The Temple of the Lord
by Jack Wald | October 21st, 2001

Jeremiah 7:1-15

Reading the history of Israel and Judah can make you dizzy. A good king comes along and you swoop up to the glorious heights, and then a bad king follows and you plummet to the depths. Up and down. Good and bad. Hezekiah was a good king, ranked with David and Josiah as a pious leader of Judah. His father Ahaz had been a terrible leader, leading Judah into pagan worship and Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, who followed him as king is listed as the worst of Judah’s kings.

Judah with Manasseh as king is where we start since Jeremiah was born in the last decade of Manasseh’s reign. In order to understand Jeremiah, we need to know more of the milieu in which he grew up. Manasseh, as I said, is listed as the worst of Judah’s kings. The prophet Isaiah was killed by Manasseh, at the beginning of his reign and during the 55 years of his rule, the historian of Kings writes
Manasseh led [Judah] astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites.

Judah, under his rule, returned to idolatry unseen since the days of Ahab and Jezebel. He sacrificed children to the Ammonite god, Moloch. He allowed divination, occultism and astrology to flourish. Altars were built in the temple courts to worship graven images of Asherah who lusted after Baal. Sexual orgies were part of the pagan worship encouraged by Manasseh. Cult prostitutes and shrines were installed throughout Judah, even in the Temple in Jerusalem. He burned his own son in a sacrifice of witchcraft. It is difficult to imagine what more he could have done to offend the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his ancestors.

But then in a battle with the Assyrians, he was taken captive with a hook in his nose, bound in bronze shackles and taken to Babylon. This seemed to bring him to his senses and he humbled himself and prayed and was returned to Judah. He came back to Judah, a new man and a new king. This is a stunning piece of information and deserves a sermon of its own. After all Manasseh did to offend God, after all the evil he encouraged in Judah, God forgave him and he was returned to Judah. I have talked with people who doubt God could forgive them after all they had done. Manasseh is a good example of how much God is willing to forgive.

Apparently this personal renewal in his life did not have time to undo the damage he had done to Judah and he died shortly after his return. His son Amon succeeded him and carried on the evil that had been done by his father. The servants had had enough of this and murdered him, putting his eight year old son Josiah on the throne. And Josiah became one of Israel and Judah’s best kings ranked, as I said, with his great-grandfather Hezekiah and David.

Commentaries speculate on how a king as pious as Josiah could have come from a father and grandfather who did such evil. I wonder what influence Manasseh had in the last years of his life. Is it possible that while Manasseh was not able to reverse the evil he had done in Judah, he was able to plant the seeds of faith and piety in his grandson Josiah and perhaps some servants who had been with him in Babylon when he had experienced his personal renewal? This is an amazing piece of history about which we can only speculate. This will be one of the history lessons I look forward to in heaven.

This history is critical in understanding Jeremiah. Jeremiah was born in the last decade of Manasseh’s rule and it is in the evil of this world that he began his life and ministry. Jeremiah was probably a teenager when Josiah began his reforms (when Josiah was just a teenager himself). The reforms kicked into high gear ten years later when Josiah was having the temple cleaned and they discovered an old book, the book of Deuteronomy. As Josiah read this, his desire to return Judah to the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now had a blueprint. He knew now what specifically he must do. Cult prostitutes who lived in the temple were kicked out. Magicians and sorcerers were forced out of the temple. Shrines to Asherah were torn down. Agents went throughout Judah, tearing down old altars and instituting true worship of God. After a long absence, Passover was again celebrated.

This was an exciting time in Judah and Jeremiah was a part of it. When Jeremiah was appointed by God to be a prophet to the nations, his first task was to assist with Josiah in these reforms. Bits and pieces of his first sermons are included in Scripture.
“Look up to the barren heights and see.
Is there any place where you have not been ravished?
By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers,
sat like a nomad in the desert.  (Jeremiah 3:2)
In Jeremiah’s message, God accuses Judah of having been unfaithful, sitting by the roadside and taking on any lover who came by. In very unflattering terms, Jeremiah reminded Judah that they had abused the one true God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

This is what the LORD says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem:
“Break up your unplowed ground
and do not sow among thorns.
4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD,
circumcise your hearts,
you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem,
or my wrath will break out and burn like fire
because of the evil you have done—
burn with no one to quench it.  (Jeremiah 4:3,4)
Jeremiah reminded Judah of its unfaithfulness and then called them to repent. He used the image of unplowed ground to speak of hearts that were hardened, shut to his words. He called them to break up the unplowed ground of their hearts, to devote themselves to God, to circumcise their hearts. Repent.  Jeremiah told them, or face the terrible consequences of disobedience.

