1. Worthless idols
Jeremiah has been commissioned, he has been told that God will be watching and strengthening him for the difficult days ahead. Now, the work begins: ‘The word of the Lord came to me: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem.’ It is notable that in this chapter of 37 verses we have repeated about ten times that Jeremiah’s message was the word of the Lord. These are God’s words! We become somewhat immune to the idea that these lengthy chapters of poetry-style communication come from the very God who spoke the universe and all that is in it into being. I remember once speaking with a very smart and well-informed Christian whom I greatly respected. We were talking about the book of Genesis and he said that he considered the first 11 chapters to ‘be almost legend.’ I took that to mean that he reserved the right to interpret that particular part of the bible with a somewhat ‘free’ approach. Likewise many well-meaning believers take the view that the words of the prophets should be re-interpreted according to a scheme of their devising – we must not. The words and messages conveyed by Jeremiah are not subject to a scheme of interpretation, they were intended to convey a clear message to a disobedient people – they are God’s words.
God uses two pictures to describe his relationship with Israel during the time they spent in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. It was at that time that the nation was established on the promises made to Abraham and the further promise of the law made to Moses. God describes the nation at that time thus: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness.’ We are studying the book of Exodus in our mid-week bible study and I have to say that God’s recollection seems much better than the reality! The people seemed to have spent a significant proportion of their time moaning and grumbling! What we can certainly say is that just as a bride says ‘I do’ at the wedding alter, in the same way Israel said ‘I do’ to God. For sure, there were difficult days, but the nation stayed the course and did, in the end, enter into the Promised Land – in that sense they did love the Lord and follow him through the wilderness. The second picture God uses, is as a ‘first fruit of his harvest.’ In our town, fruit (and vegetables and cereals) are obtained from Sainsbury, Waitrose, or Aldi; the idea of a first fruit is somewhat foreign! One can imagine however, that in Jeremiah’s day, after a long winter when stocks from the previous year are low and what remains lacks freshness, that the arrival of the first crop would be a most welcome event . Perhaps the nearest we come to experience this, is the time when new potatoes arrive in the shops – they are just so much better than those that have been stored over the winter months! Israel was the first fruit of God’s harvest! We do not hear much said on the subject of the nations in the bible, but this verse hints that nations do figure in God’s plans. You will remember that God himself created nations at the tower of Babel and if you search the book of Revelation for the word ‘nation’ you will see that the nations are deceived and set themselves up in opposition to God. God said in his promise to Abraham (see Jeremiah introduction part 1) that all nations would be blessed through Abraham and although they are and will be under deception, there will be a time when that deception is removed. Ultimately with reference to the glory of God in the New Jerusalem we read in Revelation, ‘The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.’ (Revelation 21). There will be a harvest of nations, but Israel is the first fruit of that harvest. During the time when Israel was obedient, disaster came on any who opposed them, but all this is about to change!
From verses 5 to 19, the Lord describes the dreadful descent of Israel into idolatry and disobedience. In spite of God’s faithfulness in miraculously bringing the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, they ‘defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable,’ (verse 7).
The failure was a national one involving the people and their leaders. God points out that he had been completely forgotten by the leaders: the priests didn’t ask (where the Lord was), the scribes didn’t know, the leaders didn’t care and the prophets didn’t warn (v 8) – it was a systematic failure. We might say now that there was ‘institutional godlessness.’ Sounds familiar! My wife and I recently took a tour of the palace of Westminster – it’s a remarkable place and if you ever plan to be in London you have to take this tour, it’s not to be missed. I was struck by the stories of the political struggles between the monarch and those representing the people in parliament. Underlying all of this fascinating history, there is built into our system, a recognition that the monarch is the final authority under God – there is a distinctly Christian flavour to our governmental system. In fact, there is a prayer read out every day in the House of Commons: ‘Lord the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to members of parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests, and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen.’ Sadly, if one listens to the debates conducted in both houses of Parliament, it seems institutional godlessness has become the pattern in our national life, just as it had in Judea in Jeremiah’s day.
Judea was not just suffering from institutional godlessness – the nation had installed a false religious system. God asks in verse 11, ‘Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my
people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.’ An exchange had taken place that was unknown in Jeremiah’s day. This exchange involved two specific faults: first, the people had forsaken the Lord – the living water, and second they had sought an alternative inadequate source of water in a cistern they had dug themselves, a cistern that leaked! How readily we do the same! There is living water that leads to eternal life. The woman at the well who met Jesus had lived a bit and for sure had dug her own leaky cisterns but she met the one who offered living water. It seems almost worse having received the living water to go out and dig a cistern than cannot hold water!
