A. The astonishing nature of Israel’s sin.
1. (1-3) The good old days.
Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD:
“I remember you,
The kindness of your youth,
The love of your betrothal,
When you went after Me in the wilderness,
In a land not sown.
Israel was holiness to the LORD,
The firstfruits of His increase.
All that devour him will offend;
Disaster will come upon them,” says the LORD.’”
a. Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem: This reminds us that the core of Jeremiah’s work as a prophet were messages delivered to the southern kingdom of Judah, of which Jerusalem was the capital city.
i. God often refers to Judah and Jerusalem as Israel in Jeremiah, though the northern kingdom of Israel (representing the ten northern tribes) fell to the Assyrians some 100 years before Jeremiah’s work as a prophet. God refers to Judah and Jerusalem as representing all of Israel because it did.
ii. Far back in the days of Jeroboam and his original break with the southern kingdom of Judah, the legitimate priests and Levites who lived in the northern ten tribes did not like Jeroboam’s idolatry. They, along with others who set their hearts to seek the LORD God of Israel, then moved from the northern kingdom of Israel to the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Chronicles 11:13-16). So actually, the southern kingdom of Judah contained Israelites from all of the ten tribes.
b. I remember you, the kindness of your youth: Through Jeremiah, God made a heartfelt appeal to Jerusalem, drawing upon the memory of their past relationship. To say, “I remember how wonderful our relationship once was” is a powerful appeal.
i. “God recollects those zealous times, those happy seasons, those enthusiastic hours; and if we have come to an ebb, if we are now cold and almost dead, and have forgotten the better days, God has not forgotten them.” (Spurgeon)
c. When you went after Me in the wilderness: This has in mind the Exodus, when God led Israel through the wilderness. They were not perfect in their relationship with God then, but they had a love for God and a trust in the Lord that was sorely lacking in Jeremiah’s days.
d. Israel was holiness to the LORD: This is what God commanded of Israel in the wilderness (Leviticus 11:45), and in some measure Israel fulfilled it. They were separated unto God as His own people and had little desire for the idols of Egypt or the Canaanites.
e. All that devour him will offend; disaster will come upon them: In this season of special relationship with God, the LORD took special care of Israel. If anyone attempted to devour Israel, then disaster would come upon them. This was a great contrast to the judgment at the hand of Israel’s enemies that would eventually come upon an unfaithful Jerusalem.
2. (4-8) The great ingratitude of rebellious Israel.
Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD:
“What injustice have your fathers found in Me,
That they have gone far from Me,
Have followed idols,
And have become idolaters?
Neither did they say, ‘Where is the LORD,
Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt,
Who led us through the wilderness,
Through a land of deserts and pits,
Through a land of drought and the shadow of death,
Through a land that no one crossed
And where no one dwelt?’
I brought you into a bountiful country,
To eat its fruit and its goodness.
But when you entered, you defiled My land
And made My heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’
And those who handle the law did not know Me;
The rulers also transgressed against Me;
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
And walked after things that do not profit.
a. What injustice have your fathers found in Me, that they have gone far from Me: God called the house of Israel to account for their rejection of Him and their pursuit of idols. He asked to know what fault there was in Him that caused their idolatry.
i. On have followed idols and have become idolaters: “Various attempts have been made to render this in English: ‘pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty’ (NEB); they ‘went after worthlessness and became worthless’ (RSV).” (Thompson)
b. I brought you into a bountiful country, to eat its fruit and its goodness: God reminded Israel of how good and kind He had been to them, giving them the bountiful country of Canaan.
i. The events of the Exodus had happened some 800 years before Jeremiah’s time. It’s understandable (though not good) that Israel would come to take the blessing of the land for granted after some 800 years. There is less explanation for why we take the good works of God for granted sometimes only weeks later.
c. You defiled My land and made My heritage an abomination: God clearly called the land of Israel His land and His heritage. Israel both defiled the land and made it an abomination through their idolatry.
d. The priests did not say, “Where is the LORD?” and those who handle the law did not know Me: The religious leaders of Israel did not serve God or the people well. They did not seek the LORD (asking, “Where is the LORD?”) and they did not teach the word of God (the law) from a personal relationship with God (did not know Me).
i. Those who handle the law refers to the priests and the Levites, who were to teach, exposit, interpret, and apply the law for the people. “They that draw out the law; they whose office it is to explain it, draw out its spiritual meanings, and show to what its testimonies refer.” (Clarke)
e. The rulers also transgressed against Me; the prophets prophesied by Baal: Civic and religious leaders did more harm than good for the people of God and towards the LORD Himself.
