The parable of the girdle

Jeremiah revealed his anger and confusion when he prayed openly about what appeared to be an unjust situation. He said, “Righteous art thou, O LORD, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of they judgments. Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously? Thou hast planted them, yea, they have taken root: they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit: thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jeremiah 12:1-2) In what appeared to be a sarcastic tone, Jeremiah suggested that the LORD, “pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and prepare them for the day of slaughter: (Jeremiah 12:3).

In his candid response, God told Jeremiah he was being too sensitive and needed to buck up or as he phrased it, “contend with horses” (Jeremiah 12:5). The Hebrew word translated contend, tachârâh (takh – aw – raw´) means to vie with a rival (8474). It conveys the idea of a strong emotion in the sense of a visible expression such as burning with anger, to be red-faced, or in the heat of jealousy when a person might seek revenge. The LORD’s use of a horse as the rival Jeremiah needed to contend with implied that Jeremiah was outmatched and could not possibly overcome his opponent in his own strength. With this illustration, the LORD set the stage for a lesson he planned to teach Jeremiah about humility.

The  parable of the girdle was intended to show Jeremiah how God could get his people back on track when there seemed to be no hope of them ever repenting or seeking salvation from the LORD. A linen girdle was a belt that was tied around the waist that symbolized holiness. One of the ways the girdle was used was to fasten up the clothing around the waist for ease of movement or to prevent clothes from being damaged during work. The girdle was an essential item for what was considered to be a civilized man or gentleman. God told Jeremiah to wear a girdle around his waist, but not to wash it, so that it would become soiled. Then, he was told to “hide it there in a hole of a rock” (Jeremiah 13:4), until it rotted and was no longer useful (Jeremiah 13:7).

After Jeremiah recovered the rotten girdle, the LORD explained to him that by sending his people into captivity, God was allowing them to experience the effects of  not having their sins forgiven. When they were taken into captivity, the people of Judah would know that God was angry with them and was punishing them for their sins. Pride had been keeping them from confessing their sins, or even admitting to themselves they had done anything wrong, but when their punishment was carried out, the people of Judah would no longer be able to deny the truth. As if to mock their fate, Jeremiah declared, “And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare. Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good,  that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:22-23).

 

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The imagination of the heart

Jeremiah’s message to the people of Judah about obedience to God’s commandments was met with death threats (Jeremiah 26:8). The priests and prophets had been lying to the people about the consequences of their sins and were unwilling to let God’s message interfere with the corrupt practices they had established (Jeremiah 8:11). After approaching the people in the temple, Jeremiah was told to take his message to the streets of Jerusalem. There he was to remind the people of their covenant with God and to warn them that judgment was coming. (Jeremiah 11:6,11).

The LORD’s argument against the people was their stubborn refusal to listen to what God was saying to them. Jeremiah was told, “For I earnestly protested unto your fathers in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice. Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 11:8). Imagination refers to the thoughts in one’s mind. The people had gotten the idea in their heads that idolatry was necessary for their survival. Idolatry had become a way of life for them and they couldn’t imagine giving up that lifestyle.

God described the situation in Judah as a conspiracy (Jeremiah 11:9). What he meant by that was an alliance had been formed between the leaders of Judah and the priests and prophets of the temple that excluded God from the government of his people. Normally, the people were expected to seek God for direction and to thank him for his provision, but instead the people were expected to pay tribute to the king of Egypt (2 Chronicles 36:3) and to mock God for his inability to deliver them from their enemies (2 Chronicles 36:4).

Jeremiah’s frustration and humiliation at being condemned to death for speaking the truth is evident in his statement of rejection. He said, “But I was like a lamb or an ox that is led to the slaughter’ and I knew not that they had devised devices against me saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be no more remembered” (Jeremiah 11:19). In spite of his desperate situation, Jeremiah didn’t lose hope in God. He prayed, “But, O LORD of hosts, that judgest righteously, that triest the reins and the heart, let me see vengeance on them: for unto thee have I revealed my cause” (Jeremiah 11:20).

False information

The people of Judah were dependent on false prophets and corrupt priests to guide them in their spiritual activities. One of the reasons God’s people were unrepentant was they thought their sacrifices were enough to guarantee God’s blessing on their nation. There was no real awareness among the people of Judah that they were in trouble. Jeremiah described their problem as a “perpetual backsliding” (Jeremiah 8:5). Jeremiah’s use of the term perpetual backsliding indicated there was a permanent separation between God and his people. Another way of describing their condition would be to say the people had abandoned their faith. They no longer believed in God.

It was difficult for Jeremiah to get through to the people because their consciences were unaffected by what they were doing. Jeremiah declared, “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them  that fall: in the time of their visitation” (Jeremiah 8:12). A time of visitation was an appointed time when an officer or custodian would have to give an account for his area of responsibility. The nation of Judah was responsible to God for their worship activities. They were not free to worship in any other way than what had been prescribed to them by the Mosaic Law. God’s ultimate goal for his people was for them to receive salvation and eternal life. Because of their disobedience, God’s plan could not be carried out.

God was grieved over the situation in Judah. He didn’t want to punish his children, but he couldn’t overlook the fact that they had disassociated themselves from him and were going to die without their sins being atoned for. Jeremiah depicted God’s attitude toward his children as one of care and concern for their well-being. He said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Recompense

God intended his children to be different than everyone else. He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land so they could prosper and live there for ever. When the Mosaic Law was implemented, God made a way for his people to be forgiven of their sins and again to prosper even though they had made mistakes. As a result of their special treatment, the Israelites became wicked, and selfish, and took advantage of God’s mercy toward them (Jeremiah 5:27-28). In some ways, God’s people acted as if the LORD was their servant, instead of the other way around. God asked Jeremiah, “Do they provoke me to anger? do they not provoke themselves to the confusion of their own faces? (Jeremiah 7:19). In other words, God was saying that the people had lost sight of who they were and why he had delivered them from slavery.