Throughout his preaching, Jeremiah offered hope if Judah would repent.
This is what the LORD says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16)
The book of Deuteronomy Josiah had discovered had what Judah needed. It spoke of the ancient paths and showed where the good way was to be found. Jeremiah’s words were good advice then and they are good advice now. In the midst of a culture that has drifted away from God, these words that remind us to seek the wisdom that has come to us in the past is good advice.

The reforms of Josiah were effective but they were not made instantaneously. People who had made a living with these pagan shrines and centers of prostitution resisted the reforms. Jeremiah’s own village threatened to kill him because of his preaching against the pagan shrine in that town. The reforms reversed a process that had led to evil and began a process that moved to true worship of God.

The most immediate changes were no doubt those made in the Temple in Jerusalem. Asherah was no longer worshiped in the temple. Prostitution was eliminated in the temple courts. Sorcerers were no longer welcomed. The priests were again offering sacrifices to the true God. Prayers were again being prayed. Deuteronomy was again being read to the people. With time, the shrines around Judah were torn down.

But just a few years after the reforms had been carried out, cultic practices began sneaking back into Judah’s religion. Jeremiah realized that while the structure had been changed the people’s hearts had remained unchanged. Josiah’s reforms were effective. Temple prostitution was abolished. Shrines and altars to false gods were torn down. The structure was demolished but Jeremiah saw that the hearts of people had not been turned. Outwardly everything had changed but inwardly, nothing had changed. And so we read in chapter 7
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message:

In order to understand this sermon Jeremiah preached, we need to remember the history of reforms and false religion that had made the reforms necessary. And we also need to remember the climate of fear in which Judah lived. In the background of Jeremiah, there is always the fear of defeat and occupation by the Assyrians (who had in recent history taken Manasseh captive to Babylon) and now the Babylonians had asserted themselves against the Assyrians and threatened Judah. Egypt was also a force to be reckoned with.

Judah gathered in the temple thinking that now they were safe. They had done what Josiah and his agents had told them to do and so now they felt safe. The structures had been changed but not their hearts.

This was intolerable to Jeremiah and so he preached this sermon God gave him to those who gathered in the temple.
Listen, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship God. God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, has this to say to you:
Clean up your act – the way you live, the things you do – so I can make my home with you in this place. Don’t for a minute believe the lies being spoken here – “This is God’s Temple, God’s Temple, God’s Temple!” Total nonsense! Only if you clean up your act (the way you live, the things you do), only if you do a total spring cleaning on the way you live and treat your neighbors, only if you quit exploiting the street people and orphans and widows, no longer taking advantage of innocent people on this very site and no longer destroying your soul by using this Temple as a front for other gods – only then will I move into your neighborhood. Only then will this country I gave your ancestors be my permanent home, my Temple.
Get smart! Your leaders are handing you a pack of lies, and you’re swallowing them! Use your heads! Do you think you can rob and murder, have sex with the neighborhood wives, tell lies nonstop, worship the local gods, and buy every novel religious commodity on the market – and then march into this Temple, set apart for my worship, and say, “We’re safe!” thinking that the place itself gives you a license to go on with all this outrageous sacrilege? A cave full of criminals! Do you think you can turn this Temple, set apart for my worship, into something like that? Well, think again. I’ve got eyes in my head. I can see what’s going on.
God’s Decree!

Ouch! A stinging sermon.

Jeremiah’s message to Judah was that the only security to be found in false religion was a false security which is to say no security at all. And he goes on to warn them. Shiloh had once been the religious center of Israel with the ark of the covenant residing in that town and now Shiloh was desolate, having been destroyed by the Philistines. What happened to Shiloh, preached Jeremiah, God will now do to Jerusalem. Don’t say, “The Temple of the Lord, Temple of the Lord, Temple of the Lord,” and think you are safe. Shiloh was destroyed and so will this Temple be destroyed.

Again, that is a stinging sermon, a hard message to hear.
Why is it that Judah flocked to the Temple to seek security? In the US there are reports that the churches have had a significant increase in attendance since the terrorist incidents of September 11. What does this mean? Doesn’t this mean that people are turning back to God? That’s how we are interpreting the news. But Jeremiah did not see it that way. When Jeremiah saw the Temple full, he went and preached this hard message.

Putting on Christian clothes and Christian practices doesn’t help very much if there is not a Christian heart. Safety is not found in a church but in an ongoing, living relationship with God.

This was the problem, has always been the problem and continues to be the problem. We live in a material, temporal world and it is much easier to put faith in something we can see, touch, feel, smell and hear than it is to put our faith is something we cannot sense with our five senses.

