The inner man

God’s main concern when he planned for the people of Judah to be taken into captivity was the condition of their hearts. The relationship God wanted to have with his people was one of love and trust. In order for that to be possible, the people had to be devoted to God and open to his involvement in their lives. The way Jeremiah described this was to use circumcision as an illustration of being dedicated to the LORD. He told the people, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). Moses used similar language when he said, “Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

The Hebrew words translated stiffnecked, qashah oreph literally mean hard necked or a neck that is unable to bend and be bowed down as in prayer (7185/6203). Looking at this term in relation to the heart, it refers to someone who is hard-hearted, a tough minded person who refuses to submit himself to God. Therefore, to circumcise the heart would mean you cut off behavior that is offensive to God (4135). Jeremiah referred to the cleansing of the heart in connection with salvation. He said, “O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved” (Jeremiah 4:14). Typically, a person is only concerned with washing the exterior part of his body. Jeremiah was pointing out that it was the inner man that needed to be dealt with.

Backsliding

A constant problem for God’s people while they were living in the Promised Land was backsliding. The prophet Jeremiah declared “The LORD said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every  high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot” (Jeremiah 3:6) The Hebrew word translated backsliding , meshubah means backturning (4878), as in turning your back on someone. Another translation of meshubah is the word faithless. In other words, the people of Israel lacked faith. They did not believe in God and would not repent of their sins against him.

God used the northern kingdom of Israel as an example of his judgment when he sent them into captivity in 722 B.C. In spite of the fact that the northern kingdom ceased to exist after that, the southern kingdom of Judah followed down the same pathway to destruction. Jeremiah remarked, “And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole hart, but feignedly, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:10). The Hebrew word translated feignedly, sheqer (sheh´ – ker) refers to an untruth or sham (8267). Sheqer defines a way of life that goes contrary to the law of God. Sheqer is a relational term signifying ‘”one’s inability to keep faith” with what one has said or to respond positively to the faithfulness of another being.”

It could be said that Judah had become desensitized to sin. It no longer bothered the people when they made sacrifices to idols. They were like prostitutes that perform sex acts for money. It was just a way to earn a living. The LORD declared, “Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:20). The strong language used to describe Israel’s betrayal indicated that it was intentional act. The people treated God as if he were their enemy and could not be trusted with the truth. The people of Judah no longer considered themselves to be children of God, but instead were acting like children of the  foreign god Baal.

Even though the situation with Judah seemed hopeless, God did not intend to abandon them as he had the northern kingdom of Israel. God said to them, “Return ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings” (Jeremiah 3;22). In order to cure his rebellious children of their backsliding, God would turn them over to the Babylonians so that they could experience life apart from him. The objective of their Babylonian captivity was to remind God’s people of what slavery was like. It had been hundreds of years since the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. Over the course of seventy years, God expected the people of Judah to come to a point where they would say:

We lie down in shame, and our confusion covereth us:  for we have sinned against  the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God. (Jeremiah 3:25)

A legal case

Jeremiah’s message to Judah began with the presentation of a legal case against God’s people. According to the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any other God besides YHWH, the name of God translated into English as LORD. God chose this name as the personal name by which he related specifically to his chosen or covenant people (3068). The first three commandments of the Mosaic Law stated:

  1. Thou shalt have not other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  3. Thou shalt not bow down thyself  to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children  unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:3-5)

The first three of the Ten Commandments given to the children of Israel dealt with idolatry because the covenant between God and his chosen people depended on a relationship existing between the two parties of the agreement. In some ways, the Ten Commandments were like a marriage contract that specified the terms for a divorce to take place. It was implied that both God and his people would be faithful to each other and remain in the relationship for ever. The reason why idolatry was off limits for them was because like adultery, it undermined the intimacy that was necessary for a loving relationship to exist. The only way the Israelites would trust God and depend on his provision for them was knowing God and God alone could take care of all their needs.

