God and Iniquity, Part 3

Iniquity is a sin, but it’s the worst possible of all sins. It’s deliberately twisting God’s will and God’s commands in such a way as to do what you want to do, not what He wants you to do. It’s scheming and plotting to commit a sin that you try to hide from everybody.

So far in our study of God and Iniquity, we discovered that no matter how hard we try, God not only finds out our iniquities, but He exposes them.

And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. (Genesis 44:16 | TNIV)

And in a very disturbing verse, we learned that our iniquities are always in God’s view.

Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. (Psalm 90:8 | KJV)

This time, we’re going to look another aspect of our iniquity. The verse comes from the prophet Jeremiah:

No amount of soap or lye can make you clean. You are stained with guilt that cannot ever be washed away. I see it always before me, the Lord God says. (Jeremiah 2:22 | TLB)

God not only sees our “guilt” or iniquity, but this verse explains why He does: It stains us. In some way, our iniquities mark us so that when the Lord looks at us, He sees them. As is usually the case with a verse in Scripture, there is a lot going on in Jeremiah 22 that explains this verse, so let’s take a peek at a sad day in the life of God’s people.

Background

Israel was in bad shape spiritually by the time this prophecy was given. The purpose of God’s Word here in chapter 2 was to explain why Israel was in such deplorable condition: Israel has always wandered away from God and their children are just as bad and just as guilty.

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in chapter 1 and here in chapter 2 he gets his first job:

Go and shout this in Jerusalem’s streets: This is what the Lord says! I remember how eager you were to please me as a young bride long ago, how you loved me and followed me even through the barren deserts. (Jeremiah 2:2 | TLB)

Israel’s perplexing behavior

For the next eight chapters, Jeremiah’s sermons are recorded for us. Some of these sermons were preached in the streets, others in and around the Temple. These were powerful sermons, and Jeremiah’s series starts out with “the good old days.” Israel started out faithful and true, like a young bride utterly devoted to her new husband. She was led by and followed the Lord throughout their wilderness wanderings. During those years, God’s people had never strayed out of their close relationship with God – no idolatry whatsoever. Those were hard years for them, yet they were the best years of their covenant relationship with Jehovah.

But those were the “good old days.” It’s not like that anymore and God, poetically, comes across like the befuddled spouse:

O Israel, says the Lord, why did your fathers desert me? What sin did they find in me that turned them away and changed them into fools who worship idols? (Jeremiah 2:4, 5 | TLB)

Of course, God knows why, but He wants His people to come to the correct conclusion on their own. In God’s reckoning, He had done so many good things for them; they had received so many blessings – beginning with their freedom from the Egyptians – that God couldn’t conceive of how they could possibly “cheat on Him.” It’s not that they had left Him, it’s that Israel had added other gods to worship alongside the true God. Rabbi Joshua Joseph Heschel wrote this about this passage:

What a sublime paradox for the Creator of heaven and earth to implore the people so humbly.

In the minds of the people, they hadn’t abandoned their God. They still went to the Temple to worship and participated in all the offerings, sacrifices, and holy days. But they “expanded” their religious beliefs to include those of the surrounding pagan cultures. They had embraced the some of the practices and some of the gods of these godless people. They added to their worship of Jehovah the worship of lesser gods.

Even their priests cared nothing for the Lord, and their judges ignored me; their rulers turned against me, and their prophets worshiped Baal and wasted their time on nonsense. (Jeremiah 2:8 | TLB)

So it wasn’t just the “people in the pews” that had taken up with false gods, but the religious leaders – priests and judges – were fiddling with paganism, as were the rulers of the land.

But I will not give you up-I will plead for you to return to me and will keep on pleading; yes, even with your children’s children in the years to come! (Jeremiah 2:9 | TLB)

Now, that’s devotion! God’s never going to give up on His people. But this verse is also a statement of indictment. God wouldn’t let them go, and He would use all the tools at His disposal to bring them back, including punishment.

Why not just let Israel go? It was because their idolatry was unnatural; it was like an illness. Now, it was perfectly natural for pagan nations get involved in sick, perverse, and deviant lifestyles brought on by the worship of false gods, but it wasn’t at all natural for God’s people to live like that.

Look around you and see if you can find another nation anywhere that has traded in its old gods for new ones-even though their gods are nothing. Send to the west to the island of Cyprus; send to the east to the deserts of Kedar. See if anyone there has ever heard so strange a thing as this. And yet my people have given up their glorious God for silly idols! The heavens are shocked at such a thing and shrink back in horror and dismay. (Jeremiah 2:10 – 12 | TLB)

God’s people had been called to a higher standard of life, based on their covenant relationship with God. They had made a promise to be markedly different from other cultures. And even though they had broken their end of the covenant by adopting many of the detestable practices of these cultures, God wasn’t going to break His end of the covenant. He would do all He could to woo His people back.

