disobeyed Him and proved to be disloyal to Him. He had patiently endured their sins under the reign of King Saul and graciously given.them King David instead. Even now, after having split the kingdom in two because of the sins of King Solomon, Judah was still around and kicking. So, they assumed all would be well. They were God’s chosen people. He wasn’t about to abandon them. Or so they thought.

Like a spoiled child, Judah had grown accustomed to their privileged position as God’s chosen people. They had become presumptuous, believing that their status as God’s children provided them with immunity from His wrath. They fully expected God to forgive and forget.

“You are my father!
You have been my faithful companion ever since I was young.
You will not always be angry with me, will you?
You will not be mad at me forever, will you?”– Jeremiah 3:4-5 NLT

But God exposes the true nature of their hearts. They fully expected God to remain faithful to them, but they had no intention of following His lead. In fact, God says, “you continually do all the evil that you can” (Jeremiah 3:5 NLT). What’s interesting to note is that the people of Judah were demanding that God be the one to change. They knew He was angry, and justifiably so, but they wanted Him to simply let go off His anger. They were unwilling to acknowledge their sins, repent of them and return to Him. What they wanted was forgiveness with no repentance. They were demanding love in the face of infidelity. They had no intentions of changing their ways.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. We love being on the receiving end of it. And, as Christians, we can become uncomfortably accustomed to having a never-ending supply of God’s forgiveness at our disposal. After all, as John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). But notice what that verse says: “If we confess our sins.” Confessions is a prerequisite for forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness if readily available to us, but first we must confess or simply agree with God about our need for forgiveness. We have to acknowledge what it is we have done to offend a holy God. And we also have to desire to give up that behavior in the future. Confession without contrition is meaningless. The definition of contrition is “sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment” (contrition. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved June 22, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/contrition). Confession without contrition is like a child saying “I’m sorry”, but with no intention of changing their behavior. Far too often, our brand of confession is nothing more than remorse, a sorrow for having been caught and a fear of facing punishment. So we “confess” with no intention of changing the way we behave. Like the Israelites, we have the mistaken notion that God is obligated to put up with us – just the way we are. Our familiarity with Him breeds contempt for Him. We treat Him as a cosmic Genie, obligated to grant us our wishes and do as we command. We demand He forgive us, while refusing to give up the behavior that got us into trouble with Him in the first place.

But as King David learned: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (Psalm 51:17 NLT). As the prophet Joel would warn the people of Israel: 

“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
   and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster. – Joel 2:12-13 NLT

How easy it is to take God’s love for granted. We can so quickly assume that God is somehow obligated to ignore our sins or to accept our weak and heartless words of confession. We tell Him we’re sorry and fully expect Him to act as if nothing ever happened. But God takes sin seriously. His Son had to die for our sins. God had to put His own Son to death in order to pay the penalty for our sins. So, He doesn’t take sin lightly. He can’t just excuse sin. And while our gracious, merciful God offers forgiveness for sin, He also demands that we exhibit a brokenness and contrition for our sins.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

“I Am Innocent.”

“Why do you contend with me?
    You have all transgressed against me,
declares the Lord.
In vain have I struck your children;
    they took no correction;
your own sword devoured your prophets
    like a ravening lion.
And you, O generation, behold the word of the Lord.
Have I been a wilderness to Israel,
    or a land of thick darkness?
Why then do my people say, ‘We are free,
    we will come no more to you’?
Can a virgin forget her ornaments,
    or a bride her attire?
Yet my people have forgotten me
    days without number.

“How well you direct your course
    to seek love!
So that even to wicked women
    you have taught your ways.
Also on your skirts is found
    the lifeblood of the guiltless poor;
you did not find them breaking in.
    Yet in spite of all these things
you say, ‘I am innocent;
    surely his anger has turned from me.’
Behold, I will bring you to judgment
    for saying, ‘I have not sinned.’
How much you go about,
    changing your way!
You shall be put to shame by Egypt
    as you were put to shame by Assyria.
From it too you will come away
    with your hands on your head,
for the Lord has rejected those in whom you trust,
    and you will not prosper by them. Jeremiah 2:29-37 ESV

In spite of all God had said about them and the indictments He had made regarding their unfaithfulness toward Him, they denied it. They argued or contended with Him about His assessment of their behavior. They had the unmitigated gall to refute God, demanding that they were innocent. And they were angry over the fact that He would ever consider punishing them. But God asks them, “Why do you accuse me of doing wrong? You are the ones who have rebelled” (Jeremiah 2:29 NLT). They were all guilty.

And God admits that His punishment of them had done little to change their hearts. They were stubborn and pigheaded. Even the younger generation had failed to learn from their parents’ mistakes. They had heard how God had brought divine discipline in the past. They had been told the stories of the northern kingdom’s fall. But they were just as rebellious as their forefathers. God had sent prophets before and they had been ignored and, in some cases, eliminated altogether. The people of God had a bad habit of rejecting the message by killing the messenger. And in doing so, they were rejecting God, the very one who had called and commissioned the prophets.

