Jeremiah 3 – A Word to Backsliders
A. The unfaithfulness of God’s people.
1. (1) God says to His unfaithful people, “Return to Me.”
“They say, ‘If a man divorces his wife,
And she goes from him
And becomes another man’s,
May he return to her again?’
Would not that land be greatly polluted?
But you have played the harlot with many lovers;
Yet return to Me,” says the LORD.
a. If a man divorces his wife… may he return to her again? Jeremiah seems to have in mind the command in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which says that when a man divorces his wife and she becomes the wife of another man, she must not return again to her first husband.
i. This law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 sounds strange to our modern age where it is not completely uncommon for a wife to return to her first husband after a second or third husband. The sense behind it was that it made the ideas of both marriage and divorce seem of little consequence, as if one might say: “I can divorce her, and remarry her later if I want to.” God wanted to speak to that thinking and say, “No you can’t treat divorce and remarriage so casually. I won’t allow it.”
ii. “This law, which forbade a divorced couple to reunite, was aimed against what would amount to virtually lending one’s partner to another…it would degrade not only her but marriage itself and the society that accepted such a practice.” (Kidner)
iii. “The precise reasons for this ancient law may have been various, among them being an attempt to preserve the second marriage.” (Thompson)
b. Would not the land be greatly polluted? Deuteronomy 24:4 says, her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. God connected disobedience to this law regarding remarriage to a defilement of the land, making it greatly polluted.
c. But you have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return to Me: God wanted His unfaithful people to know that though returning to the first husband might be wrong on a human level, it was not wrong between God and His people.
i. The line, “Yet return to Me,” says the LORD is a bit of a mystery to translators. Some (as the NKJV and NLT) translate it as an invitation from God to Israel. Others (such as the NASB and ESV) translate it as an accusation, God accusing Israel of wanting to return to Him lightly or wrongly.
· NASB: But you are a harlot with many lovers; yet you turn to Me
· ESV: And would you return to Me?
· NLT: But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers, says the LORD. Yet I am still calling you to come back to me.
ii. “Scholars are clearly divided on the issue, and the reason is understandable. The verb ‘return’ (sob) in the last line of v.1 is an infinitive that may allow for more than one rendering.” (Feinberg)
iii. In the rest of the chapter, since God repeatedly does invite Israel to return to Him, and the thought of this return is presented in a good sense, it is best to take it as rendered in the NKJV – as a plea from God to His people for them to return to Him.
2. (2) The depth of their depravity.
“Lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see:
Where have you not lain with men?
By the road you have sat for them
Like an Arabian in the wilderness;
And you have polluted the land
With your harlotries and your wickedness.”
a. Where have you not lain with men? God asked His people to look up to the heights – that is, the high places where altars to pagan gods were often built. According to the picture, upon these desolate heights they committed spiritual adultery with pagan gods.
i. “This verse alludes to the worship of Baal and Asherah, which included sex with temple prostitutes at hilltop shrines.” (Ryken)
ii. “The word ‘ravished’ [lain with men] is especially powerful. It is an obscene word for sexual violence. Although God’s people have been looking for a good time, they have been getting raped. False gods are always abusive.” (Ryken) (Deuteronomy 28:30, Isaiah 13:16, where the word is translated ravished).
b. By the road you have sat for them: Here, God used the picture of a common street prostitute to illustrate the spiritual adultery of Israel. The idea was that they sought out these idols and offered themselves to them.
i. Like an Arabian in the wilderness: “Jeremiah likened the national preoccupation with licentiousness to an Arab freebooter waiting in concealment to plunder a passing caravan, or to a wayside prostitute soliciting clients.” (Harrison) Sin wasn’t searching for them; they were searching for it.
c. You have polluted the land with your harlotries and your wickedness: Israel considered their idolatry and sacrifice to pagan gods to be of little consequence. Many of them probably told themselves that they were not forsaking the LORD, only adding the worship of these other gods. God saw their sin for what it was and noted that it polluted the land.
3. (3-5) The penalty of their sin and how they should have repented.
Therefore the showers have been withheld,
And there has been no latter rain.
You have had a harlot’s forehead;
You refuse to be ashamed.
Will you not from this time cry to Me,
‘My Father, You are the guide of my youth?
Will He remain angry forever?
Will He keep it to the end?’
