What the Contract Stipulates

The LORD God told me to say to the people of Judah and Jerusalem:

I, the LORD, am warning you that I will put a curse on anyone who doesn’t keep the agreement I made with Israel. So pay attention to what it says. My commands haven’t changed since I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, a nation that seemed like a blazing furnace where iron ore is melted. I told your ancestors that if they obeyed my commands, I would be their God, and they would be my people. Then I did what I had promised and gave them this wonderful land, where you now live.
“Yes, LORD,” I replied, “that’s true.” (Jeremiah 11:1-5)

People change their minds. They make promises, but then circumstances arise and they find it easy to let them alter the agreement; they explain their promises away. They had good intentions, but how were they to know what would happen?

The prophets were not innovators. They did not bring a new message from God. Instead, they preached the old, old story, repeating what God expected: that his people would love him and love each other.

Israel had agreed to that contract with God. They had promised to do whatever he said. They did not have to agree to the contract. He rescued them from Egypt before he offered it to them. Their freedom and prosperity were not on the line. It wasn’t as if they were drowning in a lake and the lifeguard made them agree to pay a fortune before he’d save them. They were out of danger. And they decided to sign on the dotted line.

God reminded his people that he had not changed. That is a comfort, or should be a comfort: what God promises, he’ll do. God will never betray us, he’ll never go back on a promise. He’ll keep his word.

God wishes that human beings—that his people–would be more like him.

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You Like Oppression?

“Among my people are wicked men
who lie in wait like men who snare birds
and like those who set traps to catch men.
Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it,
they do not defend the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the LORD.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?
“A horrible and shocking thing
has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end? (Jeremiah 5:26-31)

Despite a professed hunger for liberty, many people seem to prefer being told what to do. Why? Perhaps because they don’t like having the responsibility—and perhaps because they know they can always say, “I was just following orders.”

Catching a bird in a snare takes effort and subterfuge. Snaring men is the same. The world works according to rules and according to those who interpret those rules. For those who knew all the rules, they found it easy to manipulate them to their advantage. So, they defended the cause of the poor, making themselves look good and upright, even as they lined their own pockets, and left only scraps for the poor. They cared only for the money and the acclaim that came from standing up for what was right, without actually having to do what was right.

God loves people and wants people to love each other. All societies, from the earliest Sumerians on, record how their rulers protected the orphans and widows. The reality was always something quite different. Those in power know what they are supposed to do. They always give lip service to it. But in Israel’s case, God held them to it: God expected their deeds to match their words. Otherwise, God promised that those who betrayed the weak would soon find themselves weak.

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Time For Some Punishment

Then I said, “O Sovereign LORD,
the people have been deceived by what you said,
for you promised peace for Jerusalem.
But the sword is held at their throats!”
The time is coming when the LORD will say
to the people of Jerusalem,
“My dear people, a burning wind is blowing in from the desert,
and it’s not a gentle breeze useful for winnowing grain.
It is a roaring blast sent by me!
Now I will pronounce your destruction!”
Our enemy rushes down on us like storm clouds!
His chariots are like whirlwinds.
His horses are swifter than eagles.
How terrible it will be, for we are doomed!
O Jerusalem, cleanse your heart
that you may be saved.
How long will you harbor
your evil thoughts?
Your destruction has been announced
from Dan and the hill country of Ephraim. (Jeremiah 4:10-15)

How could Jeremiah tell God that he had deceived his people? Was he calling God a liar? Not at all. Instead, he was pointing out that the people of Israel had only listened selectively to what God had said. They comforted themselves with God’s promises of blessing and conveniently ignored what they had to do to get them. And they forgot the promised curses that were inevitable for disobedience.

Like a cheating husband telling his betrayed wife, “but you said you would love me and honor me and always be there for me, in sickness and health” when she serves him with divorce papers, so the Israelites seemed unable to wrap their heads around how the bad things they were facing could have anything to do with how they had betrayed God. Just as God had promised peace for Jerusalem, so he had also promised its destruction: it was up to the Israelites which promise they were going to get. People tend to believe only what they want to believe.

