Last week our study of Jeremiah’s call to ministry gave us the historical setting of his work. Jeremiah prophesied during the last days of the southern Kingdom, after the northern Kingdom had been dragged away by the Assyrian armies. Now Judah was now facing the same fate at the hands of the newly emergent Babylonian Empire, unless they realized their sin and repented. It was Jeremiah’s life calling to identify their sin and call them to come back to God before it was too late. In fact, it was almost already too late, which gave his message a kind of desperate urgency.
That was all a long time ago and a long way away, but Jeremiah gives us the opportunity to address our nations with the same urgency. Now we have to be very careful if we want to apply the words of verse 11 directly to, say, the United States, my country. “Has any nation ever changed its gods? But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.” This sort of application plunges us into that whole “America is God’s chose nation” ideology. You probably don’t want to go there in a sermon on Jeremiah. But in a nation whose national motto is “In God We Trust” and whose roots are at least vaguely Christian, it is tempting to take that approach to our text for today.
A less controversial and more fruitful way to proceed would be to focus on Jeremiah’s definition of Israel’s national sin and apply it to the church. That sin was idolatry. Yes, other prophets focused on the sin of social injustice, but idolatry was at the root of that sin. Idolatry is an old sin, one might say an old-fashioned sin, a sin with which our modern listeners might not be able to identify. That’s why this text is so rich with potential. God speaks of idolatry in terms that should immediately capture the attention of even the most jaded and secular person.
God begins to identify that sin in the verses just prior to our text (verses 1-3), where God reminds Israel of their past relationship with Yahweh. It was a love affair, a newly formed marriage in which God was devoted to Israel and his bride loved him completely. Both would have done anything for the other, and, in fact, did. Yahweh led his bride through that vast and howling wilderness and delivered them from all opposition, while Israel followed God willingly and faithfully. The early years of that covenantal marriage were a non-stop honeymoon, suggests God in these early verses.
But that all changed almost as soon as Israel entered the Promised Land. Indeed, even in those early years there was trouble, as evidenced by God’ reference to “your fathers” in verse 5. What happened back then and what continued to happen up to Jeremiah’s day was that Israel, instead of following Yahweh as they had done, “followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.”
In that same verse, God asks the plaintive question, “What fault did your fathers find in me that they strayed so far from me?” That is the question of a jilted lover, a heartbroken husband. “What did I do wrong? Where did I fail?” Except God knows he did not fail; it was Israel who had found fault where there was none.
But this is not merely a lover’s question anymore. For years, indeed, for centuries God had patiently born with his faithless wife. Now God is going to take legal action against her. That’s what we have in our text—God presenting his case against Israel. “Therefore, I will bring charges against you again, says the Lord. And I will bring charges against your children’s children.” So deep seated was this idolatrous bent of Israel that it would take God three generations to root it out, which is why the divorce/exile would last 70 years.
Here God explains to Israel what was about to happen to them in the form of a legal proceeding. Verses 4 and 5 are a summons to court, an ancient version of the bailiff calling out, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, court is now in session, the honorable Yahweh presiding, all rise!” Or as these verses put it, “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel. This is what the Lord says.” The Supreme Court is in session.
There are two points in God’s lawsuit with that are very relevant to us. First, the question God asks of his unfaithful people is the question we ought to ask ourselves. Why do we wander from God? It makes no sense whatsoever, given what he has done for us. In verses 6 and 7 God reminds Israel of all he had done for them: “brought you out of Egypt, lead you through the wilderness, and brought you into a fertile land.” After all I did, how could you forsake me for worthless idols? Why do God’s redeemed people stray from a God whose love has provided all we need? That’s a question we need to press on our people and on ourselves.
That brings us to the second point, which is the answer to that question. God explains it in historical terms that we might miss if we read too quickly. “But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance worthless.” When Israel left the wilderness and inherited the Promised Land, their love affair with God cooled and they sought other lovers.