Behold, you have spoken and done evil things,
As you were able.”
a. Therefore the showers have been withheld and there has been no latter rain: Spiritually, Israel’s idolatry polluted the land – therefore God withheld the rain they needed for crops and food. This had special irony, because many of the pagan gods they went after were associated with weather, rain, and fertility (such as Baal and Ashtoreth).
i. Some of those ancient idol worshippers in ancient Israel went after the idols exactly for the rain and agricultural abundance they hoped their idolatry would bring. They were terribly wrong. Because their pursuit was out of God’s will, it left them less satisfied than before.
b. You have a harlot’s forehead; you refuse to be ashamed: God observed the lack of shame among Israel for their idol worship. Their conscience was dead to its proper workings.
c. Will you not from this time cry to Me: God told Israel what they should do.
· They should cry out unto the Lord with urgency and desperation.
· They should look to Him as their Father and their guide.
· They should see themselves as those who need guidance and help, as a youth needs guidance and help.
· They should hope that God would not remain angry with them.
d. Behold, you have spoken and done evil things, as you were able: Instead of crying out to the Lord and coming with humble repentance, Israel continued in their evil as they were able – hoping to get away with as much as they could.
B. Backsliders called to return.
1. (6-10) God speaks to Jeremiah about backsliding Israel, treacherous Judah.
The LORD said also to me in the days of Josiah the king: “Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She has gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot. And I said, after she had done all these things, ‘Return to Me.’ But she did not return. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also. So it came to pass, through her casual harlotry, that she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah has not turned to Me with her whole heart, but in pretense,” says the LORD.
a. In the days of Josiah the king: Josiah was one of the better kings of Judah, and in his reign there was an aggressive campaign to purify Israel of idolatry and to return to the LORD. God no doubt used these words from Jeremiah as part of this work.
b. Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? God reminded Jeremiah (and those who heard this prophecy) that the northern kingdom of Israel was deeply idolatrous, yet God still called to them saying, “Return to Me.” Sadly, she did not return and perished as a kingdom some 100 years before Jeremiah began his prophetic work.
c. Her treacherous sister Judah saw it: The southern kingdom of Judah should have learned from Israel’s idolatry, refusal to repent, and fall. Instead, her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.
i. It’s easy for us to think Judah was crazy and ask how they could have missed such obvious lessons. Yet we see the modern world repeating the same mistakes and sins as previous fallen empires and cultures.
ii. Through her casual harlotry: “The Hebrew text reads literally ‘through the lightness of adultery’; that is, adultery mattered so little to her that she participated in the same evil practices as her sister Israel and polluted the land.” (Thompson)
d. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah has not turned to Me with her whole heart, but in pretense: It seemed that Judah had learned nothing from the sin and consequences that came upon the northern kingdom of Israel. Whatever repentance they did offer was not from the whole heart, but only in pretense.
i. On a human level it is difficult and perhaps dangerous to judge the repentance of another person. We should be generous in our assessment of someone’s repentance. Nevertheless, repentance only in pretense is a real phenomenon, and God knows when repentance is insincere and only for show.
ii. “True confession, unfortunately, is a harrowing and humiliating experience, and thus seldom encountered, whether in individuals or nations.” (Harrison)
iii. “In his days there had been great reform outwardly. The king had wrought with a true passion for righteousness, but as Huldah, the prophetess, had told him, the reforms, so far as the people were concerned, were unreal, they did not touch the deepest things in life.” (Morgan)
iv. “He that repenteth with a contradiction, saith Tertullian, God will pardon him with a contradiction. Thou repentest, and yet continuest in thy sins. God will pardon thee, and yet send thee to hell: there is a pardon with a contradiction.” (Trapp)
2. (11-13) God tells Jeremiah to invite Israel to return and find mercy.
Then the LORD said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
‘Return, backsliding Israel,’ says the LORD;
‘I will not cause My anger to fall on you.
For I am merciful,’ says the LORD;
‘I will not remain angry forever.
Only acknowledge your iniquity,
That you have transgressed against the LORD your God,
And have scattered your charms
To alien deities under every green tree,
And you have not obeyed My voice,’ says the LORD.”
a. Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah: This is a startling statement, considering how deeply the northern kingdom of Israel gave themselves to idols. Nevertheless, we can think of several reasons why Judah’s sin was even worse.
· Judah had the example of Israel to learn from, an advantage that Israel did not have.
· Judah was closer to the temple and center of true worship.
· Judah had better and more spiritual kings than Israel.
