One of the most important aspects to life is relationships. They are the most rewarding and difficult aspects of life. We become deeply invested in others, but when there is a breach in the relationship, particularly in our marriage relationship, the question comes to mind: is it possible to start over again? Are there terms we need to consider before moving forward and what are those ingredients to make reconciliation possible? As we look at the nation of Israel and Judah, God’s people, we can learn both how relationships can come to an end, or be reconciled. What are the ingredients to make that possible?
The devastating impact of Israel’s sins led to a broken covenant. Just like in marriage, apart from certain powerful changes needed, the relationship will dissolve. It is a shocking to discover that in Jeremiah 3, God divorces the nation of Israel, and warns Judah of a similar fate.
The goal in any relationship that has experienced difficulties is reconciliation. The question that often arises is in brokenness and pain is, is it possible? What are the terms on which a relationship can be repaired? These are all questions that Jeremiah raises here in the third and early part of the fourth chapter. There are three relational dynamics in the context of reconciliation as seen in the book of Jeremiah.
THE FIRST RELATIONAL DYNAMIC IS THE POSSIBILITY OF RECONCILIATION
What destroys relationships? It happens when we neglect the relationship by embracing other loves. This violates the current relationship. We are looking at the analogy that Jeremiah will bring to our attention, the exclusivity required in a marital relationship. Here we see the threat of a permanent break in the marital relationship. Jeremiah goes back to God’s earlier revelation found in Deuteronomy and raises the question about the possibility of reconciliation. We need to remember that Jeremiah is using the analogy of marriage as the foundation upon which we have a relationship with God.
A. When we violate our covenant obligation.
‘If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again? Would not the land be completely defiled (Jeremiah 3:1a)?”
Here Jeremiah is taking us back to the book of Deuteronomy.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorces her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.[i]
This law was, in essence, to make people realize that divorce was a drastic action with significant ramifications. There was a finality about this action that meant it was irreversible, so that, if a person was to divorce, this was a severing of the relationship. Jesus warned against the frivolous manner in which some people were divorcing their wives when he was asked about his stance on the nature of divorce. Jesus talked about the binding nature of this relationship and what caused the breach in the relationship.
Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’[ii]
In the Jeremiah text, he is using this analogy of marriage in God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel and Judah. Israel and Judah were once united but had been divided for centuries. Now Jeremiah is stating the grounds that both Moses and Jesus are speaking of that causes a breach in that covenant relationship. Infidelity or unfaithfulness is what ruptures relationships.
But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers-would you now return to me? Declares the LORD. ‘Look up to the barren heights and see. Is there any place where you have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers, sat like a nomad in the desert. You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness.[iii]
Old Testament scholar, Tremper Longman points to the significance of the statement of the ‘barren heights’.
Barren heights may more precisely be translated caravan roads, the place where traders traveled from one locale to another. Most roads were located on ridge routes in Israel. There may be further allusion to the fact that Canaanite religious sites were located on high places. [This was certainly] “a convenient place for prostitutes seeking clients.[iv]
Jeremiah was pointing out that their idolatry was like spiritual prostitution. They were unfaithful to Yahweh. The question raised by Jeremiah 3:1 is that it was impossible under law to be reconciled, but what we are going to discover in this passage is that God is gracious, and because of grace, God can restore a fallen people. Yet, sin always carries consequences. Here we read in Jeremiah 3:3 the consequences that they were experiencing. “Therefore the showers have been withheld, and no spring rains have fallen (Jeremiah 3:3a).” One of the curses for failing to fulfill their covenant obligations with Yahweh would be drought and famine. We see this expressed in the curses outlined in their covenant stated in the book of Deuteronomy.
The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron.
The LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.[v]
Now, having been reminded of their failure; their attitude was one of indifference and denial. They refused to humble themselves, repent and make the necessary changes in their lives to restore their relationship with Yahweh. God was not fooled by verbal pretenses and remains adamant that the relationship is in trouble.
Yet you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame.
Have you not just called to me: ‘My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry? Will your wrath continue forever? This is how you talk, but you do all the evil you can.[vi]
Jeremiah reminds them that they say all the right things, but their actions don’t correspond with their words. Jesus spoke of the same issue in his day, when he quotes from a contemporary of Jeremiah, the prophet Isaiah.
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.[vii]
What was true in Jeremiah’s hour, and later in the gospel accounts with Jesus still persists today. For many, their faith is a mere verbal pretense without a real transformation of life. What brings about reconciliation is when people deal with core issues in their relationships. The beginning point must start with God before we can effectively bring about real change in our human relationships. The great tragedy of our hour is the constant loss of human relationships we are witnessing because of our own superficiality.
