Jeremiah 6:16 and Context (A Cautionary Tale)

 

Very few Old Testament passages hold a position of honor among preachers and teachers within the Churches of Christ. That is due largely to the influence of Alexander Campbell and his “Sermon on the Law.” From Campbell’s day forward his heirs have solidly proclaimed the New Testament as the book of the church, and some would even narrow that to Acts – Jude (Revelation being much too dangerous to handle).

Very few, but not none. One passage that ranks in importance just slightly lower than Acts 2:38 and Romans 16:16 is Jeremiah 6:16. This verse is the bulwark that protects many favored traditions, and more distressingly, the failures of many in past generations. Whenever the discussion becomes too edgy or uncomfortable, Jeremiah 6:16 is a safe and constant refuge. I was reminded just recently of what a powerful hold this verse has on many. It should – but not perhaps for the reason that they think it should. I come this day not to bury Jeremiah 6:16, but to honor it for the powerful text that it truly is in its context.

This post could easily end up in the thousands of words long. For simplicity I will try to abbreviate as much as possible. To cut to the chase, in order to understand Jeremiah 6:16 we really need to back up to chapter 2. In a lengthy and sometimes dense argument, the LORD (through Jeremiah) accuses both Israel and Judah of gross idolatry and moral decay. In a plaintive cry that summarizes much of the entire book, the LORD asks,

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13, ESV)

Central to the accusations that the LORD makes against his chosen people are two related actions. One, they repeatedly ally themselves with foreign nations instead of depending on God for protection and deliverance (2:17-18), and two, they participate in the worship of those nations’ idols, figuratively described as sexual fornication/adultery (3:6-10).

In spite of these transgressions, the LORD still holds out forgiveness to the people, if they will but return to him:

Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the LORD; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the LORD. Return, O faithless children, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from every city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. (Jer. 3:12-14 ESV)

Pure and faithful worship, however, must be accompanied by pure and faithful behavior:

If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, to me you should return. If you remove your detestable things from my presence, and do not waver, and if you swear ‘As the LORD lives’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory (Jer. 4:1-2, ESV)

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her (Jer. 5:1 ESV)

Particularly galling to the LORD is the behavior of his prophets and priests:

For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (Jer. 6:13-14 ESV, see also 1:8, 2:26-28, 5:30-31)

That leads us then to the verse in question, Jer. 6:16:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ (ESV)

As should be clear by now, the LORD is not, and Jeremiah is not, urging the Israelites to return to some pristine time of their history. He is pleading with them to return to GOD. The “ancient paths” are the practices that demonstrate their allegiance to GOD – truthfulness, justice, righteousness (in Hebrew understanding – doing right). A major component of this “returning” involves confession of sin. And, not to be forgotten, another critical component is the faithfulness and righteousness of the spiritual leaders of the people.

I fear that too many times when I hear Jeremiah 6:16 being quoted, what is intended is a “return” to a “golden age” of the church, invariably the period when the Churches of Christ were growing at an exponential rate during the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. The “ancient paths” are not the rigorous moral and ethical demands of Sinai, but an almost mythical time in which every man “dwelt under the shade of his own vine.” We all want to sing with Archie Bunker, “Those were the days.”

The truth is – just as with Israel and Judah – there never has been this period of utopian perfection! Every text that we have in the New Testament is there as a testimony that someone, somewhere was NOT believing what Jesus taught, or was NOT doing what Jesus commanded. We simply do not have a picture of a perfect church for one simple reason – the church has never existed in perfection. The “ancient paths” do not refer to a time of pristine church practice – either in the first century or the 19th or the 20th. The ancient paths refer to God’s entire law and gospel – both religious (worship) and moral (ethics/behavior).

I most firmly believe that Jeremiah 6:16 needs to be preached from our pulpits and taught in our classes. But – it needs to be preached and taught in context! Applications that are drawn from that text need to be consistent with Jeremiah’s own purpose – as appropriately directed to the church in the 21st century.

Let’s preach it, brothers, – but let’s preach it straight!

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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