Our reading today begins with an indictment of sin and a call to repentance. God tells Jeremiah of the Northern Kingdom’s sin. That she played the whore on the high hills and under the trees refers to her worship of false gods (v. 6). And Israel never learned the error of her ways (v. 7). And Judah saw it all happen. Judah witnessed the “divorce” of YHWH and Israel (v. 8). Judah saw the Assyrian siege and the captivity of Israel. And yet, Judah went and played the whore like her sister. She worshiped wood and stone idols like Israel (v. 9). And God’s calls for repentance went unheeded (v. 10).
So God declared Judah more guilty than Israel (v. 11). Why? Judah is like a younger child that sees her older sibling get punished for doing wrong, and then going and doing the same things. In other words, Judah’s sin was more high-handed than Israel, because Judah had seen what the punishment for idolatry would be. So God has Jeremiah turn towards the north (towards Israel’s land) and preach repentance. Israel was no longer there, it was Assyrian territory now. The call for repentance is really for Judah.
And the call is to return to YHWH (v. 12). He promises to forgive if they will only repent. They need to acknowledge their sin of idolatry (v. 13). If they repent, God will bring them to Zion (v. 14). Even if Judah was thinking in physical terms, that would mean that God would bring physical Israel down to Judah to be His people. Spiritually speaking, God is telling both Israel and Judah that if they turn from their idolatry and back to Him, He will make them again His people, only this time, spiritually.
But He will do more. He will give them godly leadership (v. 15). Even more importantly, their worship will not be limited to one physical place (v. 16). The Ark of the Lord (which will be destroyed when Babylon destroys the Temple) will no longer represent the presence of God, and it will be completely unnecessary. It won’t be missed. God’s presence will be among His spiritual people, represented by both Zion and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem (among His spiritual people) God will dwell, and true worshipers of all nations will come to Him (join themselves to His people). Judah and Israel will be joined together again and be brought out of captivity. This never physically happened – this is a spiritual promise.
Verse 19 harkens back to Deuteronomy 32:8-9. God turned the nations over to other gods, but chose Israel and Judah as His own. They should have called Him “Father” (see 2:27 and 3:4 and the prediction of the true Son in 2 Chr 17:13-14) and remained loyal to Him. But they were not. Instead, they abandoned Him, their husband (v. 20). He has rightfully divorced them (see 2:2 and 3:1). The bare heights refer to the “high places” of idol worship (v. 21). There is a cry going out to the idolatrous. And that cry is a call to repentance (v. 22). And God says that there will be those who come to Him when He calls. They will realize that their idols are a delusion, and that YHWH alone is the God Who saves (v. 23).
The “shameful thing” in verse 24 is a reference to the god Baal. It was a substitute name that God’s people gave to that god of the Canaanites (see Hos 9:10 and the “thing of shame” that is paralleled with Baal). Note that Baal was the fertility god of the Canaanites, and yet worshiping him destroyed the offspring of both man and beast. In verse 25, the shame is passed to the people because they worship a thing of shame (see Ps 115:8 and 135:18). This is the shame of their sin against YHWH. They and their fathers both disobeyed God from their youth (see 2:2 and 3:4).
Chapter 4 begins by repeating the call to repentance. Returning to God who they have forsaken means permanently forsaking all other gods (4:1). If they turn to justice and righteousness, they will not benefit alone. Other nations will be blessed by God and will glory in Him (v. 2). This is a call to the spiritual people of God among the physical people.1 God calls them to humble their hearts and prepare to receive what God wants to give them (v. 3 – see Matt 13:3-9, 18-23). This is paralleled with a call to circumcise their hearts (v. 4). The physical sign is used to symbolize the spiritual reality God calls them to. And those who do not have this heart will be judged.
In verse 5, Jeremiah’s message turns back to judgment. The trumpet blowing is the warning sound of an invasion. The spiritual people of God (Zion) are warned not to to stay among the physical people (v. 6). Babylon is coming to destroy Jerusalem (v. 7) as punishment from God for their sin (v. 8).
In verse 9, we have that “in that day” again. This has its ultimate fulfillment in God’s final judgment and salvation. God says that the people will be astounded at this. In verse 10, Jeremiah records his own reaction to this revelation. He tells God that he has deceived Judah. This is likely a reference to the false prophets God has allowed to speak peace to the nation (see, for example, 14:13). We see in this emotional reaction the sorrow Jeremiah has over the judgment of Judah (see below).
In verse 11, God continues the pronouncement of judgment. The “at that time” parallels the “in that day” of verse 9. The hot wind from the heights is a strong wind that did not allow for winnowing, because it was so strong that it would blow away even the wheat. The judgment of God spoken of here will affect all the people, the wheat and the chaff (v. 12)!
The judgment of verses 13-17 is a reference to Babylon in the near fulfillment, but is ultimately God coming in judgment in the clouds (see Matt 24:30, Acts 1:9-11). Either way, repentance is the only way to avoid judgment (v. 14 – see v. 4). The voice from Dan and Ephraim warning of the coming destruction is the example Judah has in the destruction of Israel (vv. 15-16 – see 3:6-10). But God says that because of Judah’s sin, Babylon will take the land (v. 17). Ultimately, the wicked will be removed from the earth. Whether the Babylonian captivity or the final judgment, man’s sin has earned him destruction (v. 18).
Jeremiah then again laments the coming judgment. He hears the warning of coming destruction (vv. 19-21 – see v. 5). That he sees the standard shows that he is speaking as one of the chosen spiritual people of God (see v. 6). God answers Jeremiah. The physical people do not know Him (v. 22 – see Isa 1:3). They are fools (see Prov 1:7). In verses 23-26, God describes judgment as undoing what He did at creation. The earth will be without form and void (v. 23 – see Gen 1:2) and the heavens will have no light (see Gen 1:3, 14-17 and Isa 13:10). Man will not be on earth (v. 25 – see Gen 1:26-27) nor the birds in the air (see Gen 1:20-22). God is speaking in terms of creation – a new creation! And it will come with judgment. The mountains will be removed (v. 24 – see Nah 1:5). The cities will be made a wasteland (v. 26 – see Gen 1:11-12, Isa 6:11).
In verse 27 there is a spark of hope. The desolation of the land/earth will not be the final word! God will carry out the judgment He has promised (v. 28), and man will be removed and the cities made a wasteland (v. 29) though the wicked will not expect it (v. 30), and yet, the spiritual remnant will be preserved even though they will be affected by the judgment against wickedness (v. 31 – see vv. 11-12). This will be but birth pains that end in life. This is also a reference to the preservation of a physical remnant to bring forth the child: Jesus of Nazareth (see Gen 3:15, 1 Chr 17:13-14, Isa 7:14, 9:6-7, Rev 12:1-5). The chapter ends with Jeremiah lamenting once again the coming judgment for his people.
1 And this is exactly what happens. The chosen Apostles and disciples Jesus chose out of Israel went on to bless the whole world!