A reflection on Jeremiah 17:1-4*
The heart, in Hebrew, is not just the seat of emotions, but much more of the will. It is where decisions are made. The heart speaks to the whole direction of one’s life, commitments, and priorities. Jeremiah depicts the heart of people to be like “stone tablets” on which their “sin is engraved with a pen of iron” (17:1).
When sin becomes habitual and we refuse to repent, even after all the appeals of God’s word, the warnings of friends, or the protests of our own conscience, it leads to a very dangerous spiritual state, in which it becomes harder and harder to repent. Something permanently written in stone is like other pictures of unchangeable conditions: the indelible stain that cannot be removed by mere washing with soap (2:22); the colour of your skin or the spots on a leopard that cannot be changed at will (13:23). Only a miracle of God’s grace can intervene to bring about a change of heart when such a state has been reached. And that is precisely what other texts both require and promise. For Jeremiah it was the promise of the new covenant in which God would write his own law on hearts that had once been engraved with sin but would now be cleansed with forgiveness (Jer 31:33-34). For Deuteronomy it was the promise of heart circumcision in which God’s grace would give what God’s law demanded—the law and obedience of the heart (Deu 30:1-10). For Ezekiel it was the promise of an even more radical heart surgery—a complete heart transplant that would replace hard hearts of stone with hearts of flesh that would be moved to obedience by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
When Jeremiah says that “Judah’s sin is engraved…on the horns of their altars” (17:1), he means that it has penetrated to the heart of their worship—to the very place where they thought forgiveness and protection were guaranteed. “The horns of altar” which once provided atonement for sin and protection from pursuing adversaries (Exo 29:12; 30:10), now serve as a constant reminder of Judah’s guilt before the LORD. The text transforms symbols of salvation and security into emblems of guilt and danger. To persist in deliberate known sin is dangerous enough; combining it with regular attendance at church and participating in Holy Communion is a mockery of the grace of God. If there are things that need to be put right, that needs to be done first (cf. Ps 51:16-19; Matt 5:23-24; 1 Cor 11:27-34).
Because they refused to abandon their sin, they will be forced to abandon their most precious things—things that were in fact the greatest symbol of God’s blessing upon their nation: the land that was “the inheritance I gave you” (17:4); and the accumulated “wealth and all your treasures” (17:3). The land was the monumental tangible proof of God’s covenantal faithfulness. So, to be ejected from it was the bitterest proof of God’s covenant “anger” (17:4). The threat of expulsion from the land had been clear and repeated (cf. Lev 18:24-28; Deu 28:64-68). The moral equation is simple: it was “because of sin” and “through your own fault” that the judgment would fall (17:4). “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal 6:7).
May God grant us mercy and soften our heart. May we be quick to repent and cling to Jesus who took the wrath of God and provides forgiveness for our sins. May we learn to hate sin, as we grow to love Jesus more.
*Adapted from The Message of Jeremiah by Chris Wright.
This Week’s Bible Reading Schedule:
|Monday: Jeremiah 20||☐||Thursday: Jeremiah 23||☐|
|Tuesday: Jeremiah 21||☐||Friday: Jeremiah 24||☐|
|Wednesday: Jeremiah 22||☐||Saturday: Jeremiah 25||☐|