Apparently, God was good for the Exodus and the wilderness and the conquest of the land, but once they were in the land, they needed something else, something more. Now that they had the land, they needed someone to guarantee fertility. So, they turned to the gods of Canaan, which were precisely that, gods of fertility. Yahweh worked in Egypt and in the wilderness and in war, but now they needed someone who would work in agriculture. And that meant Baal and Asherah and friends.
The problem was that these new gods were worthless, a word used three times in the NIV translation (verses 5, 8, 11). The Israelites forsook God because they thought these new gods would work better in their new situation, but they didn’t work at all. They did nothing whatsoever, except make Israel worthless.
Another translation of the word “worthless” is particularly helpful. These idols are “what does not profit.” We seek other gods, because we think they will gain us a profit, perhaps more fertile fields, or a more fruitful marriage, or a higher position, or stronger security. But in fact, they gain us no profit at all. They only bring loss.
The leaders of Israel, the priests and the kings and the prophets, should have known better, should have warned the people about the folly of not following the God who had brought them so far. But, in a stinging indictment, God details their failures.
“The priests did not ask ‘Where is the Lord?’” There was no inquiring of the Lord in this new place, because in spite of the fact that the priests “deal with the law” they “did not know me.” They were like contemporary preachers who know all about the Bible and even know how to correctly handle the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15),” but don’t know Jesus himself on a personal basis. So, when they are confronted with new challenges, they go to the culture to find new “gods” to cope and become successful.
Further, the political leaders who were charged with leading on God’s behalf simply “rebelled against me.” They wanted to be “god” for their people and thought that allying themselves with the culture’s gods would accomplish that end.
Finally, even the prophets, those last stand representatives of the true God, prophesied by Baal, the chief god of the land. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has forsaken their first love and fallen in love with these worthless gods that bring no profit.
Once we get in touch with the enormous folly of idolatry we can understand why God would be so, well, incredulous. God appeals to the history of the surrounding nations, the western nations represented by Kittim and the easterners symbolized by Kedar. Go to them and ask if “there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods. (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.”
Then having surveyed the whole earth, God appeals to the heavens above. “Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror, declares the Lord.” God calls heaven and earth to be witnesses at the Trial of the Bride, the divorce proceedings against a people who have become worthless.
There is one more striking image in our text that shows the folly of forsaking the true God. It derives from the climate of the Promised Land, which had the rainy season (winter) and the dry season (summer). When it was summer, Israel needed a source of water, or they and their crops would perish. The best thing was a spring, a constantly flowing spring. The next best thing was a cistern, a hollowed-out piece of ground, preferably rock, that could store the water that fell in the rainy season. But if the cistern had cracks in it, all the water would seep out and folks would die of thirst.
God uses that well known feature of ancient Israelite culture to convict his wayward people. “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” You had me, a never failing, always flowing spring of life. But you forsook me, because you thought that you could do it better. You had to do it yourself, dig your own cistern, but that is always a useless endeavor. Your do-it- yourself gods always crack and break and in the end are as worthless as a broken cistern.
Preaching a fruitful sermon on this text will depend on your ability to identify modern day idols– things or ideas or methods or practices that promise much but deliver nothing, the “what does not profit” of our culture.
A helpful gospel sermon on this text must not leave people thinking about idols. You must point people back to the “spring of living water” who alone gives life. Call them to repent, yes, but remember that repentance has two movements—away from the sin and back to their God.
Here’s where we need to use the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. All she could think about was slaking her thirst, but Jesus offered her much more. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13,14)
I saw a headline on the internet the other day that startled me. It said, “Two hundred CEO’s say that making a profit is not the most important thing in business.” That stopped me in my browsing, because I’ve always been taught that the profit motive is what drives our capitalistic economy. It is surely what drives our life long search for a god who will profit us in some way.
The arch villain, the ultimate manifestation of evil in the titanic battle between good and evil at the center of the Harry Potter series, is Voldemort, also known as “He who must not be named.” In the Bible, the arch villain, the most tantalizing manifestation of evil in our lives, is the idol, “what does not profit.” To defeat those worthless idols, we must name them and call on the name of Jesus.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 1, 2019
Jeremiah 2:4-13 Commentary