Assyria forced Israel, the northern kingdom, into exile in Assyria in 722 B.C. While Assyria left some of the populace of Israel in place, those people became assimilated with local tribes so that Israel (the northern kingdom) effectively ceased to exist as a nation.
There had been a series of bad kings of Judah prior to the reign of King Josiah. Those kings did what was evil in God’s sight and the people did likewise. Josiah was a much better king. In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, the high priest Hilkiah found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. When this was brought to Josiah’s attention, he began a series of reforms in an attempt to bring Judah into compliance with God’s law.
Jeremiah received his call in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign (627 B.C.) and continued his ministry until after the fall of Jerusalem (587 B.C.). At the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry, Assyria was the dominant power, but Babylonia soon superseded Assyria as the dominant power and Jeremiah did most of his work during the period of Babylonia’s dominance. He pursued his prophetic ministry in Judah—primarily in Jerusalem.
Most scholars think that chapter 2 of the Book of Jeremiah was written early in Jeremiah’s career—either before Josiah’s reforms had begun or before they had made significant progress in stamping out idolatry.
Chapter 2 is part of a larger section that extends through 4:4. The first part (2:1 – 3:5) serves as an indictment of Judah, and the second part (3:11 – 4:4) is a call to repentance.
The word “indictment” is often used to describe our text. An indictment is “a formal written statement framed by a prosecuting authority…charging a person with an offense” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary). In our text, the Lord is the one presenting the indictment.
JEREMIAH 2:4-6. HEAR THE WORD OF YAHWEH
4Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel!
5Thus says Yahweh, “What unrighteousness have your fathers found in me, that they have gone far from me, and have walked after vanity (Hebrew: he·bel), and are become vain? 6Neither did they say, ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that none passed through, and where no man lived?’”
“Thus says Yahweh, “What unrighteousness have your fathers found in me, that they have gone far from me” (v. 5a). Jewish law provides that a husband can divorce his wife if she finds “no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly thing in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1). The Lord’s question assumes the possibility that Israel left Yahweh because of something objectionable that Israel found in Yahweh.
However, this is really a rhetorical question that anticipates the answer, “Nothing. Our ancestors found nothing objectionable about Yahweh.”
“and have walked after vanity (he·bel), and are become vain?“ (v. 5b). He·bel is sometimes translated “vanity.” It “literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapor’ and thus it can…mean ‘without substance or reality'” (Richards, 608).
The Hebrew word translated “walked after” suggests movement, so it could be translated “pursued” or “chased.” However, in this case, the movement is motivated by foolish hearts that believe that “worthless things” (idols) are more desirable than Yahweh. The movement toward idol worship is but a symptom of the problem. The problem is the foolish hearts that have believed in something that has no substance.
The question, then, is why Israel left Yahweh, her faithful and substantial husband, to pursue the worship of idols that are no more than inconsequential decorations. What we have here is a First Commandment issue (Exodus 20:3-4).
“Neither did they say, ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that none passed through, and where no man lived?'” (v. 6). This verse recounts the deeds done by Yahweh in behalf of Israel. Yahweh not only freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, but he also sustained and protected Israel during its forty year sojourn in the wilderness—a place where you would not expect a large group of people to survive for an extended period of time. The wilderness is a harsh environment that provides little food or water. However, God provided manna for food and water from a rock.
Having experienced Yahweh’s protection on many occasions over a period of four decades, it would seem that Israel would look for relief from its current problems by asking “Where is Yahweh?”—by seeking help once again from the one who helped them in the past.
JEREMIAH 2:7-8. I BROUGHT YOU INTO A PLENTIFUL LAND
7“I brought you into a plentiful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness; but when you entered, you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests didn’t say, ‘Where is Yahweh?’ and those who handle the law didn’t know me. The rulers also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit.”
“I brought you into a plentiful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness” (v. 7a). Yahweh not only led Israel through the perilous wilderness, but also brought them into the Promised Land—a land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). From the time that they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land (Joshua 3), the Lord was with them and gave them victory after victory.
