There is actually a third woman in Scripture. The first and most beautiful is the Lamb’s Bride, his blood-purchased church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. She is weak and despised in the world, but God’s dwelling place by the Spirit, with a destiny of everlasting life. The second woman is the strange woman of the Proverbs, the woman of the world. She does not call to men to seek wisdom but advocates pleasure without consequences. She is the queen of all that is impure and godless. There is a third woman. She was once part of the true wife of the Lord, at least outwardly, but then turned from him. The Scripture calls her a harlot, which designation is reserved normally for a faithless wife. The Lord here calls Jeremiah to expose and indict her, to show that she has no defense for her treachery, for the Lord had been very kind to her. The faithful are hereby warned to remain committed to the Lord, for there are harlot-churches in the world that have turned away from the Lord and his gospel. There are harlot men and women, who once professed to love the Lord, but who turned away from him and seek many lovers in the world. We should be shocked when confronted with such brazen infidelity – shocked into the arms of our Savior, so that we walk more closely with him, “take heed lest we fall,” and hold fast to the truths of the everlasting gospel.
The Unfaithful Wife Exposed (vv. 1-19)
1 Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2 "Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, 'Thus says the LORD: "I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. 3 Israel was holiness to the LORD, The firstfruits of His increase. All that devour him will offend; Disaster will come upon them," says the LORD.' " 4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob and all the families of the house of Israel. 5 Thus says the LORD: "What injustice have your fathers found in Me, That they have gone far from Me, Have followed idols, And have become idolaters? 6 Neither did they say, 'Where is the LORD, Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, Who led us through the wilderness, Through a land of deserts and pits, Through a land of drought and the shadow of death, Through a land that no one crossed And where no one dwelt?' 7 I brought you into a bountiful country, To eat its fruit and its goodness. But when you entered, you defiled My land And made My heritage an abomination. 8 The priests did not say, 'Where is the LORD?' And those who handle the law did not know Me; The rulers also transgressed against Me; The prophets prophesied by Baal, And walked after things that do not profit. 9 " Therefore I will yet bring charges against you," says the LORD, "And against your children's children I will bring charges. 10 For pass beyond the coasts of Cyprus and see, Send to Kedar and consider diligently, And see if there has been such a thing. 11 Has a nation changed its gods, Which are not gods? But My people have changed their Glory For what does not profit. 12 Be astonished, O heavens, at this, And be horribly afraid; Be very desolate," says the LORD. 13 "For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, And hewn themselves cisterns -- broken cisterns that can hold no water. 14 " Is Israel a servant? Is he a homeborn slave? Why is he plundered? 15 The young lions roared at him, and growled; They made his land waste; His cities are burned, without inhabitant. 16 Also the people of Noph and Tahpanhes Have broken the crown of your head. 17 Have you not brought this on yourself, In that you have forsaken the LORD your God When He led you in the way? 18 And now why take the road to Egypt, To drink the waters of Sihor? Or why take the road to Assyria, To drink the waters of the River? 19 Your own wickedness will correct you, And your backslidings will rebuke you. Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing That you have forsaken the LORD your God, And the fear of Me is not in you," Says the Lord GOD of hosts.
First Love Forsaken (vv. 1-3)
If this was Jeremiah’s first public sermon, as some have suggested, it laid the groundwork and set a biting edge for his entire future ministry. But he had to proclaim it, for when the Lord’s word comes to us, we must speak (vv. 1-2; Acts 4:20; 2 Cor. 4:13). Jeremiah had an indictment to deliver from the Lord, and Judah, his faithless wife, must hear it. She used to love the Lord. He remembered the early days of her declarations of love and pledges to faithfulness. She followed the Lord into the wilderness. Yes, she complained, but she still followed the Lord – what a tender lover he is, that he does not even mention her weakness but only that she followed him. Let this encourage us that our Savior views us tenderly, not looking at our failings but at our heart’s desire to follow him. In those days, Jeremiah began, Israel was set apart to the Lord (v. 3). The Lord was her inheritance, and she was his. Whoever tried to devour his wife, the Lord in his wrath devoured him – remember Egypt and the Canaanites. Their destruction was the fruit of the Lord’s protecting love for his people. Of course God’s enemies complain about genocide; God’s people marvel at sovereign grace. It is grace that makes the difference; the rest are blinded.
