6.68 Jeremiah -- The Sin of Judah
This is Jeremiah’s constant, even relentless topic. Heschel (The Prophets) says that he gives us more utterances of wrath than any other prophet, because he lived in an age of wrath (p. 134). Like Hosea (eg. Hos 2:15), he can paint an almost idyllic picture of Israel’s beginnings in the days of Moses:
"I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert" (Jer 2:2).
But even that generation sinned:
"Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, 'I will not serve you!" (Jer 2:20).
The sea respects boundaries, but Judah’s rebellion knows no bounds (Jer 5:22-23). Birds instinctively understand times and seasons, but the people of Judah are ignorant of the Lord’s requirements (Jer 8:7). Apostasy and idolatry were the foremost offenses:
"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jer 2:13).
Some of the people of Jerusalem sacrificed children, perhaps to Baal (Jer 7:31); some worshiped the stars (Jer 19:13). Many of the women propitiated the Queen of Heaven (Jer 7:18; NIV Study Bible 1133-34 identifies her as the Babylonian goddess Ishtar). The Lord declares His disgust:
"For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah" (Jer 2:28).
In a single verse (Jer 7:9), the Lord charges his people with breaking six of the Ten Commandments (Bright, p. 56).
The later Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope is said to have walked the streets of Athens with a lantern, searching for one honest man. At one point the Lord gives Jeremiah a similar assignment:
"Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem,... If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city" (Jer 5:1).
Not one is to be found, though the prophet scrutinizes every social class and occupational group. Judah is worse than Israel was, and as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah (Jer 3:11, Jer 23:14). Like the Canaanites of old, the people of Judah are marked for "total destruction" (Jer 25:9).
At times Jeremiah urges his hearers to repent (Jer 18:11, Jer 36:3), but frequently he suggests that it is too late, and judgment is inevitable. Most striking are the passages in which the Lord forbids Jeremiah even to pray for the people (Jer 7:16, Jer 11:14). He says that He would not listen even to the intercession of a Moses or a Samuel (Jer 15:1). In fact, Jeremiah does continue to intercede (Jer 14:7-9, Jer 14:20-21). But the Lord says,
"I have withdrawn my blessing, my love, and my pity from this people" (Jer 16:5).
The point is not that the Lord’s patience has been exhausted; as we shall see, He still expresses a yearning love for His people. What Jeremiah sees with unparalleled clarity for the Old Testament is that the situation is hopeless.
"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jer 17:9).
"Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense" (Jer 3:10).
"[the Lord is] always on their lips but far from their hearts (Jer 12:2).
God Himself will institute a new covenant with His people, installing in them a "new heart," but this will take place only after the traumatic experience of defeat and Exile.
The problem is dramatized vividly in Jeremiah’s visit to the potter in chapter 18. The potter shapes the clay atop his spinning wheel to form a pot.
But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him (Jer 18:4).
"The clay can frustrate the potter’s intention and cause him to change it: as the quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it, so the quality of a people determines what God will do with them" (Bright, p.125).
Another image for this condition is that of an incurable wound. The Lord says of Jerusalem,
"...her sickness and wounds are ever before me" (Jer 6:7).
Then Jeremiah laments,
"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?" (Jer 8:22)