Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 17

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Jeremiah 17

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The Deceitful Heart of Man

Rather than the law of God, rebellious idolatry—including pagan offering and asherah worship—is ingrained in the heart, the inner character, of the people of Judah, being passed down from one generation to the next (Jeremiah 17:1-2). This is much like the sin of modern Israelite nations. Christmas trees and other pagan traditions are clung to so strongly as to be considered part of the very heart of the people—again, passed down through the generations.

For the people's rebellion, God will give their enemies the wealth of His "mountain [Jerusalem] in the field [of the nation of Judah]" and of all their "high places" (worship centers) in the land (verse 3). Indeed, even the people themselves will be given to their enemies—deported to a foreign land (verse 4). God's anger will burn "forever"—that is, against the sin as long as the sin persists.

God then contrasts trust in man with trust in God. In verse 5, two different Hebrew words are translated "man": "Cursed is the man [the person] who trusts in man [mankind]." The Jews should have realized this regarding their national and religious leaders. And we must understand this today. This does not mean we cannot place any trust in other human beings. But our ultimate faith and trust must not be in other people—or ourselves. Consider that God Himself gives human beings to guide and teach us. But He cautions that our allegiance must be to Him and His Word first. "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). In fact, Scripture contains many warnings about false teachers who will rise up, some even within the fellowship of the true Church (Acts 20:29; 2 Peter 2:1-4). And God makes it clear that people will not be excused if they choose to follow what a man says above what God says. Human beings have no authority to change any of God's directives. Those who rely ultimately on other people or themselves are inevitably cursed.

Those who place faith and trust in God, on the other hand, are blessed. They are compared to fruitful trees, as in Psalm 1:3. They do not need to fear times of physical drought—as Judah was experiencing when Jeremiah prophesied—because the Almighty God is there to sustain them. He will ensure their fruitfulness on a physical level and, more importantly, on a spiritual level—granting them abundant eternal life in the end.

Failure to discern this is a problem of the heart—a person's inner thoughts and feelings. God declares that the heart is deceitful—the original Hebrew word here coming from the same root as the name Jacob (the designation for unconverted Israel)—and "desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9). For the latter expression, some margins have "incurably sick." It is like a mental illness: "Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead" (Ecclesiastes 9:3). Romans 8:7 tells us that "the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." Clearly, the human mind needs spiritual healing, which God ultimately will bring (see Jeremiah 31:33).

Lest any think that the heart is so deceitful that even God can't see what it's about, God assures us that He is quite aware of it and, knowing to what degree each person is culpable, is able to deliver just recompense to everyone (Jeremiah 17:10).

The discussion then moves from those who trust in human beings to those who trust in wealth apart from right living. A "nest egg" won't ultimately save anyone (verse 11). God is our only real source of hope (verse 12).

Those who depart from the Lord, "the fountain of living waters," shall be "written in the earth" (verse 13). This apparently refers to being written in sand, which signifies no permanence at all—as opposed to being "written in heaven" (Luke 10:20) in the "book of life" (Revelation 13:8; Revelation 20:12, Revelation 20:15). Perhaps Jeremiah 17:13 explains why Jesus, after declaring Himself the source of living waters (John 7:37-38) and being rejected as such by the religious leaders of His day (verses 45-53), "wrote on the ground" when these religious leaders came to entrap Him the next morning (John 8:1-9).

Jeremiah prays for his own spiritual healing (Jeremiah 17:14). He knows that his message will provoke further scorn, beyond what he has already suffered. In verse 15, he declares that his persecutors are essentially inviting the day of doom in their mocking. In verse 16, Jeremiah points out that he himself has not desired the coming of that day. He has taken no joy in pronouncing judgment on the people—certainly not on the nation as a whole. However, he does ask for vindication—that he would be protected (verse 17) and that his persecutors would suffer the judgment they themselves called for (verse 18), the "double destruction" here being what God had already foretold (see 16:18).

Hallow the Sabbath

The remainder of chapter 17 is devoted to God's admonition about keeping the Sabbath holy. In verses 19 and 20, Jeremiah addresses the "kings" of Judah. It may be that Jehoiakim's son Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) was a coregent with his father at this time (a possibility we will later give more attention to). The people, be they kings or commoners, are told to stop violating the Sabbath—to stop bearing burdens and doing work on God's Holy Day (verses 21-22). This should be understood within the teachings of Jesus Christ. He explained that it was acceptable and within the keeping of the Sabbath to take care of emergencies, to visit the sick and to carry one's bedroll on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15; Luke 14:5; Mark 3:4). Indeed, He spoke against the extreme limitations the Pharisees placed on the Sabbath and on all of God's laws (Matthew 23:4).

But there are clearly things we should not be doing on the Sabbath, as the Fourth Commandment and Isaiah 58:13 make clear. The burdens Jeremiah spoke of referred to the typical errands of the people—for instance, lugging wares home from the market. And the work the people were doing referred to their regular business or household responsibilities. This should all have ceased so as to observe God's holy time—from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Sadly, Israel and Judah both had a terrible record when it came to keeping God's Sabbath. Ezekiel 20 makes it clear that the two main sins of Israel in the past were idolatry and Sabbath breaking—and that they had been severely judged for these. Now their continued violation of the Sabbath would be met with judgment again (see Ezekiel 22:8, 14-16, 26, 31).

The Sabbath was very important. Besides being enjoined in one of the Ten Commandments, God had given the Sabbath as a special sign between Him and His people (Exodus 31:12-17). It identified Him as the true God, the Creator. If the people had continued in its faithful observance, perhaps they would have continued to worship the Creator rather than elements of creation as the pagan world around them did.

In verse 25 of Jeremiah 17, God states that even at this last moment He could change His mind and stay the punishment against Judah—allowing Jerusalem to remain standing and the line of David to continue to rule from it—if they would just start hallowing the Sabbath. Of course, this would have required keeping it properly from the heart—not the hypocritical way in which the people engaged in various ritual practices. But they would not. Nor will the nations of Israel do so today. Thus, punishment was coming in Jeremiah's day—and it is likewise coming in the not-too-distant future. The warning of destruction with which the chapter ends is essentially a quote from the prophets Hosea and Amos—concerning ancient and future calamity (see Hosea 8:14; Amos 1:4-2:5).

With such strong declarations from God about the Sabbath, it is utterly foolhardy to think and teach, as many do today, that the Sabbath can be changed to Sunday or that it no longer matters. It obviously mattered a great deal to God—and still does. It should likewise matter to us. (To learn more, send for or download our free booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest.)