Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13
Jeremiah 1 introduced the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah by depicting God’s call upon Jeremiah’s life. The details of that call made it clear that Jeremiah’s preaching ministry would be both powerful in its effects and challenging in its execution. Jeremiah 2, which contains this Sunday’s lectionary text, introduces the content of Jeremiah’s preaching. It presents his first words (at least as far as the order of the book goes). His opening words offer a diagnosis of his listeners’ state before God. The challenge for us and for our listeners is to hear how that diagnosis applies to us.
As we noted in last week’s commentary, preparing to preach on the book of Jeremiah requires that we decide whether we are going to imagine ourselves and our listeners in the place of the prophet’s or the book’s original audience. Jeremiah probably delivered the message in our text near the turn of the sixth century, when Egypt and Assyria were still the relevant powers (see 2:18) and Babylon was beginning its ascendency. But the book of Jeremiah was still being formed during the Babylonian exile. So, Jeremiah’s original audience would have heard the passage in a situation where judgment was looming but perhaps still avoidable, while the book’s original audience would have heard the passage after judgment had come and restoration was hoped for.
The way things were (2:1-3)
The first three verses of Jeremiah 2 are not part of the lectionary text, but they provide an indispensable introduction to it, so the preacher would do well to include them in the text for the sermon.
The audience for Jeremiah’s opening words (the prophet may have actually spoken other words before he spoke these, but we’re dealing with his words in the order the book presents them) is Jerusalem. This means that Jeremiah is preaching to people in Jerusalem. We can imagine Jeremiah delivering these words to people assembled in Jerusalem for a festival or some other worship experience, but the point is that the prophet is addressing the people of God who are identified with Jerusalem, whether before or after its destruction by the Babylonians. For the people listening to Jeremiah deliver these words, Jerusalem is a source of misplaced confidence (see 7:1-15), while for those reading and hearing the book of Jeremiah during the exile, the destroyed city is a source of memory and hope. A later verse further defines the audience as “the house of Jacob” and “all the families of the house of Israel” (verse 4). Whatever place, situation, or state the people are in, the prophet addresses them as God’s people.
Speaking through Jeremiah, the Lord says that the relationship between God and the people was in the beginning exceptionally good. This refers to the wilderness period following the exodus from Egypt. Jeremiah’s perspective on that period aligns with that of Hosea (see Hosea 2:14-15) and differs from the tradition that views the wilderness period as a time when the people failed to prove that they could be faithful to God.
Jeremiah uses two types of imagery to picture the wilderness relationship between God and the people of Israel. He first uses newlywed imagery. This metaphor compares the relationship of the people to God that of a bride to a groom (verse 2). He next uses first fruits imagery. This metaphor states that Israel was set apart for God in the same way that the first fruits of a harvest were (see Leviticus 23:9-14). Both images underscore the specialness of the early relationship between God and the people.
The way things became (verses 4-6)
But, the Lord says through Jeremiah, things changed. At this point, God frames the issue in terms of “they” and “them”—why did the people’s ancestors go from being a faithful bride to being an unfaithful spouse? Why did the relationship between God and the people break down? God poses the question in terms that would have been used in a divorce proceeding: what has God done that would motivate Israel to become unfaithful?
The implied answer is “nothing.”
Given all that the Lord has done in bringing the ancestors through the wilderness and in establishing a committed relationship with them, it is shocking that they would go away from the Lord. It is even more shocking that they pursued other gods, even though those supposed gods were in fact nothing. NRSV says that the ancestors “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves” (verse 5b). The Hebrew word translated “worthless” is hevel, the basic meaning of which is “vapor,” and which can mean things such as “emptiness” (see NASB) or “vanity” (see KJV). In pursuing gods who are nothing, the ancestors became nothing themselves. Pursuit of insubstantial gods produces an insubstantial people.
The way things are (2:7-13)
The pronouns change with verse seven. Whereas until now the Lord through Jeremiah has been referring to the ancestors as “they” and “them,” the Lord now addresses the listeners as “you” (plural). The change in pronouns has the effect of placing the contemporary hearers of Jeremiah’s words in the time when the people first occupied the land. This move has two effects. First, it makes the past events real and meaningful for the listeners. In this sense, the move is similar to that made in Deuteronomy 5:2-3: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” Second, it raises the issue of how Jeremiah’s listeners are responsible for and guilty of the same sins that their forebears committed. The prophet eventually comes right out and states clearly that those who hear Jeremiah’s words—whether they hear him speak them or whether they read them in the book—are indeed culpable (verse 9).
Earlier in the passage Jeremiah implied that the ancestors’ going after other gods was incredible and shocking. Now he says that his listeners’ doing so is obviously ridiculous. Even people who worship non-entities as gods don’t change their gods (verses 10-11), yet Israel has exchanged commitment to the God who has blessed them (and would bless them again) to pursue non-gods who can do nothing for them. They could have “the fountain of living water,” but instead they settle for “cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (verse 13). In doing so, they choose death over life.
As we prepare to preach this text, we might ask ourselves a few questions.
- How has God blessed us in the past?
- How is God still blessing us in the present?
- How and why do we overlook the blessings that result from our relationship with God?
- What can cause us to look elsewhere than to God for our source of meaning? What can prevent us from realizing we are in danger of doing so?
- How can we develop a relationship with God that will keep us focused on our commitment to God?