The Lord’s Indictment (vv. 4-13)
This is an indictment, but it is a lover’s indictment. What happened? Why did you stop loving me? Why are you gone away from me? You once followed me into the wilderness, but now you walk after vanity and are become vain, which means light, frivolous, worthless. You do not even ask for me (v. 6). Do you not remember how I led you through that howling wilderness, fed you with angel’s bread, and followed you with water from the rock? I brought you into this beautiful land, my wife, but as soon as you entered, you defiled it. The holy nation for whom I rebuked and destroyed kings and nations turned this land into an abomination. Like people (v. 6), so priest (v. 8), none asked, “Where is the Lord?” No one stopped to ask, “What is wrong here? What is going on? Why have all these things happened to us?” Pastors and priests alike rebelled against me. Instead of speaking my word, they spoke Baal’s. Some of the old fertility cults have entered the church again, or are threatening to do so. Instead of speaking God’s word against impurity of every kind, pastors and priests are speaking Baal’s word of pleasure and indulgence. Once we turn from loving God, we shall love what is base and impure; when we stop following him, we shall walk after the lusts of our own hearts. Sin eithers kill us and all that is good, or we must kill it by God’s power (Col. 3:5).
But the Lord has not quite given up; he will plead more (v. 9), and with your grandchildren, which looks ahead to the years of captivity. One generation’s doom may be sealed, but the Lord does not forget his covenant and mercies. Has any nation – look to the east or to the west – changed its gods for no-gods (v. 10)? Most people have followed the gods of their fathers, for good or for ill. But Israel exchanged their glory for nothing (v. 11). Think about this carefully, the Lord woos his unfaithful wife. He looks up to heaven – be astonished! This is unparalleled. Men and nations have turned from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9), but not the reverse. Be horribly afraid of this, he calls the heavens to bear witness to this astonishing apostasy. Moses called heaven and earth to witness the original covenanting (Deut. 4:26; 30:19), and now the Lord summons those witnesses. Look at what my people have done. They have forsaken me, “the fountain of living waters” (v. 13) – the waters of grace and mercy that led me to call and save your father, Abraham, remember your fathers languishing in Egyptian slavery, bring you into this land, and even plead with you now. I am the living and true God; in my presence is fullness of joy; rivers of water of life flow from my throne. But you have forsaken these refreshing waters, and you have dug broken pits that can hold no water. Idolatry will never satisfy. Adultery will never satisfy. Nothing will satisfy you but me. He says the same to us, and his true church loves him back for these living waters that flow to us from Jesus Christ (John 7:37-38). She comes with the Samaritan woman and craves this living water from his hand. The thought of turning from him is appalling in the extreme to her. How can you know if you are the Lamb’s wife? Has he satisfied your heart, or are you sticking your feet in the filthy waters of this world?
The High Cost of Not Fearing the Lord (vv. 14-19)
Unfaithfulness comes at a high cost, a cost we cannot pay or bear. In New Testament terms, the warnings against pride and presumption are therefore constant, as are the encouragements to work out our salvation soberly. There is much at stake in the decision to remain faithful to the Lord and in the countless little decisions that constitute faithfulness. And when one reads our Lord’s warnings and encouragements to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3), he gives a new covenant Jeremiah – hold fast; do not compromise; guard against Jezebels in your midst; the unfaithful will be cut off. There is greater urgency now that our Savior has risen and reigns, for Satan is filled with malice against the church and tries to devour the unwary (Rev. 12:17; 1 Pet. 5:8). Since we are God’s children (v. 14), he chastens us when we wander away from him (v. 15; Rev. 3:19). In Judah’s case, did they not consider that all the spoiling and invasions they increasingly endured were the unbearable consequence of their rebellion (v. 16)? They brought these miseries upon themselves because they turned away from the Lord (v. 17). His grace – O, how men still today cheapen it, but look at the cross! He does not draw us to himself and then smile when we walk in rebellion against him. When we forsake our Shepherd, we wander into bleak and deadly paths. The old enemies roar again, as Egypt did, then Assyria, when we forsake the Lord (v. 18). Sin brings its own correction (v. 19).
