Preliminary sermon thoughts on Jeremiah 2:1-13

I’ve been working on preliminary sermon study of Jeremiah 2:1-13 today. Here are my study notes.

Jeremiah 2:1-13 Study Notes

Context

In the book of Jeremiah as we have it (which is not necessarily in either chronological or thematic order) this chapter follows on of course from chapter 1. Chapter 1 tells the story of Jeremiah’s call, his sense of fear (“Ah, Lord Yahweh! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” – v.6), and God’s assurance of his presence with Jeremiah. Then follow two pictures: the almond tree [shaqed] (calling to mind God’s watching [shoqed] over his people), and the boiling pot tipping from the north, representing the threat of invasion.

Chapters 2:1 – 4:2, which follow, seem to be a tight literary unit. The thought progresses from Israel’s earliest time of devotion to Yahweh as his new bride in the desert (2:1-3), to Israel’s abandoning Yahweh in favour of other gods – ‘cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (2:4 – 3:5), to the call to repentance and restoration (3:6 – 4:2). Our lectionary passage for this week is 2:4-13, but I am looking at 2:1-13, to give the context. The passage begins, then, by recalling Israel’s ‘honeymoon’ period in the wilderness as Yahweh’s newlywed bride (1-3), and then describes Yahweh’s shock at her unfaithfulness (4-13).

Exegesis

         1The word of Yahweh came to me, saying: 2Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says Yahweh:
I remember the devotion[1] of your youth,
      your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
      in a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to Yahweh,
      the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty;
      disaster came upon them,
            says Yahweh. (NRSV)

Yahweh’s message comes to Jeremiah, but it is intended to be ‘proclaimed’ ‘in the hearing of Jerusalem’ – i.e. it will be preached in a central location, probably the Temple, where people are gathered. We’re not told how the message came to Jeremiah – dream? vision? audible voice? – simply that ‘Yahweh’s word came to me’.

The message begins by recalling the time in the wilderness after Yahweh delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery. Israel is described in two metaphors in these verses. First, she is ‘a bride’, a newlywed bride at that. In other words, this is the honeymoon period, and there were no limits to Israel’s devotion to her divine husband.

‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’ (v.2b).

This of course is not an entirely literal recollection of the wilderness story! As we read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we can see many instances of the people’s grumbling, lack of trust in God, and dissatisfaction with the leadership of Moses. Large scale worship of other gods, however, is largely absent; with the one exception of the golden calf incident – which could possibly be interpreted more as a mistaken attempt to make an image of Yahweh than as a move to abandon him.

All in all, then, Israel was a joyful and faithful bride, happy with her husband and happy to follow him through some rather unpromising country on the journey to the home he had promised her.

The second image is of the ‘firstfruits’:

‘Israel was holy to Yahweh, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says Yahweh’ (v.3).

The ‘first fruits’ were the earliest part of the harvest which was to be offered each year to Yahweh as his portion of the crop; it was his property, and to refuse to give it to him was robbery. Tremper Longman comments:

‘Israel is the firstfruits of the harvest. According to Pentateuchal legislation (Exod. 23:19, Lev. 23:10-14, Num. 18:12-13, Deut. 26:1-11), the firstfruits belonged to God for use by the priests. They are not to be eaten by non-priests, but rather given to God as a gift. After all, God provides all the harvest. Indeed, there was a special offering of the firstfruits when the Israelites entered the land for the first time (Deut. 26:1-11), so this metaphor as well as the marriage relationship may be reminiscent of God’s early relationship with Israel’.[2]

Israel, says Jeremiah, was God’s ‘first fruits’ of all the nations of the earth. She was ‘holy to Yahweh’; to be ‘holy’ is to be given exclusively for the service of another, to belong to that other without reservation. Not everyone knew this about Israel; some nations tried to attack them on the way to the promised land, but they were not successful against the people God had claimed as his own possession: ‘All who devoured her were held guilty’ (v.3 NIV 2011).

Here then is a picture of Israel’s earliest devotion to Yahweh: faithful to him, committed enough to follow him through the dreadful wilderness to the promised land, claimed by him as his own particular people, and protected by him from others who tried to steal them from him and devour them.

