We are probably all-too familiar with the concept of “backsliding.” The idea is simple: an individual has at some point in their experience proclaimed faith in God. However, their life has not demonstrated the fruit of that faith, and they have wandered away from the Lordship of Christ following after their own self-centered, personal desires. For many, their lifestyle of sin was not changed when their profession of faith was superficial. For some, their profession was sincere, but their desire for sin was greater than their desire for obedience; their love of themselves and this world is greater than their love for God. This act of turning away from God may be referred to as apostasy. There is probably no clearer example of apostasy in human history than that of the nation of Israel, as they turned away from God following their Exodus from Egypt. Leaving the LORD’s hand of protection, they sought the pagan and secular culture in which they were immersed, and were eventually swallowed up by it. Only a tiny remnant of faithful remained through which the LORD’s promise to Abraham would be kept.
Jeremiah 3:12a. Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD;
THE NEED FOR REPENTANCE.
Jeremiah’s prophecies began during the reign of King Josiah, and most likely took place prior to Josiah’s discovery of the long-lost Law of Moses and his subsequent attempts to reform Judah and bring the worship of the LORD back to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time more than a century had passed since the northern nation of Israel was destroyed as a nation by Assyria. When Assyria invaded the north, many of the influential people in Israel were taken into Assyria, and Israel was populated with foreigners. The large part of Israel that remained had already wandered far away from the LORD with their apostasy starting hundreds of years prior when the nation was formed as Israel’s first king, Jereboam, placed calf idols in Dan and Bethel in order to placate the pagan idolatry of the people and draw their allegiance away from Jerusalem.
During the intervening years Israel had little or no interest in the LORD, and as they continued to intermix with Canaanite cultures, they also lost interest in their history and heritage. The identity of the individual tribes that combined to form the northern nation of Israel became less and less defined until they were barely to be found at all. However, the descendents of these tribes were still there, and were still rejecting the LORD.
Though Jeremiah is serving the LORD in Jerusalem of Judea, there is good reason and purpose behind God using Jeremiah to bring a message to the northern region that was now largely ungoverned, and under the vassalage of Babylon. The message that Jeremiah is to bring to the north is simple: repent, and return to God.
One might think that Israel had gone too far away from God to be redeemable, and such a position is quite defensible since we might argue that (1) the northern region had been rejecting God for many generations, and (2) they would not listen to anything that Jeremiah had to say.
It is a common testimony among those who are “backslidden” that they have gone too far for God to redeem. They would hold that there is no point in repentance because God would never forgive them for the terrible things that they have done. However, there is some good news:
Jeremiah 3:12b. and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever.
We sometimes forget just how great and powerful that God is. His desire is to give every person an opportunity to have a relationship with Him. Consequently, there is no depth of sin that is too deep for God to reach through in His call to bring people to repentance. There is no sin that we experience that was not common in Israel. There is no sin to grievous that God will not forgive, save one: taking one’s rejection of His offer of grace to the grave.
Jeremiah 3:13. Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the LORD thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the LORD.
A necessary first step towards restoration is admitting one’s sin in the first place. It would seem that this is also the most difficult. When we observe our culture today, we find there is little difference between it and ancient Israel. People are chasing after every worldly authority as they seek peace, value, and significance from every source other than the LORD who, through redemption, offers the only true source of restoration. Like ancient Israel, the peoples of the world are very religious, as they seek spiritual answers among the world’s religions, each offering its own set of answers. For the ancient Israelites, these were a pantheon of man-made mythical gods that provided for them the answers to their questions about the nature of their pre-science world. Natural events from sunshine to reproduction were all explained by the creation of mythical gods that controlled nature, gods that were venerated and worshipped. Though we are now post-science and we have found many of the answers to the elements of nature, our search is still the same: only the questions have changed, as we search for those answers among the objects of this created world, ignoring the creator who formed them. Consequently, we still seek answers (and personal pleasure) under “every green tree,” a metaphor for ancient Israel’s sinful, sensual and self-gratifying worship practices.
