Jeremiah 4:1-4

Sermon preached on 30th December 2012 

Circumcision knife

Circumcision knife (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)




Right relationship with God was Jeremiah’s priority as he surveyed the international scene.  Judah was a tiny nation.  The Babylonian armies had been cruelly conquering one small state after another, getting ever closer to Jerusalem and Judah was threatened with extinction.

Jeremiah knew that the Judah’s only hope was through divine intervention, as had happened before, for example during the reign of Hezekiah when God destroyed the advancing Assyrian army.  The people were busy fortifying their cities and trying to make peace treaties, but Jeremiah knew this would all prove useless in the face of the onslaught of the enemy.  Their only hope was for God’s protection which would only come through repentance, and this is what vv1-4 is about.

This is relevant for us as we look out over the present unstable international scene.  We need to make sure we are in right relationship with God and that we know Him.

Jeremiah appeals to the people in three ways,

1.       To return with all your heart, vv1-2

Jeremiah’s first appeal is for the people to return to God with all their hearts.  In effect God says, “If you will do this and this … then I will do this.”  We know God’s love in unconditional, but he still looks for a response from us.  Jeremiah sets out four ways the people needed to respond.

a.      If you will return, O Israel, return to Me!  

First God calls his people to return to Me.  Not a return to religiosity; not a return to ritual; or to keeping various laws or festivals; but a return to God Himself.   This is very personal.  God wants us to come back to Him.  Biblical faith has always been about knowing God in a personal relationship.

The Old Testament people of God didn’t know the blessings of the New Covenant, but they did have a covenant with God, and there was grace to live according to the light which they had.

This theme of personal relationship with God, or knowing God, was at the heart of Jesus teaching.  It is possible to do lots of religious things, but miss the most important thing.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ [Matt 7:21-23]

In the Bible the word for ‘know’ is very personal and expresses the intimacy of marriage, for example, Adam knew Eve his wife [Gen 4:1]

God wants us to know Him in a personal and intimate way, not just know about Him.  This faith will be our anchor whatever troubles come this coming year.

b.      If you put away your detestable idols out of my sight

The second thing the people had to do was to get rid of their idols and their sin.

What about us?  The Holy Spirit will show us the things we need to turn away from.  It may be the love of money; a wrong relationship; a permissive life style; internet pornography; or a deep seated grudge?  We can’t afford to hold onto these tings which God hates.

c.       And no longer go astray/ do not waver

The third thing was that their repentance had to be wholehearted – with all their heart – which is what this sentence means.  We can’t follow God and carry on doing the sinful things we did before.

d.      And if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, “As surely as the LORD lives,”

Finally, they needed to swear! But not in a way we usually think about swearing;  Jeremiah isn’t talking about using bad language!  Rather it’s calling God’s Name into something, especially in worship. e.g.

It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. [Deut 6:13]

We need to practice what we preach and live in a truthful, just and righteous way – God’s way.

So these are the practical ways the people were to return to God.  Then, in v4b, God says,

THEN … the nations will be blessed by Him and in Him they will glory.

Considering how small and insignificant Judah was compared to other nations, this was an amazing and unbelievable promise.  But this was always God’s plan.  God blessed Abraham, to bless a nation, to bless the world.  Israel was called to be a kingdom of priests to turn the world back to God.  So their repentance was about much more than their own protection or national identity, or salvation – it involved the whole world.

This is true for us as well.  Our sin affects more people than just us.  It affects our family and friends and everyone we come into contact with.  This is why our repentance inevitably involves others as well.  No man’s an island.  By our bad example we can lead others astray; by our good example we can bring blessing to them.

2.       To plough up your hard hearts v3

Second, Jeremiah appeals to the men of Judah and Jerusalem to, Break up the unploughed ground and do not sow among thorns.

In Jeremiah’s time agricultural methods were not well advanced. There was a need to plough the ground again and again to get the roots of the thorns out to get a good crop.  We have mint in our garden which goes everywhere, and the only way of getting it out is by pulling up the roots.

It’s as if God is saying here there’s a need to get at the root of your sin, which is in your heart, your inner life.  You have to deal with these roots by repentance before you’ll be able to plant and reap a harvest.

Jesus likewise taught that the heart is sinful and our sins originate from within our sinful hearts,

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. [Matt 15:19]

We need to get to the roots if there’s going to be a change in our lives, or in society as a whole.  The hard ground of our hearts has to be broken up and then we can receive the seed of the word of God which produces fruitfulness.

3.       To circumcise your hearts v4a

Jeremiah’s third appeal to is to, circumcise your hearts.

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem.

All the baby Jewish boys would have been circumcised, as they still are to this day.  Circumcision was the sign given to Abraham that he was in covenant relationship with God.   But the trouble is a sign easily becomes just a ritual.  We mistakenly think the ritual puts us in a right relationship with God, but it never does.  The sign of circumcision was just that, a sign! It was a sign pointing to the inward grace of God.  Abraham was circumcised in heart, and he then received the physical sign, not the other way round.  This idea of being circumcised in heart before the LORD was always the important thing.

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. [Deut 10:16]

Circumcision of the heart means to cut away the stubbornness and resistance to God so we can freely receive the life God wants to give us.

In 9:25-26 Jeremiah makes a very interesting observation,

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, …, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart. [Jer 9:25-26]

We could easily add the United Kingdom into this list of uncircumcised nations. But what this shows is that you can have all the ritual in the world, but if your heart is not in it, it means absolutely nothing!  In fact ritual without meaning can be worse than nothing since they can become a barrier to relationship, because we think we are in a right relationship with God through our own efforts rather than by His grace.

This was exactly Paul’s teaching on circumcision in Romans 2:28-29.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. [Romans 2:28-29]

The early church quickly decided that Gentiles who came to faith didn’t need to be circumcised outwardly, because the important thing was circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.  So the good news is (if you are male) is that you don’t need to be circumcised!  But as Christians we do have a sign of God’s grace in our lives, which is baptism, open to male and female.  In baptist churches we believe it’s important for the person being baptized to share their testimony before being baptized is since this gives the meaning to the sign.

Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and the same was meant to be true of circumcision in OT times, but it became an empty ritual.

The prophets never called the people back to the ritual; they called people back to God.


In v4b Jeremiah concludes with the inevitable consequences for this chosen nation which had broken the covenant it made with God.

Or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done – burn with no-one to quench it.

The metaphor uses for judgment here is fire, which is used elsewhere in Scripture, for example Sodom and Gomorrah, and also used by Peter in his epistle.

Verse 4b also introduces the rest of chapter 4 which teaches us some of the things which happen when a nation turns its back on its Creator, especially when it has be blessed with covenant with God.

I’d prefer not to talk about judgment, and it’s not an easy subject.  But I think Dorothy Sayers was right when she wrote, “If men will not understand the meaning of judgment, they will never come to understand the meaning of grace.”

What we need in our own lives and the life of our nation is to come to understand once again the meaning of grace.  I pray by this grace of God we will come to know Him better this year.

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