Commentary on Jer 7:1-11
Today we read Jeremiah’s famous ‘Temple Sermon’. At the Jerusalem Temple itself Jeremiah preached against the shallow, superstitious trust in Temple sacrifices. True religion, he said, is on the inside and results in external works of justice and charity.
Today’s passage is the opening of a set of oracles dating mainly from the reign of King Jehoiakim, about 608 BC. The opening theme is true worship and today’s passage deals with worship in the Temple.
Later on, in chapter 26, Jeremiah will describe the events prompting this oracle. The belief that the Temple was made holy by the very presence of Yahweh in the Holy of Holies led to the conviction that it could never be destroyed by pagan enemies. This was further strengthened when Sennacherib was forced to withdraw in 701 BC because of the epidemic that decimated his army at the walls of the city. The sanguine belief now was that Yahweh would protect them again in some similar way.
But Jeremiah is going to shock his countrymen by telling them, as Micah did earlier, that their confidence had no foundation and that God could abandon his Temple. Ezekiel would also have a vision of the glory of Yahweh abandoning the sanctuary. This, of course, happened when Nebuchadnezzar razed Jerusalem and the Temple later, in 587 BC. It would happen in a far more significant way when, at the death of Jesus the Messiah, the veil of the Temple was torn apart, signifying that the Lord was no longer present in the Holy of Holies but in the Risen Body of Jesus – the Christian community.
So, at the instructions of the Lord, Jeremiah stood at the gate between the inner and outer courts of the temple (perhaps the so-called ‘New’ Gate) to proclaim God’s message to the people. The words are addressed to all those “who enter these gates”, that is, the gates leading from the outer courts to the inner courts (of the women and beyond that of the men). They are being given a very clear warning: if they want God to remain among his people in this land, then they must change their ways and abandon their sinful and immoral behaviour.
There is no use in their trying to reassure themselves by constantly taking refuge in the Temple and constantly repeating: “This is the sanctuary of the Lord, this is the sanctuary of the Lord…”, as if that were a guarantee that nothing could happen to them. This was the kind of meaningless prayer urged on them by false prophets, who raised false and optimistic expectations. Later, Jesus would also point out the uselessness of such superstitious babbling (Matt 6:7).
The idea that God would not destroy Jerusalem simply because his dwelling, the Temple, was located there was a delusion, fostered in part by the miraculous delivery of the city during the reign of Hezekiah, when, as mentioned, Sennacherib’s army was struck down by a mysterious epidemic. In the light of Judah’s sinful rebellion against the Lord such an idea was “worthless”.
On the other hand, if they did change their ways and their behaviour, then God would stay forever with them in the land which he had given to their ancestors in perpetuity. The changes that Jeremiah suggests include treating others with justice, not exploiting foreign immigrants and outsiders, orphans or widows, not shedding innocent blood (as in the frightening example of King Manasseh, who “shed so much innocent blood as to fill the length and breadth of Jerusalem” [2 Kings 21:16]) and following alien gods who can only bring them harm..
However, they are instead putting their trust in deceptive words, the words of false prophets who had assured them that God would never allow Jerusalem to be destroyed because his house, the Temple, was there. This assurance had been strengthened, as we mentioned, by the miraculous delivery of the city during the reign of King Hezekiah. In Jeremiah’s eyes there was no justification for such confidence.
Why? Because on the one hand they stole, murdered, committed adultery, perjured themselves, worshipped the god Baal and other alien gods whose origin they hardly knew, behaviour which would result in their being carried off into lands they did not know. In this one sentence, Jeremiah includes the violation of no less than five of the Ten Commandments.
At the same time, the people brazenly entered the Temple, the house that bears God’s Name and where he is present, thinking that doing so would fully protect them from the effects of their behaviour. And just as robbers try to escape justice by taking refuge in caves, so God’s people treated the very house of God. Later on, Jesus would quote this sentence in accusing people of his own time of doing commercial business inside the Temple precincts. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17. The first half of this quotation comes from Isaiah 56:7).
It is very possible for us Christians to act in similar ways. There are even those who say by their behaviour, if not actually in words, “Let’s eat, drink and be merry; let’s have a great time and break all the rules. Later on, we can go to Confession and have it all straightened out.” It is a very foolish policy and a dangerous one. Remember the man in the Gospel who had made his pile and then sat down to enjoy it. He died that night.
We must be careful not to abuse the privileges and helps that our Christian faith and our membership of the Christian community give. Our only true guarantee of security is a life that is centred on God and totally in harmony with truth, love and justice. It is not just what we do in church that indicates our relationship with God but even more how in our everyday life we deal with our brothers and sisters, especially those who are in need of any kind.
Our worship is not a guarantee of protection but a sign of where the desires of our heart truly lie.