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Promise Keeping

Hiram king of Tyre sent ambassadors to Solomon when he heard that he had been crowned king in David’s place. Hiram had loved David his whole life. Solomon responded, saying, “You know that David my father was not able to build a temple in honor of God because of the wars he had to fight on all sides, until God finally put them down. But now God has provided peace all around—no one against us, nothing at odds with us.

“Now here is what I want to do: Build a temple in honor of God, my God, following the promise that God gave to David my father, namely, ‘Your son whom I will provide to succeed you as king, he will build a house in my honor.’ And here is how you can help: Give orders for cedars to be cut from the Lebanon forest; my loggers will work alongside yours and I’ll pay your men whatever wage you set. We both know that there is no one like you Sidonians for cutting timber.”

When Hiram got Solomon’s message, he was delighted, exclaiming, “Blessed be God for giving David such a wise son to rule this flourishing people!” (1 Kings 5:1-7)

Solomon wrote that “a friend loves at all times.” (Proverbs 17:17) David loved God, and despite all his faults, his loyalty to God was absolute. He wanted to serve God with everything he had. He was completed devoted to him. One day, after he had built his palace, he felt bad that the place for worshiping God was merely a tent. He decided that he needed to do something to change that. God told him that he appreciated the thought, but it was really not necessary. More than that, God explained that although a permanent Temple was a good thing to want, it was not something that God would let him do. Instead, the task of building a Temple would be left to his son Solomon, who would reign in his place.

David let Solomon know what he desired for God. And David made plans, gathering materials and even purchasing the land for the Temple. But David wound up having to trust his son to do what he had set in his heart on. It was not an ill placed trust. Solomon fulfilled the promise he made to his father and built the Temple. And he got David’s friend Hiram, the king of Tyre, who had loved him his whole life, to help.

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‘Only acknowledge your iniquity,
That you have transgressed against the LORD your God
And have scattered your favors to the strangers under every green tree,
And you have not obeyed My voice,’ declares the LORD.
‘Return, O faithless sons,’ declares the LORD;
‘For I am a master to you,
And I will take you one from a city and two from a family,
And I will bring you to Zion.’

“Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding.

“It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land,” declares the LORD, “they will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again.

“At that time they will call Jerusalem ‘The Throne of the LORD,’ and all the nations will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor will they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart.

“In those days the house of Judah will walk with the house of Israel, and they will come together from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers as an inheritance. (Jeremiah 3:13-18)

Confession is good for the soul. It is also the only way that repentance can happen, since you can only repent if you know what you’ve done wrong. Children learn to say “sorry” if they fear they will get in trouble. But that kind of “sorry” is only an empty word tossed like a charm to ward off pain. Only when the child can acknowledge what he or she has done, is there real confession and real repentance. A genuinely repentant heart offers up no excuses, balks at no punishment, complains about no restitution.

Someday, God says, that will happen to his people. Therefore, knowing that future, he assures them that they will, after all is said and done, come back to him and he will restore them to their land. Though much will be different then, they will not miss what used to be.

Though in the time of Jeremiah, people spoke of the ark of the covenant as if it were magic, the time would come when it would be gone for good and no one would care. Obsession about sacred objects and places is misguided. What matters are people, because people are the true sacred objects of God (John 4:21-24).

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When God Got a Divorce

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.

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. (Jeremiah 3:6-12)

God sometimes gives people exactly what they want. Of course, it usually doesn’t take them long to realize that they didn’t really know what they wanted after all. Eve desperately wanted a certain fruit that for some inexplicable reason God was cruelly withholding from her. Only after she got it, were her eyes opened to just how big a mistake she had made.