God is challenging His people to look at other nations around the world and compare their actions to those of the other nations. Sure, those other nations were worshiping false gods and their cultures were depraved, but God’s people were worse because they had exchanged their glory – that would be their faith in Jehovah – for worthless idols. In other words, at least those other cultures were faithful in their devotion to their false gods, but Israel had become a pathetic loser because they couldn’t be faithful to their true God. Psalm 106 tells us that predilection to unfaithfulness began very early on – just after He miraculously delivered them from their slavery in Egypt:

For they preferred a statue of an ox that eats grass to the glorious presence of God himself. Thus they despised their Savior who had done such mighty miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea. (Psalm 106:19 – 22 | TLB)

Their actions made no sense, but then rarely does sin make sense. Here, Israel had frittered away the One who was everything to them because He had done everything for them and in return the false gods gave them precisely nothing.

For my people have done two evil things: They have forsaken me, the Fountain of living waters; and they have built for themselves broken cisterns that can’t hold water! (Jeremiah 2:13 | TLB)

Reading those verses, you can see that as far as the believer is concerned, iniquity – which is what we’re seeing here – isn’t normal; it’s aberrant in the life of a believer. It’s like a mental illness, where the afflicted one harms himself, thinking it’s a good thing. Would any sane person do what Israel did: exchange a jug that holds water for a broken one?

Israel’s pathetic state

God sees Israel’s state as truly pathetic. Yes, the people had willingly corrupted themselves, but verse 14 has a tinge of terrible sadness about it:

Why has Israel become a nation of slaves? Why is she captured and led far away? (Jeremiah 2:14 | TLB)

That’s how God saw His people now. He redeemed them to be a free people – free in every way – yet because of the iniquity of their hearts they had become slaves once again; easy pickings for foreign nations. What kind of illness makes a person who had been enjoying freedom and liberty choose servitude to other people? It boggled God’s mind. Instead of simply being led by Him, Israel had entered into horrible allegiances with Egypt to the south and Assyria to the north. They shouldn’t have, but they did so willingly.

And you have brought this on yourselves by rebelling against the Lord your God when he wanted to lead you and show you the way! (Jeremiah 2:17 | TLB)

Like idolatry, dependence on foreign powers instead of trusting in the Lord had always been a snare to God’s people. Both Hosea and Isaiah had opposed foreign alliances. Time and time again, both Israel and Judah had political aligned themselves with pagan nations and time and again these allegiances ended badly for both nations. Tragically, they never learned the lessons their own experiences had taught them! Even today each generation seems compelled to suffer untold agony because it has learned nothing from God’s actions in history. Does that make sense? Of course not. But, as I have said before, sin makes no sense.

God’s people are better than this, and that’s the point of this verse:

I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine? (Jeremiah 2:21 | TNIV)

Israel had started out so well! No other nation in the history of the world had been founded by God Himself! Only Israel. And yet she descended into what amounted to a nasty, gangly weed in the garden of God.

The power of Iniquity

And that’s the background of the verse that began this article:

Although you wash yourself with soap and use an abundance of cleansing powder, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Sovereign Lord. (Jeremiah 2:22 | TNIV)

Notice the action in this verse. God is speaking in a poetic fashion, but we all know what the Lord is getting at. The people knew they had done wrong and were continuing to do wrong, and that’s why they were washing themselves with soap and cleansing powder. The significant phrase is “you wash yourself.” In other words, they knew full-well the extent of their iniquity, and that made them guilty, but instead of reaching out to the Lord in repentance and asking for forgiveness, they foolishly thought they could scrub themselves clean. That’s the absolute height of human arrogance right there! In their sick, deluded state, they assumed that if they paid Jehovah lip service and went through the motions their faith dictated, that they were free the rest of the time to heap iniquity upon iniquity upon iniquity  because they could simply toss God His due. The apostle Paul later wrote this:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1 – 4 | TNIV)

Of course, Paul’s audience was different from that of Jeremiah. Paul was writing to born again Christians in the Roman church. He was writing to people who had been set free from their bondage to sin; to people who had pledged to live for and serve Jesus Christ. Maybe the two audiences weren’t so different after all, separated only by the passing of many centuries. The issues that plagued Israel are the same ones that continue to plague the church: Worldliness and compromise of the faith. Trying to live on both sides of salvation’s fence. How many Christians do exactly what these ancient Hebrews did? Live like pagans all week long, then go to church on Sunday to assuage the guilt of their iniquities. How many churches have become so worldly and their theology so worldly that you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart from any other club or organization in town?

The thing is this, however. Nobody can wash away their own iniquities – not Jeremiah’s people and not people today. You can’t do enough good deeds or enough acts of contrition to purge away your guilt – God sees it and He’s offended by it. Your iniquities have stained you and God is the One with the stain remover. Not you. Not your priest or minister. Only God.

That’s why Christians are to strive toward being perfect. Not that you stand a snowball’s chance of actually being perfect on this side of Heaven, mind you. But in the striving, you will be bending your will to God’s will; you’ll be living in fear of offending Him by your behavior; you’ll be so busy praying and seeking direction and power to live right, and then your mind will finally and at last be shed of its habitual way of thinking and before you know it, you will be a mentally sound member of the Body of Christ, living in God’s grace and blessing and being a blessing to others.

 

 

 

 

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