The Temple had been cleansed so that it could be used for people to worship God. The Temple was a means to the end. The Temple was never meant to be the object of worship. It was never meant to be the source of security. The Temple was a place where people could meet with God who was to be worshiped and in whom they could find security. Judah took the means to an end and made it into an end in itself. They took a material object that was meant to lead people to worship of an invisible God and made the material object their God. Cultic prostitution and sorcery and worship of Asherah had been eliminated but standing in the Temple and using it to make themselves feel safe was not really much different.

This problem is illustrated in the reforms of Hezekiah, Josiah’s great-grandfather. In the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, Israel suffered from poisonous snakes and God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent so that anyone who was bitten could look at it and be healed. Hezekiah destroyed this bronze serpent because it had become an object of worship. The bronze serpent had never healed anyone but it was God who healed when people looked up at the serpent. Hezekiah destroyed this bronze serpent because what had been a means to the end had become an end in itself. People had replaced their worship of God with worship of the bronze serpent.

The altar that had been built in the wilderness signified the presence of God with his chosen people. It contained the stone tablets with the ten commandments, Aaron’s staff and some manna with which God had miraculously fed Israel during its march through the wilderness. When Israel marched, the procession was led by the ark. When Israel crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they followed the ark of the covenant. And from there it resided in Shiloh. In I Samuel 4 there is an account of a battle against the Philistines which Israel lost. In an example of terrible and destructive theological analysis the elders of Israel made this conclusion:

When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

They took the ark of the covenant which God had used to help Israel worship him and made it the object of their worship. The elders did not say, “Let us pray to the Lord and seek the reason why we were defeated.” They took the ark into battle against Philistines, using it as a talisman, a good-Luck symbol where it was captured.

Even Jeremiah was used as a talisman at the end of his life. When the Babylonians had captured Jerusalem, some fled to Egypt taking Jeremiah with them, thinking they would be better protected if they took him with them.

In what way do we fall into the same trap?

Let me suggest some things that will not save you.

Your Bible will not save you. Carrying a Bible in the car will not keep you from getting injured in a car accident. Keeping a Bible on your desk at work will not make your business more successful. Reading your Bible every day will not make you have a better day.

Wearing a cross will not protect you. Holding up a cross or making the sign of the cross only keeps vampires and werewolves away in movies. (Of course vampires and werewolves only exist in movies so maybe it’s a good match.) Hanging a cross in your car or around your neck will not make your life more blessed.

Coming to church does not protect you. Listening to your favorite TV preacher does not save you. As Judah made the Temple the object of their worship, we take our churches and make them into the focus of our security. I received one email that said the church pews in the US are creaking for the first time since Easter. Why are more people going to church? If they think they are safer because they are going to church, they are making the same mistake Judah was making.

Our security, our safety, our protection comes from only one thing, our living relationship with God. Not the church we go to, not the Bible we read, not the Jesus bumper sticker on our car, not the work we do for the church, not the memories of church experiences.

When Scripture talks about salvation, it utilizes two tenses. In some places we read that we have been saved, as with this passage from Ephesians 2:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,  5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
In other places we read that we are being saved as in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
And then there is the sense that we will be saved on the day of judgement.

Remembering that I once went forward to give my life to Jesus does not save me. It is my ongoing, living relationship with God that saves.

In a sense, you cannot sit back and relax and take for granted your relationship with God. You cannot put on the structure of church and then do what you want. Going to church regularly, praying, reading your Bible, going forward to give your life to Jesus when there is an invitation to do so – these are all good things. But they are only the structure of church.

This is what Jeremiah was critical of. People had put on the structure of Temple worship but their hearts had not changed and therefore their lives had not changed.

I’ve talked with several people over the last week who share my experience since the terrorist attacks in the US. My emotions are like a roller coaster, going up and down from day to day. One day I am angry, the next discouraged or depressed. One day I am fearful and anxious and the next I am uneasy. I have been praying and fighting for some equilibrium in my life.

The only thing that really helps me is to focus in on what is becoming more and more the only true reality for me and that is my ongoing, living relationship with God. Jesus who died in my place and who defeated the power of death has made it possible for me to not fear what this world can do to me and to put my hope in what God will do for me when I die my physical death and come into his kingdom.

[I threw away what I had prepared from here on and out and ad libbed. Point was that all will disappear one day (I John 2:17) and what we hold on to so tightly in this material world is noting more than, as Ecclesiastes says, “smoke and spitting into the wind.” Don’t hold on to what will not last. and I gave an invitation for people to come up and pray to give their life to Christ or to pray for a renewal in their life. Most people who came forward came for prayer about feeling dry spiritually – something I need to focus on soon in my preaching. I’m a bit of an expert on that experience.]