Then the Lord said to me, “There is a conspiracy among the people of Judah and those who live in Jerusalem. They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words.
Jeremiah 11:9-10 (NIV)
The prophet Jeremiah rose to prominence during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Have just trekked my way through 2 Kings on this chapter-a-day, I think a little context is in order as I read Jeremiah’s words this morning.
For more than a generation, along with King Josiah’s two most recent predecessors, the people of Judah had practiced polytheism. It’s not that they didn’t give a nod to YHWH, the God of Abraham, Moses, and David, but their hearts were divided with a plethora of idols and gods. Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem had become a spiritual marketplace with altars and shrines to various idols, astrological constellations, and pagan gods of the region.
During Josiah’s reign, the Law of Moses (that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), was discovered in a storage closet in the temple (See 2 Kings 22). The Law of Moses, which lays out the covenant between God and the Hebrew people, was given through Moses after God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt about 1,000 years before Josiah’s reign. It includes God’s Top Ten rules of life, the first two of which state no other gods, and no making of a graven image (a.k.a. an idol). But this had not been read, generally remembered, or publicly taught for at least 60 years and perhaps longer.
When Josiah heard the Law of Moses, he had the Law of Moses read publicly. He then called on the people to return to the God of their ancestors and enacted strict reforms. All pagan altars and shrines were removed from the temple and burned. All other gods were outlawed throughout Judah and destroyed. It was during this period of reform that a young Jeremiah found his way to Josiah’s royal court and began his prophetic ministry.
Along my life journey, and as I study history, I’ve observed that faith is a matter of the human heart. Governments and religious institutions (Judah’s monarchy was both) are technically kingdoms and institutions of this world. Despite the description of revival during Josiah’s reforms back in 2 Kings, it was not as if the people had any choice but to obey King Josiah’s commands and edicts. That’s how ancient monarchy’s worked. There was no representation, political parties, or recourse. You do what the King (and his army) tell you to do. So the entire nation went along with Josiah’s reforms because they had to do so, not because they all had a change of heart.
Knowing human behavior, I’m quite sure that the worship of Baal, Asherah, and other idols simply moved underground. You can legislate behavior, you can forcefully suppress dissent and demand obedience. I only have to look at any of a number of tyrannical political or religious system around the globe. However, a person’s heart can’t be changed with a government edict or an institutional dictate.
It is into this spiritual landscape that Jeremiah is writing and preaching in today’s chapter. We don’t know exactly when today’s prophetic word was given and delivered in Jeremiah’s ministry, but given the message I could easily place it towards the back-end of Josiah’s reign when people’s secret, underground worship of other gods is growing into a political hot-button. it’s obvious that Josiah’s dictated reforms have not changed the hearts of the Hebrew people. There is a “conspiracy” brewing to “return to the sins of their ancestors.” All of Josiah’s four successors will give in to the idolatrous desires of the people.
In the quiet this morning, I thought of the number of times in the Great Story that God reminds us that it’s my heart’s desire that He wants, not just my mindless observance of dictated moral or religious behaviors and traditions. If I truly give Jesus my heart, then I will be motivated to follow Him into the behaviors He exemplified and requests of me. If Jesus doesn’t have my heart, then all of my religious behavior is as empty as the idolatrous Hebrews who Jeremiah addresses in today’s chapter.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.