The main thing the people of Judah had forgotten was their responsibility to do the will of God. The LORD reminded Jeremiah, “But this thing commanded I them saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you” (Jeremiah 7:23). Just because their sins were forgiven didn’t mean God’s children were exempt from suffering the consequences of their wrong behavior. In effect, God had told the Israelites from the beginning that it would go well for them if they obeyed his commandments, but if they didn’t, they would be punished (Deuteronomy 28:15). In condemnation of their wrong choices, the LORD stated, “But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsel and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward” (Jeremiah 7:24).

Jeremiah warned the people  of Judah of terrible days to come. He described the scene of a great slaughter that would take place at a sight known as the “valley of the son of Hinnom” where children were burned in a fire pit as a sacrifice to pagan gods (note on Jeremiah 7:31). As if he was paying a recompense to the unfortunate children that had been killed there, the LORD said he would turn the valley of Hinnom into a cemetery when the people of Judah were slaughtered there by the Babylonian invaders. He said, “Therefore, behold, the days will come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Himmom, but the valley of slaughter: for they shall bury in Tophet till there be no place. And the carcasses of the people shall be meat for the fowls of heaven, and for the beasts of the earth; and none shall fray them away” (Jeremiah 7:32-33).

Broken relationships

One of the consequences of the people of Judah going into captivity was broken relationships. While God’s people were dwelling in the Promised Land, land ownership laws kept them in the same general location for hundreds of years. Although it was possible to sell land, every 50 years ownership returned to the family of origin. Therefore, there was little change in the city of residence for most people. As a result, relationships were stable and the majority of families remained in tact. Like when the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews in the 1940s, family members were probably separated and forced into different transient camps by their Babylonian captors. It is possible family members were scattered throughout the Babylonian empire during their captivity so that relationship structures that supported the Israelite culture would cease to exist.

Jeremiah declared, “Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will lay stumblingblocks before this people, and the fathers and the sons together shall fall upon them; the neighbor and his friend shall perish” (Jeremiah 6:21). The stumblingblock was a symbol of being broken. Jeremiah’s reference to the fathers and the sons together falling on the stumblingblock was most likely meant to convey the idea of a joint effort to sustain the family being a futile attempt against the cruel and merciless Babylonian army (Jeremiah 6:23). The neighbor and his friend were people that had lived in close proximity to each other their entire lives and were like extended family members to each other. In all likelihood, the word perish meant that these kinds of relationships would cease to exist. and every man would suffer alone during his time in captivity.

Jeremiah described a scene of devastation in which everyone would be weeping bitterly. He said, “O daughter of my people, gird thee with sackcloth, and wallow thyself in ashes: make thee mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation: for the spoiler shall suddenly come upon us” (Jeremiah 6:26). The Hebrew word translated spoiler, shadad (shaw – dad´) may have been a term used to describe a calamity. Figuratively, shadad refers to something or someone powerful (7703), but it also carries the connotation of a rushing wind or a tempestuous storm (7665, 7722), something like a tornado that moves quickly and leaves behind a path of destruction. Jeremiah predicted the spoiler would come quickly and unexpectedly as when a child dies of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). In the end, the peoples’ lives would be left empty and worthless. Jeremiah declared, “Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the LORD hath rejected them” (Jeremiah 6:30).

 

Heart trouble

At the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry, the city of Jerusalem was active in its worship of the LORD. After king Josiah made a covenant “to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments,” a Passover celebration took place that included every citizen of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 34:31; 35:18). It says in 2 Chronicles 35:18, “And there was no Passover like to that kept in Israel from the days of Samuel the Prophet; neither did all the kings of Israel keep such a Passover as Josiah kept.” And yet, the LORD challenged Jeremiah to try to find one upright man for whose sake he might pardon the entire city. He told Jeremiah, “And though they say, The LORD liveth; surely they swear falsely” (Jeremiah 5:2).

Although the people  of Jerusalem were practicing their religion, God could see their hearts were not in it. Jeremiah said, “O LORD, are not thine eyes upon the truth? thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved, thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction: they have made their faces harder than a rock; they have refused to return” (Jeremiah 5:3). Jeremiah’s reference to the peoples’ faces being harder than rock was actually a reference to their hard heartedness. The Hebrew word translated harder, chazaq (khaw – zak´) is the same word used to describe Pharaoh’s hardened heart when he refused to let the people of Israel leave Egypt (Exodus 7:13). In reference to Pharaoh, chazaq means “to brace up and strengthen and points to the hardihood with which he set himself to act in defiance against God and closed all the avenues to his heart to those signs and wonders which Moses wrought” (2388).

When the people of Jerusalem celebrated the Passover, they were only going through the motions. Their true motive for participation was a free meal at the expense of king Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:7). God could see the people had become complacent and were no longer concerned about his judgment of them. It was as if they believed God was unaware of what they were doing and could not hold them accountable for their sin. In order to show them the foolishness of their decision to reject his offer of salvation, God intended to let his children experience the fruit of their own labors. He declared through the prophet Jeremiah, “A wonderful and a horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means, and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?” (Jeremiah 5:31).

 

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)