Such disobedience had consequences for Judea – they had been born free but because of their disobedience, they had become slaves: ‘19Your 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.’ The message given to Jeremiah was that judgment was on its way. The judgment would be entirely consistent with the promise God made with his people as they moved from the wilderness into the Promised Land.
2. Attraction to other Gods
The Lord now uses three animal pictures to describe Judah’s love of foreign gods. It seems in our day that an attraction to man-made idols is a very odd thing indeed. I may be wrong but I fear that even in the ‘enlightened’ age in which we live, such things seem much more likely today than they did even a few years ago. We are presented in the TV with the idea that pagan religious practices are neither right nor wrong but rather are a reflection of ‘culture’ and so ought to be preserved and fostered – no longer are such practices considered to be primitive and ignorant – they are celebrated and dare I say it idolised.
God’s first animal picture was of an Ox throwing off its yoke. Verse 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.’ The picture of an ox with a yoke in a farming setting would be familiar to the Judeans. The picture of useful work and order had been disrupted deliberately and willfully by the nation – and for what? – to take the role of a prostitute – the high hill and spreading tree are references to the places where alters were set up for idol worship. The second animal picture is of a camel running here and there – without purpose or guidance. We tend to think of camels plodding along at human walking pace, but in short bursts they can run at a about 40 miles per hour. Imagine a half ton spitting camel running at that speed! The Judeans were like that, running around without purpose or direction, out of control. They had lost all sense of purpose and direction. The third picture is of a wild female donkey in heat, it’s a vulgar and unpleasant picture: the nation is pictured thus, ‘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.’ It seems that the people had become addicted to the worship of foreign gods – ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.’ It seems these days that everyone is addicted to something: food, computer games, exercise, gambling and sex. Such ‘addiction’ is considered a medical problem in our society – no one is to blame, it is a condition built into our DNA and is involuntary. Many of these addictions start by making choices. Repeated choice to do the wrong thing leads to habits and habits can turn into addictions – so it was with the Judeans and the worship of idols. God calls out the idol worship for what it is with some striking pictures – in this way he warns the people. These days our society has rejected the idea of right and wrong, everything is OK in moderation – we must not allow this thinking to seep into our minds. Are we addicted to things that pull us away from what is good?
Finally in this section, the Lord points out the stupidity of idol worship – ‘They say to wood, “You are my father,” and to stone, “You gave me birth.” (verse 27). How backward and primitive you may say! But isn’t this just what our schools, colleges and universities teach our young people? Those who believe there is no creator or intelligence, worship the complexities and beauty of nature itself. This is stupidity of the highest order! And such wrong thinking leads to absurdities. I heard an MP this week on the daily politics show saying that children in school should be encouraged to choose which gender they prefer! Our most celebrated scientists with a straight face spend billions of taxpayers’ money looking for extra-terrestrials!
3. Guilty, me?
The Judeans should have known better, but when their sin was pointed out, they claimed innocence. ‘Why do you bring these charges against me’ (verse 29) they complained. However, God does make his charge against the people- ‘Does a young woman forget her jewellery, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number.’ The tragic thing is that God had already disciplined the people, he had already warned them, but they had not listened. The attitude of the people was that they did not recognise any wrong-doing. Nevertheless, the evidence was clear – they had failed to respond to God’s discipline. We sometimes watch ‘Silent Witness’ on TV – the story lines have become a bit daft recently, but the basic idea is that crimes leave evidence and that evidence speaks even when the perpetrators claim innocence. In the same way, in spite of the Judean’s claims of innocence the forensic evidence speaks – ‘On your clothes is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor.’ Sadly, the elite of the nation were not averse to killing innocent people for personal gain – King Ahab and his wife Jezebel took a man’s life to steal his vineyard. Failure to obey the Lord had led to injustice and shedding of innocent blood.
In their mess, rather than looking to God, the people looked to other nations around them, they saw security in the Assyrians and then the Egyptians – (verse 36 and 37) – but trust in these nations would lead to disappointed and disaster.
What a difficult message Jeremiah had to bring! And there is more to come next time! It is easy for us to tut, tut and feel all rather superior: these things would never happen in our church! However, the message of the Lord through Jeremiah is a reminder to us that we must guard against an unconscious drift into the world’s faulty thinking and careless attitude to eternal things.