I’ve been mulling over whether to write something on the rest of Jeremiah 2 as I’ve read it and on into chapter 3. It isn’t a very easy read, but I think it is important. We pick up at verse 20 with some vivid imagery:
“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.
Here three different metaphors are intermingled: sin as adultery, Judah as Yahweh’s choice vine, and sin as defilement. The imagery becomes more graphic as the chapter continues:
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.’
Once more (v23) Judah is asked to “see” and “know” (or “consider” in the translation above). She needs to see and know what her sin actually is. It seems that Judah thinks it has not been disloyal to Yahweh – but Jeremiah’s contention is that the people have been disloyal to Yahweh, in the same way as someone who cheats on their spouse has been disloyal to them.
Judah’s behaviour, according to Jeremiah, has been brazen. And yet they don’t seem to realise their state. The charges go on:
“As a thief is disgraced when he is caught,
so the people of Israel are disgraced—
they, their kings and their officials,
their priests and their prophets.
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.
29 “Why do you bring charges against me?
You have all rebelled against me,”
declares the Lord.
30 “In vain I punished your people;
they did not respond to correction.
Your sword has devoured your prophets
like a ravenous lion.
Judah has made gods to save themselves: in fact they have as many gods as they do towns. And yet they do not seem to realise this.
31 “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’?
32 Does a young woman forget her jewelry,
a bride her wedding ornaments?
Yet my people have forgotten me,
days without number.
33 How skilled you are at pursuing love!
Even the worst of women can learn from your ways.
34 On your clothes is found
the lifeblood of the innocent poor,
though you did not catch them breaking in.
Yet in spite of all this
35 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.’
36 Why do you go about so much,
changing your ways?
You will be disappointed by Egypt
as you were by Assyria.
37 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.
Judah needs to consider her state – she has forgotten Yahweh – she is a like a bride who can forget what her wedding dress looks like. She has sinned by oppressing the poor, and yet she is convinced she enjoys Yahweh’s favour and that Yahweh will not judge, because they have not sinned. They think Egypt can save them politically – but Egypt will perish just as Assyria had by this point. There is no help for Judah from the nations around, and there is no help for her by adopting their ways.
The section ends with chapter 3’s graphic description of Judah’s sin as spiritual adultery, culminating in these lines:
you refuse to blush with shame.
4 Have you not just called to me:
‘My Father, my friend from my youth,
5 will you always be angry?
Will your wrath continue forever?’
This is how you talk,
but you do all the evil you can.”
Judah could speak very well of their relationship with Yahweh. They called God ‘Father’. They spoke of friendship. They mourned God’s anger. And yet they ‘did all the evil you can’.
Judah was self deceived. They may have got rid of the worst excesses of Baal worship, but in their hearts they still followed other gods. They still wanted to do evil.
This warns us that it is possible to sound and look very spiritual and yet be very far from God – and I think the chapter gives us two ways that can happen very easily, that we can discern by asking two key questions. The first is:
Who or what do I trust in to save me – who, or what do I trust in to make my life work out the way I want it to?
I get this question from the way Jeremiah describes Judah looking to the works of their own hands to save them, and to Egypt for political deliverance. We may become like Judah when we say we trust God to save us, but in fact become more concerned with building a comfortable life now, and using God to make that life work out. Judah had as many gods as towns not necessarily because of physical idols, but because she was seeking Yahweh as a means for her desired ends.
It may even be that Judah thought that seeking Yahweh was a way of avoiding Babylonian conquest – but Jeremiah will make very clear that by this point exile is something that has to happen. We might think we need to seek Yahweh so that something can happen in our lives, perhaps so that we can avoid something awful happening – but it may yet that the awful event we dread is somehow part of God’s strange work in our lives that we must, for reasons we cannot comprehend, endure here and now.
We need to be ready to trust God even when we can’t see what he is doing, and not scheme to manipulate him.
The second test is: do I have the blood of the poor on my hands? Is my comfort and security built on the insecurity and frailty of others? This is another searching question – especially for us in comfortable western homes. True religion, James reminds us, consists in care for the widows and orphans. We must be part of caring for and helping the poor – and, in so far as we can, making sure that our own comfort and security is not built on others poverty.
We may not think we worship idols, but if God is a means to an end, and we don’t care about the poor then we are in fact worshipping idols because we have recreated God in our own image.
The call is to see – to look at our own lives honestly, so that we can begin to change – and to consider – to know – to know what reality looks like, to know what God is really like, and what he demands. The starting point to that call to look and consider is simple.
As the old children’s chorus puts it: “There’s a way back to God, from the dark paths of sin… a door that is open, and you may go in, at calvary’s cross is where you begin…” The call to look and consider is the call to recognise the reality of idolatry in our lives and to bring it back to the cross, back to Jesus and to start again.
We can do that if we are willing to recognise we have got it wrong – we can’t do it if we want to sound spiritual and together. So look. Consider. See. Know. Weep, mourn and wail – and turn back to God, because he will turn back to us.