Life is far more about faith than most people realize. The moment we get into our vehicles, we trust that they will work and not have something happen that will cause problems for us. Once on the road, we trust that people will stay on their side of the road. We step on an elevator, trusting that it is maintained properly and in good working order. We go to a restaurant and trust that the cook doesn’t mix up his ingredients and serve something harmful to us. The list is endless.
For most people, who they really trust is themselves. Charles Swindoll, in his book ‘Improving Your Serve’ relates the following, which focuses primarily on self.
Lots of philosophies are floating around, and most of them are more confusing than they are helpful. Interestingly, those that are clear enough to be understood usually end up focusing full attention on the individual. Consider a few of them:
Greece said, ‘Be wise, know yourself!’
Rome said, ‘Be strong, discipline yourself!’
Religion said, ‘Be good, conform yourself!’
Epicureanism says, ‘Be sensuous, enjoy yourself!’
Education says, ‘Be resourceful, expand yourself!’
Psychology says, ‘Be confident assert yourself!’
Materialism says, ‘Be satisfied, please yourself!’
Pride says, ‘Be superior, promote yourself!’
Asceticism says, ‘Be lowly, suppress yourself!’
Humanism says, ‘Be capable, believe in yourself!’
Legalism says, ‘Be pious, limit yourself!’
Philanthropy say, ‘Be generous, release yourself!’[i]
Swindoll concludes: “Do something either for yourself or with yourself or to yourself. How very different from Jesus’ model and message! Jesus says, ‘Be a servant, give to others!’”[ii]
What does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus? It begins with a change of focus. We are no longer the central figure: God is. It is not about us; it is all about trusting God and out of that relationship comes a heart to serve. It means that our focus moves from ourselves, upward to God, and then to others. It’s an upward look, that helps us with our outward look.
We may be surprised by what we think and whom we trust. Do we really know ourselves? Often it takes some crystalizing moment where we see ourselves as God does, like Isaiah experienced in an hour of national calamity (cf. Isaiah 6). Here in Jeremiah 17, we come to the heart of the problem, namely ourselves. Where are we placing our trust? Is our trust in humanity rather than God? When that happens, it brings a certain set of problems in which sin dominants our life. We can easily see how sin is dominating in our culture as we witness the social and now the material deterioration. Jeremiah focuses on the condition of the heart as he contrasts the effects between trusting God and trusting in anything or anyone else. He begins by immediately confronting us with the wrong choice and the severe consequences that come as a result. There are two contrasting places where we put our trust.
THE FIRST PLACE WE PUT OUR TRUST IS IN SOMETHING OR SOMEONE OTHER THAN GOD
Where we look for significance, security, and meaning in our lives will either prove to be successful or destructive. Jeremiah reveals the destructive choice first.
A. The depth of sin in the human soul.
Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of the altars.[iii]
The entrenched nature of the sin is such that it is like it is engraved in stone. Later in the book, we will see the promise of God in establishing a new covenant where ultimately God will write his laws upon hearts of flesh. In other words, we will be tender and not hard-hearted. Here we see that their hearts were so hardened by sin, that it was etched like an iron tool into stone. Only the most profound change could bring about a new direction in the nation. We are living in such a time. Many people are hardened by sin and we see the meanness and brokenness around us. This should awaken us so that we do not treat sin lightly. Sin is not something that can be removed apart from the work of Christ on the cross. R. K. Harrison comments on the seriousness of the situation.
Not merely has sin formed an impenetrable layer over national life, but it has permeated the very wellsprings of thought and will.[iv]
Sin now was the motivating factor in their lives, and they refused to listen to God’s message. Jeremiah speaks to some of the specifics of the sin that the people were engaged in, as well as to their consequences. Here we find that idolatry had been passed on for generations. John Thompson describes these horns on the altar as part of the sacrificial altar where sacrifices were offered to God.
The horns of the altar were projecting carved stone pieces which were set on the top of the altar at each of the four corners to hold in place the timber for the fire and the sacrificial beast. …The present allusion seems to touch on the fact that when a sacrifice was offered, some of the blood was smeared on the horns of the altar. The true intention of an offering was related to some act of atonement where the blood of the sin-offering served as a covering for sin. But Jeremiah saw even in the offering of such sacrifices an affront to God.[v]
Though they offered sacrifices to Yahweh, there was a duplicity in that they were unfaithful to God as seen in their involvement in pagan worship. This was in clear violation of the first and greatest commandment to have no other gods before the Lord. This idolatry had persisted for generations and the people had no conception of the severity of their unfaithfulness toward God. It was accepted practice.