Rather than listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, we still choose to listen to our own voice, or the voice of other people who find great satisfaction in controlling the minds of others. We listen to the philosophies espoused by the vocal members of the media arts, We listen to those who espouse religious philosophies that are contrary to God’s Word.
The prophet Hosea described the plight of Israel in a few words: “they have not known the LORD.” The people were ignorant of their history, and ignorant of the voice of God as they were immersed in this pagan and secular world. The same is true today, as we observe the activities around the world and very little of significance is taking place except for that which is ungodly, ignorant, and disobedient of God’s Word.
Jeremiah 3:14a. Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you:
Though the world denies its sin, rejects God, and opposes the message of grace, God still seeks to bring this backslidden world to Himself. In this passage, Jeremiah uses several metaphors to describe the relationship that God has with His creation. He refers to that relationship as a marriage wherein God is the husband, and His people are characterized as an unfaithful wife. Like marriage, the relationship that we are to have with the LORD is ordained by Him, and as our Creator, He has the authority to seek it. Since the people do not know the LORD, God has called Jeremiah to proclaim the message to Israel, exposing the sin of their “backslidden,” apostate ways, and to turn back to Him in faith and obedience.
A PROMISE OF REDEMPTION
Jeremiah 3:14b. and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion:
God promises redemption for those who will repent and return to Him. However, a tragedy is illustrated by God’s description of that redemption. Our world does not desire redemption, but would rather continue in its apostasy, experiencing the consequences of their behavior both in the turmoil that it brings on this earth, and the eternal separation from God that will result from a lifetime of apostasy.
Some will repent and turn to God, but that number is a tragic few: only one individual in an entire city (an urban community), and only a couple from a tribe (a rural community). Jeremiah can expect that his ministry will not result in a great revival where many will be saved. No such revival ever took place during Jeremiah’s lifetime. Jeremiah found himself alone, with his message rejected by those around him, often bringing upon himself no small measure of persecution. However, Jeremiah can be encouraged to know that a few will listen and respond.
As the remnant of the LORD’s faithful seek to spread the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they can likewise expect that few will respond. It is likely that Jeremiah never met anyone who was saved through his prophetic ministry, so it should be no great surprise when the sharing of God’s love seems to be often fruitless. However, we have no idea of how the LORD moves in people who He has used us to touch in some small way. God’s promise of redemption is sure, and He has a plan to work that redemption in the community in a new way:
Jeremiah 3:15. And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.
There will be a remnant of faithful who repent and turn to God. Seeking obedience and knowledge of Him, God promises to call out individuals to serve the faith community as shepherds, as pastors who, unlike their pagan priests who are leading them away from God, will work to lead people to a knowledge and understanding of God. It is difficult to observe this passage without observing the contrast between the people of ancient Israel and the character of the faithful church today: a church that makes extensive use of godly men and women who have given their hearts and lives to God, accepting His call to share His love and His word with others. Most modern churches today have one or more individuals who serve as shepherds to their local congregations. Though the modern titles given to those who serve in this capacity may vary greatly, their ministry is well-defined by this one prophesy of Jeremiah: “according to my heart, they will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
Jeremiah 3:16. And it shall come to pass, when ye be multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, saith the LORD, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the LORD: neither shall it come to mind: neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more.
Jeremiah describes a future for the church that is characterized by tremendous growth. The number of faithful in Israel were few, and probably when observed using the same metrics, still are few. Though many Jews have turned to faith in God through the redemption that comes through the shed blood of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, they can still be characterized as one from a city, and two from a tribe. However, when the LORD led the apostles to take the message of grace to the Gentiles, the church started an exponential growth, until today there are literally millions of faithful around the world. Unfortunately, there are also nearly seven billion people in the world, so the number of faithful is still a small remnant. However, the multiplication in the land that Jeremiah has prophesied has taken place.
Furthermore, the character of the fellowship of believers, and their relationship with God will be radically changed from that of ancient Israel who thought of their God as living in the Temple and present in the Ark of the Covenant. Since the ancient pagan gods were mythical creations of people-groups, the ancients tended to think of those gods as literal and geographically limited. Each people group had their own gods, and the Israelites often thought of their God in the same manner. They believed that God resided in the Jerusalem temple, making it impervious to destruction, even by Assyria or Babylon. They carried the Ark of the Covenant, thinking that God was present in the Ark, and so the presence of the Ark would protect them in battle.
