Devastation, Preservation, and Renewal

Jeremiah 2-6

In drawing relevance from Israel’s decline and God’s call to repentance and real threat of judgment, we must be careful not to make parallel Israel and America, or any country, population center, or people group in particular. We must not say, “This promise of judgment should be a warning to America, that if we don’t return to God etc.” America as a nation has never been the people of God to be dealt with in the way that God dealt with the covenant children of Abraham. In one sense, there is no parallel to Israel as it existed in this condition of apostasy. The church is parallel only to the remnant within Israel that was truly faithful and who were circumcised of heart. Their election of God as a nation was to the particular purpose of being a vehicle for the reception and preservation of divine revelation, the oracles of God. From them would come the Messiah, identified clearly through a stream of prophecy more and more finely tuned so that no argument against the identification of Jesus as that Messiah could be sustained with certitude. The evidence was such that Paul could argue convincingly in the synagogues of the first century that Jesus was the Christ. Israel had within it the offices of prophet, priest and king that would be combined in perfection in Jesus, the Christ, and it provided the matrix of genealogy through which, in the fullness of time, Christ would be born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law. Israel does serve to show the perversity of the sinful human heart and how in its unrenewed state it rebels against the clearest and most vigorously revealed truths of God. If we can despise such privileges, what must our sin be; “If the light within us be darkness, how great is that darkness.” If a parallel is to be drawn, one might point to Saul of Tarsus as the embodiment of such privilege and such blindness [Galatians 1:13, 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-16; Philippians 3:4-8]. If God finds a way to be merciful to this kind of sinfulness, then all people everywhere have hope.

I. Jeremiah must speak the word of the Lord in which a relentless chronicle of privileges abandoned by Israel is recited.

He moves from the rescue from its slavery in Egypt to it captivity by Babylon (chapter 2). God now executes his prerogative over Jeremiah, assuming both Jeremiah’s fears and assurances, “Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem” (2:2). When God commissions his spokesmen, he does not assure them that the message will be embraced, admired, and received with gratitude, but that its substance certainly will come to pass without returning void. In Isaiah 58:1, God says to Isaiah, “Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.” Similar calls for proclamation are in Jeremiah 7:2 and 11:6. Jeremiah must point out the apostasy of Israel showing that they abandoned their original sense of gratitude and love and did not seek their Redeemer (1-8).

A. God’s powerful display of deliverance based on his sovereign choice of Israel brought an early sense of gratitude, privilege, and dependence.

1. The first nine plagues affected the Egyptians but left the land of Goshen and its enslaved inhabitants, the descendants of Jacob, unharmed.

2. The tenth plague took into death the first born of every Egyptian household and filled it with mourning, “a great cry in Egypt.;” but the Israelites were shielded from divine wrath by the blood of a sacrificial lamb. When they left their land of enslavement the Egyptians, by God’s secret arrangements of providence, gave massive amounts of wealth to the Israelites (Exodus 12:35, 36). 

3. As they crossed Red Sea, their pursuers, stronger and prepared with death-inflicting instruments of war, were drowned in the same sea through which they had passed on dry ground (Exodus 14). “The Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.”

4. After this great miracle of protection Israel and Moses sang, “The Lord is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation; He is my God and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:2). 

5. Miriam led the women of Israel in joyful celebration with the words, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20, 21).

6. God noted the “devotion of their youth” and other demonstrations of their sense of privilege at the gracious intervention of God for them (2:2). Even so, though the best of our work and devotion is filled with imperfection and sin, God still notes the earnest efforts of his people to walk with him and to please him: “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward his name, in that you have ministered to the saints” (Hebrews 6:10).

7. God protected them for they were his chosen people, set apart to him for his purpose of redemption (2:3). Those that sought to harm them, God punished and sometimes completely annihilated.

B. They forgot their early sense of gratitude, privilege and dependence, and their amazement at how God destroyed those that sought to destroy them.

“The Lord brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts” (Exodus 12:51). And later, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). What could have prompted them to seek another protector? How could they be blind to the divine hand that protected and led them? (4-7).

1. Even with this early flourish of amazed joy at the intervention of God in their dismal existence, they found reason for complaint. “Thus Israel saw the great work which the Lord had done in Egypt; so the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). “And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:24). “The whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. … “O that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 16:2, 3).

