Jeremiah 17.1-18 - “Searching a Heart of Deceit”

“Searching a Heart of Deceit” — Jeremiah 17.1-18 — 9.1.19

Do you remember back in Deuteronomy, Israel was divided up and stood on two mountains—Ebal and Gerizim—to utter blessings and curses? And in Deuteronomy 28 God says that if they broke the covenant Moses told them: “49 The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50 a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young…59 then the LORD will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting…the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. 65 And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the LORD will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul.” // We come to this section of Jeremiah 11-20 which begins with: “I solemnly warned your fathers when I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, warning them persistently, even to this day, saying, Obey my voice. 8 Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart. Therefore I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.

You have to remember. God was patient with his people. These warnings by the mouth of Moses came almost 1000 years before the Babylonians were knocking on the door to take Israel away. Israel ~1400BC. Babylonian Exile ~587. 

A couple weeks ago I asked the question how did Israel get into such a place that they would try to deceive God and others? I mentioned taking God for granted. Believing that God doesn’t care. Treating God as a Lord and not a Husband. Believing that God is not always present. BUT these only answer in part. You see, I forced myself to ask Why they would believe these things. These answers are one step removed from the deeper answer.

And you can hear it throughout the indictments of both Moses and Jeremiah on the people of Israel. Jeremiah said: “They followed the stubbornness of their own heart” Again, he says in Jeremiah 13.10: This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them…being good for nothing.” Moses said of the Exile: the LORD will give you there [in Exile] a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. 

Just like the fire of God’s Word was intended to burn away the comforts and the chaff we gather around in our lives, God making good on his promise of Exile was intended to give them a trembling heart. A heart that is no longer stubborn. A heart that is pliable in God’s hands. Like a potter and clay (as he talks about in chapter 18). 

Are you familiar with Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness? It’s a story about a self-righteous man named Kurtz who goes to the jungles of the Congo to “civilize” the tribes. It becomes clear that this religious man, who believes he holds the keys to progress, believes that the only way to civilize was to destroy the people. What we learn is that even the seemingly religious have a heart of darkness. Even those who have been given God’s law exchange it for something that feels good. Something that benefits us. Conrad wrote about Kurtz: “Being alone in the wilderness, [his heart] had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” When left by yourself. When all the comforts are stripped away. When the staff that you’re leaning on is pulled away. What is left?

This is what lies underneath all the other reasons I gave as to why Israel had forsaken God. The heart. The heart that is self-referencing. Concerned what others think. Worried that others don’t think about them. Let me read our passage and see if you can hear some of these themes as well as others we’ve already covered in Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 17.1-4 — Israel’s Heart

We read here that Israel’s heart had become so hardened to the words of God to his constant reminders to turn to him, their hearts had become like tablets of stone. Stony hearts. The idea here is that both their sin is forever etched on their hearts and that they chose to etch their sin on their own hearts. They wrote their own laws. It’s not God that wrote it on their hearts, but they themselves had given their hearts to their sin. 

What do you think would cause someone to worship other gods? I mean, it was the first two commands given on the tablets at Sinai. You can’t get much clearer than this! I spent some time thinking about this. What is an idol? It is anything that takes the place of God in our lives. How are they made? We make them. Why do we make them? To get what our hearts truly desire. If we don’t understand the reason why God gives the rules he does, then we will treat him transactionally. Idolatry is simply religious forms used to get something. Wealth. Health. Influence. And so we become slaves to the opinions of others. We become slaves to our jobs. 

So God is angry. Not simply that they had slapped God in the face. // Rather, his anger is fueled by his love. Have you ever considered that? Like a father who sees his son or daughter addicted to opioids and is a slave and has forsaken his help. The father is angry because he knows what he wants for his child is much greater than what they are experiencing. He sees that his people have settled for cold mush in an orphanage rather than experiencing the feast of obedience and grace and love.

Israel’s heart had run after idols. At root, it is because they put their confidence and trust in something other than God. And we see a contrast between two places we go for satisfaction. 

Jeremiah 17.5-8 — Israel’s Trust

Remember back in chapter 2, God says his people have forsaken the fountain of living water and dug out cisterns for themselves. Water. The key element for survival. If you don’t have it, you die. Instead of coming to God in humility, we are tempted to make flesh our strength. That means, we can put our confidence in people. That’s why you see churches crumble and languish. People can put too much confidence in their pastors and leaders. When they disappoint, people’s faith flags. As I’ve said before, I will fail each and every one of you in some way. People in this congregation will fail you. When this happens, it should force our eyes to look heavenward. 

Hopefully, this section reminded you of Psalm 1. 

Blessed is the man

who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners,

nor sits in the seat of scoffers;

2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psa. 1:3 He is like a tree

planted by streams of water

that yields its fruit in its season,

and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

4 The wicked are not so,

but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

What you’ll notice is v.8Does not fear when heat comes. Is not anxious in the year of drought. Difficulties are part of life. Following God does not make us exempt from heat and drought. But the reference point shifts dramatically between trusting in others and trusting in the Lord. So when drought and famine and sword come, we know that they are ultimately for our good. We don’t fret and worry because, while we work, our trust does not rest on our shoulders. 

Those trusting in the Lord plant seeds, but leave the fruit to God. They take responsibility for their actions, but release control to God. I’m gonna pray. I’m gonna serve. I’m gonna love. But I’m gonna do it without a preconceived idea of what the fruit ought to look like. Or how much. Maybe you’re in a season of drought right now. You feel like you’re going through the motions. You feel like your prayers are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back to you. The beauty comes in the trust. 

There’s a shift in our passage at v. 9-10. It must be the presupposition of the life of faith. It really provides the turn we all must make to be able to understand a life of trust in God.

Jeremiah 17.9-10 — Israel’s Turn

I mentioned Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at the beginning of our time together. He looked into his heart and all he saw was darkness. I remember spinning my wheels and wondering if I really was a Christian when I considered all my sin. 

I have met people who have left the faith because they looked into their hearts and they saw darkness. Our life is riddled with starts and stops. God doesn’t look askance at these. He welcomes the starts. He encourages the stops. He wants people who look into their hearts and see wounds. Who see darkness. BUT who cry out to him for light. Martin Luther said, “God is not hostile to sinners, but only to unbelievers.” 

This is the great shift that must happen in our lives. We despair of our abilities and throw ourselves on his mercy. Making an idol we try to have control. A true grasp of Christianity is the person who comes to the end of himself and says: Take the world, but give me Jesus. 

This is what we see in the rest of our passage.

Jeremiah 17.11-18 — Israel’s Hope

The life of faith cries out for healing. For salvation. For being our refuge when disaster comes.

This is only part of the story. The other half will be mended when we talk about the New Covenant promised in chapter 31. So have this lodged in your mind. This need to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. To know that our hearts often deceive us. We think we are obeying out of pure motives and then we realize how selfish we are when people don’t recognize our sacrifices or abilities. We get frustrated when we give and don’t get reciprocation. This is key to understanding how Jeremiah ministered. 

In our honest moments, we want people to recognize our achievements or sacrifices. We couch our service in pious terminology, but the real freedom comes when we trust in the Lord. We work for the Lord and not for others’ recognition.

Jesse Winchester