Christianity no longer perceives God as being present in a structure. When Jesus was crucified the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, opening up the Holiest area of the Temple for all to enter. Jesus stated that He would rebuild the temple in three days, doing so when He was resurrected, ushering in the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts and lives of every believer. There is no longer a need for the Ark of the Covenant, and the church today considers it more of a historical event that served to help the ancients understand the omnipresence of God. The church today understands that the heart of a faithful believer is now the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The loss of the Ark of the Covenant was a necessary and positive event in the development of the community of believers as God’s presence would become known to all, and access to the throne of His grace would be open to anyone who would enter in faith and trust.
Jermiah 3:17. At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem: neither shall they walk any more after the imagination of their evil heart.
Ancient Israel understood Jerusalem to be the ‘Holy City’ because of their understanding of the limitations of God’s presence in the Temple. Any understanding of this prophecy must include the truth of God’s omnipresence. John clearly describes the fellowship of the faithful, the Church, as the New Jerusalem. Though the eventual redemption and revival of the city of Jerusalem will certainly be characterized by the presence of people from every nation, the visible presence of God is no longer limited to that physical city. The concept of “gathered to it” is a term that comes from agriculture, as during the time of harvest, the fruit of the harvest is gathered. This is not simply a visitation. As the fruit of the harvest, people of faith will come from every nation, and we certainly see evidence of that today as there is at least a remnant of faithful present in every nation of the world. Great nations that were systematically opposed to the gospel such as the U.S.S.R, China, and India are now not only open to the gospel, but are leading the world in evangelism. Jeremiah’s prophesy has become realized in a way that he certainly could never have imagined.
Jeremiah 3:18. In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance unto your fathers.
There was certainly no unity in Israel (or Judah). The tribes of Israel were always in rivalry with one another, and often brought up arms against one another. The hatred of Judah towards the north would only grow after Judah would be destroyed. The peoples of the northern nation of Israel would eventually become the Samaritans. Ancient Israel was characterized by hatred.
Jeremiah prophesies that the nations of Israel and Judah would be no longer characterized by this hatred, but rather by unity. When we observe ancient Israel and ancient Judah, it is rather evident that their nature was not characterized by agape love. With the coming of the Holy Spirit into the heart of every believer, a new power for relationship with God and with one another was ushered in. True Christians would be known for their love, not for their hatred. Though much hatred has been expressed in the name of God, the true fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, not hate: exposing those who are taking the name of the LORD in vain in their hateful actions.
What is the inheritance that is given to all who place their faith and trust in God? It is no longer limited to the lands around the Jordan River. Actually, the inheritance is a land that is “fairer than day,” an eternal home that God has prepared.
As difficult as we sometimes understand our modern world to be, this passage gives us a tremendous contrast between the situation in the ancient near-east, and the situation we have today as we are getting closer and closer to the end of the age. Many of the prophecies of the Old Testament have been realized, with the only ones remaining being those that point to the end of the age.
When Jeremiah and the contemporaries of his day would hear this prophecy, they would probably have responded with joy in the knowledge that there is coming a better day, yet they probably also had little idea of what the context of that new fellowship of faith would look like. This would be a fellowship that we see today as a remnant of people have turned to God as their LORD and are demonstrating for the entire world the benefits of grace.
A DISOBEDIENT PEOPLE
Jeremiah 3:19-20. But I said, How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations? and I said, Thou shalt call me, My father; and shalt not turn away from me. 20Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the LORD.
Having described the small remnant of faithful, Jeremiah notes that they are God’s children, those who will not turn away from Him. We see much of that today in people of faith who do not compromise their beliefs, remaining faithful to Him to the end of their days. The question posed is, how can God add to the ranks of the faithful those to whom He is sharing this prophecy: the great majority of Israel who is living in abject apostasy?