True reconciliation, as we well know, in human relationships is a difficult, costly experience, which can never be built on a quick, ‘let’s forget it’ attitude. A faithless, unrepentant people cannot simply turn to God as if he were some benign sugar daddy, momentarily angry but at heart a soft, indulgent friend prepared to give them anything they ask as soon as they say ‘please.’ Reconciliation can never be merely a matter of words.[viii]
There needs to be a change of heart and actions that reveal a new basis on which the relationship can be established.
B. Some people never learn and therefore do not change.
Jeremiah indicts the southern Kingdom of Judah because they have not learned the lessons from their northern neighbor, Israel.
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, ‘Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there.
I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it.
I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.[ix]
What was happening during the reign of King Josiah? Josiah was one of the few godly kings of Judah who was destroying the idolatry in the land and calling for those who had not been taken in the Assyrian captivity in the north to join the southern kingdom and worship God. Outwardly, it looked like the nation was turning to God. Yet here Jeremiah explains to us that it was all a pretext. As soon as Josiah is killed in battle, the nation reverts back to its idols. She had not learned anything from God’s judgment upon the northern kingdom of Israel.
Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood [ingredients in which idols were created and worshiped].
In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,’ declares the LORD.[x]
Now, Jeremiah makes the distinction that Israel is more righteous than Judah. Why? Because Judah had an example to follow but closes her eyes to the severity of the issue. Judah committed an even greater sin because she knew better, she had witnessed the outcome of Israel’s sin, but persisted in that reckless course of action. There is no greater sin than when we know better and we sin against love. “The LORD said to me, ‘Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah (Jeremiah 3:11).”
…there is nothing more frustrating than trying to preach repentance to a people who believe they have already repented. There is nothing like a good dose of ‘religion’ to inoculate people against the radical claims of God.[xi]
That was certainly true of Jesus coming to his own people, and being, for the most part, rejected (cf. John 1:11). So, how does this apply to the restoration of a relationship? There must be real change or else all we get is a repeat performance of the past. Some people refuse to make the changes necessary to restore a relationship with either God, their spouse or others and therefore the relationship never moves to a holy or healthy place.
THE SECOND RELATIONAL DYNAMIC IS THE CALL FOR RECONCILIATION
Here we have to respond to the call for change, which is what real repentance is.
Go, proclaim this message toward the north: Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt – you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ declares the LORD.
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.[xii]
Even though from the above analogy, the nation could not take her place again as God’s wife because of her repeated adulteries, she could still be forgiven if she was truly penitent for past sin.[xiii]
Here we see the introduction of a remnant who trickle back from the northern kingdom; those who were not taken from the land into the Assyrian captivity. However, as Jeremiah will eventually point out, God is about to create a new covenant with his people based upon a transformed nature and heart.
‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the LORD.
This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.[xiv]
Jeremiah is pointing to the New Covenant, the grounds for which both Jews and Gentiles come into an amazing relationship with God. Where God Himself lives within us and empowers us to keep His words.
Robert Davidson relates that this reconciliation with God can only be based on the grounds of repentance.
…the call to ‘turn’, Hebrew shuv, was an important element in Jeremiah’s early preaching. This word shuv throbs like an insistent motif throughout the passages; forms of the word occur no less than eighteen times, a fact concealed by the English translations. It has several meanings all derived from the basic idea of turning. You can turn in different directions. You can turn away from someone, turning your back on them, deserting them; so a noun from the verb shuv is used to describe Israel as ‘the faithless one’ in 3:6,8,11,12.
You can turn back or turn towards someone, so the word is used in the sense of returning, of doing that right about-turn, back to God, which is what the Bible means by repenting; this is the meaning it has in 3:22; 4:1.[xv]
In God’s appeal to the people through Jeremiah we discover that though God is justifiably angry with His people, He is unchanging in His faithfulness and love. Reconciliation with God is possible based first of all on His unchanging faithful and loving character. Secondly, this reconciliation can only occur if we acknowledge our sin and renounce them by turning away from them. Here we have a promise of future hope and a new beginning. When we come to God on His terms, new things will begin to happen. When we address the issues that destroyed our relationship with our spouse, there is hope for a new and healthier relationship. Here God promises a new day with a different dynamic happening in their lives as they return or repent.
Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.
In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘people will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD,’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.
At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the LORD, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the LORD. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts.
In those days the people of Judah will join the people of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your ancestors as an inheritance.[xvi]
Jeremiah gives us four pictures or symbols for this new restored relationship.
- Godly leaders to help guide the people.