Righteousness is peace; sin brings and actually is punishment. It is evil and bitter to depart from the Lord. Pause and feel the pathos of the Lord’s plea. My wife, you exchanged me, your true God and faithful Husband and powerful Redeemer, for gods which are no gods at all. Do you not remember how I defeated all those “no-gods” for you? And the pleasure you sought in playing the harlot with others gods and your filthy pleasures, what did it buy for you but sheer misery? Egypt has arisen to plague you again, just as I swore to you in the beginning (Deut. 28:68), and worse enemies in the Assyrians. And you wonder why all these calamities have happened to you? Your territory is shrunk to nothing; your northern brethren are already scattered to the wind. My fear was not in you; you have forsaken me (v. 19). Evil and bitter will be your way. And it is always horrible for those who once pledged to follow the Lord, but who turn away from him. See those once strong denominations of Christians who listened to the sirens of higher criticism of the Scriptures and ethical pluralism and cultural polytheism. Their buildings and lineage are wonderful, but they are like tombs, reminders of better days, witnesses against present apostasy. God takes our pledges to be his faithful wife very seriously. There is nothing worse, there is no uglier woman in the world than a professing church of the Lord Jesus Christ, or a professing Christian, who forsakes the Lord and leaves off fearing him. God reserves his worst judgments for those who turn from him. Do not swerve, therefore, an inch. If you love the Lord, remember your first love, the first works, as Jesus tells us to do (Rev. 2:5), and turn back to him, hold fast to him, and sow unto righteousness. Learn here, learn cheaply, learn without having to experience it yourself, the bitterness of turning away from the Lord, so that your giddy heart will never stray from him, but at the first warning of the world’s encroachments and sin’s resurgence, you will cry out to the Lord for help and salvation.
The Harlot Unredeemable (vv. 20-28)
20 "For of old I have broken your yoke and burst your bonds; And you said, 'I will not transgress,' When on every high hill and under every green tree You lay down, playing the harlot. 21 Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a seed of highest quality. How then have you turned before Me Into the degenerate plant of an alien vine? 22 For though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, Yet your iniquity is marked before Me," says the Lord GOD. 23 "How can you say, 'I am not polluted, I have not gone after the Baals'? See your way in the valley; Know what you have done: You are a swift dromedary breaking loose in her ways, 24 A wild donkey used to the wilderness, That sniffs at the wind in her desire; In her time of mating, who can turn her away? All those who seek her will not weary themselves; In her month they will find her. 25 Withhold your foot from being unshod, and your throat from thirst. But you said, 'There is no hope. No! For I have loved aliens, and after them I will go.' 26 " As the thief is ashamed when he is found out, So is the house of Israel ashamed; They and their kings and their princes, and their priests and their prophets, 27 Saying to a tree, 'You are my father,' And to a stone, 'You gave birth to me.' For they have turned their back to Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble They will say, 'Arise and save us.' 28 But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise, If they can save you in the time of your trouble; For according to the number of your cities Are your gods, O Judah.
Notorious Guilt: The Unclean Harlot (vv. 20-22)
Although the Lord pleads for his people to listen and sent Jeremiah to them at the eleventh hour, Judah is so unfaithful that she has become irredeemable. Her guilt is notorious. The Lord broken the yoke of her slavery, and pledged to be faithful, but she has “played the harlot under every green tree” (v. 20). This is stock prophetic language for the sexual perversion and cult prostitution that took place in Baal’s groves. What happened to you, my wife? I planted you as a noble vine – think of our Lord’s later parables about vines and branches and vineyards. You were mine and I cultivated you – why have you turned into a strange vine (v. 21)? There is nothing you can do to wash this filth away. Soda and lye soap will not wash away your stains (v. 22). Did Judah commit the unpardonable sin? Yes. Apostasy is knowing, willful, stubborn rebellion against the Lord, coupled with renunciation of his authority and word over us. Judah had committed this – not everyone in Judah, for there was a faithful daughter of Zion, left like a “hut in a cucumber field” (Isa. 1:8) – but the leaders and bulk of the people had apostatized from the Lord. Deny the Lord and reject his word, and there remains no more sacrifice for sins.
Brazen Rebellion: I Am Not Polluted (vv. 23-25)
The sin of apostasy always involves a stubborn resistance to God’s truth and unwillingness to repent. Judah took it one step further, as the worst and most hardened sinners always do. She continued to profess her innocence: “I am not polluted” (v. 23). But how could she say this, when Baal worship dominated her existence? She had become like a camel – wandering and unreliable. But she was also like a she-ass, wholly consumed with violent lust, chasing after her lovers (v. 24). It is a grotesque picture of the very degeneration the apostle outlines in Romans 1. When men will not retain God in their knowledge, when they worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, God gives them over to vile affections – sodomy and lesbianism. These blind, vile lusts are his judgment upon those who will not worship and serve him. Even though all this chasing after lovers had made Judah thirsty, she did not give up pursuing them: “after them I will go” (v. 25). The filthy waters of sin allure and will not readily give up their captors. Think of the drunk who keeps drinking, the drug addict who continues shooting up and smoking, and the immoral who keep returning to the pig sty of sin. Perhaps this time, I shall be satisfied. No, never. Only the Lord can give us life and satisfy our hearts. All the world’s delights leave empty and broken. Only regeneration can free us from these broken cisterns.
Hopeless Ruin: I Will Look to My Idols (vv. 26-28)
Hardened sin creates despair. Have you not heard someone say, “Well, there is really nothing I can do. I started out in this way, and getting out of it would be too hard.” Few aspects of Judah’s rebellion reveal its apostasy as the course of ruin it determined to follow to the end, whatever the outcome. There may have been a certain amount of shame that Israel felt when confronted with its idolatry. Everyone who worships rock and stone, statuary and pictures, should be mightily ashamed by their impudence. But once Judah began this course, it would not turn back. They called wooden images their father, and stones their mother. In the time of trouble, they will say to the Lord, “Arise and save us” (v. 27), but the Lord will not hear. He will direct them back to their sticks and stones. Let them save you. You have as many gods as you have cities (v. 28). The Lord may well be saying to us, “Let your bureaucrats and printing presses and government save you." We broke our original covenants with God long ago, but we confirm our national rebellion by multiplying our gods, making a virtue of promiscuity, and celebrating idolatrous diversity and perversion. All the while, we sacrifice our children upon the altar of our lusts, as they did to Molech and make a religion out of sexual license, as they did with Baal. There are clear similarities, and our national ruin may be as fixed as Judah’s. But there is a difference. The true church in our land rejects the national rebellion against the Lord. The remnant faithful in Jeremiah’s day suffered along with their countrymen but endured and overcame by faith and repentance. Let us do the same. The more we see God judging our land for many of the same sins that finally destroyed Judah, the more we should turn to the Lord, judge ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31), denounce the sins of our age, and shine by the light of Jesus Christ in the midst of this crooked and perverse nation (Phil. 2:15).
She Has No Defense (vv. 29-37)
29 " Why will you plead with Me? You all have transgressed against Me," says the LORD. 30 "In vain I have chastened your children; They received no correction. Your sword has devoured your prophets Like a destroying lion. 31 "O generation, see the word of the LORD! Have I been a wilderness to Israel, Or a land of darkness? Why do My people say, 'We are lords; We will come no more to You'? 32 Can a virgin forget her ornaments, Or a bride her attire? Yet My people have forgotten Me days without number. 33 "Why do you beautify your way to seek love? Therefore you have also taught The wicked women your ways. 34 Also on your skirts is found The blood of the lives of the poor innocents. I have not found it by secret search, But plainly on all these things. 35 Yet you say, 'Because I am innocent, Surely His anger shall turn from me.' Behold, I will plead My case against you, Because you say, 'I have not sinned.' 36 Why do you gad about so much to change your way? Also you shall be ashamed of Egypt as you were ashamed of Assyria. 37 Indeed you will go forth from him With your hands on your head; For the LORD has rejected your trusted allies, And you will not prosper by them.
