Jeremiah 17: States of the Heart

scarsofheart

Jeremiah 17

The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars, 2 while their children remember their altars and their sacred poles, beside every green tree, and on the high hills, 3 on the mountains in the open country. Your wealth and all your treasures I will give for spoil as the price of your sin throughout all your territory. 4 By your own act you shall lose the heritage that I gave you, and I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.

Walter Brueggeman has an excellent line about this passage:

It (Judah’s idolatry) is written on the ultimate places of memory, on the heart and on the altar. The record on the heart is the very antethesis of the torah on the heart (31:33). Something will be written on the heart, either sin or torah. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 156)

This chapter brings together a lot of varied styles and probably comes from various places in Jeremiah’s ministry, but it all centers around issues of the heart, and specifically the poet’s heart and the people’s heart. Here the heart of the people is directed away from God, towards the high hills, the green trees and the poles, probably indicating worship of Asherah and Baal. Now the degree that the people are worshipping other gods compared to turning away from God’s vision for their lives we will never know, but from Jeremiah’s view they have turned their heart to other gods and placed their place in other things. Their turning has left a permanent mark on their heart and on their worship and the consequences of this turning away from the source of their life is dire.

 5 Thus says the LORD:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
 7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
 9 The heart is devious above all else;
 it is perverse– who can understand it?
 10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
Now the oracle switches styles to reflect a more poetic style and reflects the language of the psalms or wisdom literature. The contrast between a shrub in the desert and the tree planted by water contrasts between the wise choice (trusting God) and the unwise choice (trusting in mortals). On the one hand, this seems readily apparent, but Jeremiah is probably protesting the practice of making alliances with nations like Egypt to protect the nation from the threat of the armies of Assyria or Babylon. Throughout the book of Jeremiah these alliances prove to be unreliable leaving the people of Judah captive to Babylon. Even when later Jeremiah will urge the people to not resist Babylon it is more attractive to rely on a foreign power that can challenge the armies that march upon the nation. Here the heart again becomes one of the images and it is a devious heart, yet it is also searched out by God.

 11 Like the partridge hatching what it did not lay,
so are all who amass wealth unjustly;
in mid-life it will leave them,
and at their end they will prove to be fools.

This little wisdom snippet may be a part of what lies ahead or it may be its own little pithy saying comparing those who amass unjust wealth with the partridge that hatches other birds eggs. Just like placing trust in mortals is a bad idea, so is placing ones trust in wealth for it will ultimately abandon them as well.

12 O glorious throne, exalted from the beginning,
shrine of our sanctuary!
 13 O hope of Israel! O LORD!
All who forsake you shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld,
for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the LORD.
 14 Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved;
for you are my praise.
 15 See how they say to me,
“Where is the word of the LORD? Let it come!”
 16 But I have not run away from being a shepherd in your service,
nor have I desired the fatal day.
 You know what came from my lips;
it was before your face.
 17 Do not become a terror to me;
you are my refuge in the day of disaster;
 18 Let my persecutors be shamed,
but do not let me be shamed;
let them be dismayed,
but do not let me be dismayed;
bring on them the day of disaster;
destroy them with double destruction!

The  prophet lifts up a prayer in the language of lament.  He begins by praising God as many lament psalms do and then he present his case. The prophet claims to have been faithful and has been wounded in remaining faithful. He is taunted by those who mock him saying, “Where is the word of the Lord? Let it come!” and yet Jeremiah has remained true. As a prophet he is caught between God and the disobedient people and Jeremiah asks not to receive terror from both sides for God is all the prophet has left. I read this as the prophet asking to be removed from this place between so that his persecutors may be shamed, not him, they may be dismayed, not him, and they may be destroyed, not him.

Orthodox Icon of the Prophet Jeremiah

Orthodox Icon of the Prophet Jeremiah

 
19 Thus said the LORD to me: Go and stand in the People’s Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, 20 and say to them: Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. 21 Thus says the LORD: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. 22 And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors. 23 Yet they did not listen or incline their ear; they stiffened their necks and would not hear or receive instruction.
 24 But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, 25 then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their officials, the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited forever. 26 And people shall come from the towns of Judah and the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the Shephelah, from the hill country, and from the Negeb, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and frankincense, and bringing thank offerings to the house of the LORD. 27 But if you do not listen to me, to keep the sabbath day holy, and to carry in no burden through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates; it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.

In a world where God is not central the Sabbath is neglected. When people trust in their own works, in wealth and in their own abilities to bring about prosperity there is no need for a day of rest. The Sabbath becomes another day for commerce, for work, for making and selling, for travel and for burdens. The most challenging thing that God commands God people is to rest and to trust in God to provide. Paradoxically it is this additional work which will undercut the value of the rest of the work. If the people rest they will be secure, they will have a king and be safe and they will receive the gifts from the surrounding world coming to them, yet if they work harder and harder to attain these things they will fall away and become more and more distant as the nation separates itself from it source of life and its reason for being

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