And this treatment of God was totally undeserved. It was not as if God had been cruel and unkind. He even asks them:

Have I been like a desert to Israel?
Have I been to them a land of darkness? – Jeremiah 2:31 NLT

They had no legitimate reasons to reject God. He had blessed them. He had been a light to them. He had provided for all their needs and protected them for generations. But they treated Him as a pariah. They turned their backs on Him. And by their very treatment of Him, it was as if they were saying, “At last we are free from God! We don’t need him anymore” (Jeremiahs 2:31b NLT). They didn’t actually say those words, but their behavior screamed them. It was if they wanted to get as far away from God as possible. In other words, they were acting toward God as they had toward Pharaoh when they finally were able to get out of Egypt. They were glad to leave him in their dust. They wanted nothing more to do with Pharaoh and his kingdom. And God accuses the people of Judah of treating Him in the same way.

But God wants to know how they can so easily forget Him. He compares their disregard for Him to a bride forgetting her wedding dress or a young woman, her jewels. That would be absurd. Both women would place two high a value on those two things to simply walk away from them. But the people of God had walked away from Him without cause and showing no regret. He flatly states: “Yet my people have forgotten me days without number” (Jeremiah 2:32 ESV). And yet, when confronted by God, they simply denied it all.

God accuses them of being so good at unfaithfulness and adultery, they could teach professional prostitutes a thing or two. The people of Judah had become adept at wooing other lovers. They were constantly chasing after false gods and making alliances with pagan nations, rather than sharing their affections with God and placing their hope and trust in Him. And God accuses them of not only spiritual adultery, but injustice. They had failed to care for the innocent and the poor. Over in the book of Micah, we have a short and succinct description of God’s expectations of His people:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

God has a heart for the poor and needy. He expects His people to care for them and to treat them with justice. But the people of Israel and Judah, because they had failed to keep God’s commands, had made a habit of abusing those who were helpless among them. And thought God was fully aware of all their sins and could list them in detail, they simply denied it. “Yet in spite of all these things you say, ‘I am innocent’” (Jeremiah 2;34-35 ESV). But God gives them some very bad news: “But now I will punish you severely because you claim you have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35b NLT). Conviction should bring repentance. God exposes our sin in order that we might confess it and be forgiven for it. But the people of Judah simply rejected God’s conviction and denied any guilt. The apostle John addressed this problem in his first letter.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10 ESV

There are two things going on in this passage. First of all, there is the outright denial of sin. It involves a refusal to admit that we have sinned. And John reminds us that if we simply confess our sins to God, He will forgive us. But there is a second issue going on. When we deny God’s convicting spirit and claim we have not sinned, we are making Him out to be a liar. We are accusing God of falsehood and slander. He has pointed out our sin and we have chosen to deny His charges. That is exactly what the people of Judah were guilty of doing. And God was forced to punish them by bringing their enemies against them. But instead of confessing and repenting, they turned to other nations for help. God say, “First here, then there—you flit from one ally to another asking for help” (Jeremiah 2:36 NLT). But they would find those alliances would prove to be disappointing. These pagan nations were not to be trusted. They would prove to be poor substitutes for God. Nations have a way of breaking their word or simply succumbing to the power of even greater nations. At one point God had used Assyria to punish the northern kingdom of Israel. But the Assyrians would later find themselves defeated by the Babylonians, who God would eventually use to punish the nation of Judah. Trusting in nations was risky business, because at the end of the day, they were all under the control and command of God Himself. And God breaks the bad news to Judah, “In despair, you will be led into exile with your hands on your heads, for the Lord has rejected the nations you trust. They will not help you at all” (Jeremiah 2:37 NLT).

When we place our trust and hope in something other than God, it will always prove disappointing. People make lousy gods. Even the most powerful nations make poor deities. People let us down. Nations have their day in the sun, then fail. Government are not divine. Financial security and material wealth may seem to provide a sense of well-being, but they are not eternal. They have a habit of disappearing just about the time you really need them. God had proven Himself a faithful provider and protector. He had gone out of His way to assure the people of Judah of His power and His persistent, unfailing love for them. He was completely reliable. He never went back on His Word. He never failed to do what He promised. He was gracious, kind and forgiving. But they had decided that God was not enough. They had determined that they needed more. So, they had turned their back on God. That’s what happens when you turn to something other than God for your help and hope. In the process of turning to that other thing, you end up turning away from God. You take your eyes off of Him. And in doing so, you treat the God of the universe with disrespect and open disregard. But God is a jealous God and His jealousy is driven by His love. He knows what is best for us and He will not allow us to wander far. He will do what it takes to bring us home. He will get our attention and bring us to an end of ourselves. Because He loves us. God was going to allow Judah to wander, but He would also bring them back some day. He would give them their fill of foreign nations, in the form of captivity in Babylon, but He would never leave them or forsake them completely. Because He is faithful.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson