For those who want a change from the Gospel
3rd before Lent – Jeremiah 17:5-10
This passage is not an easy one on which to comment without a much wider survey of other OT writings. So let’s begin with what the passage actually says, and then move on to see what else the OT has to say on the subject.
At its heart, it is a passage about wholehearted trust in the Lord. Judah, threatened by the approaching Babylonian armies and reports of their cruelty and greed for conquest, are tempted to form an alliance with Egypt, a joining of forces which they believe might help them avoid capture. Before our passage the prophet is telling them the real issue: it isn’t lack of military strength which will be their downfall, but rather lack of true worship of the true God, which elsewhere is said to lead in turn to injustice towards their fellow Jews. Therefore, v.5, any attempt to trust in other human beings is doomed if that means turning away from God. They ought to have been on their knees crying to God for mercy, but instead they were running off to another nation, a nation who, incidentally, God had thoroughly punished in the past when he set Israel free from them.
Then follows a picture reminiscent of Psalm 1 where those who do trust in the Lord will be fruitful because they are rooted near water and nourishment, as opposed to those planted in the salty wastes of the desert. Those represented by the tree by the river need never fear nor worry, and will always remain fruitful.
That’s what the passage teaches, but is that true? You don’t need me to tell you that life just isn’t that simple, and in fact a whole OT genre, the Wisdom Literature, is there to tell Jeremiah as it were to hang on a minute, it just isn’t like that. The book of Job particularly addresses the problem of a man who does indeed trust in the Lord and is completely innocent in the ways he loves God and others, yet finds himself in the most terrible suffering. His three ‘comforter’ friends try to persuade him that the point of view represented by Jeremiah here is actually how it is, but neither he nor God will have any of it. And of course even without Job’s help we know instinctively that sometimes good people suffer and bad people prosper. We see it all around us every day. Unlike biblical plagues, Covid is no respecter of moral uprightness or true worship. We also know that human alliances, while they may not save us, are important in the 21st century world, and to try to pretend that we can live without them can lead to disastrous isolation (other views on Brexit are available!). So what are we to make of Jeremiah’s black and white assumptions? I’d like to make three points from the passage, apart, of course, from the point that we really do need to read the Bible in the light of the rest of the Bible, and not take passages we like, or don’t like, out of their wider contexts.
Heat and drought
In fact, Jeremiah isn’t actually saying that trouble won’t come to those who put their trust in God. In v.8 the well-watered tree won’t be shielded from heat or drought, but it will ultimately not be harmed by them, because of where its roots are. Faith does not give protection from suffering and automatic prosperity, but it does provide resources for when the chips are down.
Heart and mind
Some scholars think that v.9-10 were not originally part of this oracle, because they seem to be the musings of the prophet rather than his address to the people. But the point they make is valid: whatever we feel or think is highly unreliable, and at the end of the day only God knows the true state of our hearts, and will deal with us rightly and appropriately. Our job is to trust, to believe, to have faith, which Jeremiah exhorts the people to do throughout this passage, and not to worry about the outcomes or what we feel about them.
Us and them
Finally, note the couplet in v.5, ‘those who trust in mortals … whose hearts turn away from the Lord’. It isn’t always the case that trusting in other humans will turn us from God: I didn’t find that in the case of the maxfax surgeon in whose hands I lay anaesthetised for 18 hours. Some humans are trustworthy. But it is worth considering what human relationships actually have the effect of turning our hearts away from God. The classic example is young Christians with non-Christian girl- or boyfriends, but there are many others. Does our relationship with our bank manager or financial adviser, for example, turn us to or from God? Are our relationships at work or with friends those which draw us closer to God, or take us further from him? It is worth considering if we are being pulled apart, like that pair of Levi’s, or if there are any relationships which are pulling us away, and asking the Lord to show us the truth in spite of our deceitful hearts.