"Return, O Backsliding Children...for I Am Married to You"
The law stated in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that, after a divorce where one spouse then marries another, and the second marriage is terminated by divorce or death, remarriage to the original spouse is forbidden. This is comparable to Israel's situation—but not exactly the same since Israel did not actually marry other gods (indeed, the false gods Israel has pursued don't really exist). While God looked upon the idolatry of Israel and Judah as "play[ing] the harlot with many lovers," He says He will yet take her back if she will but repent (Jeremiah 3:1).
But that is not immediately forthcoming. God remarks, "You have had a harlot's forehead [never blushing]; you refuse to be ashamed" (verse 3; compare 6:15). Continually acting against one's conscience leads to a seared conscience (see 1 Timothy 4:2)—repeated immorality leads to amorality. Logically, one would think that Judah would have learned some fear of God when she saw God punish the house of Israel with divorce, destruction, and captivity. But no, "treacherous Judah" sank lower than Israel! Any appearance of returning to God was done "in pretense" (Jeremiah 3:8-11).
It is interesting to note that though God says He issued a certificate of divorce to Israel (verse 8), He still claims to be married to the Israelites in verse 14. This is because, though God put away Israel as a whole, He maintained His covenant relationship with a remnant of Israel—in Jeremiah's day meaning the faithful of Judah. Yet God would also consider individuals of the house of Israel as part of this remnant if they would repent and return to Him (same verse). In verse 12 Jeremiah is told to proclaim the message to the north. This may well have been directed to those Israelites (the Scythians) who came back into the land of the northern kingdom at this time. They are said to be "more righteous" than Judah—which makes sense when we realize that many of these Israelites (perhaps humbled from their captivity) were soon going to help Josiah purge the land of idolatry and observe his great Passover.
Yet, as explained in the highlights for chapter 2, the message was meant for all the families of Israel—meaning this call to repentance is likely intended primarily for the end time. In the last days, much of end-time Israel is still to be found mainly to the north of Judea—northwest that is—prior to and during their final captivity (request or download our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy to learn more). For those physical Israelites who repent, God will take them as individuals and join them to the faithful remnant of Israel—the remnant according to grace, meaning the Church of God (see Romans 11:5). Yet also intended here is the return from captivity of those of the physical remnant of Israel to God at the time of Christ's return—when, according to this and many other prophecies, they too collectively repent and become spiritual Israelites according to grace.
Israel and Judah will finally and truly return to God "in those days," at which time the two houses will be rejoined (verse 18). Notice that Israel and Judah will "come together out of the land of the north" (same verse). This never happened in ancient times following the Assyrian captivity of Israel or the Babylonian captivity of Judah. It is clearly a prophecy of the end time.
Then the actual presence of Jesus Christ and the throne of the Lord will make the glory of Israel's history—when the Ark of the Covenant was merely a type of that throne—unimportant and unmemorable by comparison (verses 16-17). Incidentally, some have speculated that the fact of the ark not being mentioned anymore after Christ's return is an indication that it will have had prominent mention just prior to His return—that it may yet be found and play some part in end-time events if it was not destroyed in ancient times (see highlights on Isaiah 17-18). Of course, even an event as stunning and incredible as finding the Ark of the Covenant would be paled into utter insignificance by the return of Jesus Christ in power and glory to rule all nations.
At last, Israel and the world will have "shepherds according to My heart," who will "feed the Israelites with knowledge and understanding" (verse 15). This likely had a forerunner in Jeremiah's day—meaning Jeremiah, Zephaniah, other contemporary prophets, faithful priests and the faithful king Josiah. They provided spiritual leadership to the Israelites returning back then. Today the shepherds are God's faithful ministers. And in the coming reign of Christ, which is apparently the predominant reference, the shepherds will be Christ, the glorified saints and righteous human leaders.
All Israel will then submit to God and revere Him as Father, no longer turning away from Him (verse 19). The nation will no longer respond in a mere pretense of repentance—for the return to God will be genuine (verses 22-25).
Jeremiah 4, which continues on from the end of chapter 3, begins with a play on words. God tells Israel, "If you will return [from captivity to their homeland]...return to Me [that is, in a spiritual sense—meaning repentance]" (Jeremiah 4:1). In verse 3, the message is directed to the people of Judah—perhaps both to those of Jeremiah's day and to people far in the future. As for God's instruction to break up the fallow ground and not sowing among thorns, it should be noted that the reference is to "unused soil, not a regularly plowed field. Israel [including Judah] needed a new field in which to sow its seed of faithfulness, a radical departure from its ways of sin and idolatry" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 3).
In verse 4, we see that the main purpose of circumcision is to illustrate the need for mankind to remove any hardness of heart and all barriers separating us from God. This repeats what God told the Israelites just before He first brought them in to the Promised Land (see Deuteronomy 10:16). If the people refuse to heed, the consequences will be severe.