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).

Self-sufficiency

God’s relationship with the nation of Israel was based on his personal relationship with Abraham and his descendants. The name Israel was given to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, when Jacob prevailed in a wrestling match with God. Jacob was told, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with man, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Jacob’s power was essentially an ability to overcome or not give up. One interpretation of the name Israel is “he struggles with God” (note on Hosea 12:4). Jacob’s personality could be seen in the nation that bore his name when Israel relied on its own self-sufficiency to deal with the oppressive Assyrian empire. Like Jacob, the nation of Israel thought it could outwit the king of Assyria, but Hosea declared, “the Assyrian shall be his king, because they refused to return” (Hosea 11:5).

Initially, Jacob’s family went to live in Egypt because of a widespread famine that depleted the food supply in Canaan (Genesis 41:57). While they were living in Egypt, the people of the children of Israel increased in numbers and became stronger than the Egyptians, so they were made slaves and were afflicted by Pharaoh. “But the more they afflicted them the more they multiplied and grew” (Exodus 1:12).

Israel’s ability to handle affliction was in a sense what made it both great and stubborn at the same time. Describing Israel’s sin against God, Hosea declared, “Ephraim compasseth me about with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit: but Judah yet ruleth with God, and is faithful with the saints” (Hosea 11:12).

Ephraim, the recipient of Jacob’s blessing, was described as a liar and a cheat in keeping with the character of Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright (Genesis 25:31) and lied to his father to obtain his blessing (Genesis 27:19). Hosea went on to say, “Ephraim feedeth on the wind, and followeth after the east wind: he daily increaseth lies and desolation; and they do make a covenant with the Assyrians” (Hosea 12:1).

One way to look at Hosea’s condemning remarks was that Israel’s trouble was all Ephraim’s fault. Jacob’s grandson had become just like him and Ephraim was the instigator of his nation’s decline. The cause of the decline was Ephraim’s self-sufficiency and pride. Hosea stated, “And Ephraim said, Yet I am become rich, I have found me out substance: in all my labours they shall find none iniquity in me that were sin” (Hosea 12:8).