[This is part of my continuing series on the book of Jeremiah. You can find all the posts here.]
As we have seen, Jeremiah prophesies to the southern kingdom of Judah after the northern one has been destroyed when their own destruction for their sins is imminent. He himself is from a priestly family and knows the law well but is shocked to find that even among the leaders there is no righteousness.
Jeremiah 5 opens with a call to search Jerusalem to see if there is a righteous man. Does this sound at all familiar? God likes to repeat Himself in dealing with His people, perhaps because of our hard-headedness. This passage reminds me of Genesis when Abraham is told that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed and bargains with God to spare the cities if only a few righteous men can be found in them (they can’t). Jeremiah does not bargain with God like Abraham did. He doesn’t have to. God tells him,
“If there is anyone who does justice, who seeks truth, then I will spare it.” (Jer. 5:1b; my translation)
This game of “what does this passage remind you of?” is always a good one to play when reading through your Bible. It helps us make connections and see patterns that God uses. As in Genesis, the answer here is that there are not enough righteous men (though one presumes the prophet himself would qualify). We once again learn something important about our God though — He spares the wicked for the sake of the righteous. That’s kind of the heart of the gospel message, isn’t it?
Jeremiah himself hopes that perhaps it is only the ignorance of the lowly that has brought this destruction on. He goes to the great, those who should know the law, but finds that they also have broken the yoke of God’s law and cast His fetters off of themselves (vv. 4-5).
As we have seen in previous chapters, there are a number of sins of which the people are accused. This should not surprise us nor is it contradictory. Sin begets sin and it is rare that we engage in one serious sin without others also coming into play. We must also remember that we have reached the end-game in the book of Jeremiah — many earlier warnings and calls to repentance have been issues, all of which the people have rejected, and now the final destruction is looming.
In this first half of Jeremiah 5, one of the sins that God calls the people to account for is false swearing. This may seem like a minor thing to us, but we must remember that the Ten Commandments also forbid taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is a matter of honestly and integrity and it is no small thing. So in verse 2, we re told that if the people say “As the Lord Lives”, a common oath, then “they swear falsely,” and in v.7, they swear “by what is not God.” There is a little bit of a play on words going on here because the word for swear in Hebrew is shb’ and a very similar sounding word sb’, “fill” or “satisfy”, is used in the latter half of the verse. This is how it reads:
” . . . . they swear ( shb’ ) by what is not God; when I satisfy ( sb’) them, they commit adultery . . . ” (Jer. 5:7)
The use of similar sounding, and in Hebrew very similar looking words, creates a contrast between what the people do — swear falsely — and what God does — provide food.
The Bible is full of examples like this. As parents, we often speak of giving consequences that fit the actions. God does this as well, in His own way. So we find a bit later in the chapter that the people are accused of rejecting God’s word, as sent through the prophets (v. 13). Then the Lord says, “‘Because you have spoken this word, behold I am making My words like fire in your mouth, and this people are wood and it will consume them'” (v. 14).
The sins of the people, their lawbreaking, find sharp contrast in verses 22 and 23. Israel and Judah have cast aside the cords of God’s law:
“Go for me to the great ones for I would speak with them,
Because they knew the way of the LORD, the judgment of their God.
Surely they all together broke [the] yoke, shattered [the] fetters.” (Jer. 5:5)
Yet it is only humanity, among all creation, that rebels against its Creator in this way. We are told in verse 22 that:
“I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting decree that it might not cross it.
Though they reel yet they are not able; though its waves abound yet they do not cross it.” (Jer. 5:22)
This is followed immediately in verse 23 by another assertion of the people’s rebelliousness:
“But as or this people, they have a backward and rebellious heart . . . ” (Jer. 5:23a)
The sea in the ancient Near East is the symbol of chaos. In the myths of Israel’s neighbors it is what must be tamed in order for creation to happen. There are hints of this in the Bible as well. This is why we are told, for example, that in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no more sea. The Israelites were not a surf-and-sand loving people. And yet the sea, as chaotic as it is, as much as its waves may churn and try to cross the boundary that has been set for them, does not disobey its Creator. Only God’s people do that.
I have been reading a book on environmentalism (more posts on that coming) and am struck by how humans alone rise above creation and can have such a great impact on it, for better or worse. Jeremiah, of course, is not concerned with global warming or pollution, but still the same idea seems to be here: it is humanity, and humanity alone, who breaks the law of God.
Next time: Jeremiah 6.