This morning we look at Jeremiah 2-8. This is a lengthy text, and we will be reading quite a bit of the text because we need to follow Jeremiah as he speaks to Judah. We will read sections of the text, and from time to time I will interrupt the reading to reflect on the history that Jeremiah’s words call to mind, or otherwise establish (suggest) a context for Jeremiah’s message.
In this text Yahweh is agonizing about the judgement that is about to fall on Judah. When we read these texts in isolation it can seem to us that God is pretty quick to judge. In this case I want to get a sense of the agonizing that Yahweh experiences, and the delays he engages, to give his children chance after chance to turn from idolatry, so that judgement need not fall. In the end, we know, judgement will come, but it is not for a lack of calling, cajoling, pleading, waiting, and warning. In the end Israel and Judah were judged because they chose their ways rather than Yahweh’s ways.
Jeremiah begins by recounting Israel’s early history.
2:2“‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.
These were the good ol’ days, the days when Israel was, if not passionately, at least somewhat eagerly, for a day or three, following Yahweh out of Egypt, and back to the Promised Land. Even then, Israel seldom managed more than a few days without grumbling and pining for the good ol’ days of captivity in Egypt, but at least Israel was following, albeit often reluctantly, following Yahweh to the Promised Land.
Even then, however, the good times did not last:
2:5“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
Even before they cleared the borders of Egypt the fathers were whining about perishing at Pharoah’s hand, when they were caught between his armies and the Red Sea. Then Yahweh saved them, brought them safely through the Red Sea while Pharoah and his armies perished, and on the other side the Israelites sang the song of Moses:
Ex 15:1“I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
2“The Lord is my strength and my defense[a];
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
Three days later, at Marah, they were again complaining bitterly “What shall we drink?” Three days after enough water to drown Pharoah’s armies they were worried about what to drink, because the water was bitter. Then Moses threw a piece of wood into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
Yahweh kept on leading his people, grateful or otherwise, to the Promised Land. Then, on the threshold of the Land flowing with milk and honey, they decided it wasn’t worth it, the inhabitants of the land were too big for them, and so they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and it was their children who entered the Promised Land.
7 I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.
Unfortunately even in the Land their faithfulness did not last. They erected altars to Baal and followed other gods. It was all but unheard of for nations to change allegiance to other gods, but Israel did it time and again.
2:11Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the Lord.
13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Israel had privileged access to the spring of living water, but she chose to dig her own cisterns, cisterns that proved to be broken, prone to profuse leakage, and unable to hold water. There was -and is- no God but Yahweh, and yet Israel turned away from the Living God to follow after idols.
Jeremiah’s job was to remind Judah of her history, and their future, and above all, remind them of their God, who had been spurned so many times, but who was still calling for them, waiting for them, yearning for them to return to him. In spite of all the cycles of betrayal and return that Israel had already foisted on Yahweh, still he waited, still he called, still he stood, with arms wide open, ready at a moment’s notice, to welcome his children back to his bosom, if only they would, but rather than pursuing Yahweh, Israel (and now Judah) pursued betrayal, unfaithfulness, and other gods, who were no gods.
2:20“Long ago you broke off your yoke
and tore off your bonds;
you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
and under every spreading tree
you lay down as a prostitute.
21 I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?
22 Although you wash yourself with soap
and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.
23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
24 a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving—
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
25 Do not run until your feet are bare
and your throat is dry.
But you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’
The passion Israel lacked for Yahweh she did not lack for gods who were no gods, but these gods never came through for Israel. Then, when Israel was in real trouble, then she came running back to Yahweh for help, but as soon as the trouble was over, she went back to chasing after idols.
2:27 They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
‘Come and save us!’
28 Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
Let them come if they can save you
when you are in trouble!
For you, Judah, have as many gods
as you have towns.
