JEREMIAH 17:1-4. THE CONTEXT
1The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of your altars; 2while their children remember their altars and their Asherim by the green trees on the high hills. 3My mountain in the field, I will give your substance and all your treasures for a spoil, and your high places, because of sin, throughout all your borders. 4You, even of yourself, shall discontinue from your heritage that I gave you; and I will cause you to serve your enemies in the land which you don’t know: for you have kindled a fire in my anger which shall burn forever.
While these verses are not part of the lectionary reading, they provide background essential to help us understand verses 5-10. They describe Judah’s sin—unfaithfulness in their relationship to God—and the consequences that they can expect.
“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is engraved on the tablet of their heart” (v. 1a). When people of that era wanted to assure the permanence of a message, they engraved it on stone with an iron stylus. An iron stylus with a diamond point was the premier instrument for engraving, making it possible to inscribe the letters deeply and permanently.
There are a number of instances in the Old Testament that speak of something engraved. God commanded Israel to engrave the names of the sons of Israel on twelve stones, one for each of the sons of Israel (Exodus 28:9, 11, 21)—and to engrave the words, “HOLY TO YAHWEH” on a rosette of pure gold (Exodus 28:36). God engraved the law on the tablets of the covenant that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:16).
In each of those instances, that which was engraved was sacred—intended to bring to remembrance the covenant relationship that Israel enjoyed with God. But now that which is engraved is “the sin of Judah”—and it is engraved, not on stone, but “on the tablet of their heart” (v. 1a) —the innermost part of their being. We also find that phrase, “on the tablet of your heart,” in the book of Proverbs, where God commanded Israel to engrave loyalty and faithfulness—and God’s commandments—”on the tablet of your heart” (Proverbs 3:3; 7:3). If the people of Judah had done that, there would be no record of their sins engraved upon their hearts.
“and on the horns of your altars” (v. 1b). The horns of the altar are projections on each of the four corners of the altar of burnt offering (Exodus 27:2) and the altar of incense (Exodus 30:2). On the Day of Atonement, the priest sprinkles the blood of the sacrificial animals on the horns of the altar—a process by which the sins of the people are forgiven (Leviticus 4:7; 16:18). Adonijah grasped the horns of the altar to escape the wrath of King Solomon (1 Kings 1:50-51). In other words, the symbolism behind the horns of the altar is mercy—forgiveness of sin—refuge. Now, however, that symbolism is reversed. The sin of Judah is engraved on the horns of the altar as a permanent accusation against them.
“while their children remember their altars and their Asherim by the green trees on the high hills”(vv. 2-3a). These phrases, “altars,” “green trees,” and “high hills” sound innocent enough to our ears, but are code phrases that reflect Baal worship (see Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:4; 17:10; 2 Chronicles 28:4; Jeremiah 2:20; 3:6, 13). The “high hills” of Baal contrast sharply with the “holy hill” of Jerusalem and its temple—the dwelling place of God—the place where they should be worshiping (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1). This verse, then, speaks of Judah’s unfaithfulness to God.
“I will give your substance and all your treasures for a spoil, and your high places, because of sin, throughout all your borders” (v. 3b). The consequences of Judah’s unfaithfulness will be terrible. The word, “spoil,” refers to victors in war claiming the possessions of the defeated nation. In this instance, Jeremiah is predicting that God will give Judah’s territory—its heritage—to an enemy as a spoil of war. This will come true shortly when Babylonia sacks Jerusalem, loots the temple, kills many of the city’s inhabitants, and carries the rest into exile in Babylonia
“You, even of yourself, shall discontinue from your heritage that I gave you” (v. 4a). When Judah suffers disastrous defeat, they will not need to ask who is to blame. It will be their own actions—their faithlessness—that will bring about their disaster. They have forsaken God and the heritage that he gave them, so God will remove their heritage from them.
“and I will cause you to serve your enemies in the land which you don’t know” (v. 4b). This is an allusion to the exile that the people of Judah will suffer in Babylonia.
“for you have kindled a fire in my anger which shall burn forever” (v. 4c). This sounds as if God has written off these people forever, but that is not the case. As we will see, God has not finished with these people yet. He has harsh words of judgment in this chapter, but will later hold out the promise of redemption (42:10).
JEREMIAH 17:5-8. CURSES AND BLESSINGS
These verses outline two ways of living—only two—there is no middle ground. Those who trust in mere mortals are accursed (vv. 5-6), but those who trust in the Lord are blessed (vv. 7-8).
These verses are similar to Psalm 1, which pronounces blessings on those whose “delight is in Yahweh’s law” (v. 2). Such people “will be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also does not wither. Whatever he does shall prosper” (v. 3). “The wicked are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away” (v. 4). “Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked shall perish” (vv. 5-6).
