Trusting in Form Without Substance
The message here is one of rebuke, warning and exhortation. Delivered in a public place, it is a call for the people to "amend their ways" (verse 3). The people of Jeremiah's day had a form of religion—they worshiped in God's temple. But this gave them a false sense of security—indeed, they believed a lie. The temple of the Lord is presented in verse 4 as almost a chant. It was viewed as a superstitious talisman to save them. The same thing often happens today. People may place too much faith in considering themselves part of God's spiritual temple—His Church—rather than in God Himself. They may think that just because they attend worship services and consider themselves a member of the Church that this will save them—an example of the false reasoning of righteousness by association.
But God demands heartfelt obedience. Incredibly, part of the lie the people believe is that God's law somehow no longer applies—that, in a twisted view of God's grace, they are "delivered to do all these abominations" (verse 10). Yet God decries this for the outrage that it is, stating that His temple has become to them a "den of thieves" (verse 11). "The 'den' of robbers was the refuge where they hid out in search of their next victim. The analogy is devastating. How could God's people steal, murder, commit adultery and perjury, and worship other gods (v. 9), and then assume 'we are safe' because of God's house?" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 11). Jesus would later quote verse 11 when He chased the moneychangers out of the temple of His day (Matthew 21:13).
God brings up an example from Israel's history to make His point. In the time of the judges, Shiloh, in the land of Ephraim (Joshua 18:1), was the site of the tabernacle of God with the Ark of the Covenant—just as Jerusalem was later the site of the temple. Back then, "leaders in the family of Eli had abused their priestly position for personal gain, and idolatry was rampant in the land. When the Israelites attempted to use the ark as a victory-giving talisman, the ark was captured (see 1 Sam. 4) and the sanctuary was destroyed by the Philistines" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Jeremiah 7:12). Shiloh was later destroyed and abandoned, and today, as in Jeremiah's day, one can go to Shiloh and see nothing but desolation and a few scattered ruins. The lesson is striking. Clearly, Judah's confidence in the temple is misplaced. So is placing such confidence in any church or organization. Such thinking carried many into apostasy at the end of the first century—and the pattern has been sadly repeated throughout the centuries. What is vital is that we be firmly grounded with a personal relationship with God, rather than unquestioningly following a church or organization and trusting in loyalty to that organization to ensure our salvation.
In verse 16, the people had descended so far into depravity that God actually forbade Jeremiah from interceding for them.
God then strongly rebukes Israel for worshiping "the queen of heaven" (verses 17-18). This goddess, also mentioned in Jeremiah 44:15-30, is elsewhere referred to as Ashtoreth—known to other Middle Eastern cultures as Ishtar or Astarte—from which the modern name Easter derives. As Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words reports: "The term 'Easter' is not of Christian origin. It is another form of Astarte, one of the titles of the Chaldean goddess, the queen of heaven. The festival of Pasch [Passover] in post apostolic times was a continuation of the Jewish feast.... From this Pasch the pagan festival of 'Easter' was quite distinct and was introduced into the apostate Western religion, as part of the attempt to adapt pagan festivals to Christianity" ("Easter," New Testament section, 1985).
Ishtar was a fertility goddess. And today rabbits and eggs are the symbols of sexual fertility and procreation used to celebrate the holiday named after her. Indeed, the special "cakes for the queen of heaven" (verse 18) may be the origin of the popular Easter custom of hot cross buns. It is also interesting to note that many of those who worship Mary as the "Mother of God" today also refer to her as the "Queen of Heaven."
Because of their rebellion, terrible punishment was coming on the Jews of Jeremiah's day (verse 20)—and will likewise come upon all Israel of the latter days, as many other prophecies confirm.
Again, God says there is too much emphasis on form of religion and not enough on right substance. He tells them to go ahead and make all the sacrifices they want but that it won't do them any good (verse 21). God did not command such sacrifices when He first delivered Israel from Egypt. The first thing He commanded was obedience (verses 22-23). Consider that some people today may give offerings or do a few good deeds believing that's enough to satisfy God. Others may do far more—being legalistically meticulous over the smallest details of obedience—and yet ignore the weightier matters of the law, as was the case with the Pharisees whom Christ denounced in His day (see Matthew 23:23; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Through the centuries, the Israelites had failed to obey (Jeremiah 7:24)—and this despite the fact that God had sent so many prophets. In Mark 12:1-12, Christ related a parable that expressed the efforts God had made in this regard—all to no avail. God tells Jeremiah that his situation will be no different—the people will not listen to him either (Jeremiah 7:27). And even now, with Jeremiah's words nearly everywhere in modern Israel (being part of the Bible), they still don't.
Supplementary Reading:"Easter: Masking a Biblical Truth," Holidays or Holidays: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?, pp. 17-30.