Return

Jeremiah’s ministry has begun. The Lord is speaks through him in these first few chapters of the book. The message in chapter 2 is uncompromising and clear – Judah had turned away from the Lord and in accordance with the covenant made just before they entered the Promised Land (the Deuteronomic covenant), judgment is about to fall. The images of Judah’s disobedience are uncomfortable and distasteful. Nevertheless, there is hope – God’s plan for Israel and his promises to Abraham, Moses and David would be realised. In this third chapter, we see glimpses of hope amidst the mess of Judah’s sinful rebellion.

  1. Hopeless situation?

Remember that the words we read in chapter 3 are God’s words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah – they must be understood in the context and framework of God’s relationship with his people; they must not be ignored, they must not be re-interpreted away. The Lord begins with a statement of Deuteronomic law – ‘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?’ The law stated (Deuteronomy 24: 1-4) that it was not permissible for a divorced and remarried woman to return to marry her original husband. God applies this thinking to Judah’s relationship with him. They have left the Lord, the have followed after other gods – how could they now return to the Lord? However, it was worse than that! That had not simply left the Lord to ‘marry another man’; they had left to live the life of a prostitute. Moreover, the prostitution was of the most brazen and shameless variety ‘is there not any place where you have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers?’ The impact is that the land – the precious God-promised and God-given land - is defiled. No doubt that the land was defiled in the sense that its purpose had been turned from a means to honour God to a place where idolatry was rampant. But could the land itself be physically defiled too? If we look back to the covenant made between God and Israel as they prepared to enter the promised land (the so-called Deuteronomic covenant) we find that one of the judgements on Israel’s disobedience was a failure of rain: ‘24 The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder (Deuteronomy 28: 24).

In spite of the situation, Judah is neither ashamed nor ready to repent: ‘Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame (verse 3b).’ To add insult to injury, Judah asks ‘My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry?’ If Judah was turning away from its sin that would be one thing, but here they are asking for reconciliation without any sign of repentance. How just like us! We have such a tendency to be blasé about our faith, placing our ‘faith’ in material possessions and such like, but the minute something goes wrong we come running back to God for his help!

All of this raises a very important question. If Judah, because of her ‘divorce and remarriage’ was prevented from ‘remarrying’ the Lord, what hope did she have? It seems none at all; the law forbade it! However, there was to be a new covenant that would turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, a new covenant that would bring about an internal change – the law was to be written on hearts rather than tablets of stone! More of this later!

  1. Israel

In 722 BC after a three-year siege, the capital city of Israel (the northern kingdom comprising 10 of Israel’s tribes) was destroyed by the Assyrian army. The northern nation more or less ceased to exist. As Jeremiah speaks in these chapters, more than 90 years have passed and the Northern nation is still in exile and under the rule of Assyria. Now God has a message for these 10 tribes.

The time of this word from the Lord was during the reign of King Josiah. You may recall that it was under the rule of this king that there was something of a spiritual revival in Judah. The temple was refurbished and the book of the law was re-discovered. As a result of hearing the word read out to him, Josiah put in place a series of religious reforms. Superficially at least the people followed Josiah’s lead, but it seems that the renewal was only skin deep – the idol worship of previous generations had filtered deep into the thinking and attitudes of the people. It seems that as the people of Judah looked north to the continuing occupation and domination of their fellow Israelites, they felt smug and secure in their situation. After all, they had Jerusalem and the Temple – God had rescued them in the past from the Assyrians and surely, he would do so again.

It is in this context that the Lord speaks through Jeremiah to Israel. In verse six, the Lord invites Jeremiah to consider the situation in Israel (the Northern Kingdom). God uses the same metaphor to describe the sinful idolatry of Israel – they had committed adultery. The destruction and judgment at the hands of the Assyrians had been designed to elicit a repentant response (they had been issued a ‘certificate of divorce’ verse 8) but after 95 years, Israel had not returned to the Lord. All of this took place in the sight of Israel’s ‘unfaithful sister Judah’ (verse 7). In spite of Judah’s observations, ‘Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretence.’ (Verse 10). At this point, the Lord makes a surprising statement: ‘Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah.’ I have to confess that I always thought of Judah as being much better than Israel! – After all, not one of Israel’s 20 kings ‘did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.’ At least a few of Judah’s kings did what was right (just 5 of 20). Judah was undergoing a renewal so why the Lord’s seemingly harsh appraisal? It seems that Judah was all the worse because she had seen the potential impact of continued disobedience - the destruction of Samaria and exile of the 10 northern tribes. Not only that, they had the benefit of Josiah’s reforms and had been re-acquainted with the Deuteronomic covenant. In spite of all of this warning and opportunity, the people had not changed.

What about Israel? There is a remarkable word used repeatedly in this chapter (and following chapters) – it is the word ‘return.’ In spite of the terrible sinfulness of the people, in spite of the impending judgement (consistent with the Deuteronomic covenant) God loves these people and wants them to return to him. Jeremiah was invited to go to the people of Israel and proclaim a message of hope: ‘Go, proclaim this message toward the north: 'Return, faithless Israel,' declares the Lord , 'I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful,' declares the Lord , 'I will not be angry forever. 13Only 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. I will choose you-one from a town and two from a clan-and bring you to Zion.’
We have read rather a lot of doom and gloom in the words Jeremiah was asked to speak, but here there is hope! Israel may be faithless, but the Lord is faithful! He has acted according to the Deuteronomic covenant but he will not forget the promises he made to Abraham and to David! All that Israel need do is return. I think it is more than implicit here that this return needs accompanying repentance. The amazing thing is that this was well within the capability of the people. God does not ask for the impossible – neither does he enforce a response – he has delegated his authority and the people must exercise their God-given free will. In fact the Deuteronomic covenant makes this crystal clear. God himself said: 11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30)’ How are you exercising your God-given free will? Are you like the people of Judah? And if so, will you return to him? Not only does the Lord invite them to return, but also he promises them new leadership. New shepherds who will lead with knowledge and intelligence!  We read these striking words in Ezekiel 34: 23, ‘I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.’  If you have been following this series, you will recall the covenant God made with David – it speaks of a day when one of David’s line would be king, sitting of David’s throne and reigning forever. This is the Messiah, who will surely come to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah!

The Lord looks forward to a future time of return, restoration and revival: ‘in those days when your numbers have increased greatly in the land (verse 16).’ Note that this statement rests on the promises made to Abraham – a promise of a great nation and a land promised forever. As we read the accounts of Israel’s settlement in the land, we discover that the Ark of the Covenant was of huge significance to the Israelites. It was considered to represent the presence of God. The writer to the Hebrews describes the Ark of the Covenant and its location, thus: ‘Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.’  To be in possession of the ark seemed to many Israelites to be in possession of God himself! In spite of all of this national affection and importance of the Ark, God tells Jeremiah that there will come a time when people will not even remember it – verse 16: ‘It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.’ Jeremiah must have been both surprised and intrigued by this statement – why? he must have asked? ‘17 At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. 18 In those days the people of Judah will join the people of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your ancestors as an inheritance.’  This is a remarkable statement and it rests on the covenants or promises we have been studying recently. See Table below for a simple correlation of these statements with God’s promises/covenants (see also part 1 of this series).

 

God’s statement through Jeremiah

God’s promise/covenant

“they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord”

Davidic Covenant: God’s promise to David of a dynasty, throne and kingdom that would last forever. (2 Samuel 7:16)

“all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord”

Abrahamic Covenant: God’s promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 22:18)

“No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts.”

New Covenant: Law internalized and written on hearts.  (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

“the people of Judah will join the people of Israel”

Deuteronomic Covenant: The people gathered again after being scattered. Deuteronomy 30:3–4

“together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your ancestors as an inheritance.”

Abrahamic covenant: Promise of a land forever. Geneses 17:7-8

What a remarkable future these people have – and this in spite of the disastrous idolatry and godlessness that had taken hold of the people! How could this be? The answer is because it is what God had promised. God keeps his promises. For sure, the people would ultimately have to make their decision, but God would be faithful.

Verses 19 to 21 bring us crashing back to reality! For the moment, Israel remains unfaithful: ‘they have ‘perverted their ways and have forgotten the Lord their God. (verse 21b)

  1. An appeal and a response

Once again, the Lord calls on his people to return and if they did, God would cure them of backsliding. Backsliding, we do not use that word so often these days – sadly for many believers we can so easily ‘backslide.’ The pull of the world is strong and if we are not careful, it can pull us backwards and away from what is right and what is good.

The final verses of chapter 3 seem to be a confession of guilt on the part of the people. It appears that the confession is presented in the past tense, but it has yet to take place. Israel had not and did not repent and confess sin and it seems fair to say that they never done since the days of Jeremiah. One day, however they will – the Deuteronomic covenant speaks of this very thing. Deuteronomy chapter 30:2-3:  ‘and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.’ What a wonderful promise! And here’s the thing, Israel was not given an impossible task to remain faithful to the Lord – Deuteronomy 30 again:  11Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.’ It was within their capability to respond. What about us? For sure, our genetics and circumstances shape us to an extent, but response to God is not too difficult, it is within reach. What will you do?