JEREMIAH 17:5-6. CURSED IS THE MAN WHO TRUSTS IN MAN
5Thus says Yahweh: Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from Yahweh. 6For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see (Hebrew: yir’eh) when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land and not inhabited.
“Thus says Yahweh” (v. 5a). This introduction emphasizes the certainty of that which follows. When the Lord speaks, things happen. When God said, “Let there be light,” there was light (Genesis 1:3)—and likewise for the other steps of the creation. The word of the Lord has power to create and power to destroy—to bestow curses or blessings.
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm” (v. 5b). It is not a sin to trust people, but it is a sin to trust in people—to invest our deepest faith in another person and to derive our dearest hope from that person—to give that person the place in our hearts that rightfully belongs to God.
Or we might be tempted to invest our ultimate trust in an ideology or philosophical system—or the scientific method —or technology—or some get rich scheme.
Or we might be tempted to trust in contractual agreements with other people or treaty agreements with other nations.
Or we might be tempted to trust in our military prowess or that of our allies.
Or we might be tempted to trust in a healthy lifestyle and physical fitness routines. Some people put their ultimate trust in oat bran.
Or we might be tempted to trust in our own wisdom or our own strength or our own resources. The more gifted or wealthy we are, the more this is likely to be our temptation.
“whose heart departs from Yahweh” (v. 5c). We are so constituted that we must make a choice. We can trust in mere flesh or we can trust in God. We cannot have it both ways. To turn toward something other than the Lord is to turn away from the Lord. We can’t face both directions at the same time.
“For he shall be like the heath in the desert” (v. 6a). The desert shrub is a metaphor for a person living under harsh circumstances. Deserts are hot and arid. Some deserts are baking hot during the day and freezing cold at night. Survival under such conditions is difficult. Furthermore, desert shrubs are not very productive. How many desert shrubs produce abundant fruit, as do apple trees and orange trees? The person who places his/her ultimate trust in mere mortals can expect to live a marginal existence.
“and shall not see (yir’eh) when good comes” (v. 6b). Note the wordplay between yir’eh in this verse and yira’ in verse 8. Those who trust in mere mortals shall not see (yir’eh) when relief comes (v. 6b), but those who trust in the Lord shall not fear (yira’) when heat comes (v. 8b) (Raabe, 421).
“They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land” (v. 6c). Salt land is land that has been poisoned by excessive salt. To live in such a place is to be rooted in poisonous ground—hardly a prescription for prosperity.
JEREMIAH 17:7-8. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHO TRUSTS IN YAHWEH
7Blessed is the man who trusts in Yahweh, and whose trust Yahweh is. 8For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, who spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not fear (Hebrew: yira’) when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit
“Blessed is the man who trusts in Yahweh, and whose trust Yahweh is” (v. 7). In verse 5, we read, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” Now we read, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”
“For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, who spreads out its roots by the river” (v. 8a). The tree planted alongside water is a metaphor for a life lived under excellent conditions. Plants need water to survive. A tree planted alongside a body of water will always be able to find the water it needs to grow and produce fruit.
“and shall not fear (yira’) when heat comes, but its leaf shall be green” (v. 8b). See comments on verse 6b above.
“and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit“ (v. 8c). The tree planted near a lake or pond needs not be anxious about rain, because it gets its water from the nearby source. It continues to produce fruit because it is well-watered. This serves as a metaphor for those who trust in the Lord. It isn’t that they will experience no adversity—hardly! But they are rooted in their relationship to God—a relationship that nurtures them through adversity and keeps them from despair.
“The obvious problem with texts like Jer. 17:5-8 is that, when read in isolation, they fail the test of empirical observation. The tragic reality is that many persons who trust God not at all appear, at least, to flourish, while many faithful persons suffer enormously. Job knew that, and so did Jesus. Thus the values in such as passage as the present lection become evident only when it is read in connection with others” (Newsome, 143).
JEREMIAH 17:9-10. THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS
9The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it? 10 I, Yahweh, search the mind, I try the heart, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?” (v. 9). The focus of verses 9-10 returns to the human heart, which was mentioned in verses 1 and 5. It is difficult for us to understand other people’s hearts, because people disguise their deepest thoughts and feelings to show their best side. If other people could know our every thought, our lives would be quite different.
Furthermore, we often find our own hearts divided and confusing. The Apostle Paul confessed, “For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15). We have all found ourselves torn by conflicting values and desires. We look to counselors to help us understand our deepest thoughts and feelings. If we have difficulty understanding our own hearts, how can we expect to understand the hearts of other people?
“I, Yahweh, search the mind, I try the heart, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (v. 10). But the Lord is not subject to these human limitations. We cannot deceive the Lord. As God told Samuel, “Don’t look on his face, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him: for I see not as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7)
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bright, John, The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1965)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25 (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Isaiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Hyatt, James Philip (Exegesis) and Hopper, Stanley Romaine (Exposition), The Interpret’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956)
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Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Raabe, Paul R., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan