Why do we sit still?
Gather together; let us go into the fortified cities
and perish there,
for the Lord our God has doomed us to perish
and has given us poisoned water to drink,
because we have sinned against the Lord.
We looked for peace, but no good came;
for a time of healing, but behold, terror.
“The snorting of their horses is heard from Dan;
at the sound of the neighing of their stallions
the whole land quakes.
They come and devour the land and all that fills it,
the city and those who dwell in it.
For behold, I am sending among you serpents,
adders that cannot be charmed,
and they shall bite you,”
declares the Lord.
My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images
and with their foreign idols?”
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored? – Jeremiah 8:14-22 ESV
In this passage we are presented with three different points of view. First, we hear from the people. From their perspective, there was nothing left to do but flee to the cities where they might hide behind the fortified walls in a last-gasp hope of escaping the coming destruction. It’s interesting to note that they blame God for their predicament.
“…for the Lord our God has doomed us to perish
and has given us poisoned water to drink.” – Jeremiah 8:14 ESV
They take no personal responsibility for what is about to happen. Yes, they admit that they have sinned, but their words reflect an attitude that says their punishment is far more than they deserve. They describe God’s reaction to their sin in harsh, almost accusatory terms, as if He was guilty of attempted murder. They claim that He was out to poison them to death. But at no point do they acknowledge that it was their sins against God that was bringing their own destruction. Instead, they paint themselves as innocent victims who had tried to do the right thing.
“We hoped for peace, but no peace came.
We hoped for a time of healing, but found only terror.” – Jeremiah 8:15 ESV
But there is a huge difference between hope and repentance. The word that is translated “hoped” is the Hebrew word qavah and it means “to wait, look for, hope, expect” (“H6960 – qavah – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). They fully expected God to simply forgive them and restore them to favor, but had no intentions of changing their ways. And there is no indication that their expressed hope was in God. They could have been hoping in salvation from their many false gods or from one of their alliances with foreign nations like Egypt. They were expecting a different outcome. They were eagerly waiting and hoping to wake up from the nightmare, but nothing had happened. And the only solution they could come up with was to find refuge in their fortified cities. They had long ago forgotten the words of King David, who wrote:
O God, listen to my cry!
Hear my prayer!
From the ends of the earth,
I cry to you for help
when my heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the towering rock of safety,
for you are my safe refuge,
a fortress where my enemies cannot reach me.
Let me live forever in your sanctuary,
safe beneath the shelter of your wings! – Psalm 61:1-4 NLT
God was to be their fortress and protection. But they refused to turn to Him because they refused to repent of their sins against Him. Their own stubbornness was the cause of their hopeless circumstances. God was not to blame. They were.
And now, God gives His point of view. He gives a vivid description of the coming Babylonian invasion of Judah. The size of the army will be so great that their advance will shake the ground. Like an approaching storm, the people of Judah will hear them long before they see them. But when the Babylonians arrive, their destruction will be complete, wiping out entire cities and all those seeking refuge in them. And God makes it clear that this destruction is not just a case of bad fortune or fate. It is His sovereign decree.
“I will send these enemy troops among you
like poisonous snakes you cannot charm.
They will bite you, and you will die.
I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 8:17 NLT
They won’t be able to get themselves out of this mess. There will be no escape. And God’s reference to poisonous snakes is a reminder of the scene that took place in the wilderness among the people of Israel generations earlier. It is recorded in the book of Numbers. God had just given the people of Israel a great victory over the Canaanites, but just a few days later they began to grumble and complain.
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food.” – Numbers 21:5 NLT
So God, in response to their ingratitude, sent poisonous snakes among them.
So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died. – Numbers 21:6 NLT
As a result, the people changed their tune, and rather than complaining, they called out for Moses to intercede on their behalf and save them.
“We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he would take away the snakes from us.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT
And Moses prayed and God heard. But God didn’t just remove the snakes. He provided the Moses with very precise instructions that, if followed, would provide the people with healing.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived. – Numbers 21:8-9 NLT
It is important to notice that God did not remove the snakes. They remained among the people and were still capable of biting the people. The punishment for their sin was still alive and well in the form of countless poisonous snakes. But, if the people, when bitten, would look on the bronze serpent that that Moses had made, they would find healing and life. This involved faith. They had to trust God, believing that the healing He promised would actually happen. They all deserved to be bitten and the inference found in the passage is that all of them were eventually bitten. But only those who believed the words of God and looked at the serpent were restored to life. They were forgiven by God and healed. Jesus would refer to this very event and compare Himself to the bronze serpent.
“And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” – John 3:14 NLT
In the case of the people of Judah, God says there will be no forgiveness given. There will be no bronze serpent this time. The Babylonians, like poisonous snakes, would bite each and every one of the inhabitants of Judah and this time, there would be no way of escape, no antidote for the poison.
The final viewpoint we see is that of Jeremiah. He is an objective third party who stand back and watches what is happening. He knows the guilt of his people. He also knows and understands the holiness and justice of God that is bringing the coming judgment on his people. And he can’t help but grieve. He has been calling out and warning his people to repent. He has spent day after day, month after month telling them what was going to happen if they didn’t turn from their wickedness and return to God. But they had not listened, and He knew God would do all that He had said He would do. He knew God was just and right to bring judgment. The people deserved it. But that didn’t make it any easier for Jeremiah to stand back and watch was happening.
“I hurt with the hurt of my people.
I mourn and am overcome with grief.
Is there no medicine in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why is there no healing
for the wounds of my people?” – Jeremiah 8:21-22 NLT
Jeremiah struggled with the idea that God was not going to fix this problem. He knew God was fully capable of healing His people. He longed for God to come up with some kind of solution that would forestall the inevitable destruction.
All the way back in the book of Exodus, we have recorded the words of God, spoken to the people of Israel. Once again, they had been complaining and grumbling to Moses because they had come to a place in the desert where the water was undrinkable. So, God had Moses throw a branch in the water, causing it to miraculously transform into clean, drinkable water. Then God said:
“If you will diligently obey the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and pay attention to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, then all the diseases that I brought on the Egyptians I will not bring on you, for I, the Lord, am your healer.” – Exodus 15:24 NLT
Obedience brings healing. God had told the people of Judah what they needed to do to experience His forgiveness and healing. He had called them to repentance, but they had refused to obey. He was their potential source of healing, but they would not turn to Him. And so they would die, just like their ancestors in the wilderness who, when bitten by the snakes, stubbornly refused to look in faith at the bronze serpent. Healing and hope had been available, but they refused to avail themselves of it. Salvation was theirs to be had, but they were going to have to acknowledge their sin and turn back to God in humility and contrition.
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.