“How can you say, ‘We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us’?
But behold, the lying pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie.
The wise men shall be put to shame;
they shall be dismayed and taken;
behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord,
so what wisdom is in them?
Therefore I will give their wives to others
and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among the fallen;
when I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
When I would gather them, declares the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
and what I gave them has passed away from them.” – Jeremiah 8:8-13 ESV
What good is it to know God when what you know about God is wrong? What good does it do you to have a knowledge of God’s Word that’s based on a faulty understanding of what it says? In these verses, God exposes a serious problem among His people that was due to the negligence and deceit of the men who were supposed to be their spiritual leaders. While the people had a false confidence in their knowledge of God’s laws, He tells them, “your teachers have twisted it by writing lies” (Jeremiah 8:8 NLT). Their interpretations of God’s laws and commands were blatantly wrong. They were guilty of manipulating God’s law in such a way that it made adherence to it easier and violation of it less likely. The prophet Isaiah wrote this less-than-flattering assessment of the people of Israel from the mouth of God Himself:
“this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV
And centuries later, Jesus would quote this very same verse when speaking of the Pharisees in His day.
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 ESV
The Pharisees and scribes had come to Jesus accusing His disciples of breaking the traditions of the elders by not washing their hands before they ate. And Jesus responded by accusing them of breaking the commandments of God for the sake of their own man-made traditions. While the law said that everyone should honor their father and mother, and that anyone who reviles their father or mother should be put to death, they had developed their own set of laws. They actually taught that if someone had parents who were in need of financial support, the adult child could get out of helping them by simply saying, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God” (Matthew 15:11 NET). And the result of taking advantage of this loophole was, “he does not need to honor his father” (Matthew 15:11 NET). Jesus describes this as nothing less than hypocrisy. It was a violation of the letter of the law.
And that was exactly the kind of thing going on in Jeremiah’s day. They were guilty of violating the letter of the law. By placing the interpretations of men over the God-given intent of the law, they could claim to be living in obedience to God’s will. But God accused these spiritual leaders of having rejected His word. Reinterpreting His laws to create loopholes so that obedience was easier to achieve was nothing less than violating His laws altogether. And God didn’t take what they were doing lightly. He described them stark terms:
“From the least to the greatest,
their lives are ruled by greed.
Yes, even my prophets and priests are like that.
They are all frauds.
They offer superficial treatments
for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 8:10-11 ESV
And worse yet, they had no shame for their actions. They exhibited no remorse or regret over what they had done. Rather than acting as shepherds of God, leading His people well and caring for their spiritual needs effectively, they were motivated by greed and power. They told the people what they wanted to hear. Unlike Jeremiah, who obeyed God and warned the people of coming judgment and called them to repentance, these false shepherds offered superficial words of encouragement and assurances that all would be well.
The role of a spiritual leader among God’s people is a high-cost calling. It can be dangerous. Speaking the truth of God is not always easy or appreciated by those who have to hear it. The prophets of God were rarely well-received or treated with respect. Even Jesus had warned His disciples:
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” – Matthew 10:16-18 ESV
Speaking on behalf of God can be dangerous business. One would think that sharing the good news of God’s offer of forgiveness for sins would always be well-received. But that is exactly the message Jeremiah was given by God to share to the people of Judah. He was calling them to repentance. If they would only acknowledge their sins and return to God, He would forgive them. But there’s the rub. They refused to admit their sins. And they resented the fact that Jeremiah was accusing them of being sinners. In order to receive salvation for sins, God requires acknowledgement of those sins. Someone who refuses to see themselves as a sinner will never see their need for a Savior. That was the problem the Pharisees had. They refused to admit that they were sinners. They viewed themselves as righteous before God. And Jesus sarcastically said of them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12 ESV). They hated the words of Jesus. They rejected His calls to repentance. They saw no need of a Savior because they refused to see themselves as sinners.
And that same kind of attitude is alive and well today. There are countless men and women masquerading as God’s messengers and delivering words of encouragement and false promises of future blessing, while the people of God live in open disobedience to the will of God. In pulpits all across the country, the seriousness of sin is downplayed or ignored altogether. Calls to repentance have been replaced with calls for social reform and messages about tolerance and love at all costs. Sermons on holiness have been replaced with pep talks about happiness. Rather than teaching the whole counsel of God, pastors have determined to cherry pick and proof text their way through the Scriptures, preaching only those passages they deem uplifting and encouraging. Pleasing men has become far more important than pleasing God. And the warning that Paul gave Timothy has come to fruition in our day.
For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3 NLT
God would not tolerate this kind of spiritual leadership in Jeremiah’s day and He is not about to tolerate it in ours. He was going to deal harshly with the false prophets and priests in the land of Judah. And what makes us think He is not going to do the same thing among the people of God today. Their successful ministries are not a sign of God’s blessing. Their popularity among the people is not an indication of their position as God’s spokesperson. Diluting the Word of God may result in packed pews but it will never garner the blessing of God. Minimizing God’s call to holiness by preaching messages that promote happiness may build a successful ministry, but it will ultimately bring the judgment of God. God holds His ministers to a very high standard. Anyone who claims to speak for God will be held accountable by God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.