These charades had been going on now for about 800 years (exodus to Jeremiah), and Yahweh wanted a change. He had patiently waited for many lifetimes, always welcomed his children when they returned, always watched with a pained heart when they wandered, but never repulsed them when they came back, no matter how many other gods they had given their best between times of bedraggled return. What to do? Yahweh wanted lasting reconciliation. He so powerfully desired to redeem his people for himself, he was willing to do whatever it took to welcome them back one last time for good, but what would it take? What would it take? How much more could he take?
3:1 “If a man divorces his wife
and she leaves him and marries another man,
should he return to her again?
Would not the land be completely defiled?
But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers—
would you now return to me?”
declares the Lord.
Could Yahweh take Israel back after all the betrayal and unfaithfulness and adultery? Should Yahweh take back such an unfaithful people? Was it not high time for them to learn their lesson of the consequences of rebellion? Did not Yahweh owe them a dose of reality after all the generations of chasing other gods? Should he be gracious again? Could he? Could he not?
3:12“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt—
you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
under every spreading tree,
and have not obeyed me,’”
declares the Lord.
14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.”
19 “I myself said,
“‘How gladly would I treat you like my children
and give you a pleasant land,
the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’
I thought you would call me ‘Father’
and not turn away from following me.
20 But like a woman unfaithful to her husband,
so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,”
declares the Lord.
21 A cry is heard on the barren heights,
the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel,
because they have perverted their ways
and have forgotten the Lord their God.
22 “Return, faithless people;
I will cure you of backsliding.”
Right and fair and just don’t matter. All that matters is God’s desire for his people. Let me rephrase that: Right and fair and just matter, but not as much as God’s desire matters. Right and fair and just must all bow to God’s sovereign mercy. God had said to Moses many generations earlier (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15):
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
Did Israel deserve another chance? Hardly. Would God be justified in giving up with them and starting over as he had already proposed to do once, when Moses talked him out of it? Most assuredly so, but now, with no Moses to stand in his way, Yahweh still prefers to call again, because God’s justice is not tempered with mercy. Rather, mercy is an integral component in God’s justice. It is not as though God is torn and bifurcated by conflicting desires that drag him in opposite directions. God is love, and God is just, and God is merciful, and so God does as God is, because he answers to no one and no thing. And so if judgement is what it takes to bring his children back, then judge he will, because God’s mercy includes judgment if that is what it takes to call his children back to him, and warnings of judgement are all but ubiquitous in the prophet’s message.
4:12 “Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”
16 “Tell this to the nations,
proclaim concerning Jerusalem:
‘A besieging army is coming from a distant land,
raising a war cry against the cities of Judah.
17 They surround her like men guarding a field,
because she has rebelled against me,’”
declares the Lord.
18 “Your own conduct and actions
have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
How bitter it is!
How it pierces to the heart!”
22 “My people are fools;
they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”
23 I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
24 I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
25 I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
And so judgement must come, and it will come. It will come suddenly and harshly, and terribly, but not without mercy. Even when it seems that nothing will turn Israel from her idolatry, still God will not utterly destroy that sinful nation. Even when judgement falls as it must, it will fall with mercy, and with hope for redemption.
27 This is what the Lord says:
“The whole land will be ruined,
though I will not destroy it completely.
28 Therefore the earth will mourn
and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent,
I have decided and will not turn back.”
29 At the sound of horsemen and archers
every town takes to flight.
Some go into the thickets;
some climb up among the rocks.
All the towns are deserted;
no one lives in them.
Even as judgement falls, Yahweh is pleading with Israel to take some thought for what she is doing, for the harm she is bringing to herself, for the vanity of her ways that may seem expedient for the moment, but ways that can only exacerbate her already dire situation.
30 What are you doing, you devastated one?
Why dress yourself in scarlet
and put on jewels of gold?
Why highlight your eyes with makeup?
You adorn yourself in vain.
Your lovers despise you;
they want to kill you.
31 I hear a cry as of a woman in labor,
a groan as of one bearing her first child—
the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands and saying,
“Alas! I am fainting;
my life is given over to murderers.”
Back in Abraham’s time Sodom and Gomorrah could have been saved for just 10 righteous people. Now God is even more eager to save.