Leaders who reflect the heart of God toward the oppressed masses of people. This was certainly expressed and fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.[xvii]
Jesus calls himself the good shepherd and He came to lay down His life for us, His sheep.
- There will be no need for material representations depicting the presence of God.
The Ark of the Covenant was a place where the laws of God were stored. The ark symbolized the presence of the Living God. We see what happened when the priests stepped into the Jordan River carrying the ark upon their shoulder: the waters parted to allow the nation of Israel to cross on dry ground. It was God that parted the Jordan.
- A place will be provided where God can be encountered and learned about.
The next picture is the city of Jerusalem described here as ‘the Throne of God.’ Again, a picture of God’s presence. People came to Jerusalem to learn the law of the LORD and celebrate God’s festivals.
- The time when the kingdom will be united.
The last picture is one of a united people. These all speak to the issue of hope at a specific moment in God’s people’s lives, but this is all fulfilled in the person of Jesus. He is God in the flesh, the Word of God. When Jesus comes, healing and reconciliation comes. Robert Davidson reminds us:
But just as the ark of the covenant was no longer needed, so there would come a time when it was realized that the earthly city of Jerusalem was no longer essential to faith.[xviii]
We see that reflected in the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.
‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in Spirit and in truth.[xix]
THE FINAL RELATIONAL DYNAMIC IS THE TERMS FOR RECONCILIATION
What are the ingredients or conditions in which reconciliation is possible? How can we make this work? We can only experience true reconciliation with God, our spouse, and others when there is a genuine change of heart and mind that leads to a change of behavior. This usually only comes from pain. A deep disillusionment with what our life has been and a longing for a renewed life in relationship with God, our spouse and others. Here we see God’s willingness for reconciliation, but also pointing out their unwillingness until they could see the emptiness of their ways.
I myself said, ‘How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’ I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me.
But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,’ declares the LORD.
A cry is heard on the barren heights, the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel, because they have perverted their ways and have forgotten the LORD their God.
Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding. Yes, we will come to you, for you are the LORD our God.
Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills and mountains are a deception; surely in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.[xx]
Restoration and reconciliation comes from genuine repentance or change.
‘If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,’ declares the LORD.
‘If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, then the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast.
This is what the LORD says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem: ‘Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns [address the issues].
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise our hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire because of the evil you have done – burn with no one to quench it.[xxi]
We have to turn away from other loves and turn to God, exclusively. Breaking up the fallow ground is critical in order to plant new seeds. We can’t have a new and different crop if we don’t break from the old and embrace the new.
God has created each of us to have an intimate and exclusive relationship with Him. We are to love God above all, and in that relationship gain the spiritual dynamic to have healthy relationships with others. Andrew Dearborn has rightly pointed out:
Adultery in theological terms is a crime against grace, it is infidelity against the God who in Christ has called us into an intimate fellowship and who has formed a church as the holy bride of Christ. Judgment is the inevitable consequence of failure to turn to the Lord in faith and obedience. Human beings cannot have it both ways: Either one is on intimate terms with God through Jesus Christ, or one has other gods – other things that capture one’s commitments and ultimate allegiance.[xxii]
The step to God is seen in the term ‘turn.’ We either turn to God or turn away from Him. When we turn to Him, God does amazing things in our lives. Notice the things that Jeremiah pointed out, the ‘I wills’ of God.
I will treat you like my children – vs. 19.
I will give you a pleasant land – vs. 19. In a New Testament context this is speaking of ‘all the spiritual blessings in heavenly places (cf. Ephesians 1:3).
I will cure you of your backsliding – vs. 22.
Here we see the unveiling of God’s amazing, loving character. Even though the law was right in identifying our sins, it was powerless to change us. God made a provision to deliver us in order to reconcile us to Himself.
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,
In order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.[xxiii]
[i] Deuteronomy 24:1-4, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] Matthew 19:8-9.
[iii] Jeremiah 3:1b-2.
[iv] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 40-41.
[v] Deuteronomy 28:23-24.
[vi] Jeremiah 3:3b-5.
[vii] Matthew 15:7-9.
[viii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1; The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.), 37.
[ix] Jeremiah 3:6-8.
[x] Jeremiah 3:9-10.
[xi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1; 38.
[xii] Jeremiah 3:12-14.
[xiii] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 63.
[xiv] Jeremiah 31:31-33.
[xv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1; 38.
[xvi] Jeremiah 3:15-18.
[xvii] Matthew 9:36.
[xviii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1; 41.
[xix] John 4:20-21, 23-24.
[xx] Jeremiah 3:19-23.
[xxi] Jeremiah 4:1-4.
[xxii] J. Andrew Dearborn, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2002), 73.
[xxiii] Romans 8:3-4.