Even their children remember their altars and Asherah poles beside the spreading trees and on the high hills.
My mountain in the land and your wealth and all your treasures I will give away as plunder, together with your high places, because of sin throughout your country.
Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever.[vi]
Asherah poles were most probably wooden poles representing the Canaanite goddess, Asherah. The inheritance that they would lose would be the promised land that they had enjoyed for hundreds of years. Rather than living a blessed life, they would lose all that they cherished. When we embrace a sinful lifestyle there are severe consequences. Sin always diminishes us. We see moral deterioration, which leads to physical and material losses. When our eyes are not on God, we default to believing that we are our own provider, or our jobs are our provider, but the reality is that God is our shepherd. Jeremiah then elaborates a number of wisdom sayings that describe the life of someone who has forsaken God.
B. We see the absence of an abundant life.
This is what the LORD says: Cursed is the one who trust in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.[vii]
Here we see the influence of the wisdom literature upon Jeremiah. We see similarities between these words and Psalm 1, but there are also differences. Robert Davidson points that out:
But the links with Psalm 1 are not as close as are sometimes claimed. The contrast here is not between the wicked and the righteous, but between ‘the man who trusts in man’ (verse 5) and ‘the man who trusts in the Lord (verse 7).[viii]
When we turn away from trusting God, what we are left with is to trust others, who are fallible. The end result is that this cannot be sustainable. The bush that is described here according to Roland Harrison, “refers to the tamarisk, a dwarf juniper of a particularly stark and naked appearance which has no prospect of improvement, since its stunted roots do not penetrate to the water levels beneath the surface.”[ix]
Life is not sustainable for long, as water is essential for life to flourish. Jeremiah is presenting a stark contrast between choosing life and death. Walter Brueggemann explains:
The condemned man is the one who trust in human power, whether military, economic, technological, or whatever (Isa. 31:3). ‘Trust in man’ may mean to trust human wisdom or human armaments, as the kings of Judah were wont [known] to do. Both wisdom and armaments are ways in which a monarchy sustains itself apart from the requirements of the covenant. …A person (or a community) who trusts falsely is surely headed toward death, expressed in the metaphor or a dried-up shrub. John Calvin suggests that this particular shrub is not simply dead but gives the ‘appearance of life,’ even though the root system is gone. Calvin’s interpretation suggest that while Jeremiah saw death, his contemporary situation still had ‘the appearance of life.’ …A destiny of either life or death is determined by the object of one’s trust.[x]
Real trust in God is not merely an intellectual assent, but it is acting upon God’s requirements. It is fulfilling covenant obligations, which Judah was in violation of.
THE SECOND PLACE WE PUT OUR TRUST IS IN GOD
In this contrast between life and death, we find that God brings us life when we apply His word to our lives.
But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.[xi]
Though drought and heat may come, a tree planted by water will flourish. Its leaves will remain green, and it will bear fruit. The figure suggests a person who can endure life’s adversities without anxiety and is stable and productive. It is the OT equivalent of the “abundant life” Jesus mentioned (John 10:10).[xii]
Notice what the tree is doing in contrast to the shrub. Its root system is reaching out to the primary source of sustainable life which is water. This metaphor is challenging us to be in communion and relationship with God, so when the heat comes, which are the trials and difficulties, we are not defeated and destroyed by them, but rather remain fruitful during the many tests that life brings our way. The tests are not the enemy but rather the evidences of genuine faith. Genuine faith produces fruitfulness. But if we are shriveling up and dying because of the test, it suggests we are placing our trust in something or someone other than God.
A. God evaluates our lives because we are inadequate to correctly assess our own lives completely.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it.
‘I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.’[xiii]
Human beings may think that their actions are ethical, but God knows better. He will ultimately reward people according to what they deserve.[xiv]
This negates in my mind mere confession of words, as true faith evidences a changed life. This is not to suggest that we are trying to earn God’s favor, but real trust can only be demonstrated in obedience to God’s word, which leads to righteous words and actions. God sees those who are living unethical and oppressive lives toward others.
Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay are those who gain riches by unjust means. When their lives are half gone, their riches will desert them, and in the end they will prove to be fools.[xv]
Roland Harrison points out concerning this image.
