4 “If you, Israel, will return,
then return to me,”
declares the Lord.
“If you put your detestable idols out of my sight
and no longer go astray,
2 and if in a truthful, just and righteous way
you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’
then the nations will invoke blessings by him
and in him they will boast.”
3 This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem:
“Break up your unplowed ground
and do not sow among thorns.
4 Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
circumcise your hearts,
you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire
because of the evil you have done—
burn with no one to quench it.
(Jeremiah 4:1-4 NIV)
In our past few studies, the Lord called His bride to repentance and reconciliation (3:22a). The people finally responded to the Lord in a broken-hearted confession of sin (3:22b – 25).
In today’s passage, the Lord calls His people to true repentance. As we discussed yesterday, the Lord will check to be sure their repentance is sincere and not merely pleasant words or an emotional outpouring. Genuine repentance must involve both a change in attitude and action for the Lord to accept their confession.
Today’s passage in broken into two parts:
- The meaning of true repentance (vv. 1-2)
- the conditions (actions) required to demonstrate true repentance (vv. 3-4)
In verse 1, the Lord says if His people are going to return, make sure that they are turning to Him and Him alone. Don’t go back to an empty ritual or following “rules” or performing some deeds out of obligation or duty to a role. Instead, return to a loving relationship with the Lord of the universe, like a Bride to her Bridegroom.
Verse 1 also is the answer to the question asked back in chapter 3 verse 1:
“If a man divorces his wife
and she leaves him and marries another man,
should he return to her again?
Would not the land be completely defiled?
But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers—
would you now return to me?”
declares the Lord.
The Lord, as the Bridegroom, is saying yes, He would take back His bride under certain conditions. While this is impossible for human achievement (per God’s law), it is possible with God.
So what are the first two conditions the Lord lays out in verses 1b – 2?
- Destroy (put out of God’s sight) all other gods (idols) and no longer worship them
- Honestly commit themselves to God’s way of life
God did not want His people to hide their false gods from His sight, as it is impossible to hide anything from God (Psalm 139). God asked His people to destroy all the Canaanite gods both physically and mentally (to put the false images out of their minds).
The Lord wanted no duplicity in what His people said, either. The phrase ‘As surely as the Lord lives’ was a familiar oath used to make a verbal commitment to another person, knowing that the Lord is watching over the relationship and the fulfillment of the agreement. The Lord’s point is that this oath was only to be taken by those who were fully committed to God’s sovereignty. In fact, the Third Commandment forbade the children of Israel from using God’s name in an empty or negative manner (Exodus 20:7).
Verses 3 – 4 extend the requirements to genuine repentance. The Lord specifically addresses the tribe of Judah and the remnant in Jerusalem as representatives of His chosen people.
What is the first requirement? To break up unplowed ground. This unplowed ground is not inactive soil; this is soil that has never seen a plow before – virgin soil. What happens when you cultivate the untilled soil for the first time? Weeds galore – short weeds, tall weeds, stinky weeds, thorns, brambles, underground roots, vines, you name it. It’s all part of the curse (Genesis 3:17-19). This breaking of the new ground would not be easy. If the Israelites wanted to have a harvest of righteousness, they had to do the hard work of attacking the weeds and thorns in their lives so the intended plants could survive and thrive. Jesus also uses this illustration in Mark 4:3-9 (the parable of the sower).
Finally, the Lord calls for circumcision of the Israelites’ hearts as a final action to demonstrate their true repentance. The “heart” is not the critical organ in each person’s body. Rather, the “heart” refers to the total of each person’s inner life. Only when the protective shell of the inner life was removed, when the deepest recesses of each person’s inner being met the brilliant sunlight of God’s love, would true repentance take place.
Verse 4 concludes with a promise of severe discipline if the Israelites did not fully repent from their sinful past. There were no more warnings; unless something changed, this was the final opportunity the Israelites had to demonstrate a changed heart and life.
May our heart reflect David’s heart:
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139:23-24 NIV)