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.