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God’s Word for You

Jeremiah 4:1-4

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, July 28, 2014

4 “Israel, if you will return, declares the LORD,
      return to me.
If you remove your detestable idols
  and do not go astray,
2 and swear, ‘As surely as the LORD lives’
  in truth, justice and righteousness,
then the nations will bless themselves by him,
  and they will glory in him.

This is a continuation of God’s message calling Judah and Israel to repentance. He begins with Israel, the exiled northern tribes. Remember that the Lord specifically called out to them in chapter 3. Now he adds a caution: their repentance should not only involve words, but the actual contents of their hearts. He wants them to repent and to call to him “in truth, justice and righteousness.” What we say to God doesn’t only involve our words on Sunday. It also involves our actions on Monday and all week long.

3 For this is what the LORD says
     to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem:
Break up your unplowed ground
   and do not sow among thorns.

Jeremiah’s phrase “break up your unplowed ground” is probably a quotation of Hosea 10:12 (the Hebrew is identical). The word nir (נִיר) “unplowed ground” especially describes virgin soil, ground that has never been plowed.

Plowing in the near east was not done the way we would think of here in the west. Jesus’ parables help us to understand their agriculture a little. Here in the west, a farmer tills the soil to break up the ground, and then plants seed carefully in rows to make weeding and harvesting as efficient as possible. In Israel, weeding was exceptionally difficult in the rocky soil, and weeds and crops were gathered and separated at harvest time (Mathew 13:30). Then the thorns and anything else left behind would be burned while still in the field, and the harvested weeds would be thrown into the fire as well (John 15:6). Later when the time came to sow, the seed was scattered first all over the ground—whether rocky, fertile, or where a path wound through it (Mark 4:3-8)—and then plowed into the ground after it was sown. Growing things in last year’s fields was difficult enough, but here God uses the idea of plowing unused soil to tell the people to stop doing what they always used to do, and to do what would be difficult but very productive. Plow where last year’s weeds and thorns didn’t grow! Be faithful to me, and don’t go back your idolatry, which has become a habit so persistent that it’s like weeds that come back year after year.

This passage also reminds us of the Lord’s words at the beginning of chapter 2, that Israel followed God’s word “in the desert, in a land unsown” (Jeremiah 2:2). Chapters 2 and 3 and these verses (Jeremiah 4:1-4) form a complete unit, which the Lord brings to a close with a final, startling appeal:

4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
     circumcise your hearts, men of Judah,
     you who live in Jerusalem,
or my rage will burn like fire,
  fire that cannot be quenched,
  because of the evil that you have done.

The original covenant with Israel was the covenant of circumcision. The term covenant, berit (בְּרִית), means something cut—usually the halves of an animal when a treaty was made (Genesis 15:10). But God wanted Israel to cut their hearts, not literally, but in every other way, trimming off what did not belong to God and leaving only what does belong to God. Just as circumcision was not just the cutting of a baby’s foreskin but the entrance of that child into the family of God, so also this circumcision of the heart was to be the re-entry of the lost into the family of God. Leave behind what is ungodly, what is thorny, what is unproductive!

God continues the picture of the thorns in the soil by saying that his rage “will burn like a fire, fire that cannot be quenched.” If we do not turn away from our sins in repentance, God will burn everything up with the coming fire. This forms the transition between Jeremiah 2:1-4:4 and what follows (Jeremiah 4:5-6:30), which will be about the coming judgment. Jeremiah’s message is that the judgment is at the door, so repent right now! Don’t wait!

The goal of the gospel is to rescue sinners by calling them to trust in God above everything—in God whose forgiveness is free and complete. God’s word teaches us to get rid of anything and everything that might be or become an idol; anything at all we might trust in above God. We ask God to turn us away from sin and toward him, and we trust him for his grace and for every blessing we need in this life, and in the life of the world to come.

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.