God’s words to Jeremiah arrived during the reign of Josiah, one of the most righteous kings Judah ever had. He restored the temple. He got rid of the idols and high places. He worshipped Yahweh exclusively. But, quite obviously, nothing much had really changed. Josiah’s reforms were barely skin deep. With his death, his son Jehoiakim reverted to idols, idols everywhere.

Israel and Judah wanted to worship other gods. They didn’t care about Yahweh any more. So God gave them up, sent them away, left them to their own devices. But unlike human beings, who are willing to write off those who betray them, God was always willing to take her back. In fact, the “divorce” was really part of his plan, the final discipline that he knew she needed in order for true repentance to take place. God knows exactly what his people need, even if they don’t see it themselves. His discipline is always perfect, and always achieves his goal: the restoration of the relationship.

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Horny Camel

How can you say, “I am not defiled,
I have not gone after the Baals”?
Look at your way in the valley;
know what you have done—
a restive young camel interlacing her tracks,
a wild ass at home in the wilderness,
in her heat sniffing the wind!
Who can restrain her lust?
None who seek her need weary themselves;
in her month they will find her.
Keep your feet from going unshod
and your throat from thirst.
But you said, “It is hopeless,
for I have loved strangers,
and after them I will go.”
As a thief is shamed when caught,
so the house of Israel shall be shamed—
they, their kings, their officials,
their priests, and their prophets,
who say to a tree, “You are my father,”
and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
For they have turned their backs to me,
and not their faces.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
“Come and save us!”
But where are your gods
that you made for yourself?
Let them come, if they can save you,
in your time of trouble;
for you have as many gods
as you have towns, O Judah.
Why do you complain against me?
You have all rebelled against me,
says the LORD. (Jeremiah 2:23-29)

God compares his people to animals governed by their instincts, but the animals look more reasonable than his people do. First, the people try to pretend that they haven’t forsaken God, even when the evidence is obvious. Then they claim that they can’t help themselves, that they are helpless to their love for “strangers.” The “strangers” are the gods they have turned to instead of Yahweh.

People sometimes ignore friends who have stood by them in the past, who have been there for them during previous crises. Instead, they turn to those who are actually leading them astray. But then, as soon as soon as the bottom drops out, as soon as they become desperate, they turn back again to those they had scorned. God asks his people, so why turn to me now?

God is quickly blamed for the problems they caused themselves. They depended on what was undependable and so they suffered the consequences. Nevertheless, like the father with his prodigal son, God is willing to forgive. All they need do is ask.

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Trash for Treasure

Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look,
send to Kedar and observe closely;
see if there has ever been anything like this:
Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their Glory
for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, O heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the LORD.
“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.
Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth?
Why then has he become plunder?
Lions have roared;
they have growled at him.
They have laid waste his land;
his towns are burned and deserted.
Also, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes
have shaved the crown of your head.
Have you not brought this on yourselves
by forsaking the LORD your God
when he led you in the way? (Jeremiah 2:10-17)

People do not easily change their minds about things like religion or politics. For hundreds, if not thousands of years the people of Canaan, Mesopotamia and Egypt continued worshipping all their multiple gods—gods that didn’t even exist. They never even thought about changing their religion. So, God wonders what to make of his people, who turned their backs on him. He’s real; they’ve seen evidence of his power repeatedly, unlike say Babylon, where no one had ever seen Marduk do anything but they faithfully worshipped him all the same.

Some identify Kittim with Syria. Others with the Philistines or all the islands of the Aegian. Kedar refers to a confederation of Arab tribes in northern Arabia. Memphis and Tahpenis refer to the two cities in Egypt. Memphis was Egypt’s capital, while Tahpenhes is where Jeremiah would be taken by those who fled the Babylonians (see Jeremiah 43:7). God’s point: no matter where you look, can anyone find people that have abandoned their own gods?

Sin is irrational. They turn from a God who is real, to gods who are fake. They turn from a God who is demonstrably powerful to things that are demonstrably ineffectual. As their lives spiral down, why do they exchange a treasure trove for a trash?

