“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ …Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” Jeremiah 7:1-4, 8-10
In 1956, the late country musician Johnny Cash recorded what would become his first number one hit. Cash wrote the song, “I Walk the Line,” to help alleviate the fears that his wife held about the lures of fame and life on the road might be taking on Johnny and their marriage. The song’s message of faithfulness and commitment were popular with the public; however, the tragic irony is that Cash did not live up to the high bar of fidelity that he presented in the song. The wiles of fortune got the best of Cash and took a toll on both his health and marriage. The song he wrote to help ease the fears of his wife proved to be an empty promise. The song was merely a collection of deceptive words that were uttered to help hide a lifestyle of inappropriate behavior. Cash would later become–during his second marriage–a devoted family man, but it would take the remainder of his life to work to reconcile the mistakes of his past.
In the Book of Jeremiah, we are presented with a similar situation, though one that is infinitely greater in its magnitude and importance.
The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to go to Jerusalem to preach against the sins of the people of Judah, the majority of whom had turned away from God and given wholly into idolatry and pagan worship. Despite the occasional righteous king, Judah had–like the northern kingdom of Israel–become a spiritual wasteland. The majority of the population no longer sought after God; instead, they turned to Baal and other false gods and offered sacrifices, sometimes of their children, to these pagan deities. This wholesale turning away from God was marked by Judah’s failure to live as God commanded. Those who were supposed to be looked after, the widows and orphans and foreigners, were ignored and exploited. Innocent blood was shed, and justice and righteousness were nowhere to be found. The Promised Land and the City of David–the very place where God’s presence dwelt amongst His people–had become overrun with corruption and spiritual pollution.
Despite this lack of regard for God and His commandments, the people of Judah did not think anything was wrong. Though Jeremiah and other prophets would appear and preach about the error of their spiritual philandering, the people of Judah–especially those in Jerusalem–took no heed of these calls to repentance. They would, instead, point to the temple and say, “we have the Temple of the Lord.” The temple served as evidence that judgment would not befall Jerusalem or Judah, because it made no sense for God to punish the very place that housed His temple. The presence of the temple was viewed as an assurance of peace and security. The people of Jerusalem and Judah were trusting in the presence of a physical structure, not in the God whose presence inhabited the building.
Jeremiah pointed out the error in this thinking. He preached against the duplicity of the people of Judah. Jeremiah explained that the people would go to the temple and offer some arbitrary prayer or sacrifice in an attempt to appease God, only to leave and continue sinning. They would say that the temple was Lord’s, but they did not live as though that were true. They failed to understand that having the temple was a call to holy living, not a symbol of security. They trusted in the vain and deceptive words that they muttered to themselves as they slid further and further into sin. “God won’t destroy Jerusalem,” they said, “we have the temple of the Lord,” and so they justified their sins. They thought that, since God had blessed the faith of their ancestors Abraham and David, they could live and do whatever they wanted. The people of Jeremiah’s era failed to realize that each generation must commit themselves to live the life of righteousness and justice that God demands.
God would only be mocked for so long. To show the people how wrong they were, and how misplaced their trust was, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians in 587 BC. When the Babylonians captured the city, the temple was utterly destroyed. The judgment for the people’s sins had come. The building that the people trusted in was leveled before their eyes.
Followers of Christ have the same call to holy living as the Israelites had. It is God’s desire for his people to live differently from the world; to be holy as He is holy. We must be sure that we are heeding this call and that we are radically different from the world around us. We must remember that the salvation Christ gave us–at the expense of His life–is the beginning of the sanctification process. As we grow deeper and stronger in Christ, we are to be increasingly less like the world. Our salvation is not “fire insurance;” nor is it a “get out of jail free” card. Our salvation is not an invitation to test the limits of God’s forgiveness while we continue to sin and live as we wish. This is no different than pointing to the presence of the temple as a sign of God’s favor and protection. To live such a life of contradiction–to profess Christ, while willfully continuing in sin–makes a mockery of the cross.
Live a life that reflects your professed commitment to Christ. Live a life that bears fruit for Him. Do not mock Him. Do not point to baptism or a walk down the aisle to justify living as you wish. Live a life that strives for sanctification. Don’t merely tell Christ you will walk the line; do it.
Artwork: “Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar as was the prophecy of Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956