Further Correction Useless (vv. 29-31)
What a horrible thing for the Lord to say, “There is no point in correcting you any more.” If you have ever had to say that to an older children, I pity you, but the Lord understands, for he had to say that to Judah. You are fighting against me (v. 29), pleading with me that my charges and judgments are unjust, but you have not received my correction. I have sent my servants the prophets to you again and again. You have my word, my covenant, my sacrifices, my promises of life and salvation through Jesus Christ. But you have killed all the prophets I have sent to you (Matt. 23:35). You will now see the word of my judgment come to pass. I have been so good to you, but now you say, “We are lords.” We do not need you any more (v. 31). This is dreadful, and I weep as I think on these things. The whole history of God’s love to his people, all his deliverances, all the judges he raised up, the kings he gave them, the miraculous provision and protection, all up in flames. It is not that God’s word had no power; they did not believe (Heb. 4:2); unbelief laid a veil of blindness over their hearts (2 Cor. 3:14-15). Now, they will feel the double-edged sword of God’s word working death (1 Cor. 2:16). Sin can bring a horrible veil upon our minds and consciences. We cannot see the truth; we can believe we are in the right. God must heal our blindness. It can be taken away only by the power of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:16). He truly is the light of the world (John 8:32). Apart from him, all is darkness and blindness under the evil one (1 John 5:19).
You Have Forgotten and Are Lost to Me (vv. 32-33)
Are these lines the last lover of a grieving God and Savior, or the divorce papers that seal the doom of a harlot-wife? Both are true. A bride does not forget her wedding dress and all the little beautiful trinkets that marked the day of her wedding, but you have forgotten me “days without number” (v 32). By this, he expresses his true love for his people and that he delights for us to draw near to him. When we forget him, do not call upon him, do not worship and love him, do not remember his grace and love like a bride remembers her wedding day, he is grieved, as God and Maker. But it is pointless for you to seek love elsewhere (v. 33). You have taught others your whoring ways. You are a confirmed harlot. May the Lord never say this to us! Each one of us knows how easily we forget the Lord, do not pray, read his word, or crave his fellowship and consolation. That he has not forgotten us but keeps calling us back reveals his loving and longsuffering heart. Let us not receive such grace in vain but seeing how miserably Judah turned into a faithless wife, repent and reject our idols, resolve to remember the Lord daily, hourly, and never weary of seeking his face and love. See how much he loved his people of old? Let his love melt your heart. See his love now signed and sealed at Calvary, with the blood of the Son of God incarnate spilled our salvation. See and adore. See and believe. See and love.
Splattered with Blood but Unrepentant (vv. 34-37)
Jeremiah’s first salvo now concludes with additional testimony that her harlotry is inexcusable. In the words of a courtroom, she has no defense. Her skirts are splattered with blood – of her children sacrificed, of the prophets slain (v. 34). And yet she pleads her innocence (v. 35)! Even now, she thinks the Lord will help her against the rising Babylonian threat. Even now, she says, “I have not sinned.” If we did not live every day with such brazenness in our land, it would be too incredible believe that things were really this bad in Judah. But they were, and the Lord pled with his people. Is there a small glimmer of hope? Perhaps. But why are you looking to Egypt to help you (v. 36)? You will be as ashamed of looking to Egypt as previous generations were of looking to Assyria. All your confidence in men will be frustrated, so that you walk away with your hands on your head, wondering what has happened. There is no help for you but in me, but you have turned from me.
And so today, we hear in our land, which in some ways has enjoyed more light than Judah, for the gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed here for nearly four centuries, that we should trust men to bail us out, save us from pestilence, cure ignorance and poverty, and save the environment. But all these miseries have come upon us because we have forsaken the Lord. Our only hope of deliverance lies in returning to the God whom we have forsaken. Let us repent and believe ourselves. Let us urge men to repent and turn to the Lord. They have no power to repent, but God’s word raises the dead. Let us give him no rest until he restores his church and makes her the light of the world, our Savior’s beautiful bride.