Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of Old Testament studies from Jeremiah 1:1-3:5.
“The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ ‘Ah, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a child.” You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’ The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ ‘I see the branch of an almond tree,’ I replied.
The Lord said to me, ‘You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.’ The word of the Lord came to me again: ‘What do you see?’ ‘I see a boiling pot, tilting away from the north,’ I answered. The Lord said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the Lord.
‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah. I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshiping what their hands have made. Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you.
Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land―against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.
The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,” ’ declares the Lord. Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel.
This is what the Lord says: ‘What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. 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 rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?”
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. 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. Therefore I bring charges against you again,’ declares the Lord.
‘And I will bring charges against your children’s children. Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glory for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,’ declares the Lord.
‘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. Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth? Why then has he become plunder? Lions have roared; they have growled at him. They have laid waste his land; his towns are burned and deserted. Also, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes have shaved the crown of your head.
Have you not brought this on yourselves by forsaking the Lord your God when he led you in the way? Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shihor? Why go to Assyria to drink water from the River? Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me,’ declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.
‘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. 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? Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.
‘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, 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. Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you say, “It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.”
As a thief is disgraced when he is caught, so the house of Israel is disgraced—they, their kings and their officials, their priests and their prophets. 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!” Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.
Why do you bring charges against me? You have all rebelled against me,’ declares the Lord. ‘In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction. Your sword has devoured your prophets like a ravening lion.’ You of this generation, consider the word of the Lord: ‘Have I been a desert to Israel or a land of great darkness? Why do my people say, “We are free to roam; we will come to you no more”?
Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number. How skilled you are at pursuing love! Even the worst of women can learn from your ways. On your clothes men find the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though they did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all this you say, “I am innocent; he is not angry with me.” But I will pass judgment on you because you say, “I have not sinned.” Why do you go about so much, changing your ways? You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria. You will also leave that place with your hands on your head, for the Lord has rejected those you trust; you will not be helped by them.
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. ‘Look up to the barren heights and see. Is there any place where you have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers, sat like a nomad in the desert.
You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen. Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame. Have you not just called to me: “My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry? Will your wrath continue forever?” This is how you talk, but you do all the evil you can.’ ”
This is the Word of the Lord.
How can the preaching of a prophet who lived about 600 years before Christ have much relevance to us who inhabit the twenty-first century? I suppose the question is all the more acute when we remember Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet. This is not your “glass half full” kind of optimist. He lived in a dark time that grew steadily darker.
The last we see of him, he’s being snaffled off by the final remnants down to Egypt, disappearing in the mist of the Nile River. He lived in dark times. Of course, we all recognize, if we read our Bibles, even these two or three chapters (that’s one of the reasons why I have taken the time), there are little snippets, little phrases, little clauses that really stick in you.
They’re colorful pieces. They’re imaginative. If you have any thing of a Bible teacher or preacher in you, you think, “Man! I’d like to preach on that text!” And yet, as for the book as a whole, how does the preaching of a prophet who lived 600 years ago speak to us today? In fact, to feel Jeremiah’s power and relevance, it is essential to recall something of the circumstances in which he served.
Reread verses 1 to 3. It looks just like a small list of names, doesn’t it? “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, son of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.”
But for the first readers, such information locates the prophet Jeremiah. It’s not just a question of mentioning some names, but the first readers would remember everything that happened in their reigns. They would know the Scriptures concerning them; the setting flashes back to mind. So I want to take a few minutes, right at the beginning, to remind you of who these kings are, and what is going on when Jeremiah is called as a priest-prophet.
Jeremiah began his ministry at a time of extraordinary ferment in the ancient Near East. The mighty Assyrian Empire was collapsing, to be replaced by the Babylonians, who were in conflict with Egypt in a struggle that put the territories of Israel and Judah in no-man’s land between the two. Politically, that’s where Judah was. The nation of Israel.… Don’t forget the whole nation had been divided in two parts after Solomon’s death: the northern nation of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern nation had already gone into captivity to the Assyrians about 721 BC.
