Orthodox Icon of the Prophet Jeremiah
If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife,
will he return to her? Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?
says the LORD.
2 Look up to the bare heights, and see!
Where have you not been lain with?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.
3 Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.
4 Have you not just now called to me, “My Father, you are the friend of my youth–
5 will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?”
This is how you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could.
6 The LORD said to me in the days of King Josiah: Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and played the whore there? 7 And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me”; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. 8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. 9 Because she took her whoredom so lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. 10 Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the LORD.
11 Then the LORD said to me: Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah. 12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the LORD your God,
and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree,
and have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD.
14 Return, O faithless children, says the LORD, for I am your master;
I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.
15 I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. 16 And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the LORD, they shall no longer say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD.” It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made. 17 At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will. 18 In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your ancestors for a heritage.
19 I thought how I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.
20 Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband,
so you have been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the LORD.
21 A voice on the bare heights is heard, the plaintive weeping of Israel’s children,
because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten the LORD their God:
22 Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness.
“Here we come to you; for you are the LORD our God.
23 Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains.
Truly in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.
24 “But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our ancestors had labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters. 25 Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our ancestors, from our youth even to this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.”
Jeremiah and the other prophets open us to the story of a God who loves, which may be a bit naïve about relationships, but refuses to give up. Unlike earthly kings portrayed in the bible who are bound by the law they have written(think for example of King Darius in Daniel 6 [the story of Daniel and the lions’ den] or King Xerses in the book of Esther) God’s love for God’s people will not be undone by their disobedience. In a direct allusion to Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 where the law states such a wife may not return (granted this is not a fair world-women could not divorce husbands but husbands could divorce wives) and this sets up the argument to come, God is not going to be bound by this. God desires the return of both Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). And yet God is working through God’s own woundedness by the brokenness of the relationship. God is the vulnerable one, God loved and was hurt by it and yet rather than give up God is willing to risk humiliation and defilement to continue to be in relationship. Much as the prophet Hosea and his adulterous wife, God is acting as the Father/husband who has not given up on the relationship and is taking the first step of reconciliation and restoration.
Judah and Israel have to want to come home though, God is allowing the consequences of their actions to run its course and is withholding God’s support for them. Much as a loved one doing the difficult wait for an addict to hit rock bottom, God waits. God wants desperately for Israel and Judah to come home and yet they cannot come home as they are. As Brueggeman states “the poet tears at the heart of God, who yearns, but who will not be mocked, trivialized or used.” (Brueggemann 1998, 45) Even in the midst of the fickleness of Judah we find the firmness of God’s resolve to establish a new relationship. It will have to be something new, even after reconciliation there will need to be changes but the opportunity for that new relationship is left wide open by the wounded but loving God. Much as in Ezekiel 34 where God will replace the shepherds who have abused the sheep, God promises in verse 15 new leaders:
15 I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding
And there will be a chance for an even greater level of closeness.
God is seeking a new beginning, willing to set aside the brokenness of the past not to go back to the old but to begin something new. There must be a change on Israel’s part and on Judah’s part, and that may not be any easier than giving up an addiction, but the space has been made available for a return. And somehow God while not determining the actions of Judah or Israel as a puppeteer creates the space through love where a return is possible. To remember Martin Luther’s words in the Heidelberg Disputation:
“The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” (Luther 1989, 32)
Judah and Israel’s actions may not make them seem very loveable and yet God refuses to see them through that lens, but rather through the lens of love that makes a new future possible.