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Returning Evil for Good

Listen to the word of the LORD, people of Jacob—all you families of Israel! This is what the LORD says:
“What did your ancestors find wrong with me
that led them to stray so far from me?
They worshiped worthless idols,
only to become worthless themselves.
They did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD
who brought us safely out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness—
a land of deserts and pits,
a land of drought and death,
where no one lives or even travels?’
“And when I brought you into a fruitful land
to enjoy its bounty and goodness,
you defiled my land and
corrupted the possession I had promised you.
The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the LORD?’
Those who taught my word ignored me,
the rulers turned against me,
and the prophets spoke in the name of Baal,
wasting their time on worthless idols.
Therefore, I will bring my case against you,”
says the LORD.
“I will even bring charges against your children’s children
in the years to come. (Jeremiah 2:4-9)

People just take God for granted during the good times. He’s easy to ignore. Jeremiah began prophesying to the Israelites in the few years left before they would go into captivity in Babylon. God dares his people to try to justify their behavior. What, exactly, he wonders, can they say against him?

But no. They continued with the same behavior, ignoring everything Jeremiah said. God told them how they were mistreating him. He told them that how they were acting made no sense. When someone is kind and helpful, when someone gives gifts, the normal human response is gratitude. Even the worst of human beings are usually nice to those who are nice to them, if for no other reason than a selfish desire to keep the gravy flowing.

Loving regardless of how someone treats you is rare. But tit-for-tat is common. But God’s people can’t even muster that. In the face of God’s goodness, they respond by chasing after other gods instead. Like a wife inexplicably cheating on a good and loving husband, heaping insults upon him even as she throws herself at her lovers. Those entrusted with leading the people: the priests and the rulers—they were first in the line leading away from God.

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“But come here, you sons of a sorceress,
Offspring of an adulterer and a prostitute.
“Against whom do you jest?
Against whom do you open wide your mouth
And stick out your tongue?
Are you not children of rebellion,
Offspring of deceit,
Who inflame yourselves among the oaks,
Under every luxuriant tree,
Who slaughter the children in the ravines,
Under the clefts of the crags?
“Among the smooth stones of the ravine
Is your portion, they are your lot;
Even to them you have poured out a drink offering,
You have made a grain offering.
Shall I relent concerning these things?
“Upon a high and lofty mountain
You have made your bed.
You also went up there to offer sacrifice.
“Behind the door and the doorpost
You have set up your sign;
Indeed, far removed from Me, you have uncovered yourself,
And have gone up and made your bed wide.
And you have made an agreement for yourself with them,
You have loved their bed,
You have looked on their manhood.
“You have journeyed to the king with oil
And increased your perfumes;
You have sent your envoys a great distance
And made them go down to Sheol.
“You were tired out by the length of your road,
Yet you did not say, ‘It is hopeless.’
You found renewed strength,
Therefore you did not faint. (Isaiah 57:3-10)

God graphically describes the disloyalty of his people, trying to get them to understand just how much they have hurt him, how his heart had been broken. “Uncovering” yourself and “looked on their manhood” or literally, “looked at their nakedness” are Hebrew idioms indicating sexual activity. Israel’s worship of other gods is described in terms of sexual infidelity; Israel is portrayed as a wife who has traveled far for her affairs with other men only to find that nothing cooled her ardor or made her rethink her infidelity.

Israel worshipped a wide variety of gods and goddesses. Molech, an Ammonite god, was worshiped by sacrificing children to him. Ashera was a popular deity among the Israelites as well, a fertility goddess whose wooden poles—phallic symbols—stood on hills and other high places throughout the land, while those who worshipped her engaged in sympathetic magic: sleeping with the priestesses devoted to her.

And yet the Israelites felt no shame; in fact, they ridiculed those who insisted on worshipping God alone, and laughed in God’s face. Arrogantly they insisted on their own ways, doing what they wanted to do regardless of the pain they caused God, feeling no guilt over their betrayal.

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