Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Jeremiah 17:1-4

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, November 24, 2014

The Sin of Judah
17 Judah’s sin is written with an iron tool.
         It is engraved with a flint tip on the tablet of their heart
         and on the horns of their altars.

Jeremiah shows that people can’t hide their sins from God. Do we think that our sins are written on a sort of page in a notebook, and that we can erase them while he’s not looking so that he will forget them? The prophet depicts the sins of Judah engraved in stone. An “iron tool” was the most common instrument used for such carving, but the “flint tip” of this verse also hints at something even harder used for engraving and carving in stone. This was the tsiporen shamir, a tool “tipped with adamant.” This ‘adamant’ could have been either diamond or lodestone (a magnetic stone valued in ancient times for use in navigation), a very hard tip to cut into just about any stone surface.

Ancient altars often had ‘horns’ or projections on the four corners. Although commentators sometimes speculate about the purpose of the horns, I took it on myself to actually build a miniature altar to see what would happen if I arranged wood and meat on it, and I discovered that the wood has a tendency to roll off. If the altar has horns, the wood pretty much stays in place and the sacrifice can be burned or roasted without falling off (I did not offer any sacrifice to God; I just made the model).

The horns were commanded by God for the holy altars in the tabernacle (Exodus 27:2; Leviticus 4:25). Blood was poured on them, and actual altars found by archaeologists sometimes have the name of pagan gods inscribed on them. Perhaps the Jews had fallen into the same sin—you can’t hide the engraved name of Baal on your altar and you can’t hide the sins written in your heart.

2 Even their children remember their altars
     and Asherah poles
beside every green tree
  and on the high hills,
   3 and on the mountains in the countryside.

Asherah poles were wooden poles set up for worship of the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah (this is only time they are mentioned in this book). All of the places here recall idolatrous worship of many kinds. A question we might ask is, who does Jeremiah mean when he says that “their children” remember “their altars”? Does he mean that the children remember their parents’ altars, or does he mean that the children remember their own altars, where the children made pagan offerings? Both are possible, and the mention of the children should remind the parents that their own sins will be reflected and repeated by their children. The children will be held accountable for those sins because they will repeat them.

I will turn all your wealth into plunder
  because of your sin on the high places in all the land.
4 You will lose your inheritance—the one I gave you—
     and I will make you serve your enemies
   in a land you do not know.
The anger you have kindled in me
  will burn forever.

The Hebrew word at the end of verse 4 implies a perpetual fire, like that of the altar in the tabernacle. God’s holiness cannot permit anything sinful to come near or approach him. In fact, the Hebrew word for “holy” (qadosh, Isaiah 6:3) means separate, set apart, or remote. God’s holiness sets him apart from everything that is not holy in any way, and only those who have been made holy (sanctified) can approach God. Our sins are what caused us to lose our inheritance with God, but God himself is the one who atoned for our sins, taking on a physical body—our very human nature—and allowing himself to be killed, the punishment for our sins. Since he has given that sacrifice to us as a gift, we are made holy. We can now approach God, and what is more, we have been given a place with him forever in heaven.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.