6 During the reign of King Josiah, the Lord said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. 7 I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. 8 I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. 9 Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. 10 In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the Lord.
11 The Lord said to me, “Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah.
(Jeremiah 3:6-11 NIV)
As we begin today’s passage, the passage shifts from a general call to repentance over the years to an event at a particular point in time. Also, the literary form switches from a patterned poetic form to prose (standard writing).
Jeremiah recalls a time during the reign of King Josiah (the reforming king of Judah). To add a bit of historical context, the Hebrew nation had divided into two kingdoms – the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom, under the reign of Manasseh, turned its back on God and was eventually overtaken by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Josiah was king of Judah after the fall of the northern kingdom (Israel) to the Assyrians. Josiah instituted many religious reforms, getting rid of the Canaanite gods and their places of worship.
With this historical context in mind, the Lord spoke to Jeremiah about the two kingdoms. The Lord compared the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah to two sisters – related to each other and of the same parentage, but each unique and distinct.
As the Good Father, the Lord was heartbroken over Israel’s choice to turn away from Him and serve the Canaanite false gods, to commit spiritual adultery (v. 6). The Lord was hoping that the painful lesson Israel had learned because of her bad choices would be a deterrent to her younger sister Judah as He knew that Judah was watching (v. 7).
Instead of learning from her older sister’s mistakes and seeing her consequences, Judah went out and committed the very same sins (v. 8). The Lord saw that there was repentance in Judah, but it was on the outward surface only (referring to Josiah’s reforms). There were no more idol worship shrines, but that did not stop Judah from giving their hearts to the foreign and lifeless Canaanite gods (v. 10).
So what was God’s assessment of the two sisters? The Lord declared Israel the more righteous of the two, as she made no pretense of her situation compared to her sister Judah that acted like she was in good relationship with the Lord, but outwardly only (v. 11). This judgment must have come as quite a surprise to the people of Judah. They likely thought that they were the righteous ones, as they still had their kingdom after Israel was overtaken by the Assyrians. Therefore, the people of Judah thought that they were in a genuine relationship with God.
So what are the lessons learned here? First and foremost, the Lord looks at our hearts as well as our outward actions to see how we’re relating to Him. Empty words with no heartfelt dedication are meaningless. Outward actions with the wrong motives (trying to get credit by following the rules) are no better. It’s not an “either-or”, but a “both-and” in our walk with God.
Secondly, despite whatever sins we may have committed, God’s love and desire for restoration is available. No sin that is so great that He will not forgive us. But we must come in humility and brokenness before Him, with full realization that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor. God loves us unconditionally.
May we walk in simplicity and single-hearted devotion to our Father, who loves us and desires the best for us.
May we allow no one and nothing to cause us to turn our backs on God’s love and care for us. The enticements may be great, but the reality is empty.