There is power in the word, “but.” Translated as this article in this passage, the word introduces dramatic contrast. God has shown, through the testimony of the prophet, the benefit that will certainly come when the remnant of faithful will eventually turn to Him in truth and sincerity. The “but” now turns to observe the state of those who are not the “one” in the city, and the “two” in the tribes who would turn to God in faith. Though God’s patience is like nothing that we can imagine, He still waits for those who have turned their backs on Him and gone after the mammon and philosophies of this wicked world. The word translated, “treacherously” is also used in Hosea’s prophecy in a manner that clearly refers to prostitution. The metaphor refers to one’s giving to others that which belongs to God: faith, worship, and allegiance. Like a wife who leaves her husband to give her body to others, those who turn their back on God have given their life and heart to other gods, gods that may offer a few short-term pleasures to make their lies attractive to the ignorant.
God will not add to the remnant those who deal “treacherously” with Him. Those who are living their lives out in apostasy will not realize the rewards of faith: the peace, joy, and comfort that only the Holy Spirit brings into an individual’s life. The billions of people today who are living like the ancients are living without any true hope. God cannot offer hope to those who do not hear His voice. The only hope is found in hearing God’s voice, and responding in repentance and faith.
REJECTING GOD’S VOICE
Jeremiah 3:21. A voice was heard upon the high places, weeping and supplications of the children of Israel: for they have perverted their way, and they have forgotten the LORD their God.
Jeremiah now turns his attention to those who are living in apostasy, but who have also heard the message of God’s call to repentance, responding only in rejection, and reaping the rewards of that choice. The “high places” is a clear reference to the places of pagan worship that attracted the people of Israel into a degrading and sensual worship practice that could only be conducted by those who despise God. Jeremiah notes that, even while they are engaged in the sexual perversion of Baal and Asherah worship, they clearly know of their sin. Claiming to be “righteous” the Jews are clearly cognizant of their true unrighteousness, building within themselves a masked hypocrisy that produces tremendous internal strife. These people know that what they are doing is ungodly, but they see no harm in their practices, ignorant of the God who will ultimately judge them for their chosen actions.
We see many today who live lives of similar perversion, people who have chosen to fill their lives with that which brings momentary pleasure, but life-long and eternal chaos. We see it in the drug and alcohol cultures. We see it in the cultures of hatred and bigotry. These cultures are not characterized by peace and joy, but rather by chaos and despair. Like those in ancient Israel who weep for their transgressions, the world is filled with those who refuse to repent and are suffering for their choices.
Jeremiah 3:22. Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the LORD our God.
God offers hope for those who are immersed in the despair of their chosen circumstances. Those who are lost to the world of addictions: drugs, alcohol, sex, mammon, power, passion, etc. have a hope that they can be fully healed. In all of the age of mankind, there has only been one universally effective remedy for addiction: genuine faith in God that is demonstrated in obedience and love for Him and for others. Love heals. Love restores.
This lost world is lost to addiction: an addiction to this world, itself. As the prince of this world, carrying no authority, but given much power, satan is holding that power over most of this worlds peoples. Yet, healing and restoration is offered to all who will simply turn to the “LORD our God.”
Jeremiah 3:23a. Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains:
When King Solomon observed the state of the nation of Israel, then consisting of all of the twelve tribes, He responded with a statement similar to that of Jeremiah who observes the same nation nearly 14 generations later: vanity, meaninglessness. All of this chasing after other religions, other gods, other influences of this world, and all of its addictions is all an exercise in vanity that brings no real and substantial reward. Much of the pagan religious traditions of this world, particularly those in the east are being rejected by the young people as its vanity is becoming more and more apparent. Many of the pagan religions of this world hold no power other than the traditions that keep them alive. It is in these communities that the power of the gospel is fomenting, and great numbers of people are coming to faith in God. Those who are repenting of their paganism are learning of its vanity.
Again, the “hills” of this passage is referring to the pagan practices. Those pagan practices have nothing to offer. At best, they offer “good luck,” that somehow the pagan gods will intervene in the natural progression of events and bring some form of favor upon those who venerate them, even though these gods are clearly mythical.
