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