William Wilberforce is primarily remembered as the British Member of Parliament that advanced the cause against slavery, and eventually saw the end to that terrible abuse of humanity. What many may not know is that Wilberforce was a devout Christian.[He] knew the God of the universe as a loving Person who had intervened in his life, so he was filled with gratitude to God for being able to see what he saw and was slow to condemn those who didn’t see things as he did. Wilberforce loved his enemies. He didn’t grandstand and fulminate at those who were wrong, even if the subject was the horror of the slave trade. He included himself in the group of those who were guilty.[i]
He knew that but for the grace of God, he would still be blind to the nature of the sin against God and humanity that he once had also been a part of.
Wilberforce’s graciousness in the midst of the battle against the slave trade did a lot to persuade those who were on the fence instead of putting them off and pushing them away. He knew that God had commanded him to love his enemies. It wasn’t an option. So he would fight with his opponents and try to win, but he would do it God’s way, showing love and grace even as he fought with great passion.[ii]
Wilberforce had a profound affect upon his time. Even though we are facing many faces of evil in our day, we must never succumb to a self-righteous attitude. We will never see significant changes in the moral landscape of our nation until we, as individuals, first experience a brokenness and see the horror of our own sinfulness.
What God looks at even beyond the terrible outcomes of our sins that we commit nationally and individually is the condition of our hearts and minds. The need in every generation is a return to God. The conclusion of Jeremiah chapter three has been one of disillusionment. The nation of both Israel and Judah had pursued their own dreams, worshiped the gods or idols of the nations they found themselves in and were surrounded by. What had been the promise of the good life had turned bitter and empty. The way forward was to change course and return to the God of their forefathers. But what did that require? Here in chapter four we find God’s call and the unheeded response of the people. Here we see four elements in Jeremiah’s message that will help not only the people of his hour, but ours as well, toward wholeness.
THE FIRST ELEMENT IN HELPING US TOWARD WHOLENESS IS TO DESCRIBE THE WAY FOR US
This message is one of returning back to God via the path of repentance. It means a change of direction in our lives.
‘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.
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your 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.’[iii]
The first step in moving toward God is being honest with ourselves, and it is critical to our wellbeing. Living in self-deception is ultimately destructive in our lives.
Proverbs 28:13reminds us that: “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
What we will discover is that this message needs to be understood on an individual response level. R. K. Harrison rightly points out:
The MT [Masoretic Text] indicates that each man of Judah and Jerusalem is challenged to repent. It must be on an individual basis, not a corporate one as in the religious rituals of the day of atonement. This emphasis on personal religious experience is especially important for the theology of the new covenant where repentance for sin and the acceptance of Christ as savior is strictly individual in nature.[iv]
What this means is that we need to stop looking past ourselves at the sins of our nation as a whole and begin to allow the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and address those things in our lives that are not pleasing to Him. This is where real revival and transformation begins.
Here we see in verses three and four the need to address our heart condition. It is first described as soil that needs to be cultivated and prepared to receive the seed. We need to prepare the soil of our hearts to receive God’s word. We cannot just hear the word of God when the weeds of this life are growing, otherwise they choke out the value of the seeds. They will never grow, nor produce what is intended. Jesus warned against the seed falling among the thorns and choking out the word of God. This is a warning against simply listening to God’s message but not allowing it to have any impact upon our lives. When we are tender-hearted and open to obediently respond to God’s Word as God is speaking to us, then real change occurs within us.
The second analogy is that we are to circumcise our hearts and not just our flesh. Circumcision in the Old Testament was an outward sign of being in covenant with God. However, it often simply becomes a matter of ritual, like water baptism, which is an outward sign of an inward experience. God is challenging us to an inward work of grace in our souls. We need to be regenerated or made alive by the work of the Holy Spirit so that we have a new heart able to receive God’s word in humble obedience. How do we prepare our hearts to receive God’s life-giving and transforming word? We must act upon it.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.
You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.[v]
This is the law of displacement. We must end the lifestyle that was expressed in our sinful nature and became habitual and embrace a new way of thinking and living. Here we read that we are to put on godly characteristics in their place. If we refuse to respond to God’s call to transformation, all we can experience is dire consequences in our lives.
THE SECOND ELEMENT IN HELPING US TOWARD WHOLENESS IS TO RESPOND PROPERLY TO A WARNING
God is faithful in pointing out the dangers of life and how to avoid them. People who speak the truth in a loving manner and don’t flatter others are our true friends. “Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor rather than one who has a flattering tongue (Proverbs 28:23).”
We rarely want to hear the truth especially when it causes us emotional pain. However, it is better to hear the truth and realize that change must be made in our lives in order to grow up and become healthy people than to live in self-deception. We can never become the person God designed us to be by allowing sin to dominate our lives. All sin can ultimately bring into our lives is ruin.