The LORD is real, and He brings real blessing into the lives of those who place their faith and trust in Him. He also offers the ultimate blessing that comes from no other source on earth: salvation from sin, and an eternity in heaven that is offered to those who trust in Him. That salvation comes by faith, and not by works. When one places their faith and trust in God, He gives salvation, acceptance in His presence, and the promise of His continued presence, even though the person of faith still struggles with sin. Jesus Christ paid the penalty for that sin on the Cross, a ransom paid for all who place their faith and trust in Him. Jesus is the Messiah, YAHWEH in the flesh. To reject Him is to reject God, and to continue to chase after the vanities of this world. All will come before God at the end of their lives. Only those who have placed their faith and trust in the One true God, will find themselves at the throne with forgiveness of sin. All other ways to God are simply vain attempts at finding some form of worldly righteousness. True rightness is found only in forgiveness, and that forgiveness is found only at the Cross of Calvary. This may not be the plan that people want, but it is the plan that God laid down before the beginning of the universe. There is only one source of salvation:
Jeremiah 3:23b. truly in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.
The LORD, is YAHWEH, who became flesh and dwelt among us. Salvation is only found in Jesus. To reject the identity of Jesus as LORD, is to reject salvation. To reject Jesus is to continue in vanity, chasing after some other means of forgiveness, and no such means is available. Since salvation is by faith and not works, there is no work or ritual that brings righteousness, simply because no person is without sin. No one is righteous. All are in need of salvation, a salvation that is a free gift, given by the One who has the power to do so, and the Only One who has this power: Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah 3:24-25. For shame hath devoured the labour of our fathers from our youth; their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters. 25We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.
Not only does the pursuit of other gods result in vanity, a life that is lived apart from the LORD is in itself characterized by vanity. This passage describes a life without the LORD as one of chaos and shame. Shame is the product of a life of sinful and godless behavior, and though one can eke out a life, it is void of the realization of the bounty of God’s blessings. Jeremiah is observing the state of Judah and what he sees is chaos brought on by the disobedience of the people. Chasing after the things of this world, they attached themselves to the warring nations, only to be swallowed up by them. Though Josiah will try to bring some semblance of obedience to the nation, his efforts will largely be his own, and will die with him. Jeremiah sees a northern nation that has been destroyed by their apostasy, and is witnessing the gradual and painful destruction of Judah because of the same sin of the people.
As we look at our world today, few would disagree that it is still stuck in a pattern of spiritual entropy, without the influence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the great population, it is continually degrading to a lower and lower spiritual standard with the vast majority of its population doomed to eternal separation from God. This separation is certain because of the identical choices that characterized ancient Israel: choices to reject God and chase after the vanity of this world.
A CALL TO GENUINE REPENTANCE
Jeremiah 4:1-4. If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the LORD, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight, then shalt thou not remove. 2And thou shalt swear, The LORD liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness; and the nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory. 3For thus saith the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. 4Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
Ancient Israel was in need of repentance as they practiced a form of religion, but because of their apostasy, realized none of its power. Jeremiah witnessed the godlessness of Israel and Judah, and God revealed to him the consequence of that apostasy: the loss of God’s hand of protection as they would be taken captive by Babylon and Jerusalem, with its Temple, would be destroyed.
Jeremiah’s message for Israel and Judah is simple: all of this can be averted by simply placing their faith back in the LORD. The nation is in need of true repentance, not a repentance of words or actions, but rather a repentance that starts in the heart. People seek to find righteousness in words and in actions, this being the basic methodology for all of this world’s vain religions. The Israelites would have been willing to repeat words, or enact actions that would bring them the peace that comes from true forgiveness. However, no such method exists since God’s offer for forgiveness has been consistent since the creation of man: salvation by faith.
This modern world is also in need of repentance as we practice any number of forms of religion, but because of our world-wide apostasy, realize none of its power. The consequent of modern apostasy is identical to that of ancient Israel: eternal separation from God. This message from Jeremiah is as relevant today as it was three thousand years ago. The time for repentance is now.