In Jeremiah 3, the author (presumably Jeremiah) attempts to convince Israel to repent and to return to God. To do this, the author attempts various means. The author condemns. The author forgives. The author incentivizes. Both the carrot and the stick are used in full force. Shame and betrayal are harsh emotional anchors on which to give the historical narrative to Israel. Even competitive impulses are leveraged as Israel is compared to Judah. All of this is in the hope of convincing Israel to repent, to worship God.
In Jeremiah 3, God is the speaker. God explains His relationship with Israel. This is compared to a marriage. The common marriage laws apply. In Deuteronomy 24:4, God absolutely forbids a man from divorcing a wife and then re-marrying the same wife. In Jeremiah 3, God supersedes this law. The illustration is sharp: God is willing to overlook His own law and to pollute the land in hopes of Israel becoming His special people. In both Deuteronomy 24:4 and in Jeremiah 3, this is said to “pollute the land”, but God risks these consequences if it might bring back Israel to Him.
Jer 3:1 “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD.
The first verse serves as a summary of the chapter. God had married Israel. Israel had committed adultery, but God sets aside normal marital rules and begs Israel to return. The KJV and NKJV alternatively and better render the last sentence: “yet return again to me, saith the LORD.” and “Yet return to Me,” says the LORD.” God is calling for Israel to return in spite of infidelity. The rest of the chapter plays off this theme.
Jer 3:2 Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been ravished? By the waysides you have sat awaiting lovers like an Arab in the wilderness. You have polluted the land with your vile whoredom.
Verse 2 is a crushing indictment. The imagery is as offensive as it is vulgar. Israel is a whore. Israel has abandoned God in favor of many, many other gods. The concept is one familiar to most men: the more men that a woman has been with, the less desirable she becomes. Israel persists in harlotry in spite of being severely punished:
Jer 3:3 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.
Jer 3:4 Have you not just now called to me, ‘My father, you are the friend of my youth—
Jer 3:5 will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?’ Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could.”
God represents a possible change in Israel. God asks why they do not just repent and call out to God, the friend of their youth (a likely reference to God’s work in Exodus). God presents the hypothetical speaker as asking if their actions could influence God. The obvious answer is that it could. If Israel repented, God’s anger would subside. Jeremiah claims that the people said these words, but their actions did not match their sentiment. Israel called out for forgiveness but continued in evil in spite of God’s willingness to forgive.
Jer 3:6 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 there played the whore?
Jer 3:7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
Again, God uses vulgar imagery to represent Israel. Israel is having sex all over the place, committing adultery against God. God is not portrayed as responding in punishing anger, but responding with misplaced hope. God expects that Israel was just living out a rebellious phase. Israel would soon realize that their whoredom was not as profitable as a relationship with God. God was mistaken; Israel did not repent.
The author was pressing to Israel the idea that God has reached out to them. The people have rejected common sense and defied explanation in their actions. When God was willing to accept them with open arms, they irrationally rejected Him. Instead of repentance, Israel inspired Judah to do the same:
Jer 3:8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.
Jer 3:9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree.
Jer 3:10 Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the LORD.”
Jer 3:11 And the LORD said to me, “Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.
Judah is portrayed as little better than Israel. The text shows to what extent God’s punishment failed to yield results. Although Israel was divorced (serving as a frightful example as what could happen), Judah was not compelled to remain faithful. God’s warning was lost on rebellious Judah. In verse 9, Judah is said to have committed adultery with stone and tree. There is possibly a play on words here. Judah is polluting the “land” by fornicating with objects on the land (another vulgar image), and this symbolizes Judah worshiping stone and wooden idols. Also embedded in this description is the idea that foreign gods are not gods at all, but only inanimate objects.
Judah seems to have repented in some fashion, but God labels this as a pretense. It was a fake return with no real intent on reuniting with God. This double faced action angers God more than anything Israel had done. Israel only remained disloyal without any pretense of return. Judah pretended to be loyal, while abandoning God. God is hurt deeper by the false return, as should be expected in a wounded husband.
One cannot help but notice the rivalry that God is using to convince Israel to repent. The letter is not to Judah, and plays Israel off as one of two objects of God’s affection. Perhaps if God compares Judah to Israel, Israel will then strive to compete against Judah. Israel already has the advantage, as they have not feigned repentance.