Only the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah, was left, with its capital at Jerusalem. Now Jeremiah was born about 640, or thereabouts, BC. So this is something like 80 years after the northern kingdom has disappeared, gone into captivity. In 639 Josiah came to the throne at the tender age of 8. He managed this by the help of some friends who assassinated those who had assassinated his daddy. His daddy was King Amon. He was a wicked man, and he was assassinated. Then some priests and others assassinated the assassins, and Josiah was duly installed on the throne.
He was guided, for the first years of his life, by a priest. Josiah grew to denounce polytheism, to want to reform the nation. Jeremiah grew up during this time. In 631 BC, when King Josiah was only 16, the first reformation took place. It’s quite remarkable. They started overturning the idol centers, the hilltops where there was endless cult prostitution and the like, and insisting on covenantal faithfulness at the temple, and this, even though they had lost significant chunks of the Scriptures. We’ll come to that in due course.
In 626 we find the last great king of Assyria, King Ashurbanipal, dies. Assyria then collapses. There is internal fighting, internal havoc, squabbling. They can’t settle on a decent leader. As a result, other rising regional powers are beginning to get restive. The Medes and the Babylonians to their east, Egypt to the south. King Josiah and Judah think this is a great time to cast off any allegiance to Assyria anymore. That’s what they do.
They refuse to pay tribute anymore because they recognize Assyria is so weak that it is no longer much of a threat. That same year, 626, Jeremiah receives his call. That’s what is described in chapter 1, in 626 BC. For five years, from 626 to 621, Jeremiah calls the people to repentance; he warns against invasion from the north. We’ll see that in chapter 1 in a few moments, that is, from the rising power of Babylon.
But the important thing to see, even this morning, is that although (as I have done) I can describe the whole thing in geopolitical terms, Jeremiah sees it in God-centered terms. In other words, you can look at the rising power of Babylon and see that Assyria is falling and Babylon’s going to become the threat. So is this just a political set of circumstances? Look again. Chapter 1, verse 15:
“ ‘I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the Lord.” The Medes, the Babylonians. “ ‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah.’ ” So far it just looks political. “ ‘I will pronounce my judgments on my people.’ ”
That is, God himself is going to be using the Babylonians to do this. The Babylonians may be pagans themselves, but God is going to use them to chasten his own people. Why? “Because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshipping what their hands have made.” In other words, although Jeremiah is constantly referring to the political realities right through his time, and we know about these political realities from other ancient sources, Jeremiah sees in them the most profound theological analysis of what God is doing.
Then in 621 BC, in a moving account preserved for us in 2 Kings 22 and 23, the scroll of the law is found. Now we’re not quite sure how much that includes. Was it Deuteronomy? The whole Pentateuch? I don’t know, but there was a huge chunk of the Old Testament that was lost, the scroll of the law. This shows how badly religion had sunk. The Bible that was supposed to be read faithfully, and the priestly duties, and the great high feasts of the temple. It had been lost.
In part of the reforming efforts of King Josiah, the rubbish was being cleaned out of the temple, and they were trying to get things going again, just from the standard religious memory. And they discover the scroll of the law and start to read it. Josiah tears his hair out, as it were. He realizes how far the nation has departed, how far he has departed, he the reformer! There is a time, then, of massive reformation.
There is something similar that takes place in the book of Nehemiah after the exile, in Nehemiah 8 through 10, where once again, people start hearing the Word of God for the first time. I’ve seen this in various parts of the world today, places where the Bible is not known, or where it’s been forgotten. Then serious Bible teaching, Bible reading takes place, and people begin to say, “How far we have sunk! How awful is our circumstance in the light of all God has given!”
So from 621 on, King Josiah strengthens reformation in the country. These are good years for Jeremiah. Jeremiah is at the forefront of teaching and preaching the Word of God. Then everything falls apart. In 617, the Medes and the Babylonians start attacking the Assyrian empire. In 614, the capital, Assur, falls. In 610, the great Assyrian city Harran falls. Egypt, now, to the south of little Israel, is nervous.