3. (9-12) The astonishing nature of Israel’s sin.
“Therefore I will yet bring charges against you,” says the LORD,
“And against your children’s children I will bring charges.
For pass beyond the coasts of Cyprus and see,
Send to Kedar and consider diligently,
And see if there has been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
Which are not gods?
But My people have changed their Glory
For what does not profit.
Be astonished, O heavens, at this,
And be horribly afraid;
Be very desolate,” says the LORD.
a. Therefore I will yet bring charges against you: God would not allow this great sin on behalf of the leaders and people of Israel to go unaddressed. In formal fashion, God brought a legal complaint against Israel for their sin.
b. See if there has been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, which are not gods? Since Israel liked to look to surrounding nations in imitation of their idolatry, God asked His rebellious people to look to even distant places (beyond the coasts of Cyprus or Kedar) and to ask: Do they forsake their gods? Strangely, the heathen around Israel were more faithful to their pagan gods than Israel was to the Living God.
i. “Cyprus was the western-most point in Judah’s geography, whilst Kedar was a desert tribe in the east, so the appeal is from west to east, i.e. anywhere.” (Cundall)
ii. “Think, then, of the rebuke which the obstinate adherence of idolators to their idols gives to the slack hold which so many professing Christians have on their religion.” (Maclaren)
c. But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit: The heathen nations were faithful to their gods, even though their gods did nothing for them. Yet Israel had the God of all Glory who had blessed them in innumerable ways and they turned from Him.
d. Be astonished…be horribly afraid…be very desolate: First this is an astonishment, that men can be so foolish, disloyal, and ungrateful. Then it is something to fear, because a righteous God must answer such outrageous rebellion. Finally, it is a desolation, because the result of judgment upon such rebellious people will leave little behind.
B. The emptiness and shame of Israel’s idolatry.
1. (13) Broken cisterns.
“For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
a. They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters: This was the first of the evils of God’s people – to forsake God. This is evil, not only for disloyalty and ingratitude, but also because it is foolish; God is the fountain of living waters, the never-ending supply of the good, pure, essential supplies of life.
i. In the ancient near east a fountain of living waters – an artesian spring – was something special. It was a constant supply of good, fresh, life-giving water that came to you! In ancient Israel, water was a lot of work, but a fountain of living waters brought it right to you.
b. And hewn themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that can hold no water: Having forsaken God’s fountain of living waters, His people then worked hard (hewn themselves) for a greatly inferior supply (cisterns). Despite their hard work, all they ended up with were broken cisterns that can hold no water.
i. “Directly water is stored in cisterns, it ceases to be living; it is stagnant, and the process of deterioration begins…Moreover, man can never hew cisterns which will hold. They are all broken. We must live by streams, or we perish.” (Morgan)
ii. “Leaving God, in whom alone man’s thirsty spirit can find satisfaction and thirst-quenching, he hath set himself, with infinite labour, to hew out cisterns of gold and silver, cisterns of splendid houses and reputable characters, and lavish alms deeds, cisterns of wisdom and ancient lore. From any of these the hewer thinks he will obtain sufficient supplies to last him for life. At the best, however, the water is brackish, wanting the sparkle of oxygenated life; hot with the heat of the day.” (Meyer)
2. (14-19) God’s people look to Egypt and Assyria and forsake the LORD.
“Is Israel a servant?
Is he a homeborn slave?
Why is he plundered?
The young lions roared at him, and growled;
They made his land waste;
His cities are burned, without inhabitant.
Also the people of Noph and Tahpanhes
Have broken the crown of your head.
Have you not brought this on yourself,
In that you have forsaken the LORD your God
When He led you in the way?
And now why take the road to Egypt,
To drink the waters of Sihor?
Or why take the road to Assyria,
To drink the waters of the River?
Your own wickedness will correct you,
And your backslidings will rebuke you.
Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing
That you have forsaken the LORD your God,
And the fear of Me is not in you,”
Says the Lord GOD of hosts.
a. Is Israel a servant? Is he a homeborn slave? Why is he plundered? Earlier in the chapter (Jeremiah 2:3), God promised that He would defend an obedient Israel. Now through Jeremiah, God asked His people to consider the case of Israel in the sense of the conquered northern kingdom, to remember why they were now slaves.
b. The people of Noph and Tahpanhes have broken the crown of your head: Noph and Tahpanhes were both Egyptian cities. Noph is another name for Memphis, the ancient capital of lower Egypt, near modern Cairo. God here warned Judah not to trust in Egypt, which would (or perhaps had by that time) have broken the crown of your head by defeating and killing the good king Josiah in battle (2 Kings 23:29).
c. Have you not brought this on yourself, in that you have forsaken the LORD your God: The reason was plain; Israel was captive, her people slaves, her cities burned because they forsook the LORD.
d. Why take the road to Egypt…why take the road to Assyria: God cautioned Jerusalem from looking to either Egypt (the waters of Sihor, the Nile) or Assyria (the waters of the River, the Euphrates) for help. The water of their rivers was nothing compared to the fountains of living water found in the LORD.
i. “No matter how appealing the prospect of alliance with Egypt might be, Judah will suffer for it if she becomes entangled.” (Harrison)
ii. “Sihor, ‘blackness’, is a sarcastic reference to the river Nile, one of the most highly venerated of Egyptian gods.” (Harrison)
e. Your own wickedness will correct you, and your backslidings will rebuke you: If Jerusalem did continue on their destructive course, there would be more than enough correction and rebuke found in the consequences of their actions. They would certainly know therefore and see that it is an evil and a bitter thing that you have forsaken the LORD your God.
f. “The fear of Me is not in you,” says the Lord GOD of hosts: Jerusalem feared attack from the Babylonians and therefore contemplated alliances with Egypt and Assyria. Yet the real problem was they did not fear the LORD, and the Lord GOD of hosts – that is, of heavenly armies. God was more than able to protect them if they repented and trusted in Him.
3. (20-25) The unrestrained pursuit of false gods.
“For of old I have broken your yoke and burst your bonds;
And you said, ‘I will not transgress,’
When on every high hill and under every green tree
You lay down, playing the harlot.
Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a seed of highest quality.
How then have you turned before Me
Into the degenerate plant of an alien vine?
For though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap,
Yet your iniquity is marked before Me,” says the Lord GOD.
“How can you say, ‘I am not polluted,
I have not gone after the Baals’?
See your way in the valley;
Know what you have done:
You are a swift dromedary breaking loose in her ways,
A wild donkey used to the wilderness,
That sniffs at the wind in her desire;
In her time of mating, who can turn her away?
All those who seek her will not weary themselves;
In her month they will find her.
Withhold your foot from being unshod, and your throat from thirst.
But you said, ‘There is no hope.
No! For I have loved aliens, and after them I will go.’”
a. You said, “I will not transgress,” when on every high hill and under every green tree you lay down playing the harlot: God symbolically spoke of the idolatry of the conquered northern kingdom as prostitution. In going after idols, Israel was like a wife so unfaithful to her husband that she was a harlot, consorting with idols.
i. This is allegorically speaking, but an allegory connected with reality. Many of the pagan and Canaanite idols honored by the Israelites were essentially sex cults, honored with ritual prostitution. Their idolatry was often connected with sexual immorality with the use of male and female prostitutes.
ii. “The many references to abnormal sexual gratification underline one of the most prominent features of the Canaanite religion, where male and female cult-prostitutes were connected with the sanctuaries.” (Cundall)
b. Playing the harlot… the degenerate plant of an alien vine… though you wash yourself with lye: God used three strong images to describe the sin and shame of Israel. They were like a prostitute, like a weed, and like someone so dirty that no lye or soap could make them clean.
i. “The noble (AV) or choice (RSV) vine is literally, ‘Sorek vine’, a high-quality red grape grown in the Wadi al-Sarar, situated between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean.” (Harrison)
ii. “God has planted his people a thoroughly reliable stock hoping to gather a rich harvest of choice grapes. But she became a strange wild vine, a foul-smelling thing.” (Thompson)
iii. Yet your iniquity is marked before Me: “Sin leaveth behind it a deep stain, so ingrained that it will hardly ever be gotten out, not at all by blanching, extenuating, excusing, etc., or by any legal purifications, hypocritical lotions.” (Trapp)
iv. “So ingrained is Judah’s foul iniquity that no amount of washing with detergents can remove it. The supreme merit of Christ’s work on Calvary is that it removes the dark stain of iniquity (1 John 1:7).” (Harrison)
c. See your way in the valley; know what you have done: This refers to the valley of Hinnom, the deep gorge that lies to the west and south of Jerusalem. This was a place of idolatry and hideous deeds.