5:1“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem,
look around and consider,
search through her squares.
If you can find but one person
who deals honestly and seeks the truth,
I will forgive this city.
Even when judgement falls, it will not be utter destruction.
10 “Go through her vineyards and ravage them,
but do not destroy them completely.
18 “Yet even in those days,” declares the Lord, “I will not destroy you completely.”
And again, the warning of judgement to come is interrupted by a reminder that Yahweh had showed them which way to take, but they refused.
6: 16 This is what the Lord says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
17 I appointed watchmen over you and said,
‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
But you said, ‘We will not listen.’
18 Therefore hear, you nations;
you who are witnesses,
observe what will happen to them.
And so judgement comes as the fruit of their choices.
19 “Hear, you earth:
I am bringing disaster on this people,
the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not listened to my words
and have rejected my law.”
And the judgement comes as obstacles to make their way hard, because the way they choose is a way that leads to destruction, and a good loving God cannot endlessly enable that trajectory. Not even a good and loving God, but especially good and loving God, must eventually step aside and allow the consequences of sin to bear the fruit of judgement.
21 Therefore this is what the Lord says:
“I will put obstacles before this people.
Parents and children alike will stumble over them;
neighbors and friends will perish.”
But the purpose of judgement is always correction and refinement and restoration.
27 “I have made you a tester of metals
and my people the ore,
that you may observe
and test their ways.
28 They are all hardened rebels,
going about to slander.
They are bronze and iron;
they all act corruptly.
29 The bellows blow fiercely
to burn away the lead with fire,
but the refining goes on in vain;
the wicked are not purged out.
30 They are called rejected silver,
because the Lord has rejected them.”
Again and again, interspersed with the warnings of judgement, are interludes of pleading again for Judah to return to her God.
7:2 Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
Yahweh reminds Israel that he has given them instructions, he showed them the paths of life, and instructed them in how they should walk, and he has sent judges, and prophets to remind them of the right ways, and they had already experienced interludes of judgement and correction, and yet they kept turning away. Time and again they refused to listen and live.
21 “‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. 25 From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.’
This particular section of Jeremiah does not end on a hopeful tone:
8: 3 Wherever I banish them, all the survivors of this evil nation will prefer death to life, declares the Lord Almighty.’
Judgement will lay heavy on the people, but judgement is not inevitable. The passages that speak in those tones come across as Yahweh urging himself to hold the course, to allow his children to bear the consequences of their choices, and not to relent too easily and again allow them the terrible delusion that bad choices do not carry commensurate consequences. Yahweh has been patient with his children for 1600 years (Abraham to Jeremiah), but the time for judgement has come. Nevertheless, even now it is clear that judgement comes not as vindictive retribution, but as redemptive action that hopes for restoration. As we read further Jeremiah contains incredible passages of hope for a future bright with promise.
For now, however, it is time for judgement and as history unfolds, Yahweh’s pleadings for Israel to turn are again unheeded and terrible judgement falls, clearly against Yahweh’s fondest hopes and deepest desires. However, it is a measure of Yahweh’s mercy that restorative judgement comes and Israel does finally learn the folly of her idolatry. This is not to say that all is well after this lesson is learned, because then there are more lessons to be learned. Though Israel never again fell into the same kind of idolatry of worshipping the gods of the nations around her, she still did not recognize her God when he took on flesh.
But who would? Who could??? Yahweh becomes flesh to bear in his own body the judgement of his childrens’ sins? Our sins? That is preposterous! It is unbelievable!! And yet... And yet… this is the preposterous story that is told by Christian theology – that God himself suffers the worst of our judgement with us and for us, so that even while we suffer, we never suffer alone, and in our suffering we reap the benefits of God suffering for us, and we suffer in hope. But Yahweh, who judges, does not simply pass judgement as one would expect a sovereign deity to do. When Yahweh finally allows judgement to come, he lays aside his royalty, he takes on flesh, and serves not only as the Judge, but also as the judged, and he himself participates in the judgement for sin. And so, always we have hope, along with Israel, because of Christ.