God’s issue with his people was not so much that they had broken his commandments , but that they had abandoned him for worthless idols. Speaking through Jeremiah, the LORD declared, “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns; broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). A cistern was a man-made storage tank designed to capture rain and make it available throughout the year. The cistern was representative of an idol because it was cut or carved out of stone and signified man’s ability to live independent of God’s ongoing provision. God’s reference to broken cisterns that could hold no water was meant to highlight the fact that a cistern was useless without rain, which God still had to provide.

The Israelites’ desire for independence was seen by God as being the same as an unfaithful spouse. Particularly in the book of Hosea, God’s people were likened to “a wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2). Rather than being thankful for what God had provided, the Israelites preferred to fend for themselves (Jeremiah 2;25) and to worship whomever they pleased (Jeremiah 2:31). In spite of their flagrant idolatry, God’s people claimed to be innocent of the charges God brought against them. It was only because they refused to repent that God proceeded with his judgment. Jeremiah declared the truth about the people’s attitude when he said, “Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me. Behold, I will plead with thee, because thou sayest, I have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35).

The child prophet

The prophet Jeremiah was unique in that his calling to serve as God’s mouthpiece was not a secondary  occupation that temporarily fulfilled God’s need to deliver a message to his people, but a lifelong vocation that Jeremiah had been specifically created for. God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee; and before thou comest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). The Hebrew word translated formed is yatsar (yaw – tsar´). “Yatsar is a technical potter’s word, and it is often used in connection with the potter at work. The word is sometimes used as a general term of ‘craftsmanship or handiwork’…Yatsar is frequently used to describe God’s creative activity, whether literally or figuratively” (3335).

The prophet Isaiah used the word yatsar in connection with God’s  relationship to the nation of Israel and redemption of his people. In general, it could be said that yatsar refers to someone that has been saved or born again. Isaiah spoke of this when he said, “Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth: even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isaiah 43:6-7). These words were spoken in the context of God’s redemption of his people. Although it could be said that every person is a child of God, only those that have been redeemed or saved go through a transformational process in which they are conformed into the image of Christ. This process is referred to as sanctification. God said of Jeremiah, “before thou comest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee” (Jeremiah 1:5). Therefore, it could be said that Jeremiah was born a fully matured Christian in order to accomplish his vocation as a prophet unto the nations.

One way of looking at a fully mature Christian is to see him as someone that has completely submitted himself to God. He does this because he understands God’s role as Creator and sees himself in the context of a divine order that is intended to accomplish God’s will. Sometimes it is easier for a child to get this perspective than an 80 year old man. When Jesus was a child, he was found in the temple “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Even though Jesus was only twelve, he had the ability to discuss deep theological issues with men that had been studying the scriptures their whole lives. It is possible Jeremiah had this same or a similar capacity and began his ministry as young as 12-14 years of age (Jeremiah 1:6-7).

Jeremiah’s ministry began in 626 B.C., in the fourteenth year of king Josiah’s reign. Josiah was only 22 years old at that time. In the eighth year of his reign, Josiah began to “seek after the God of David his father” (2 Chronicles 34:3) and by the eighteenth year of his reign, he had purged the land of idolatry  and begun a building project to repair the house of the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 34:8). So, Jeremiah’s ministry started under positive conditions in the nation of Judah. The people may have expected peace and prosperity to return to their nation because they were doing the right things. Unfortunately, time had run out for God’s people and his judgment was inevitable. The LORD warned Jeremiah of an impending disaster that would come soon. Jeremiah received two visions from God about this event (Jeremiah 1:11-14).

Although is must have been difficult for Jeremiah’s young mind to comprehend all that was about to take place, his ability to “see” the future helped him to grasp the situation ahead for Judah and to communicate it clearly. Twice, the LORD told Jeremiah to not be afraid of or dismayed at the faces of those he had to speak to (Jeremiah 1:8, 17). The Hebrew term for face, paneh (paw – neh´) refers to the look on one’s face or one’s countenance (6440). In other words, Jeremiah was going to have to confront some scary people, but God assured him that he would protect him. He said, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the LORD, to deliver thee” (Jeremiah 1:19).