Mercy Amidst Judgment

Thus says the LORD, ‘The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end’” (v. 27).

- Jeremiah 4:5–31

Unlike a prophet such as Isaiah, whose oracles are for the most part arranged chronologically, it is hard to discern why the final form of the book of Jeremiah is organized as it is. Prophecies of national doom are interspersed with prophecies of glory, and it is often difficult for readers to see why rapid transitions between despair and hope are taking place or figure out when Jeremiah originally prophesied some of his oracles. Given the chaos of Judah in its final years of decline before Babylon captured Jerusalem, one could reasonably place many of Jeremiah’s oracles at any point in his lifetime.

Jeremiah 4:5 marks one of these sharp transitions. From 3:6–4:4, the prophet emphasizes the Lord’s willingness to forgive Judah for its sins of worshipping foreign gods “under every green tree”—traditional locations of pagan shrines in the ancient Near East—and “committing adultery with stone and tree”—worshipping idols made from rocks and wood (3:6, 9)—if the people would but repent (vv. 12–14). This is a hopeful section of Jeremiah, for he foresees a day in which the ark of the covenant will not be missed because Jerusalem will be holy and there will be no need to separate the people from the holy of holies in which the ark was placed (vv. 16–17; see Ex. 26:33–34). Wrath is held out as a possibility for those who remain impenitent, but from this passage it seems unlikely that it will occur given the promises of restoration that precede it (Jer. 3:15; 4:4).

Today’s passage, however, seems to suddenly give up all hope of revival and restoration, with Jeremiah predicting a disaster coming upon Judah “from the north” (4:6). Even though all of Judah’s enemies, except Egypt, attacked her from the north because they did not want to cross the desert to the east of the country, this prophecy must refer ultimately to Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Despite God’s true promise to forgive repentant Judah, the Lord knew that the vast majority of the Judahites to whom Jeremiah preached would not respond in faith. Thus, in much of Jeremiah 4 we see references to destruction and desolation (vv. 7–13, 15–26, 28–31).

Does the chapter abandon all hope of salvation? No, but it highlights Jeremiah’s understanding that the recipients of salvation would not be the entire nation but rather a remnant. We see this in verse 27, which speaks of the whole land lying in desolation and yet not completely destroyed. God would indeed save Judah, but He would not save every Judahite.

Coram Deo

God swore by Himself to bless the world through Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; 15), imposing a self-obligation to save humanity that He cannot violate lest He be unfaithful to His covenant oath. In saving the world from sin, however, the Lord does not have to save every person. We know that He has sovereignly chosen to pass over some for salvation, and these show themselves by their failure to repent. But if we repent, we are part of the remnant whom the Lord saves by grace alone through faith alone.

Passages for Further Study

Ezra 9:8
Micah 2:12

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