The reference to the partridge is to the popular belief that it would hatch the eggs of other birds. Just as the fledglings soon realize the false nature of the mother and depart from the nest, so riches unjustly acquired all disappear just when the owner is counting on them for security.[xvi]
The fool in biblical wisdom literature is speaking of those who do not ‘fear God,’ and do not act upon biblical understanding.
B. God is the only source to adequately place our trust in.
“A glorious throne exalted from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary (Jeremiah 17:12).”
The glorious throne is speaking of God’s presence and He is the only place of true refuge.
LORD, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.[xvii]
When we move away from the source of life, all we can expect is death. Notice the expression that ‘they will be written in dust.’ They will be remembered no more; they will come to their end. In this case, as a community of faith, they will be exiled. Brueggemann summarizes it so well:
‘Yahweh is the source of well-being (v. 8), the hope of Israel (v. 13:), the source of life (v. 13c). If Yahweh is rejected by the one who ‘trust in man’ (v. 5), like the deceitful heart (v. 9), like the greedy partridge (v. 11), like the ones who leave the living well (v. 13), death comes.[xviii]
C. A prayer of complete trust in God.
Jeremiah practices what he preaches. The challenge of being God’s spokesperson in a time when people were looking for answers in the wrong places was both dangerous and challenging. Where are we placing our trust?
Heal me, LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.
They keep saying to me, ‘Where is the word of the LORD? Let it now be fulfilled![xix]
One of the tests of a genuine prophet of God was that those words would come to pass, yet God was delaying His judgment and Jeremiah was being taunted and condemned as being a false prophet.
I have not run away from being your shepherd; you know I have not desired the day of despair.[xx]
In other words, Jeremiah has been faithful to deliver God’s message even though it was a difficult message warning of impending judgment if the people refused to repent, which he sees they are unwilling by their attitudes and actions. The persecution had intensified to the place where they have lowered Jeremiah into a waterless well that is simply mud, in order to die.
Do not be a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster.
Let my persecutors be put to shame, but keep me from shame; let them be terrified, but keep me from terror. Bring on them the day of disaster; destroy them with double destruction.[xxi]
Jeremiah is praying for vindication. He is God’s messenger. His prayer is that they, rather than he, would suffer shame and terror. This is consistent with the laments and imprecatory psalms where hurt and anguish are poured out to God because of the evil others have perpetrated against God’s servants. There is a sense of authenticity in this prayer, but what is interesting to note is the silence of God. God has been demonstrating His longsuffering by granting time for repentance that will ultimately judge the nation. But at this moment, Jeremiah feels abandoned, forsaken, and misunderstood. When will God vindicate him? When will God act upon His word? When our world challenges us that God will not judge, Peter reminds us that it is God’s forbearance and patience keeping the door of grace open to us before the Day of judgment (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-10).
D. The evidence of genuine repentance of these people would be the keeping of the Sabbath Day as holy.
This is what the LORD said to me: ‘Go and stand at the Gate of the People, through which the kings of Judah go in and out; stand also at all the other gates of Jerusalem.
Say to them, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah and all people of Judah and everyone living in Jerusalem who come through these gates.
This is what the LORD says: Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem.
Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors.
Yet they did not listen or pay attention; they were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to discipline.[xxii]
Here we see Jeremiah pointing out another significant issue that the people were doing which was a deep violation of their covenant with God.
To many modern readers, sabbath observance may seem almost trivial in relationship to the other charges God through Jeremiah levels at Judah: murder, child sacrifice, idolatry. However, the Sabbath was considered the sign of the Mosaic covenant (Exod. 31:13, 17). In a sense it was the pinnacle of the law during the Old Testament period.[xxiii]
One of the ways that trust in God was to be expressed under the Old Covenant was the keeping of the Sabbath. This was something that the Jewish people had violated, and part of the exile was that the land was now at rest.
He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the Kingdom of Persia came to power.
The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.[xxiv]
So what was the Sabbath commandment all about and why was it so critical? What was at stake here since Israel easily set it aside? We notice that the ten commandments are stated twice in the Old Testament, once at the giving of the law on mount Sinai in Exodus; and later in Deuteronomy forty years later, when Moses was sending the people into the promise land. Tremper Longman relates something of the significance to this situation.
