This chapter gives a sad and shocking description of the spiritual state of God’s people in Jeremiah’s time. Verse 1 gives a thesis statement for this chapter: “If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” From the poor (4) to the leaders (5), they had all “made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent” (3).
In their spiritual hardness, they had lost all spiritual sensitivity. They had become callous to God’s attempt to rouse them through pain. They dismissed His true prophets as being full of hot air (“wind”—13). They wrote off the warnings of coming judgment as fear-mongering (“No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine”—12).
At the same time, they took for granted God’s ongoing kindness, presuming on his goodness. He supplied all their needs, but they still rushed to commit physical and spiritual adultery (7). They did not say to themselves, “Let us fear the Lord our God who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest” (24).
This hardness of heart was a form of spiritual leprosy. They had become insensitive to God and numb to his painful discipline (“You struck them but they felt no pain”). They had become “foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear” (21).
Dr. Paul Brand says the destructive power of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) is that the God-given pain sensors fail to work. The body is numb to pain. So people put their hands on hot plates or cut themselves without knowing it. Infection sets in and limbs get deformed or destroyed. Jeremiah confronts a people who had lost their spiritual sensitivity (conscience) and so were acting in ways that were self-destructive.
Their spiritual “rebellion” and “backsliding” led to a break down in society. Without a healthy fear of God, those in power abused their power. The “rich and powerful” got that way by setting traps for people (26-27). Rather than defending the “fatherless” and “rights of the poor” (28), they exploited them. Sexual morals also loosened; infidelity increased as people lusted after the wives of others (8).
Their stubborn, rebellious hearts rendered them insensitive to the ways of God (21) and the glory of God. They became fools who did not know God and even suppressed His truth in unrighteousness (see Romans 1). They no longer trembled at His works or His word: His power in setting a boundary for the ocean waves (22); His ability to send or withhold the “autumn and spring rains in season” (24, 25); His ability to dispatch the armies of Babylon to invade and destroy them (15).
The chapter ends with a description of something “horrible and shocking” (30-31). “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way.” They are so spiritually insensitive and rebellious that they prefer falsehood to truth and human authority to God’s authority. As the apostle Paul would later put it, they want their ears tickled and choose to turn away from truth and turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:2-5).
Their “stubborn and rebellious hearts” (23) would bring God’s wrath upon the nation. Twice in this chapter we hear the Lord say, “Should I not punish them for this? Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” (9, 29). He had already sent some level of discipline upon them; He had “struck” and “crushed” them (3). But they had only become “harder than stone” (3). So now the Lord would bring the Babylonia armies to devour their harvests and food, sons and daughters, flocks and herds, vines and fig trees (17).
In verse 10, the Lord declares of Israel: “these people do not belong to the Lord.” This seems to allude to the basic covenant phrase: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” The nation had broken the covenant through their infidelity—swearing falsely in His name (2) and swearing by other gods (7). They had become “utterly unfaithful” (11). By becoming utterly unfaithful, Israel had broken their side of the covenant and would now experience the covenant curses laid out in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26—including invasion from foreign powers and exile. “As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your own land, so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own” (19).