I am enjoying this series on the book of Jeremiah. I hope you are too. My goal here is to share with you my insights but also to point out things that might not be obvious reading the book in translation. You can read the earlier posts here, here, and here. Last time we talked a little bit about the historical context of the book and also about the many images Jeremiah uses. Being the son of a priest, the prophet was well-versed in biblical language. But even more than that, I was impressed by how much the New Testament picks up on his language. So many of the pictures he uses come up again later in the Bible.
In chapter three, Jeremiah takes the metaphor of God and His people as husband and wife and runs with it. Now if you will recall, the people of God became, after the death of King Solomon, two nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel was always less faithful than Judah. From the reign of their very first king, Jeroboam, they set up idols and worshiped them. By Jeremiah’s time, Israel has been punished for their sins by being wiped out by the Assyrians. Judah is left. This part of God’s people fared a little better for while. They had descendants of David on the throne and some of them were good kings. Not all were, however, and over time they too began to worship other gods. I guess it’s not too surprising that this prophet from among the priests calls them out for this and names it as the big sin which has led to their own exile. This time it is the Babylonians that sweep down from the north to wipe out God’s people.
I am reminded in this chapter of Rachel and Leah, two sisters married to the same husband. And both here have gone astray and committed adultery. They have betrayed the one they should have been faithful to. Judah, the smaller kingdom, plays the part of the younger sister. She has seen her bigger sister’s error and yet has not learned from it. Now God through Jeremiah condemns her all the more for following in her sister’s footsteps:
“She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.” (Jer. 3:8; ESV)
Jeremiah uses certain words repeatedly in this chapter. Israel he calls the rebellious one (see, for example, v.6). The ESV translate it as “faithless”. I think “backsliding” or even “backwards” would be a good translation. Judah, in contrast, is called treacherous. The way he uses the word is striking in Hebrew. Ordinarily, Hebrew is like Spanish, adjectives come after the nouns they modify so we would expect to read in verse 7: “Judah, her sister, the treacherous one” but instead we find: “the treacherous one, her sister, Judah.” This reversal of the expected word order serves to emphasize the word for treacherous. It becomes an epithet for Judah, not just an adjective describing her. If I were making my own translation, I would translate it as “the Traitoress.” This description of Judah is used repeatedly in this short section, four times in six verses (and the same root appears again twice in v. 20). Here is my translation of this section:
“And the LORD said in the days of Josiah the king, ‘Have you seen that which the Backslider Israel did? She was going on every hill-top and under every green tree and she fornicated there. And I said after she did all these things against me “Return” but she did not return. And the Traitoress, her sister, Judah saw. And she saw that, because of all these things, that the Backslider Israel committed adultery, I sent her away and I gave her bill of divorce unto her. But the Traitoress Judah did not fear and went and she also fornicated. But that she fornicated and corrupted the land was too light so she committed adultery with the stones and the trees. And also in all this the Traitoress, her sister, Judah did not return unto me with all her heart but rather deceitfully,” said the LORD. And the LORD said unto me, ‘The righteousness of soul of the Backslider Israel is more than that of the Traitoress Judah.’ ” (Jer. 3:6-11)
The mention of the hill-tops and trees is worth noting here. The worship of other gods and goddesses was tied to nature and often happened on hill-tops of under green trees. So it makes sense to say that that is where the people were unfaithful to God. There is some implication that Jeremiah views this as a betrayal not just of God but of His creation. In the first verse of the chapter, he accuses the people of corrupting the land. But I think there is even more going on here. There are a lot of details in this chapter that make me think of Psalm 121. It begins:
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (Ps. 121:1; ESV)
The answer of course, given in the second verse of the psalm is “from the LORD.” But in Jeremiah we see that the people look to the hill-tops not to seek help from their God but to be unfaithful to Him. They have got it exactly backwards.
But there are other connections to Psalm 121 as well. It goes on to speak of the Lord as the one who watches over Israel:
“The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
(Ps. 121:5-8; ESV)
The Hebrew word used for “keep” here is shmr and it appears six times in this psalm of only eight verses. Shmr is also used in Jeremiah 3 but with a different emphasis. In verse five we read:
“Will [the Lord] maintain??? forever? Will he keep for eternity?”(Jer. 3:5a; my translation)
The second verb which I have again translated here as “keep” is that shmr from Psalm 121. The ESV translates this verse: “will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?” And I think they have the sense right. This is talking about the Lord keeping or holding on to His anger. But at the same time they obscure the meaning as well. There is no word for “anger” in the Hebrew. It is perhaps implied but it is not stated. Rather, what we have here is again a reversal of what is expected. Out of context, if we ask “will the Lord keep forever?” we want to answer with an enthusiastic “yes!” He will keep His people. But the trick here is that it is not His protection of His people which is being spoken of but His wrath.
The importance of all this, to my mind, is that we are getting the flip side of what is expected. The people reversed things by using the hills as a place of false worship so now God reverses things by keeping not His faithfulness but His anger. God, of course, is unchanging but His character cuts both ways. His mercy is a source of protection to those who are His but His wrath is a source of terror to those who are not. What has changed here is not God but the people. They have put themselves on the wrong side. There is some hope though. In verse 12 we are told: “‘But I am faithful,’ says the LORD. ‘I will not maintain [my anger, implied again] forever.'”
The last point I want to mae about this chapter concerns a word in verse 14. If you are at all familiar with your Bible, you may know that the baals are the gods of the surrounding peoples after whom the Israelites go astray. This, again, is their major crime as far as Jeremiah is concerned. What you may not know is that “baal” in Hebrew is a word which can mean lord, master, or husband. This makes sense if you think about it. The god of a particular place was its lord. So Baar-Peor, for instance, would have been the lord or god of Peor. But the base meaning of the word is to be master or husband. This makes the marriage analogy which Jeremiah spends so much time on even more appropriate. When the people have gone after the baals, they have been going after other husbands. Returning to verse 14 of chapter three, we find:
“Return, O faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your master” (Jer. 3:14a; ESV)
Have you guessed where this is going yet? The word which the ESV here translates as “I am your master” is really a form of baal. It is a verbal form here so we might translate “I have baal-ed you” or “I have been a husband/master to you.” God is saying I am your baal, your husband. It is perhaps a small detail but it is the sort of thing which is easily missed and adds beauty and complexity to the passage.