i. “Here all sorts of heathen rites were practiced, including the worship of Baal and the worship of Molech (cf. Jeremiah 7:31-32; 2 Kings 23:10).” (Thompson)
ii. See your way in the valley; know what you have done: “How could they claim innocence when they were carrying on their vile worship of Baal in the Valley of Hinnom with their child sacrifices?” (Feinberg)
d. A wild donkey used to the wilderness, that sniffs at the wind in her desire: The next images are of a camel (a swift dromedary) or a wild donkey in heat (in her time of mating…in her month) with no control over her desire, allowing any and all to mount her.
i. “Young female camels are altogether unreliable, ungainly, and easily disturbed, so that they dash about in an apparently disorganized fashion.” (Thompson)
ii. Apparently (according to Ryken and several others), when in heat, the female donkey goes after the male with abandon. “The female ass in heat is almost violent. She sniffs the path in front of her trying to pick up the scent of a male (from his urine). Then she races down the road in search of the male.” (Thompson)
e. Withhold your foot from being unshod, and your throat from thirst: The bare foot and constant thirst were marks of the exile and slave. This was the fate of the northern kingdom of Israel and would also be the fate of Judah if they did not turn to the LORD. Yet they answered God’s heartfelt appeal with a resignation to their idolatry and fate: There is no hope…I have loved aliens and after them I will go.
4. (26-28) The shame of Israel.
“As the thief is ashamed when he is found out,
So is the house of Israel ashamed;
They and their kings and their princes, and their priests and their prophets,
Saying to a tree, ‘You are my father,’
And to a stone, ‘You gave birth to me.’
For they have turned their back to Me, and not their face.
But in the time of their trouble
They will say, ‘Arise and save us.’
But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves?
Let them arise,
If they can save you in the time of your trouble;
For according to the number of your cities
Are your gods, O Judah.”
a. As the thief is ashamed when he is found out, so is the house of Israel ashamed: The thief is only ashamed when he is found out. He regrets getting caught and penalized, not the crime itself. In the same way, Israel under exile was really only sorry they had been caught and had suffered for their sin.
b. Saying to a tree, “You are my father”: Jeremiah described their foolish idolatry, worshipping things of wood and stone. The tree was a wooden idol representing Asherah, the leading female Canaanite deity. The stone represented Baal, the leading male Canaanite deity.
i. “These stone pillars have been found in excavations in Palestine. All that remains of the wooden poles is a posthole in which the rotted timber has left a different colored soil. There is enough archaeological evidence for these to indicate a widespread usage.” (Thompson)
ii. “At each Canaanite shrine there was an asherah, probably a wooden pillar which was a formal substitute for a sacred tree, representing the female sexual element, and a mazzebah, or stone pillar, indicating the male element.” (Cundall)
iii. “There is strong satire here, for it is the female symbol [tree] that is called Father and the male symbol [stone] that is called You who gave me birth. Israel was confused about what she was worshipping when she ascribed to the gods of fertility her very existence.” (Thompson)
c. But in the time of their trouble they will say, “Arise and save us”: God knew that His people would reject useless idolatry when the great crisis came. Yet in that day, God would be justified to ask: “Where are your gods that you have made for yourselves?”
d. Let them arise, if they can save you in the time of trouble: The idols Israel and Judah loved to worship did them no good in the time of crisis. They worshipped many idols (for according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah), but either collectively or individually they were of no help in the time of trouble.
i. According to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah: “Among heathen nations every city had its tutelary deity. Judah, far sunk in idolatry, had adopted this custom.” (Clarke)
5. (29-32) God will not listen to Israel that has rejected Him.
“Why will you plead with Me?
You all have transgressed against Me,” says the LORD.
“In vain I have chastened your children;
They received no correction.
Your sword has devoured your prophets
Like a destroying lion.
“O generation, see the word of the LORD!
Have I been a wilderness to Israel,
Or a land of darkness?
