For the Love of God, Volume 2/July 12
From Gospel Translations
Joshua 16—17; Psalm 148; Jeremiah 8; Matthew 22
AT EACH STAGE OF JEREMIAH’S description of the rebellion of God’s people, some facets of their sin are reiterated while others are refined and some new ones introduced. Here I focus on two of the latter (Jer. 8).
First, Jeremiah focuses on the sheer unnaturalness of the people’s unwillingness to learn from their mistakes and repent. The presentation of the argument turns in part on a pun: the Hebrew word for “turn” or “repent” is the same as that rendered “return.” The point is that in ordinary experience someone who “turns away,” i.e., who makes a mistake, eventually returns, learning from the experience. But Israel always turns away (8:4)—they never learn from their bitter experiences. That is because they cherish their sin, they “cling to deceit; they refuse to return” (8:5). “No one repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’” (8:6).
First-time readers of the Old Testament sometimes wonder how people can be so thick as not to learn from the repeated cycles of rebellion and punishment. Rats in a maze learn to adapt to external stimuli; to some extent, well-broughtup children learn to conform to cultural expectations and hide their worst instincts. Why doesn’t Judah learn from the history of the northern kingdom? Or even from her own checkered history? Although some behavioral modification can be achieved by training, biblical history demonstrates that the problem is bound up with human nature. We are a fallen breed. Sinners will sin. Creeds and covenants and vows and liturgy may domesticate the beast for a while, but what we are will not forever be suppressed. Israel’s history demonstrates the point, not because Israel is the worst of all races, but because Israel is typically human—and fallen. Even people as privileged, chosen, and graced as these cannot escape downward spirals. How naive for us to think that we can!
Second, not only do many of these people foolishly think they are “safe” because they “have the law of the LORD” even though they do not obey it (8:8— a common theme in the prophets), but in this case the problem is massively exacerbated by “the lying pen of the scribes” who have “handled it falsely” (8:8). This is the first Old Testament reference to “scribes” as a class—and the people whose duty it is to study, preserve, and expound the Scriptures mishandle them. Perhaps they pick up elements they like and create a synthesis that pleases them, ignoring the whole; perhaps they deploy clever techniques to make the Law say what their presuppositions and theology demand. Sound familiar? Review the meditation for July 4.