But then comes the change:

         4 Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says Yahweh:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
      that they went far from me,
      and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

 

Jeremiah’s ministry took place in the context of the southern kingdom of Judah with its centre at the city of Jerusalem, seat of the Davidic kings and of the Temple of Yahweh. It has been approximately a century since the northern kingdom of Israel, centred on Samaria, was destroyed and its leaders taken into exile by the Assyrians. So it seems strange that this oracle is addressed in terms that recall either the united monarchy of the time of David and Solomon, or the now-extinct northern kingdom: ‘Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel’. Tremper Longman comments:

‘It is unlikely that (Jeremiah) addresses the northern kingdoms in exile or even the remnants that are still in the land. This epithet for the people of God at Jeremiah’s time may be because Judah now stands for Israel, that is, they are all that is left. Another possibility is that the oracle refers to Judah in this way because it will now recall an experience from before the divided monarchy – the exodus and the wilderness wanderings’.[3]

‘Was there something I did wrong?’ So many jilted spouses have said this, or at least thought it! ‘Didn’t I love you enough? Was it something you wanted me to do that I didn’t do? Was it something I said? Tell me, and I’ll make it up to you!’

In this passage Yahweh is boldly taking this imagery of the jilted spouse and using it for himself. This is not the impassive god of the philosophers, the one who is immune to any pain caused by others. This God has taken the risk of binding himself in covenant relationship – in marriage – to a nation of human beings. To act like this is to take the risk of being wronged. Yahweh has been wronged, and he is in deep pain because of it.

What is the wrong? They ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’. Idols of course are in view here. Israel was rescued from the gods of Egypt, but now – irony of ironies – she has abandoned the one who rescued her and returned to the worship of ‘the works of (her) own hands’ (1:16).

Furthermore, it is an inevitable fact of human life that we become like the things we worship. Psalm 115 spells this out:

‘Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them’ (Psalm 115:3-8).

In Psalm 115 it is the insensibility of the idols that is in view; they have all the instruments of the senses, but they can’t use them, because they are not alive. To Jeremiah, it’s the worthlessness of the idols that is in view. Idols are worthless because they can’t actually do anything; they have no life, so they can’t help those who worship them. But this worthlessness is now shared with their worshippers as well; they ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’ (v.5). The Hebrew word is actually the same as the one used it Ecclesiastes 1:2 and variously translated there as ‘vanity’, ‘emptiness’, ‘meaningless’, ‘useless’, ‘pointless’. A more literal translation here might be ‘they pursued emptiness and became empty’, but the NRSV and NIV translations make explicit what is implicit in the text, that the ‘emptiness’ is actually idolatry.

6 They did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh
      who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
      in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
      in a land that no one passes through,
      where no one lives?’
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
      to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
      and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh?’
      Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
      the prophets prophesied by Baal,
      and went after things that do not profit.

 

The people ought to have responded to God’s invitation to seek him. Does verse 6 presume a situation where the people feel abandoned for one reason or another? If that was the case, they ought to have asked ‘Where is Yahweh, who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ Jeremiah assumes that Gods absence was a result of the people’s idolatry. Tremper Longman comments:

‘They (Israel) did not even know that God was gone. The form of the question indicates that they should have missed him, considering how gracious he had been to them in the past’.[4]

In the past God had done wonderful things for them, leading them through all the hardships and terrors of the wilderness. He brought them through those desert wanderings ‘into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination’ (v.7). Of course, before Israel arrived the land had been full of idolatry, and it is the belief of the Old Testament writers that one of the reasons for the conquest of Canaan was God’s judgement against the idolatry and wickedness of the Canaanites. How ironic, then, that God’s own people have themselves now turned to this same idolatry, defiling the land again. The leaders (the Hebrew actually says ‘shepherds’), who ought to have known better, are the worst offenders: the priests and scribes don’t known Yahweh and so cannot teach his law, the rulers sin against him, and the prophets prophesy in the name of the Canaanite god Baal. Longman explains, ‘Baal is named for the first time in the book. Baal is a Hebrew/Canaanite word that simply means ‘lord’ or ‘master’. Baal, along with El, was the focus of worship of the Canaanites who were in the land when the Israelites first entered it’.[5]

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
                  says Yahweh,
      and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
      send to Kedar and examine with care;
      see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
      even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
      for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
      be shocked, be utterly desolate,
                        says Yahweh

 

This whole section is phrased as a lawsuit; Jeremiah is a covenant lawyer, arguing the case in the name of Yahweh, whose people have broken their sacred agreement with him. This language comes clearly in verse 9, where the NIV 2011 says, ‘Therefore I bring charges against you, declares Yahweh’.