They’re wondering if the Babylonians take over, they could sweep down here and wipe us out. So they decided they have to confront Babylon and come to Assyrian aid. But Josiah, for his part, he thinks, “Listen, it’s the Assyrians who have been attacking us all this time. There’s no way I want Egypt to go and help the Assyrians. If anything, I’m rather on the Babylonians’ side. I might not like the Babylonians, but they are farther away. I don’t need to worry about them.
It’s the Assyrians who have taken away the northern kingdom; it’s the Assyrians who are threatening us. So why should I want Egypt down in the south to help the Assyrians against the Babylonians?” So he actually goes to Megiddo and confronts pharaoh Necho (he’s the one who is mentioned in the passage that was read), and Josiah, still at a young age, is killed. Everything slides downhill very fast. His son Jehoahaz reigns only three months.
By this time, the Babylonians are so powerful they actually win against Egypt in the battle of Carchemish. Then they sweep down, and they insist the rebellion of Judah cannot stand. As Egypt pulls back, they feel betrayed, and they actually remove Jehoahaz, after he’s reigned for only three months, and bring him down with them as a kind of hostage and impose his older brother Jehoiakim on the throne. All these “-kims” and “-kins” get disturbing after a while. It’s hard to follow them all.
During this time, Jeremiah’s fortunes are at a low ebb, especially after his great temple address in chapter 7. Now it’s worth saying something about that temple address. What Jeremiah says is: “Stop thinking of religion as if it’s magic. You think because we have got the temple, therefore, Jerusalem can’t fall; because we have got the temple, therefore, God will preserve the city. Because God meets here with his glory, this is where the high priest offers the blood of the atonement, this city cannot fall. It’s protected. Don’t think that. This city can fall anyway.”
That is viewed as so outrageous, such a betrayal of their sort of magical view of religion, that Jeremiah falls on very hard times and is almost killed. Judah now is in a buffer state between these two nations. Jehoiakim, for his part, can’t see that the nation that had tasted something of reformation is sliding into immorality, into polytheism, all over again. Almost all of the reforms that had been put in place by his father, Josiah, are all being destroyed.
Then in 605, Necho is finally defeated at Carchemish. That is, Egypt is destroyed. Jehoiakim and others submit to Babylon as a vassal state. Now I don’t need to go through all the rest of this. It gets worse and worse, until finally, Zedekiah is on the throne. He is defeated in 587. Jerusalem is utterly destroyed. The whole picture gets worse and worse. That’s the kind of context in which Jeremiah lives.
He never does see revival. He never does see reformation. Now I’ll pick up bits of the story a little later on, but when it’s all done, Jerusalem has been torn down by the Babylonians. The final king has been removed, his eyes have been plucked out, and he’s transported. A governor, Gedaliah, is put in place. Then the people rebel one more time. They kill Gedaliah, and then they have no place to run, so they run down to Egypt and hide down there, taking Jeremiah with them. He just disappears from the scene.
Now isn’t this going to be an uplifting weekend? It’s remarkable, but there have been times when God has had prophets, leaders, ordinary Christians, who serve in very, very dark hours. How would you like to be a Christian in northern Nigeria today? Martyrdoms take place pretty regularly. Buildings are torn down. There have been at least 8,500 martyrdoms in some of the islands of Indonesia in the last few years.
Some Christians live through hard times like that all of their lives. Well it’s within this context we need to think about this man Jeremiah, and we’ll discover that he speaks to us with an astonishingly powerful voice, not least because he lives in hard times.
