Mourning or Boasting.

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
“Consider, and call for the mourning women to come;
    send for the skillful women to come;
let them make haste and raise a wailing over us,
    that our eyes may run down with tears
    and our eyelids flow with water.
For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
    ‘How we are ruined!
    We are utterly shamed,
because we have left the land,
    because they have cast down our dwellings.’”

Hear, O women, the word of the Lord,
    and let your ear receive the word of his mouth;
teach to your daughters a lament,
    and each to her neighbor a dirge.
For death has come up into our windows;
    it has entered our palaces,
cutting off the children from the streets
    and the young men from the squares.
Speak: “Thus declares the Lord,
‘The dead bodies of men shall fall
    like dung upon the open field,
like sheaves after the reaper,
    and none shall gather them.’”

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” Jeremiah 9:17-26 ESV

The time for mourning was fast approaching. It would not be long before the Babylonians invaded Judah and began their systematic destruction of the land. So, God instructs Jeremiah to summon the professional mourners, women whose sole job it was to mourn on behalf of the dead. They were going to be in high demand because the number of the dead would be catastrophically high. Those who survived the Babylonian onslaught would be weeping and wailing as they were led away as slaves. Mothers were to teach their daughters songs of lament in preparation for the days ahead. Neighbors were to teach their one another dirges, because the body count was going to be great and the number of funerals, seemingly unending. In fact, God warns:

“Bodies will be scattered across the fields like clumps of manure,
    like bundles of grain after the harvest.
    No one will be left to bury them.” – Jeremiah 9:22 NLT

At this point, God takes what appears to be a dramatic departure in tone. He goes from speaking about funerals, death and mourning to warnings about boasting. It is as if He has just told the people what is coming and now He is letting them know the cause behind it. He mentions the wise, the mighty and the rich, and He warns them not to boast in their wisdom, power and wealth. Those things were not going to save them. They were not going to think their way out of the coming destruction. They were not going to be strong enough to defeat the Babylonians. And their wealth would soon be nothing more than plunder, taken by force and carried away by the Babylonians. God gives only one legitimate cause for a man to boast: “that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24 ESV). The only thing that would have given the people of Judah cause to boast was if they could have said that they knew and understood God. And this knowledge of God would have included an awareness of His loyal love – His faithfulness, mercy and unfailing devotion. It would also include an understanding of His justice – that He is the judge of the universe who is committed to  judge rightly and impartially. And finally, their knowledge of God would include an awareness of His righteousness – that all that He does is ethically and morally right. He makes no mistakes. And God emphasizes that He finds delight in these things. His own love, justice and righteousness bring Him joy. Which is why He expects His people to love these very same things. The prophet Micah used very similar terminology when he wrote to the people of God and reminded them of God’s expectations of them.

What can we bring to the Lord? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves? Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins? No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8 NLT

God “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” So, why would He not expect His own people to do the same? Later on, in the book of Jeremiah, God will give the prophet a word to speak to the king of Judah.

Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:3 ESV

The people of God were to reflect the attributes of God. Those who truly know God should exhibit the characteristics of God. But sadly, the people of Judah no longer knew God. They knew of Him, but had long ago lost their relationship with Him. They no longer found delight in the things in which He delighted. Justice and righteousness were in short supply in Judah. The people of God no longer valued the things of God. And, as a result, God was going to bring judgment. But it is important to note that God’s love, justice and righteousness are inseparable. It is not unloving for God to judge. It is not unrighteous for God to mete out just judgment on a people who had been warned repeatedly and who had refused His call to repentance. God was going to do what was right and just. But He did so as an act of love. He could not let His children continue to live in open rebellion to Him, sliding down a path that led to unchecked moral degradation. God was going to lovingly and justly do the right thing.

And God drives home the real problem with His people. They are circumcised in the flesh only. In other words, they met the physical requirement of being set apart to God, but their hearts were another matter. All they way back when the people of Israel were in the wilderness and making their way to the promised land, Moses had told them:

And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. – Deuteronomy 30:5-6 ESV

Circumcision of heart was to reveal itself in a love for God. It was a sign of their belonging to God. And the apostle Paul would pick up on this theme of circumcision of the heart when he wrote to the believers in Rome.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

It was not being a Jew that set one apart to God. It was the condition of their heart. God was looking for those whose hearts were right with Him. But when He looked at the nation of Judah, He saw no one who loved what He loved. No one sought His praise or pursued His will. They were “circumcised merely in the flesh.” They bore the outward sign of belonging to God, but their hearts were far from Him. And sadly, God compares His people to the pagan nations around them – the Egyptians, Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites. All of these nations were uncircumcised in the flesh, but also in their hearts. They had no knowledge of or love for God.. But God says that Judah is not different. “And like all these pagan nations, the people of Israel also have uncircumcised hearts” (Jeremiah 9:26 NLT). They were no different than the nations around them. Yes, they bore a physical sign intended to prove their status as God’s children, but their actions revealed that there was nothing about them that set them apart from the world. There was no love for the things of God. They did not share the heart of God. Wisdom, power and riches meant more to them than love, justice and righteousness.

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