“but when you entered, you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination” (v. 7b). But Israel “defiled” the beautiful land that the Lord had given them. The word “defiled” here has nothing to do with pollution as we think of pollution today. Israel defiled the land by failing to drive out the inhabitants (Judges 2-3). They defiled the land with their worship of Baal and other local gods (see Leviticus 18:24-30).
“The priests didn’t say, ‘Where is Yahweh?’ and those who handle the law didn’t know me. The rulers also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal, and walked after things that do not profit.“ (v. 8). The Lord indicts four specific groups of people here: (1) Priests, who did not seek the Lord, but instead turned to idols. (2) “Those who handle the law”—scribes and Levites. (3) Rulers. Israel had more bad than good kings. (4) Prophets, who prophesied by Baal rather than seeking Yahweh’s guidance.
The prophets “walked after things that do not profit.” There is no such lovely play on words (prophets—profit) in the original Hebrew, but the play on words in our English translation is nevertheless appropriate. The prophets failed in their prophetic role. Their prophesy consisted of false teachings that led the people in the direction of worthless things—vapors and wisps and other things of no substance (v. 5).
The fact of bad leadership did not excuse ordinary Israelites, but it is no wonder that they went in the wrong direction. Their leadership led them in that direction.
JEREMIAH 2:9-11. SEE IF THERE HAS BEEN SUCH A THING?
9“Therefore I will yet contend with you,” says Yahweh, “and I will contend with your children’s children.10For pass over to the islands of Kittim, and see; and send to Kedar, and consider diligently; and see if there has been such a thing. 11Has a nation changed its gods, which really are no gods? But my people have changed their glory (Hebrew: kebod) for that which does not profit.”
“Therefore I will yet contend with you,” says Yahweh, “and I will contend with your children’s children” (v. 9). Verses 5-8 provided essential background for the indictment (the statement of charges). Now begins the indictment proper.
Fretheim sees the “you” in this verse, not as the ancestors, but as Jeremiah’s contemporaries (Fretheim, 66). However, my sense of it is that the Lord has been addressing the ancestors, and the phrase, “your children’s children,” is where the Lord makes the shift to Jeremiah’s contemporaries.
In any lawsuit, the defendant must be accused of violating some law or failing to comply with the provisions of some legally-binding agreement. There also needs to be a sense that someone has been injured—whether society-at-large or an individual.
In this instance, the defendant (Israel) is accused of failing to comply with the provisions of the covenant which the Lord had made with it. The first version of the covenant was made with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3). God renewed this covenant with Moses (Exodus 24) and Joshua (Joshua 24) and Jehoiada (2 Kings 11) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:10 and Josiah (2 Kings 23:3) and David (2 Samuel 7:12-17).
In this instance, the one who has been wronged is Yahweh, who is the other party to the covenant. Yahweh was faithful to bring Israel out of slavery into the Promised Land. Yahweh made Israel into a great nation. But Israel has not been faithful to serve Yahweh. Israel has been all too easily tempted to serve other gods.
“For pass over to the islands of Kittim, and see; and send to Kedar, and consider diligently; and see if there has been such a thing” (v. 10). Cyprus is a large island in the Mediterranean, located about 140 miles (225 km) northwest of Jerusalem. Kedar was located an equal distance southeast of Jerusalem —to the east of Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. The Lord is inviting Israel to look far away, first in one direction and then in the opposite direction. It is really an invitation to examine the whole world to see if anyone has ever been guilty of the foolish thing that Israel has done.
“Has a nation changed its gods, which really are no gods?” (v. 11a). This is the foolish thing that the Lord is accusing Israel of doing—changing its God from Yahweh to idols—Baals—gods that are no gods.
The Lord is inviting Israel to look far and wide to see if they can find another nation that has ever done such a foolish thing. The other nations that they might use for comparison begin with gods that are no gods—gods with no proven track record—and yet they maintain loyalty to those gods.
But my people have changed their glory (kebod) for that which does not profit
“But my people have changed their glory (kebod) for that which does not profit” (v. 11b). The word kebod is used in the Bible to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live” (Exodus 33:20)—but God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23). The point is that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to be capable of experiencing it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We could not deal with it.