1. The call of a reluctant prophet
Jeremiah 1, verses 4 to 19. The call itself is described in verses 4 to 10. Jeremiah’s call is anchored in the mind of God before Jeremiah’s conception. In other words, there is no focus on Jeremiah’s experience, how he came to know this. “Do you remember the time when I called you with that special vision, Jeremiah?” None of that. “The word of the Lord came to me, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ ”
Now the implications of that are not only that Jeremiah has not earned this call, but Jeremiah’s call does not depend on anything Jeremiah has done or will do. It is anchored in God’s own purposes. God has arranged his genes, we would say, his very formation in the womb, all of his experiences, to bring him to this place today. There is such a profound emphasis here on God’s sovereignty in preparing this man for this slot.
“Before you were even born, before you were a twinkle in your daddy’s eye, before any of that, I knew you.” God who inhabits eternity already had in his own mind his relationship with Jeremiah, designating him as the prophet. Jeremiah, for his part, is still only a teenager. That’s remarkable. That’s why he says what he says. “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child. Surely you can get somebody with more advanced training.”
Now of course, there are teenagers who are remarkably immature. On the other hand, God has occasionally raised up remarkable people. Mary, who gives birth when she’s not more than in her mid-teens. Or, in England, Spurgeon hit his stride when he was 18 and was already preaching to thousands when he was 19, prepared by God in remarkable ways. It does happen.
In this particular case, what God says, in effect, to him, is, “I don’t care how old or young you are. I have prepared you.” He speaks in some way, touches his mouth in a vision, such that Jeremiah understands God’s words are in his mouth, and Jeremiah himself has been appointed. Notice the preposition. “Today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Both to destroy and to plant all over again. There is a sense in which God’s word stands over nations and kingdoms, not in some capacity to reign. It is not as if he is made the super-king of the region, but at the end of the day, God’s word will prevail, and that’s Jeremiah’s task.
2. Two visions to strengthen the prophet
The almond tree, in Jeremiah 1, verses 11 and 12, and the boiling pot. The almond tree vision turns on a pun. The almond tree, in Hebrew, is shaqed. That literally means a watching tree because it’s usually the first blossom out in the spring. Then it watches over the rest of the spring that comes. So in a vision, Jeremiah is permitted to see the shaqed. Then God says that he is shaqed. He is watching Jeremiah. In particular, he is watching.… Do you see what is says? He is watching “to see that my word is fulfilled.”
So just as the almond tree presides over spring as it develops and flowers, so God is presiding over Jeremiah’s ministry to guarantee everything Jeremiah says in the name of God actually happens. Jeremiah is not going to turn out to be a false prophet because God is watching over all of this business. Jeremiah may be young. He may be ill-trained, but if it’s God’s word he speaks, God watches over his own word and brings it to pass, infallibly.
Then the boiling pot vision, “tilting away from the north.” That is, this boiling pot of water is tilting south and pouring its contents, boiling contents, toward the south. This is meant to tell us this means the powerful dangers are coming from the north. “ ‘What do you see?’ ‘A boiling pot,’ I answered. The Lord said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.’ ”
You have to remember Israel is squashed between Egypt in the south, the south and west, and to the north, the rising powers of Babylon. This is a way of saying, “You have to understand the dangers of attack, the dangers of strength, the dangers of decimating your little country are not coming from Egypt in the south. They’re coming from the north.” That becomes a theme that reiterates again and again and again through the whole book. At this point, if you were merely looking at it from a political point of view, you couldn’t tell who was going to win.
I mean, the Babylonians.… They turned out to be an immense superpower, but at this point they were still pretty small potatoes. It was not clear to the casual observer which side was going to win. If you don’t listen to the word of God, and you are merely trying to think politically, you discover that a Zedekiah can swing to one side or to the other side and make both sides wrong.
Jehoiakim can be swung from one side to the other side and make both sides wrong because he wasn’t listening to what God said to the prophets. He was merely trying to read the tea leaves of changing politics. But God says, “I am watching over my word, and what I say will happen. It’s going to happen this way. The disaster is coming from the north, and it’s coming, at the end of the day, because of the wickedness of the people.”