Here Jeremiah is sounding the warning, like the sentinel on the wall, blowing the horns of warning of the impending army coming against their community.
Announce in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem and say: ‘Sound the trumpet throughout the land!’ cry aloud and say: ‘Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities!’
Raise the signal to go to Zion! Flee for safety without delay! For I am bringing disaster from the north, even terrible destruction.’
A lion has come out of his lair; a destroyer of nations has set out. He has left his place to lay waste your land. Your towns will lie in ruins without inhabitant.
So put on sackcloth, lament and wail, for the fierce anger of the LORD has not turned away from us.[vi]
“Yet this is not merely an enemy invasion; it is the expression of ‘the fierce anger of the Lord (v. 8).”[vii]
Here Jeremiah is talking about a northern invasion that will be devastating because the people had turned their backs on God. Two conflicting voices are sounded in that hour. Robert Davidson challenges complacency in the minds of the hearers.
Surely this is not a God who would allow the land to become a waste, its cities ruined and uninhabited. These were deeply-held sincere convictions, and to those who held them Jeremiah’s words must have seemed the words of a false prophet, a scaremonger, a heretic, a traitor to king and country. Yet Jeremiah believed such people were wrong, and that those who said ‘all will be well’ were deceived: just as Jesus was sorrowfully to look at Jerusalem and say, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes (Luke 19:42).[viii]
How can we misunderstand what is happening? Davidson writes: “…how do we explain the conflicting views of deeply sincere people all claiming to know God’s will?”[ix]
Then I said, ‘Alas, Sovereign LORD! How completely you have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, ‘You will have peace,’ when the sword is at our throats![x]
What is happening here? God is now addressing hundreds of years of apathy and indifference to His word and ways. He has warned the people over and over again, but they have turned a deaf ear and have not responded. All that is left is for God to address their sin. The consequences have now come upon them, described as a marauding lion, about to tear its prey to pieces and like a scorching southern wind devastating the land. This judgment is coming in the form of an invading army: the Babylonians. The people of Judah are about to experience an exile from the land.
At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, ‘A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them.
Look! He advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! We are ruined!
Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will your harbor wicked thoughts?
A voice is announcing from Dan, proclaiming disaster from the hills of Ephraim.
Tell this to the nations, proclaim concerning Jerusalem: A besieging army is coming from a distant land, raising a war cry against the cities of Judah.
They surround her like men guarding a field, because she has rebelled against me,’ declares the LORD.
‘Your own conduct and actions have brought this on you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!’[xi]
An appeal is being made here. The only hope for the future is a turning to God in the present. We know that Judah did not heed Jeremiah’s words of warning. But what about us? Have we really evaluated our lives? Is Christ sovereign over every aspect of our lives or are we living for ourselves with a bit of Christianity sprinkled into our lives. What is it that God requires of me, should be the cry of each heart? We should be asking: God why did you fashion me? How can I honor and glorify you with my life? Can we say like the apostle Paul, in Philippians 1:21; “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Are we living solely for this world, or do we see ourselves on a journey passing through and our destination is to be with our Lord.
THE THIRD ELEMENT IN HELPING US TOWARD WHOLENESS IS THE WEEPING IT PRODUCES
What I mean is the effect that God’s word should be having on my soul. How can we remain indifferent? It should challenge us, rock our worlds, affect our emotions, move us to action. This is not just the emotional impact upon us, this also includes how we communicate God’s word and standards to others. Do we come in a state of humility and brokenness? One of the dangers of people who know God’s path is the temptation to become self-righteous and haughty, which is equally sinful. Notice the warning of addressing issues in other people’s lives.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.[xii]
How many of us have seen people who are warning others, have also fallen into sin? It is a difficult thing to warn people when they are in a self-destructive mode. Listen to the pain in the heart of the prophet as he is declaring God’s message of warning to his people. Jeremiah is not indifferent to the message he is proclaiming. The message that Jeremiah is preaching is causing great emotion upheaval in his own soul. It is tearing him apart.
Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry!
Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins. In an instant my tents are destroyed, my shelter in a moment.
How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet?
‘My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they do not know how to do good.[xiii]
What is Jeremiah communicating to us? He can foresee what is about to transpire. He sees the ‘writing on the wall.’ There are consequences to people who forsake the way of righteousness and embrace wickedness. Every civilization experiences this pattern, and we are no different. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people (Proverbs 14:34).”