2. God asked through Jeremiah for Israel to enumerate the faults that they found in his work toward them. Was he unjust with them? Did that cause them to exchange his fulness of revelation, powerful action, gracious intervention, and abundant provision to pursue emptiness? Did they think that gods of wood, gold, or stone, gods that had no eyes to see, ears to hear, or mouths to speak could give them more abundance of life and truth?

3. Had their reason not been blinded by sin and ingratitude they would have asked probing questions to remind them of the constant stream of fullness given to them by his hand. Instead, “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, etc?” (6). Sometimes a series of question about God’s interventions or obvious mercy and his promises of constant provision—“I will never leave you not forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, 6 citing Deuteronomy 31:6 and Psalm 27:1)—will revive our knowledge of and gratitude for his unmerited favor toward us. Had they considered God’s sustaining power and obvious mercy that kept the nation as a great people even while he brought to judgment an entire generation, they would not have pursued other gods.

4. Now God affirms what he did for them in giving them identity and prosperity as a nation. “I brought you into the fruitful land to eat its fruits and its good things” (7a). The land had been settled, houses had been built, vineyards had been planted and fruit trees abounded. Flocks and herds were present for their possession as they removed the Canaanites whose iniquity had become full (Deuteronomy 6:10, 11; 8:6-10). Should this abundance have sealed in their corporate and generational memory that their God was indeed the One True God? Yes (Deuteronomy 7:6-11). Had they followed God’s urgent command as described in Deuteronomy 6, “Beware lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of bondage,” this judgment delivered by Jeremiah would have been an extension of blessing.

5. In demonstration of the hardness of heart against which God warned, instead of responding with fitting obedience and continuing gratitude, they defiled the land and made his inheritance—the nation itself—an abomination. They worshiped and consulted the gods that they were supposed to destroy utterly: “You shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images, and burn their carved images with fire. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7: 5, 6). Now, however, they have demonstrated what Moses warned, “You are a stiff-necked people. …  You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you” (Deuteronomy 9:6, 24).

C. Priest and Scribes, Rulers and Prophets all lead them astray (8).

1. The priests who should have led in pure and obedient worship did not even inquire about how the Lord was to be served. They did not bother to ask, “Where is the Lord?” but merely began to follow the worship style and abominable rituals of the pagans around them. Christian should beware that they do not fall into the secular religion that dominates the culture around them. Their attempts to offer sacrifice as revealed by God failed miserable (Malachi 1:6-8, 12-14).

2. The Scribes, who should have known the law through their task of copying the words revealed have this amazing judgment set against them, “Those who handle the law did not know me.” If we pay no attention with reverence and gratitude for the revelation that God has given, we will heap upon ourselves judgment.

3. Kings failed to rule with reverence and true justice. They led the people away from the instituted worship and began to develop alliances with pagan nations, relying on them for strength and protection instead of the God who brought them out of Egypt (See 2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:35-37). 

4. False prophets arose and delivered false messages. Peter saw this as a pattern among the people of Israel as well as its presence in the church (2 Peter 2:1); Moses warned against it and gave a test by which the deceit could be detected (Deuteronomy 13:1-3) Jeremiah lived in the midst of pretend-prophets who spewed their own dreams as an oracle of God (Jeremiah 23:13, 14, 25). “They walk in lies and strengthen the hands of evildoers. … I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in my name, saying, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’”

II. They have devoted themselves to gods that have not sought them and cannot help them (9-13).

A. God promises, even though every part of society has forsaken him, to contend with them.

These are words of grace and indicate God’s pursuit of his people. They are his; they have been elected to serve his purposes. He will not permit the nation to become like the other nations who have false gods. His pursuit will go on for generations to come—“And with your sons I will contend” (9b). The Messiah will come through this nation and the remnant will have truth-grounded expectations (Luke 1:5, 6, 46-55, 68-79).  Both word and providence will be his instruments of contention (Jeremiah 25:1-11). Through the prophets that are true, God will contend; through nations that are aggressive, God will contend.

B. God points out how unnatural it is for a nation to change gods (10, 11). 

1. The sense of dependence and transcendence cannot be effaced from human consciousness. Paul encountered this in Athens in the multiplicity of deities and the apparent willingness to add a new deity to the existing pantheon (Acts 17:16-21). He reasoned theologically by divine revelation about this universal phenomenon (Romans 1:19-23). Having admitted a god into their consciousness and their public manifestations of acknowledgement, they would not dismiss or change the sphere of power of that deity, but they were quite willing to add others to make sure that all the possible intrusions of danger were covered by a deity. 

