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.