Tuesdays with Jeremiah (Chapter 17)

John Piper writes that sin is what we do when we are not satisfied with God.  Jeremiah writes that sin is also what we do when we are not confident in God.

17This chapter contrasts a person who is “trusting in man, who depends on flesh for his strength” (5) with the one “who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence (Hebrew:  mibtah) is in him” (7).  The application of this principle is seen positively in Jeremiah, who relies on the LORD to protect and vindicate him before his detractors (14-18).  It’s seen negatively in the people of Judah who resort to unjust business practices (11) and a seven-day work week (carrying a load on the Sabbath) to get ahead financially (19-27).

The truth that underlies this chapter is that God knows, searches and examines our hearts (10).  He can discern whether or not our confidence is in Him (7-8), in other gods (1-2), in other humans (5-6) or in ourselves (19-27).  While the heart is deceitful (Hebrew:  zaqob–uneven, bumpy) and hidden (9), the Lord still knows the inward “turnings” of the heart (“whose heart turns away from the Lord”—5 ).

The central theme of the chapter deals with well-placed or misplaced trust.  Everyone trusts; everyone lives by faith.  The question is whether our faith will be well placed or misplaced.

Well-placed trust is God-directed.  Verse 7 makes this unmistakably clear:  “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord.”  He is to be the object or focus of our trust/faith.  Practically speaking, trusting in the Lord involves complete fidelity to Him (no other gods—1-2), desperate dependence on His care (14-18) and faithful obedience to His Word, even when it seems counter-intuitive or culturally outdated (ceasing from work on the Sabbath when others are getting ahead by working).

treeWell-placed trust results in God’s blessing even in the midst of barren times.  The Lord uses the image of a “tree planted by the water. . . in a year of drought” (8). There is a continual life-giving supply even when times are difficult.  There is protection and provision that exceed what we could have garnered for ourselves by trusting in our own wisdom and strength (i.e. the promised blessing on Jerusalem if the people trust in God and keep His Sabbath command—25).

Trusting in the Lord (both in this context and throughout Scripture) practically means we trust in the Lord’s word.  And trust in the Lord’s word is revealed through our obedience. That’s why the Lord searches the heart (where faith resides) by examining a person’s “conduct” and “deeds” (10).

Jeremiah is told to stand at the gates of Jerusalem and call the kings and people to “Hear the word of the Lord” (19).  The Hebrew word “hear” (shemah) carries the double nuance of listening and obeying (see verse 27:  “if you do not obey me”).  This same emphasis (trust evidenced by obedience) is shown in Jeremiah’s private counsel to King Zedekiah (chapter 38).  Jeremiah tells him the only way to spare his life and the city is to surrender to the Babylonians.  Zedekiah is afraid to do this, fearing the Babylonians will hand him over to the Jews to be mistreated.  Jeremiah assures him, by the word of the Lord, that this will not happen. Zedekiah’s actions will reveal whether he chooses to trust in the Lord or trust in man (himself and his counselors—38:22).

The link between trusting in the Lord and trusting (and obeying) His word is further seen in the word picture of a “tree planted by the water” (8).  This same picture is famously used in Psalm 1 to describe the one who roots himself in the word of the Lord.  The same benefits are described in Psalm1 as in Jeremiah 17:  constant supply, internal stability and ongoing productivity even in the driest of times.

Misplaced trust is man-centered.  Ultimate confidence is placed in the smarts or strength of humans. When this happens, the inevitable spiritual result is a turning away from the Lord:  “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord” (5).  A heart that turns from the Lord (one that is “deceitful . . . and beyond cure”—10) turns to substitute gods (1-2) and disobeys the word of the Lord.  In chapter 17, the test case for trust is the Sabbath.  Those who trust in the Lord will obey the command to stop carrying a load on the Sabbath day; those who don’t trust in the Lord will ignore the command and treat the Sabbath as a “business as usual” day.  Trust (or a lack of trust) is seen in a person’s actions.

bushA failure to trust in the Lord (and obey His word) results in a life that is barren and blown away.  The Lord uses the image of a “bush in the wastelands” (6).  The bush is stunted compared to a tree (5). Wastelands are dry and dusty compared to a riverbank (13).  The bush survives (not flourishes) “in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives” (6).  Isolation, desolation and privation are the result of trusting in humans rather than relying on the Lord.

Sadly, this would be the choice the kings and people make. Zedekiah chose to rely on his wits and his friends (38:22) rather than trusting the word of the Lord enough to obey it.  His eyes would be put out and he would never “see prosperity when it comes” (6).  The same would be true for the Jewish remnant that chose to rely on their own judgment rather than God’s instruction (42:13-18); they disobediently headed for Egypt and ended up never seeing prosperity again.

So the question comes to us:  will we trust in the Lord or in something/someone else?

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