Jer 3:12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, “‘Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever.
Jer 3:13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD.
God renews His attempts to persuade Israel to return to Him. God lists Israel’s crimes to guilt Israel. God lists His merciful intentions to calm any fears Israel may have. God asks for an honest reconciliation to start the new relationship afresh. God wants Israel to repent and to return to Him.
In the next verses, God changes from a married metaphor to a Father-child metaphor.
Jer 3:14 Return, O faithless children, declares 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.
Jer 3:15 “‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
God declares that He will populate a Holy city with members of each family. God will set up His government with leaders to oversee Israel. God is promising all this to His “faithless children”. The theme of reconciliation is strong.
Jer 3:16 And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again.
Jer 3:17 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 more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.
Jer 3:18 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 fathers for a heritage.
One of the primary purposes for the Ark of the Covenant was to be a meeting point between God and man (Exo 25:22). God intends to abolish the Ark of the Covenant as a necessity. In its place, God would reign on Earth. God would establish His personal reign in Jerusalem, ruling over the entire world. This is not a figurative reign. God intends to be so present that the Ark of the Covenant would be forgotten. This is how real God’s rule would be over the world.
At this time, the foreign nations would be subservient. The literal fear of God would cause individuals not to depart from following God. This is a reoccurring theme throughout the Bible starting as early as Isaiah (see chapter 56, 61, and 66). The Kingdom of God would be established on Earth, inhabited by God, and ruled by God. God will use Israel as a priest nation, set apart, and the gentiles would pay tribute. God is said to reunite Israel and re-gift Israel the Promised Land.
Jer 3:19 “‘I said, How I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beautiful of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me.
Jer 3:20 Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband, so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel, declares the LORD.'”
God’s very next statement is a reversal of God’s expectations. God has said that He would establish Israel over all the nationals of the world. God thought they would serve Him. But this did not happen. God claims treachery on Israel’s part. Israel deceived God, like an adulterous wife. The image is that of a wife sneaking out to her lovers while the husband is away. Israel turned unexpectedly. God did not foresee this act.
What the author is depicting is a deep hurt, likened to a marital betrayal. Israel had all the blessings to become a priestly nation, but they abandoned God. The author wanted Israel to feel God’s pain, and through that pain, repent.
Jer 3:21 A voice on the bare heights is heard, the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons because they have perverted their way; they have forgotten the LORD their God.
Jer 3:22 “Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.” “Behold, we come to you, for you are the LORD our God.
Jer 3:23 Truly the hills are a delusion, the orgies on the mountains. Truly in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.
Jer 3:24 “But from our youth the shameful thing has devoured all for which our fathers labored, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.
Jer 3:25 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 fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.”
In this passage, Jeremiah sets up a hypothetical exchange. This is a possible future that Israel can accept if only they choose. This is one that is not accepted, possibly ever. The text starts out with God calling for His faithless sons to return, and God promises to overlook their infidelity. God will instead bless them and restore them. This is blanket forgiveness, wiping clean the slate of sin.
The people respond that Yahweh is their God. They worshiped false gods and this led to disaster. As a result they were conquered by nations and destroyed, their prosperity wasted. The repentance is genuine and real as they grovel before God. They admit their sin.
Some commentators believe this was the people’s actual response to Jeremiah, but the following chapters suggest the people are still in a state of repentance. It may be easier for the reader to see this block of text as an invitation and an example of repentance. If it is an actual response, it is superficial and soon forgotten by the people who proclaimed it.
In all, Jeremiah 3 shows Yahweh as a God who is deeply concerned about Israel’s status as His own people. God relates that He is surprised and shocked by their betrayal. God, against His better judgment, wishes to still maintain a relationship with Israel. The entire text is an attempt to salvage what is left of His holy people. The text ends with God’s good expectations for future reconciliation, expectations which were again thwarted by a backsliding Israel.
Non-existent in the text is any concept of Negative Theology. God is not outside of time. God is instead watching Israel. God is not omnipotent. God is instead trying out all sorts of methods to encourage Israel to repent. God is not omniscient. God is instead surprised at the extent and length of Israel’s rebellion. Jeremiah see God as wholly committed to Israel, that not even God’s own law will break God’s relationship with His chosen people.