The charges make use of two vivid images. In the first, Yahweh invites Israel to look around and see the faithfulness of the other nations to their idols. Go as far as you like! Go across the sea to Cyprus, or east to Kedar (in northern Arabia), and you will not find such a thing. These idols are not really gods at all; they are false and worthless, and yet their people are stubbornly loyal to them! Israel, on the other hand, is the people of the real God who made heaven and earth, the glorious God, the Lord of all. And yet Israel has not been loyal to him; they have ‘changed their glory for something that does not profit’.

Yahweh calls on the heavenly assembly to witness all this folly: ‘be appalled, O heavens, at this’. A similar appeal to the heavens as witness can be found in Isaiah 1:2: ‘Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me’.

 

13 for my people have committed two evils:
      they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
      and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
      that can hold no water.

 

Here is the second image. The one true God is ‘a fountain of living water’. ‘Living water’, in the Old Testament, means ‘moving water’ – a spring, a stream, a river, that sort of thing. But the idols are like cracked cisterns; you put water in them, but it runs out through the cracks. You’re parched with thirst and you go to drink from them, but there’s nothing there. What a vivid image for the futility of idolatry!

Application

Many Christians can remember a time when they were on a honeymoon with God. Those who have had a crisis conversion – or even a slow, gradual movement – can often look back on their ‘greenhouse days’, when their love for God was passionate and there was no limit to what they would do for him!

I can certainly remember that. I became a committed Christian at the age of thirteen in the context of the charismatic renewal. I can remember the passion of those early days: I read the Bible constantly, prayed, went to home groups for prayer, study, and fellowship, and did my best to talk about my faith to others. There was a lot of naivety, of course, and no doubt a lack of wisdom, too, but all in all those were days of passionate devotion to Christ.

Sooner or later things start to cool down. This is natural, of course; eventually God brings us out of the greenhouse and into the cold world. Maybe God’s presence isn’t so real to us any more, and we find ourselves asking ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ (v.6a).

Or maybe we don’t. Maybe instead we start to compromise. The idols that were of no interest to us in the early days gradually start to look good again. Everyone around us is getting more wealthy, going on expensive vacations, driving expensive cars. Some of our friends are putting huge amounts of energy and passion into business success. Some are channeling their passion into a fierce love for ‘their country, right or wrong’. These idolatries and many others like them are completely acceptable in our society. And we’re tempted. And maybe we give in to the temptation.

Jeremiah calls us to remember. Don’t you remember how God worked in your life? How much you loved him? How vivid the sense of his presence was? How enthusiastic you were about serving him? Was that only good for as long as he kept you in the hothouse? What sort of love is it that only loves when the going is easy?

And Jeremiah also calls us to consider our present experience. How’s it going, this new idolatry? Those false gods, are they delivering for you? Have you got enough money yet? Are you successful enough that you can let go of the need to succeed? How are your perfect spouse and children dealing with your need for them to be perfect?

Perfectly good things are destroyed – cracked – by the need to be gods for us. The biblical call is to turn away from these false gods and come back to the one true God. This is what happened to Paul’s converts in Thessalonica:

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

The Thessalonians’ conversion experience was a turning from false gods to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus. But of course, idols don’t go away; they continue to tempt us throughout our Christian life. This is why Christians as well as non-Christians need to continue to hear the gospel message. As we experience the failure of our false gods, we need to hear again the voice of Jesus calling us back to the one true God, the fountain of living water, who even leads us in safety through the barren desert on the way to the promised land of the kingdom of God.

[1] The Hebrew is hesed, often translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘lovingkindness’ in the psalms.

[2] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 2012, p.27.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.29.

[4] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.30.

[5] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p30.

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