3. A charge for the prophet to be prepared
Jeremiah 1, verses 17 to 19: “Get yourself ready. Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.” This, not only for the prophet, but for the preacher today and for all serious Christians in every day. “Fear God and fear no one else.” How often do we keep quiet because we fear what people will think of us? But fear God and fear no one else. Don’t be terrified by them. God is still sovereign.
4. The burden of the prophet’s message
Jeremiah 2:1 to 3:5. In here there are a lot of themes introduced that are unpacked throughout the book.
First, the marriage between Yahweh and Israel is worked out. Then right at the very end, in chapter 3, verses 4 and 5, we discover that things are heading this way for Judea as well. Look at the language, chapter 2:1–3. The marriage between Yahweh and Israel, the northern kingdom, the whole nation, in fact, initially.… There was a kind of honeymoon in the desert.
You are supposed to think back to the time in the desert after God had taken the people out of slavery to Egypt and had given them enough water to drink, even in the desert, and enough food to eat, even in the desert, the manna and the quail. Not only so, but so preserved them that their sandals didn’t wear out. When enemies attacked them, like Moab and so on, he preserved them. It was a honeymoon relationship.
Oh, I know, you can look back, and you can remember the spats between Yahweh and Israel even then, can’t you? Nevertheless, it was a pretty spectacular time with the miracles being done and the people seeing the glory of God as it came down on the tabernacle in the wilderness and only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year on Yom Kippur into the Most Holy Place.
Then the glory would rise, and move off. The people would pack up the tent and migrate to some other place until the glory stopped. They would undo the tent; the glory would come down. God, in such an intimate relationship of leading, guiding, protecting his people all the time, a kind of honeymoon period. But now this is the charge in what follows. We have gone from honeymoon to divorce, adultery in verses 4 to 19.
The language is sometimes purple. “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel. This is what the Lord says: ‘What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.’ ” That is, we tend to become like what we worship. What you value most is what you tend to become like.
Then, as the language is unpacked, a wild donkey, verse 24, accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving.… That is, she is in heat; she wants to have relationships with every donkey that comes along. So the people of Israel want to have a kind of spiritual sex with every god that comes along.
“I love my false gods. I’m not going to give them up. They’re terrific!” So in the name of the pluralism of their own day, in the name of their own independence and freedom, this honeymoon relationship they had with God is now being compromised. You have a kind of spiritual adultery.
If you’re interested in this theme in the Bible, there is a wonderful book by Ray Ortlund called God’s Unfaithful Wife in which he unpacks a number of passages throughout both testaments in which apostasy, turning away from God, is likened to adultery. By contrast, he shows the number of passages in which marriage and faithfulness to God are seen on the same page.
Do you remember Hosea the prophet? In Hosea the prophet, almighty God is portrayed. He portrays himself as an almighty cuckold, a betrayed husband. “How can I give you up? Still I will come after you.” In the New Testament, likewise, Paul says to a church, “I have betrothed you to one husband, to Christ.” In one of the most remarkable passages on marriage, Ephesians, chapter 5, you think Paul is talking about marriage, and then he says, “But, of course, I am really talking about Christ and the church.”
Then you think he is talking about Christ and the church, but of course, this is the way a husband and wife are to be, too. Then you think you understand what he is talking about … he is talking about husband and wife … then he says, “Of course, but I’m really talking about Christ and the church.” He flips back and forth so fast you think, “Whoa. Let me slow down and reread that.” And you discover it says the same thing. It’s almost as if God wants a good marriage to portray the relationship between Christ and the church.
In that sense, marriage is, to use an old word that most of us don’t use in our circles, sacramental. It shows a meaning beyond its own physical reality. Ultimately, the consummation, that is, the end of the age, new heaven and new earth, resurrection body, is portrayed as the marriage supper of the Lamb. That is, the time when there will be such perfect union between Christ and his people that the only adequate parallel that can be found in our small-visioned world is the joy of consummation in marriage. Ramp it up a thousand-fold, Christ with his people forever.