Why do My people say, ‘We are lords;
We will come no more to You’?
Can a virgin forget her ornaments,
Or a bride her attire?
Yet My people have forgotten Me days without number.”
a. Why will you plead with Me? You have all transgressed against Me: In the previous lines God spoke of how His people would turn to Him in the time of their trouble, yet not out of true repentance; instead out of a mere desire to escape present consequences. Here, God tests the repentance of Israel to see if they will return to Him through difficulty.
b. Your sword has devoured your prophets: God’s people were guilty of rejecting and murdering the prophets.
c. Why do My people say, “We are lords; we will come no more to You”? God’s people were guilty of pride, believing they didn’t need to come and humble themselves before the living God.
d. Can a virgin forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet My people have forgotten Me days without number: Israel’s rejection of God was unnatural. It is only natural for a young woman to treasure her ornaments, or for a bride to value her clothing. When God’s people forget their God – who has done so much for them – it is an offense against all that is good and right.
i. A bride her attire: Something like a wedding ring, “The bridal attire was a sash or girdle proclaiming her status as a married woman.” (Harrison)
6. (33-37) Israel will be disappointed in the false gods they have trusted.
“Why do you beautify your way to seek love?
Therefore you have also taught
The wicked women your ways.
Also on your skirts is found
The blood of the lives of the poor innocents.
I have not found it by secret search,
But plainly on all these things.
Yet you say, ‘Because I am innocent,
Surely His anger shall turn from me.’
Behold, I will plead My case against you,
Because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’
Why do you gad about so much to change your way?
Also you shall be ashamed of Egypt as you were ashamed of Assyria.
Indeed you will go forth from him
With your hands on your head;
For the LORD has rejected your trusted allies,
And you will not prosper by them.”
a. Why do you beautify your way to seek love? Israel felt that the pursuit of love was self-justifying and any pursuit of love could be considered beautiful. In their thinking, the love of idols was just as good as the love of Yahweh, their covenant God. The love expressed in what Yahweh called sexual immorality was just as good as love expressed in what Yahweh called sexual morality. God did not accept their attempt to beautify their way to seek love.
i. Beautify: “The same word is used of Jezebel’s dressing her head (2 Kings 9:30). What need this whorish trick and trimming, if all were right with thee?” (Trapp)
b. You have also taught the wicked women your ways: For Israel in Jeremiah’s day, it wasn’t enough for them to call their sinful pursuit of love beautiful; they also had to teach it to others.
c. Also on your skirts is found the blood of the lives of the poor innocents: Their immoral love – which they called beautiful – left them stained with the blood of the poor innocents.
i. The application of this section of Jeremiah to the modern day is unmistakable.
· Many today justify any pursuit of love as beautiful – such as the supposed pursuit of love in adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, and in perversions. God does not agree with their justifications.
· Many of these also must teach others their ways, advocating them in the general society, hoping to normalize what was once considered sinful or perverted.
· The poor innocents suffer – unborn children are killed, homes are wrecked, perversion imposes itself on innocents.
d. I have not found it by secret search, but plainly on all these things: The sin and perversion popularized in Jeremiah’s day was evident; only willful blindness kept individuals and society from recognizing it.
e. Yet you say, “Because I am innocent, surely His anger shall turn from me”: Despite the plain nature of their sin, Israel could still claim innocence. They felt entitled to Divine mercy.
f. Behold, I will plead My case against you, because you say, “I have not sinned”: Their claim of innocence did not impress God. He would still bring a case against them; their claim to innocence made them more guilty, not less.
g. Why do you gad about to change your way? To gad about is to bounce about on an irregular course. The New Living Translation has this, First here, then there – you flit from one ally to another asking for help. There was no reason for them to gad about – they should have gone straight away to trusting the LORD.
i. In his sermon titled Gadding About, Spurgeon drew two ideas from this text.
· Spurgeon focused on the word you: Why do you gad about so much to change your way? This was Israel, the wife of Yahweh – why should they do this?
· Spurgeon focused on the word why: Why do you gad about so much to change your way? God requested a reason from Israel to account for their gadding about.
h. Indeed you will go forth from him with your hands on your head: God promised to bring their trust in Egypt to nothing, and (without national repentance) they would go forth from Judah as captive slaves, with your hands on your head. God would not honor their alliances with Egypt or any other foreign power.