Commentary on Jeremiah 17:5-10
This passage goes to the heart of biblical teaching, standing in dialogue with other passages and making important contributions to the discussion. The passage exhorts the reader to trust in the Lord. The issue of trust in the Lord comes up throughout scripture, in various ways and with many nuances. The terms “trust,” “have faith,” and “believe” reinforce each other. As greeting cards and coffee cups remind us, the sage counsels the reader to “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight” (Proverbs 3:5).
Paul considers faith the proper response to God’s grace and uses it as a basis to accept uncircumcised gentiles into the church (Romans 4:13-16). Paul cites Abraham as the example of faith, “he did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead” (19). An examination of the Abraham cycle reveals a mixture of trust/faith and doubt/laughter (Genesis 17:3, but see verse 17; for Sarah’s laughter, see 18:12).
In the Gospel of John, the proper response of a disciple to Jesus’ presence and signs is to believe. The disciples believe after the miracle of water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:11). Even though the disciples believed at the first sign, they believe again at the empty tomb (20:8). Belief is not a static condition. Some of the characters in John come to believe only after a long process (9:38). The concepts of trust, faith, and belief intertwine. All three involve intellectual ascent and visceral response. All three prove elusive and difficult to define precisely. Yet the entire biblical witness seeks to inculcate and develop trust/faith/belief. This passage from Jeremiah adds its insights to the rest of scripture.
The immediate context of the passage from Jeremiah involves the strategy of Judah’s leaders to form an alliance with Egypt against the Babylonians. Jeremiah’s message to Judah and its leaders was to trust in the Lord, not in political and military alliances. As it turned out, the attempt to fight back prompted the Babylonians to tighten their grip, eventually destroying the city and temple and sending the Judeans, including Jeremiah, into exile.
In the contemporary world, countries regularly form alliances, sign treaties, and cooperate both militarily and for trade and commerce. In national and international matters, the parties involved should reflect on the ethical and moral dimensions of these alliances. The preacher can speak to such matters and point out unethical strategies. A preacher would have a harder time determining how these alliances involve a lack of trust in the Lord.
The preacher’s real task in using this passage is proclaiming how people and churches can trust in God. Although the passage cautions against trusting in people, individual Christians and churches enter into relationships that involve trust in people. The real key to the passage may come in the line about turning our hearts away from the Lord. The preacher can talk about ways that interacting with others involves turning away from God.
Commentators have noted the similarity between these verses and Psalm 1. Both set up a sharp contrast. Psalm 1 contrasts those who follow the law or teaching, and those who do not. The comparison to a tree planted near water is a common theme (Psalm 1:3, Jeremiah 17:8). In both cases, those who follow the teachings or trust in the Lord bear fruit. Both the wisdom tradition and the Deuteronomistic theology set these kinds of sharp contrasts, and promise prosperity. Proverbs 3:9-10 promise barns filled with plenty and vats bursting with wine. Deuteronomy 28 promises success to the obedient and failure to the disobedient.
Within the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament comes a challenge to such either/or thinking. Job and Ecclesiastes teach that life does not work out so simply. In the contemporary world, life teaches the same thing. Obedience, trust, wisdom do not lead to outward success or prosperity. The passage from Jeremiah seems to support the idea that life does not work out so simply. The passage acknowledges that drought and heat will come. Those who trust will survive and bear fruit despite the poor conditions.
Verses 9-10 seem out of place following the exhortation to trust in the Lord. Old Testament scholars do not consider verses 9-10 as an integral part of this passage. It seems to start a new thought. In verse 9, the prophet speaks to the Lord. He laments the perversity of the human heart. The Lord then responds affirming the divine searching of the human heart and mind. The Hebrew of the passage uses the terms for heart and kidneys, reflecting the ancient pattern of placing thought, emotion and will within the human gut.
Modern medicine teaches differently, but our thoughts and feelings affect the whole body. What happens in our gut affects our thinking. We can see the insight of the Hebrew understanding of human nature.
Even though scholars separate these parts of the passage, one can see the connection. The first part of the passage encourages trust in the Lord. Verse 9 recognizes the complexity of human thought and emotion. Things happening in our hearts and “kidneys” can prohibit our trust. Pain from the past, the memory of betrayal, depression, anxiety can derail our attempts to trust.
Perhaps the assertion of the Lord holds a promise. God searches our heart. God understands our struggles to trust. God, in giving “to all according to their ways,” may enable us to trust. The whole witness of scripture teaches that trust, faith, and belief are complex. Some people, such as the blind man in John 9, need time to get there. Others, such as Abraham, show faith and doubt side by side. God works within this situation to draw out trust. Trust does not ensure outward success. Trust enables the individual Christian and the church to rise above despair and cynicism. Trust keeps us connected to God, even in the most difficult of situations. Trust produces fruit even in what looks like unproductive soil.