But then, what does divorce look like to us? Do you ever hear of “easy divorces”? Oh, you occasionally read about them, but most of the divorces I’ve had to help people work through, and the like, are awfully painful things, the sense of betrayal and hurt. Now God says, in effect, again and again and again, through these chapters and beyond, the apostasy of the people can only be described as a kind of spiritual adultery.
Secondly, he lays out the specifics of the charge. Verses 14 to 19. Israel has turned from God to rely on regional superpowers. “Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth?” That is, born as a slave to these other powers? “Why then has he become plunder? Lions have roared [these other powers]; they have growled at him. They have laid waste his land. His towns are burned and deserted. Also, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes [of Egypt] have shaved the crown of your heads to show that you’re just a slave.
But haven’t you brought this on yourselves by forsaking the Lord your God? You prefer to be a slave to these other nations than be free under my reign? Now why go to Egypt now to drink water there? Or why go to Assyria? Why are you looking for solutions to your problems that are essentially moral and spiritual, not political? You’re trying to survive by making the right political allegiances, when, in point of fact, what you’re really saying is you don’t trust me.” So Israel is turned from God to rely on superpowers.
Then Israel has turned from God to the Baals. Verses 20 to 28: “Long ago you broke off your yoke …” That is, the yoke of marriage, your covenantal promise. “You tore off your bonds. You said, ‘I will not serve you.’ Indeed, on every high hill …” That’s where these various pagan alters were located, often connected with fertility cults, where the idea was that you worship these fertility gods and goddesses.
Sometimes that involved pagan prostitution. Then the gods and goddesses would be pleased and give you a fat harvest. “… on every spreading hill, on every spreading tree. You lie down as a prostitute.” Sometimes in these fertility cults, you really did sleep with a prostitute, but, in any case, it’s a kind of spiritual prostitution as far as God is concerned. “I planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. Then how did you turn into a wild vine that produces nothing but stinkers?”
That’s exactly the image Isaiah used, of course, a century and a half earlier when you read Isaiah, chapter 5. Isaiah, as it were, breaks out his guitar. “Let me sing you a little song,” he says, “of my lover and his vine.” There Yahweh says, “I planted this wonderful vine, and I fertilized it and put a wall around it. Then how come it only produced rotten fruit?” Same imagery here. “Though you wash yourself with soda …” We would say bleach. “… and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me.”
In fact, the spiritual adultery comes up in this very powerful language, until eventually the idolatry itself is shown to be what it is. “They say to gods made of wood, ‘You are my father,’ to gods made of stone, ‘You give me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces. Yet, when you are in trouble, then you come and say, ‘Come and help us! Save us! Save us!’ Why don’t you use your own gods? Those are the ones you want. Are they powerful enough to bail you out?”
Thirdly, Israel has turned from God’s truth to self-justification. Verses 29 to 37. Not only do they prefer the false gods, but now we read they really deny they are guilty of anything. “It’s been useless for me to punish your people because they don’t respond to correction.” Verse 30. “You of this generation, consider the word of the Lord. Have I been a desert to Israel or a land of great darkness?”
That is, haven’t I only brought you good and blessing and prosperity? “So then, why do my people say, ‘We are free to roam. We will come to you no more?’ ” In other words, they are now justifying themselves. Verse 35: “You say, ‘I am innocent. God isn’t angry with me.” These are just political situations. This has nothing to do with God. “But I will pass judgment on you because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’ ”
Finally, Israel is turned from trusting in God to wretched presumption. Jeremiah 3, verses 1 to 5. Now Israel, instead of trusting in God, actually approaches him and says, “Ahh, well, still, God, you are my Father. You will come to me. You will rescue me. You will help me at the end, won’t you, my Father?” Verse 4. “My friend from my youth, will you always be angry? Will your wrath continue forever? ‘This is how you talk,’ God says, ‘but you do all the evil you can.’ ”
Do you know what we confront in these chapters? I wanted to run through them fast enough for you to get the feel of them. It’s not pleasant, but it’s important to think about it. It’s the nature of idolatry. Idols are not just things made of wood and stone, though clearly some of them were, here, but there is a turning from God. What is the first commandment, the greatest commandment, according to the Lord Jesus? It’s to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength.