It is this grand and wonderful kebod that Israel has exchanged for “that which does not profit”—something that is empty and useless. If we were to make this comparison today, we might talk about exchanging our connection to the electrical power grid for a dead battery.
JEREMIAH 2:12-13. MY PEOPLE HAVE COMMITTED TWO EVILS
12“Be astonished, you heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid. Be very desolate,” says Yahweh. 13“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters, and cut them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
“Be astonished, you heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid. Be very desolate,” says Yahweh” (v. 12). The heavens, of course, constitute the ultimate witness (keep in mind that our reading from Jeremiah is couched as a legal proceeding, so this word “witness” is appropriate to this setting). The heavens are like a giant eye in the sky that sees all. The heavens have witnessed all that the Lord has done for Israel, and they have witnessed Israel’s disobedience and disloyalty. Now the Lord calls the heavens to pay attention to that which they have seen—to allow themselves to be shocked and utterly desolate because of Israel’s sins.
This is the kind of language that a prosecutor would use with a jury—a request that they consider carefully the terrible things that a defendant has done and the terrible consequences of that behavior. The prosecutor needs the jury to be outraged so that they will return an appropriately harsh verdict.
So also the Lord is addressing the heavens both as witnesses (one courtroom role) and jury (another courtroom role). The Lord is inviting the heavens to be outraged so that they can return an appropriately harsh verdict (or, perhaps, so that they will appreciate the necessity of the harsh verdict that the Lord is about to render).
“be very desolate” (v. 12b). Achtemeier sees this as the Lord’s request to the heavens to withhold their rain—a harsh judgment, indeed, in an arid climate (Achtemeier, 410).
“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters” (v. 13a). Note that, in spite of Israel’s disloyalty, the Lord still speaks of Israel as “my people.” Israel has been fickle, but the Lord remains loyal, even in the face of Israel’s disloyalty.
Israel is guilty of two evils. The first is that “they have forsaken me”—Yahweh—the Lord—the one who brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land—the one who provided for them miraculously in the wilderness so that they did not perish there—the one who has been there for them through thick and thin—the one who has time and again chastened them for their sins but has not destroyed them—the one who, in spite of everything, still calls them “my people.”
“the spring of living waters” (v. 13b). It is Yahweh who is “the spring of living waters.” Israel would have understood this phrase, “living water,” to mean flowing water, such as a stream or an artesian well.
In an arid land, water equals life. Every form of life, vegetable, animal, and human, requires water to survive. In an arid land, such as Israel, people would be especially aware of this reality. The farmer or shepherd who has a dependable stream or artesian well on his/her property is fortunate indeed. The farmer or shepherd who does not is reduced to looking for water off-premises—or digging in the hope of finding an underground source of water (living water)—or directing runoff water from roofs into barrels or cisterns.
In this context, “the spring of living waters” refers to Yahweh’s ever-present care for Israel. Yahweh has been a dependable source of sustenance and life.
Jesus will use this phrase, “living water,” when speaking to the Samaritan woman. He will speak of“living water… a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). In that context, as here, “living water” serves as a metaphor for spiritual life.
“and cut them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (v. 13c). No farmer or shepherd would abandon “living water” in favor of a cistern. A cistern is a last-choice rather than a first-choice option. Digging a cistern in rocky ground is a terrible chore—as is applying and repairing plaster so that the cistern will hold water—as is cleaning the cistern—as is using a bucket to draw water from the cistern. A farmer whose property includes “living water” might dig a cistern as insurance against drought, but would hope never to have to use it.
But Israel not only exchanged the Lord’s “living water” for cisterns, but embraced “broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Israel has forsaking the living God for pieces of wood and stone carved into idols—idols that have no power—idols that cannot help them.
“Would anyone today be so foolish as to trade an artesian well for a broken cistern? Unfortunately, many do. Some of today’s ‘broken cisterns’ are the pursuit of wealth, power, fame, or pleasure” (Huey).
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.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, 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)
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
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)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
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)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
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