2. Their sense of pervasive protection, their pursuit of pleasure, their quest for power, and their consent to providence were all under the auspices of some deity. They would not remove a deity from a peculiar facet of how life was to be engaged lest they invite vulnerability to tragedy. So careful they were to maintain a pervasive loyalty to invented deities that they dare not venture forth without acknowledging their dependence (Acts 28:11 – “The Alexandrian sailors placed the figurehead of both Castor and Pollux on their ship, so that they might be favorable to them.” Calvin).

3. Their tenacity concerning their deities is all the more remarkable since they were not deities and thus had no power, no sphere of influence, no prerogative to call for worship at any level. “Has a nation changed gods when they were not gods?” (11 a).

4. That which is opposed to all reason, however, and unheard of among worshipers of false gods, has happened among those to whom the true God—the maker of heaven and earth, the Holy One, the Sustainer of all time and material, the Judge of every rational being—has revealed himself. He is their “glory,” the one of true worth and infinite substance, and they have exchanged him for a thing of no worth, a non-entity (11b). So irrational is this seduction of paganism—the preference for gods of human imagination—that God himself exclaims, “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, and shudder, be very desolate.” (12).

5. Through Jeremiah, the Lord points to two egregious evils involved in this remarkable irrationality and impiety (13).

      • One, they have forsaken the “Fountains of living waters.” This should remind us that Jesus lays claim to be this very one that provides such water—John 4:10, 14. In John 7:38 Jesus promised a constant stream of living water for those that believe on him, that is the indwelling presence and operation of the Holy Spirit. The triune God is the inexhaustible source of life and all that sustains it now and its perfect satisfaction in the world of eternal life.
      • Two, the desperateness of sin is seen in how utterly irrational we become in our preference of our own way to that of God. Given a fountain of living water, we prefer to dig cisterns that can hold no water. We worship and serve a non-entity. We adopt a humanly constructed philosophy, a specific way of pursuing pleasure as the purpose of life, an ethic that avoids both absolutes and the reality of final judgment. In so doing we deny the necessity of redemption and shut it out of consideration.

III. They have lost their fear of Jehovah (19), meaning that their hearts do not regard Him with reverence, gratitude, and love, and sought the gods of their enemies (14-19).

In forsaking God, they have become slaves to others. Note the reference again to water now sought from the Nile or the Euphrates rather than from the unending and pure fountain of Jehovah.

A. Their gods are as numerous as the objects of nature [trees and stones] and each city has its own brand of abomination:  their spiritual whoredom comes from their desire for physical whoredom; in accordance with the religion of the Baals, they have given themselves to the immediate impulses of lust like camels or donkeys.

Though made in God’s image, they imitate beasts that are amoral and non-rational, wholly driven by instinct (20-28). This demonstrates the utter perversity and corruption of sin in that it reverses that unfallen naturalness of our original status to be characterized by suitableness, a sense of divine provision, beauty and excellence, commitment, and no cause for shame (Genesis 2:18-25). 

B. They refuse to be corrected (30) and their immorality pushes them to brutal injustice; They refuse to see their susceptibility to judgment (35-37).

IV. Call to and contemplation of repentance 3:1 – 4:4

A. Perverse loyalties with pious words (3:1-5) – They still manifest “God-talk” with no regard for the commandments of God. How much pious palaver in our lives and among the people of our generation masks a disregard for God’s holiness and seeks to put a fair appearance on our love for the world and all that is in it. Cf. 1 John 2:15-17.

B. The example of Israel did not deter Judah (6-10). That idolatry, ungodly alliances, and immorality had brought judgment on Israel did not serve as an effectual warning to Judah to repent and return to God. Instead, they imitated and surpassed the worst features of Israel’s rebellion. Can they expect a judgment less severe? 

C. Call to Israel for repentance, showing the continuing patience of Jehovah (11-14) – He tells Jeremiah to call toward Israel with a word of acceptance upon repentance and with a word of grace toward a small remnant (14b). 

D. A promise of a future of true worship when ceremonial worship has passed (15-18; cf. 2 Chron 30:17-20) – This is an anticipation of the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31. The gathered people will include the remnant of Israel and Judah and those that God gathers from all nations. 

E. God delights in restoring on the basis of heartfelt repentance (3:19-4:4). 

1. God issues a call to repentance 3;19-22a – God reminds them of the perversity of their rebellion and that it will lead to distress of soul. The Lord calls to repentance. 

2. What is the content of true repentance? (3:22b-25) – Note that the passage focuses on the deep sense of shame and blame that fills the heart of one that discovers the ugly depths of sin. That which give repentance its most profound outflow of grief is the realization that, “Truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel.”

3. God now gives a clear summary of genuine repentance as well as the consequences of its failure (4:1-4). Note that these same aspects of repentance are recounted in 5:20-25 in the context of Judah’s refusal to engage in it. Repentance involves removing those things that are sinful offenses against a Holy God, a recognition of his intrinsic purity, truth, and loveliness, all flowing from a moral change that cannot be reversed, the circumcision of the heart – “Remove the foreskins of your heart” (4). Notice that 5:23 points to that perverse heart as the problem against anticipating the necessity of God’s sovereign action in the new covenant.

V. The Certainty of Judgment (4:5-31).

A. Jeremiah expresses incredulity and a sense of despair at God’s proclamation of his fierce anger (5-10) – at this time he seems to have thought that the false prophets—their message being “You will have peace”—had been speaking truthfully (10). 

B. Jeremiah described the thoroughness of the devastation (4:11-18;23-31). “The whole land shall be a desolation” but also, as later a word of preservation, “Yet I will not execute a complete destruction (27).

VI. Thoroughness of Judah’s corruption (5:1-31)

A. No just person [1-3] – God challenges Jeremiah to look throughout Jerusalem to find one just person.

God looks upon the existence of such a person as warrant to pardon the city. God engaged Abraham about Sodom with the same general principle (Genesis 18:25-33). Religious language will not qualify for their use of the name of the Lord is false and multiplies their sin for it is an infraction of the third commandment. God’s chastening has merely made them harder in heart, self-reliant, and averse to repentance. 

B. Jeremiah says it is only the ignorant (5:4-5a) –

Jeremiah seemed to think that conditions of poverty and ignorance made people insensitive to the realities of divine revelation, holiness, justice, and mercy. In 5b, he found that even the rich, great and privileged were just as hard and insensitive to God as the poor and ignorant. 

C. God pursues, therefore, his determination to punish and demonstrates the saturation of rebellion.  Images of punishment include a lion, a wolf, a leopard, and an ancient nation that has refined its cruelty to an art (15-17). 

D. Sin is rampant and displayed in massive variety –

The people are greedy, idolatrous, adulterous, unjust, and oppressive to the weak and the fatherless. Their hearts are hard, and they do not thank God even for common mercies (24). Prophets prophesy falsely and priests follow their own devised patterns of ministration. 

E.  The people don’t believe they are susceptible – (5:12) “We will not see sword or famine. 

F. There is hope for the chosen remnant – (10a, 18)

Even with their desert of absolute destruction God still says to the destroyer, “Do not execute a complete destruction” or “Make not a full end.” Not only does he instruct the destroyer, but God himself gives a personal promise “I will not make a full end of you.”

VII. Consistent failure to respond to chastisement means certain Judgment.

A. They will be pursued with a vengeance (6:1-9).

B. Failure to listen to the word brings wrath, failure, and deception (10-15).

“Their ears are closed and they cannot listen.” This is not a natural deafness but a profound moral deafness: “Behold, the word of the Lord has become a reproach to them; they have no delight in it” (10).

C. Failure to respond and perversion of worship – God issues a call for them to seek the ancient paths and the good way to walk in it. They say, “We will not walk in it.” (16). 

D. Jeremiah’s ministry will demonstrate that they have no soundness at all – (6:27ff).

It is impossible for the dross to be removed in order that the true metal will appear, for all of it is dross. Nothing is there to be refined.

VIII. Redemptive Focus

A. God maintains and clearly reveals his purpose to maintain a remnant. It is clear that this is only a matter of grace and sovereign divine purpose. Utter corruption calls for utter destruction, yet God will preserve a remnant. 

B. Human capacity for self-deception is immense (3:1, 4). The casual attitude they maintained of their sin and their idea of claiming the blessings of God showed that, as Anselm so pungently pointed out, ‘You have not yet considered what a great thing sin is.” 

C. Hypocrisy is endemic to fallen human nature: Conscience witnesses to what we should do and say but our affections and actions lie elsewhere. 

D. God will effect a great conversion and will have a united people. If he relies on any intrinsic goodness, any remnant of unperverse will in humanity, the hope will fail utterly. He will accomplish this on the basis of sovereign grace.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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