· Judah’s problem was treachery and the pretense of repentance; Israel was more honest in their sin.
b. Return, backsliding Israel: God told Jeremiah to invite Israel – though they were scattered in exile throughout the Assyrian empire – to return to Him. The key to their return was this: Only acknowledge your iniquity. This honesty was what Judah lacked and was the key to Israel’s restoration to right relationship.
i. Return, backsliding Israel: “The ‘backslider’ (turn away) is invited to ‘come back’ (turn back).” (Thompson) The sense is something like, “Slide back to Me, backslider.”
ii. Here, there is no promise that God would restore the northern kingdom to its land and realm. Instead, the promise seems to be of restored relationship with Yahweh, their covenant God.
iii. The sense seems to be, “Judah has not repented honestly, only in pretense. Perhaps Israel will honestly repent if I invite them.”
iv. “‘Alas,’ says one, ‘I do not know whether I am a backslider, or whether I have been a hypocrite up till now!’ Do not argue that question at all. I am constantly asked to decide for people whether they ever were true Christians, or were in error about their condition. It is a difficult enquiry, and of small practical value.” (Spurgeon)
3. (14-15) Return and be restored.
“Return, O backsliding children,” says the Lord; “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
a. Return, O backsliding children: Here, God speaks to both “sisters” (Jeremiah 3:7) Israel and Judah and invites them to return to Him.
b. For I am married to you: Significantly, God said that He gave Israel a certificate of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8). Yet here He says to both Israel and Judah, “I am married to you.” God was willing to ignore the previous divorce if they would only return to Him.
i. These pleas: “Return, O backsliding children” and “For I am married to you” have great depth of feeling. This is not a cold, dispassionate God; this is the Lord full of warmth and compassion, pursing His wayward people.
ii. “Oh! it is grace that he should be married to any of us, but it is grace at its highest pitch, it is the ocean of grace at its flood- tide, that he should speak thus of ‘backsliding children.’” (Spurgeon)
c. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion: God promised restoration and repatriation for the remnant that would return to Him.
d. I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding: After the blessing of restoration and repatriation, God promised the blessing of good and godly spiritual leadership, giving an instructive description of what leaders among God’s people should be.
· They should be given by God (I will give you), not by human ambition or presumed calling.
· They are given to the people of God (I will give you) for their care and service unto them.
· They should be shepherds, caring for the flock of God.
· They should be according to God’s heart in the way they serve and lead God’s people.
· They should feed God’s people with knowledge.
· They should feed God’s people with understanding.
4. (16-17) Return and know the presence of the LORD.
“Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,” says the LORD, “that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore.At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts.”
a. When you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days…they will say no more, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD”: Jeremiah looked forward to Israel’s ultimate restoration, marked by gathering in the land and by the presence of the LORD Himself, not merely the representation of God seen in the ark of the covenant of the LORD.
b. It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it: Jeremiah looked forward to the day when the reality of God’s presence among men surpassed the symbol of it represented by the ark of the covenant. It would so far surpass it that when the reality comes, no one would think of the ark of the covenant any longer.
i. “The ark will not be restored because it will no longer be necessary as a symbol of God’s presence. The times of ceremonial emphasis will pass away. The actual glory of God in the presence of his people will be sufficient, and therefore the typical glory will not be missed.” (Feinberg)
c. At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it: Jeremiah looked forward to the day when Israel would be the leading nation of the earth, with the LORD Himself enthroned in Jerusalem and the nations coming to give Him honor.
d. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts: Jeremiah looked forward to the day when the nations would be genuinely transformed as they recognized the LORD and His work from Jerusalem.
i. Here, without calling it the new covenant, Jeremiah speaks of some of the benefits of the new covenant as will be later developed in Jeremiah 31:31-33.
C. Restoration to the land.
1. (18) A promise of restoration.
“In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given as an inheritance to your fathers.”
a. In those days: In the previous lines (Jeremiah 3:16-17), God promised many of the features that would later be developed in the promise of the new covenant. Here, we learn of more that will happen in those days.
b. The house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel: Long before, the twelve tribes of Israel split into two competing kingdoms. God here looked forward to the day when Judah and Israel would be together again, and no longer separated by their ancient civil conflict.
c. And they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given: The promise of return to the land is again promised to both Judah and Israel. God will gather them to the land again.
2. (19-20) The problem of restoring the treacherous house of Israel.
“But I said:
‘How can I put you among the children
And give you a pleasant land, beautiful heritage of the hosts of nations?’
“And I said:
‘You shall call Me, “My Father,”
And not turn away from Me.’
Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband,
So have you dealt treacherously with Me,
O house of Israel,” says the LORD.
a. How can I put you among the children and give you a pleasant land: Rhetorically, God asked how backsliding Israel and treacherous Judah could receive such a blessing as the restoration to the land.
b. You shall call Me, “my Father,” and not turn away from Me: Answering His own question, God pointed to an inner transformation that would take place among His people, despite their past treachery. This inner transformation is another feature of the new covenant.
i. My Father: “The term ‘father’ was sometimes used by a young wife of her husband.” (Feinberg)
3. (21-22) The weeping of a repentant Israel.
A voice was heard on the desolate heights,
Weeping and supplications of the children of Israel.
For they have perverted their way;
They have forgotten the LORD their God.
“Return, you backsliding children,
And I will heal your backslidings.”
“Indeed we do come to You,
For You are the LORD our God.”
a. Weeping and supplications of the children of Israel: Jeremiah prophetically saw Israel in true repentance, crying out to God from their desolation. Such deep repentance was necessary because they had perverted their way and forgotten the LORD their God.
i. On the desolate heights: “Where they were wont to worship idols, now they weep for their sins, and pray for pardon.” (Trapp)
ii. “Here is the consciousness of sin in its essential character, and that produces godly sorrow. The distinction between mere remorse and repentance is here already, in the ‘weeping and supplication.’” (Maclaren)
b. Return, you backsliding children… Indeed, we do come to You: Jeremiah spoke of the day when the children of Israel would respond to God’s call to return and be healed from their backsliding, recognizing their need and who their God is (for You are the LORD our God). This was a contrast to how they had previously forgotten the LORD their God.
i. “He says, ‘Return, ye backsliding children.’ I notice that he does not say, ‘Return, ye penitent children.’ He pictures you in your worst colors, yet he says, ‘Return, ye backsliding children.’ I notice also that he does not say, ‘Heal your wounds first, and then come back to me;’ but he says, ‘Return, ye backsliding children,’ with all your backslidings unhealed, – ‘and I will heal your backslidings.’” (Spurgeon)
ii. The words of Jeremiah 3:21-22 show several things about backsliding.
· Backsliding brings desolation (on the desolate heights).
· Backsliding is worthy of great mourning (weeping and supplication).
· Backsliders may return right from their wayward place (the high places, the desolate heights).
· Backsliding is shown in a perverted…way.
· Backsliding is shown in forgetting God (they have forgotten the LORD their God).
· Backsliding is something only children of God can do.
· Backsliding is a decision to turn from (return).
· Backsliding is disease to be healed from (I will heal).
· Backsliding is corrected by the recognition of a wrong way (we do come to you).
· Backsliding is corrected by the recognition of having forgotten God (for You are the LORD our God).
4. (23-25) The lasting shame of idolatry expressed in a statement of true repentance.
Truly, in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills,
And from the multitude of mountains;
Truly, in the LORD our God
Is the salvation of Israel.
For shame has devoured
The labor of our fathers from our youth—
Their flocks and their herds,
Their sons and their daughters.
We lie down in our shame,
And our reproach covers us.
For we have sinned against the LORD our God,
We and our fathers,
From our youth even to this day,
And have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.”
a. Truly, in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills: In their idolatry, Israel often built altars on high places – the tops of hills. God reminded them that these hills, these high places and the false gods they represented were of no help in their day of need. Instead, in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.
i. “This is followed by the recitation of an ideal confession for the sinning people. Weeping, they make their supplication. Recognizing the vanity of expecting help from any source other than Jehovah, they turn to Him with confession of sin.” (Morgan)
b. For shame has devoured the labor of our fathers from our youth – their flocks and herds, their sons and daughters: Upon those altars to pagan gods upon the hills, generations of Israelis sacrificed their flocks and herds and even their sons and daughters (figuratively and sometimes literally). It was all a shame that devoured.
i. “The ‘shameful’ thing (v.24, the article is emphatic in the Hebrew) is Baal, the god of shame. In 11:13 Baal and shame are identified.” (Feinberg)
ii. “That shameful thing, Baal hath done it (chapter 11:13; Hosea 9:10); he hath even eaten up our cattle and our children, of whom, if any be left, yet there is nothing left for them.” (Trapp)
c. We lie down in our shame, and our reproach covers us: This shame was constant and could not be done away with until the children of Israel genuinely repented and returned to the LORD.
d. We have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers…and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God: This is the appropriate expression of broken repentance that should mark God’s backsliding children. There is no excuse or explanation given.