Jeremiah sees the impending destruction coming upon them, and the tragedy is that they don’t know what to do about it. They are only skilled in doing evil. What is even more significant here is the voices speaking. Who is in anguish? Certainly we realize it is Jeremiah, but we need to understand that he is only conveying a message. This message that is breaking his heart, is actually breaking God’s heart. God is not indifferent. It is also the voice of God, which is certainly evident in verse 22, when God calls His people fools that do not know Him. We rarely get the emotional anguish of God as He witnesses our brokenness, and lack of understanding. Think of what it cost God to bring reconciliation and healing to us? God gave of Himself for our sake. Can we see the lover of our soul scorned by our indifference and waywardness? Yet, God so loved us that He gave us His son to die as a sacrifice for our selfishness and sin.
THE FINAL ELEMENT IN HELPING US TOWARD WHOLENESS IS UNDERSTANDING THE DESTRUCTIVE WASTE THAT OCCURS
When we ignore God’s warning we end up experiencing the devastating consequences of sin in our lives. The results is the waste of a person’s life energies that would have been such a blessing to others. Here in our text we find a poetic description of the devastation that sin creates in society and the environment.
I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone.
I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking, all the hills were swaying.
I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away.
I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.[xiv]
Robert Davidson points out the significance of this picture that Jeremiah saw.
In verses 23-26 we find one of the most striking and dramatic prophetic visions in the Old Testament. Four times we listen to the echoing ‘I looked…’, and what the prophet saw was the world he knew dissolving into the unordered, primeval chaos out of which at the beginning God had created the world.[xv]
What is being described is a reversal of God’s created order. It speaks of a deep regression away from God’s desire and purpose for humanity and for his people in particular. However, as Jeremiah is pointing out, it is the people who have chosen this path, that is bringing about this terrible consequence. Yet, even in these words of warming of impeding judgment we see God’s mercy. “This is what the LORD says: ‘The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely (Jeremiah 4:27).”
God spares a remnant in the land as a reminder that God is not done with His people. The severity of the situation is expressed in the next verse. An invading army is coming to bring occupation and devastation in its conquest.
Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.
At the sound of the horsemen and archers every town takes to flight. Some go into the thickets; some climb up among the rocks. All the towns are deserted; no one lives in them.[xvi]
So how does the nation of Judah address this reality. Judah assumes that she can placate this invading nation of Babylon. Jeremiah explains the folly of her approach.
What are you doing, you devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold? Why highlight your eyes with makeup? You adorn yourself in vain. Your lovers despise you; they want to kill you.[xvii]
Here she thinks of these nations as allies but their intention is malicious. Rather than turn to God as the true lover of her soul, the nation has turned to untrustworthy human alliances and will be deeply abused and disillusioned. Isn’t that always the consequences of our sins? It promises delight and ends in bitterness and despair. The next image is not of a provocative woman, but one in the agony of childbirth. Andrew Dearborn points out: “It is not, however, the joy of giving birth but the fear of death that is on her lips. She is in collapse before murderers!”[xviii]
I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child- the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, ‘Alas! I am faint; my life is given over to murderers.’[xix]
In an early time, the prophet Isaiah had cried out that the nation ‘seemed eager to know God’s ways.’ They had fasted but it had become a ritual. The real issue was their hearts and their behavior. They were exploiting others, fighting and quarreling and filled with strife (Isaiah 58:4). They were busy finger-pointing and speaking maliciously (Isaiah 58:9), while they were indifferent to the needs of the exploited, the poor, and the oppressed.
As we enter into 2022, may we evaluate the time we are in; not by looking around and criticizing others, but asking God to come and search our own hearts, and turn from our own wicked ways. If there ever was an hour where each of us needed to allow God’s Spirit and Word to shape our lives, this is the time. This is the hour where we each need to obediently respond to God and be healed.
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.[xx]
The British Evangelist, Rodney ‘Gypsy’ Smith, (1860-1947), was once asked, what would be required to experience revival. He simply drew a circle, stepped inside and simply prayed, may it start inside this circle.
[i] Eric Metaxas, 7 Men And the Secret of their Greatness, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 53.
[ii] Ibid, 54.
[iii] Jeremiah 4:1-4, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iv] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 68-69.
[v] Colossians 3:5-10, 12-13.
[vi] Jeremiah 4:5-8.
[vii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 47.
[viii] Ibid, 48.
[x] Jeremiah 4:10.
[xi] Jeremiah 4:11-18.
[xii] Galatians 6:1.
[xiii] Jeremiah 4:19-22.
[xiv] Jeremiah 4:23-26.
[xv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, 52.
[xvi] Jeremiah 4:28-29.
[xvii] Jeremiah 4:30.
[xviii] J. Andrew Dearborn, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2002), 87.
[xix] Jeremiah 4:31.
[xx] Psalm 139:23-24.