…the motive for keeping the Sabbath is God’s work of redemption. Israel’s redemption was won by God himself, not through their labor. God owns them and controls their destiny. Resting from work on the Sabbath is a way, first of all, to enjoy the redemption that God has won for them. Second, it is a way of giving up control and the idea that we gain in life only by working hard.[xxv]
1. Sabbath keeping then is an act of trust that God will provide and care for us.
It is an acknowledgment that it doesn’t all depend upon us, but rather it depends on God. The One who created us will sustain us throughout all of our days.
Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born.
Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.[xxvi]
Do we believe that God will take care of us from birth to the grave? For the Old Testament people of God, keeping the Sabbath and Sabbath festivals was an expression of that trust. The tragedy was that they had failed to do that.
2. We also see from Leviticus that it was a day to gather and worship.
There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the LORD.[xxvii]
So, how does this apply to us now that we are under the new covenant, where Christ replaces sacrifices, sacred places, and times?
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.[xxviii]
Even though we may biblically argue that every day is sacred and we can meet Christ at all times, we also see that we are commanded to meet together as believers in worship.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.[xxix]
Why is understanding the issue of Sabbath-keeping so critical? It means we are actually expressing our trust in God rather than ourselves. Often work is a false substitute for trust. What did Jesus mean when he explained to the first century Jews that the Sabbath was created for man, and not man for the Sabbath (cf. Mark 2:27)? The Sabbath idea is that we need to follow God’s example of rest from work. To practice Sabbath is a significant expression of trust. It also means giving space to worship. Here we see in Jeremiah the promises of covenant blessing if they would obey.
But if you are careful to obey, declares the LORD, and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy by not doing any work on it, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this city with their officials. They and their officials will come riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by the men of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, and this city will be inhabited forever.
People will come from the towns of Judah and the villages around Jerusalem, from the territory of Benjamin and the western foothills, from the hill country and the Negev, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and incense, and thank offerings to the house of the LORD.[xxx]
Obedience to God’s covenant brings blessings. Repentance then is measured by action. Making the Sabbath holy was a measuring device to see if there was genuine repentance. The warnings against the exile would not transpire. Worship in Jerusalem would resume. But this was all conditional upon their response.
But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.[xxxi]
The tragedy is that they refused to repent and obey, and the result was destruction and exile.
What was God saying to His people? What can we learn from this message that is applicable to us? Who will we serve and put our trust in? Choices lead to destinies. It was a choice between life and death; between blessings and curses. Has anything really changed? Remember all these people professed a faith in Yahweh, but their actions didn’t demonstrate it. They easily disregarded what God’s word stated and therefore they were about to suffer the consequences of violating God’s covenant with them. The issue of trust is still the same. Who are we trusting? God or ourselves? God or the culture that is in rebellion against God? How are we manifesting that trust? One of the areas in the past where much legalism was centered was on the day of worship. However, today we are so cavalier about the day in which we are called to rest, gather, and worship that we often do neither and as a result we ultimately suffer for that. Today it seems that nothing is holy, sacred or set apart for the Lord. May we open our hearts and allow God to guide our lives. Trust is about the condition of our heart, the essence of our being. Who will we trust? God? Or everything and everyone else?
[i] Charles R. Swindoll, Improving Your Serve: The Art of Unselfish Living, (Waco, TX: Word Books Publishers, 1981), 38-39.
[ii] Ibid, 39.
[iii] Jeremiah 17:1 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), 106.
[v] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 417-418.
[vi] Jeremiah 17:2-4.
[vii] Jeremiah 17:5-6.
[viii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 139.
[ix] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, 106.
[x] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 159.
[xi] Jeremiah 17:7-8.
[xii] F. B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers 1993), 173.
[xiii] Jeremiah 17:9-10.
[xiv] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 133.
[xv] Jeremiah 17:11.
[xvi] R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations, 107.
[xvii] Jeremiah 17:13.
[xviii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 162.
[xix] Jeremiah 17:14-15.
[xx] Jeremiah 17:16.
[xxi] Jeremiah 17:17-18.
[xxii] Jeremiah 17:19-23.
[xxiii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 137.
[xxiv] 2 Chronicles 36:20-21.
[xxv] Tremper Longman III, Immanuel In Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship, (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2001), eBook, loc. 2043.
[xxvi] Isaiah 46:3-4.
[xxvii] Leviticus 23:3.
[xxviii] Colossians 2:16-17.
[xxix] Hebrews 10:24-25.
[xxx] Jeremiah 17:24-26.
[xxxi] Jeremiah 17:27.