Thus the first and greatest sin is not to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength. The first and greatest sin is not rape. It’s not murder. It’s not blasphemy. It’s not Sabbath breaking. It’s not war. The first and greatest sin is the de-Godding of God, the dethroning of God. That’s what Genesis 3 is about. It’s not whether or not you eat this fruit or that fruit. It’s not just the breaking of a rule … although it is the breaking of a rule … it’s something deeper.
In the previous two chapters, God had made something and then said, “And it was good.” Then he made something, and he said, “And it was good.” Then he made something else and said, “It was good.” And when he finished making everything, he said, “And it was all very good,” because it was a way of saying God, and God alone, has the right to declare what is good. He made it. He knows what is good.
But now Adam and Eve are in a position where they’re listening to the voice of the Serpent saying, “Hah, hah, hah, hah. God knows if you eat of this, then you become like God yourself, knowing good and evil.” The expression means determining good and evil. You make your own good. You define your good and evil yourself. You become like God.
There is a new set of films coming. The Golden Compass is the first one out. It’s supposed to be out today. I haven’t seen it yet. The books, of course, are out, but in this retake of the fall, the whole idea is the fall is an emancipating thing. Far from being a terrible thing, the fall actually sends you along the way to freedom, including more sexual freedom. God, for his part, is a bit of a party pooper. He’s always trying to constrain you and narrow you down and make things more difficult for you. Whereas, the real hero is the one who can finally give God a finger, and finally, at the end, kill God.
Of course, all that’s saying is exactly what we do without putting it in quite so many words. It’s the nature of idolatry. What Christians in every generation need to see is the horrific nature of such rebellion. God made us, and we owe him. He knows what is best. We are made in his image, but we are just creatures. The ugliness, the poisonous nature of sin, we scarcely see because we are in the same position as fish in water.
Fish in water don’t say, “I am in water.” This is their environment. We live in the context of so much idolatry, so much self-promotion, so much deposing of God, so much preference for ourselves we scarcely see the ugliness of idolatry in every domain of life. It’s not just things. It’s not just the Baals. It’s wanting to find our wholeness, our completeness, our joy, our fulfillment, our ultimate hope in anything that is not God. Then if God can come along and bless it, that’s okay. If not, he can be safely ignored. That’s idolatry.
It is stupendously horror-filled. From God’s point of view, it feels like adultery, ratcheted up millions of times, betrayed by the people he made in his image. For those of us who have tasted his grace within the covenant, too.… God forgive us, we know we can prefer idols, too. Can’t we? And that feels to God like adultery, in which he is the cuckold, as well. This is why we need a Savior. This, as we’ll see, brings us to why Jeremiah ultimately promises a new covenant, a new covenant in which sins are forgiven, a new covenant sealed with a Savior’s blood.
For the depictions of idolatry and infidelity and prostitution here are sometimes grotesque (not quite as grotesque as Ezekiel 13 and 16; read those quietly on your own), but the same species, looked at from God’s point of view. God wants us to see how indelibly, impossibly horrific idolatry is. Then, as we’ll see, this God promises us a new covenant. We’ll come to that tomorrow night. Let us pray.
Lord God, I wish I had the words of a poet or the unction of a prophet to depict sin in some small measure as you see sin. We have become so hardened by it. Forgive us. We pray, Lord God, in the course of this weekend and beyond, you would open our eyes to see how wretched sin is. But then do not leave us with such a sight.
Make us see even more clearly how glorious is the solution grace alone has provided. How can we walk more deeply with you if we do not see something of the abyss from which you have lifted us? So open our eyes, Lord God, and make us see. For Jesus’ sake, amen.