Monday, August 20, 2018

Jeremiah 4: Break up the fallow ground

The central verse in Jeremiah 4 may be
O Jerusalem, wash your heart clean of wickedness
    so that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil schemes
    lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:14)
Washing the heart of wickedness denotes an overhaul of one's own character. It parallels the figures of breaking up the fallow ground and of circumcising the heart in vss. 3-4.
For thus says the Lord to the people of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
Break up your fallow ground,
    and do not sow among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
    and burn with no one to quench it,
    because of the evil of your doings. (Jeremiah 4:3-4)
We can see that failure to do this character adjustment risks God's wrath. Breaking up the soil of a fallow field denotes years of neglected relationship with Yahweh. Working a field after so many years means that a lot of work will go to getting the weeds out (Mark 4:7; 18-19). Judah had gotten used to bad habits and even pagan rituals. The religious leaders were no longer worried about them. Getting rid of them would mean making difficult changes to long-established bad habits. Circumcision of the heart denotes the same thing. It means to perform surgery on the heart ( = the mind) to get rid of whatever is separating one's self from God (Romans 2:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Colossians 2:11-14).

Notice in Jeremiah 4:14 that this self-reorientation results in salvation. God in the Old Testament is not all about wrath. God has always been about salvation. God's call to repent is always open (Jeremiah 4:8) and it always comes with a promise of salvation. And more importantly to God, a broken relationship is repaired.

In verse 14, we also hear a question.
How long shall your evil schemes
    lodge within you?
An atemporal god would not ask such a question. A god who practices Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace would never ask such a question. A God who desires a real relationship with a people wearing God's name would definitely ask this question; for that relationship is neither established or restored until such time as you and I respond to God's earnest appeals. Our response is required or else the relationship cannot be real.

This drawing near to God is not a first action on our part. God is already passionately moving in our direction and he is diligently working to repair a damaged relationship. Something frequently stops the desired reconciliation. That something is our failure to respond to God's work. God is reaching out to us but we often fail to respond. The relationship remains damaged. That dynamic is what James has in mind when he says
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. (James 4:8-9)
I love the words to the song "Reach Out to Jesus."
When you get discouraged, just remember what to do.
Reach out to Jesus. He's reaching out to you. (Ralph Carmichael, 1968)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Jeremiah 3: To God, restored covenant is more important than reputation

In Jeremiah 3, God compares his relationship to Israel, in part, to a marriage relationship. (The marriage metaphor is mixed up with figures of a Father and his children and also a chief shepherd with his flock of sheep).

God knows the rule about a faithless spouse. The faithful partner in the broken relationship is barred from receiving the faithless partner back into the marriage covenant. It pollutes the land. It shames the faithful partner.

Yet God is willing to set his own good reputation aside in order to receive back his faithless partner Israel.
 “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14, NIV)
What a wonderful God is the God of the Bible! God is willing to set aside his own good reputation in order to restore me into covenant relationship to God—even after I have sullied God's good name and I have violated that relationship to such a level that the damaged should have been permanent! Such a restoration could be compared to a husband receiving back his faithless wife knowing full well that receiving her back as his wife is unlawful and a pollution to the land!

While I dirtied the relationship and while restoration is invited, the choice is to return completely my own. In the metaphor, I must return and behave as a faithful wife. In the meaning of the metaphor, I must return with intent to be faithful. The ball is so much in my court that God often expects one response when he gets another. In Jeremiah, God remembers his hopes for Northern Israel that were never realized.
And I thought, "After she has done all this she will return to me"; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. (Jeremiah 3:7, NRSV)
With God's invitation, God was certain the people would return in a similar manner of a restored marriage; but God's expectation was not realized. God was surprised by Israel's and now Judah's faithlessness! In fact, this chapter features a verse that seems to be deliberately vague; but if it is read carefully, it becomes evident that the verse describes God in the figure of the estranged husband, standing outside the house of his wife's lover. He is weeping because his faithless wife in inside the house with her lover.
A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping [because*] of Israel's children, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the Lord their God. (Jeremiah 3:21)
It is no wonder the poet says
I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. (Isaiah 65:2)
If we have violated covenant against God, God calls us back with weeping. Though God's reputation may be damaged by taking us back, restored covenant is more important to God than a good reputation.

* The Hebrew word, almost universally translated as "of" is variously translated in other places as "that, because, for, if, surely, except, yea, doubtless" (Strong's, OliveTree resource). The word "of" can indicate either a consequence or an antecedent. In the context of God begging the people to return to God in covenant relationship, the weeping in verse 21 is to be understood as God's weeping for Israel rather than Israel's ritual weeping in the Baal cult. A case can be made that this weeping is the weeping God and Jeremiah expect from the people over their own apostasy. The text eventually goes there in Jeremiah 3:22b; but the strength of the case is indirect and the text is confusing to read that way. (See Alex Varughese, Commentary on Jeremiah, Beacon Hill Press, 73).