Jeremiah is often called ‘the weeping prophet’ – and with good reason. No Old Testament book captures the jealous heart of God for His people as vividly as Jeremiah does. Having started his ministry during the reign of Josiah, who was one of the most righteous kings Judah had ever known, he proclaimed in no uncertain terms that God is looking for more than outward show – He is looking for the heart.
I must confess that I’ve always liked the Southern Kingdom of Judah more than the Northern Kingdom of Israel. While Israel structurally abandoned God, Judah had righteous kings like Hezekiah, Asa, and Josiah to show their people the way back to God. As I read Jeremiah, however, this perception begins to slowly unravel as the judgements of God surprisingly declare that Israel has been more righteous than Judah. Look at what God says in Jeremiah 3:
6 Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, “Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there. 7 I thought, ‘After she has done all these things she will return to Me’; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8 And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. 9 Because of the lightness of her harlotry, she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10 Yet in spite of all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but rather in deception,” declares the LORD. 11 And the LORD said to me, “Faithless Israel has proved herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.”
As I read this, I cannot hide my surprise. Wasn’t Israel the one that went after foreign gods and worshiped Jeroboam’s golden calfs? Didn’t Judah turn back to God multiple times under the leadership of righteous kings? I can recall a number of times that the people of Judah renewed their covenant with the Lord. Through Jeremiah, however, God makes it clear that faithlessness is better than treachery. The people of Judah may have professed to turn back to God, but Jeremiah indicates that it was only in pretense. Their service to God was one of falsehood and make-believe, their love of God no deeper than hollow words and pretending.
How widespread this attitude was in Judah can be seen throughout the writings of Jeremiah. The fact that God resided in the Temple in Jerusalem apparently gave the Judeans the feeling that nothing could touch or hurt them. God resided in Jerusalem and they were God’s chosen people; how could God ever let anything happen to them? What they failed to see is made evident in chapter 7, where Jeremiah stands in the gate of the Lord’s house to prophesy:
2 “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
Being the people of the Lord and coming into the Temple to worship God was obviously not sufficient in the eyes of the Lord. What God was looking for was not lip-service but truth and righteousness. Again, my mind goes back to that stunning declaration in Jeremiah 3:
“Faithless Israel has proved herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.”
God prefers honest faithlessness over feigned dedication. God would prefer it if I never prayed, never sang another worship song, and not called myself a believer if I am not living a life worthy of the Name of Jesus Christ. No amount of service to God is worth anything if I do not live my life surrendered to the will and purposes of God. I cannot point to my service in the Temple if the rest of my life doesn’t line up with God’s standards. The requirement of holiness has not changed from the old to the new covenant; only the means of acquiring that holiness has changed.
As I sit here pondering the contrast of faithlessness and treachery, I realize that I often don’t perceive treachery as actual treachery. I would rather provide excuses and reasons for sin such as ‘growth’ or ‘human nature’ than actual call habitual sin ‘treachery’. Be that as it may, direct disobedience to God is still just that: treachery, a willful betrayal of God under a pretense of loyalty. And while grace does cover a multitude of sins, you and I must be extremely careful that we do not take that grace for granted. Jeremiah and the history of Judah leave no question that willful betrayal of God under a pretense of loyalty leaves us with no protection, nothing to fall back on, and is worse than not serving God at all.
That is a hard and difficult reality, but a reality it is; serving and obeying God is not something to be taken lightly. May we be a people that live in truth, loyalty, righteousness, and holiness through the grace of Jesus Christ – as true children of the King.