Judges 20; Acts 24; Jeremiah 34; Psalms 5-6
BOTH INDIVIDUALS AND LARGER communities sometimes vow, under the pressure of desperation, to reform themselves and devote themselves to pleasing God. When the pressure abates, they rescind their promises and return to their self-centered sin. Their fickleness becomes transparent. The judgment or disaster threatening them does not really teach them the ways of righteousness or instruct them to turn from sin. They simply want relief, and if a vow before the Lord can achieve it, why, then they will vow. But that does not mean they really try to keep their vows.
That is the sort of pathetic drama that unfolds in Jeremiah 34. Nebuchadnezzar is at the gates of Jerusalem (Jer. 34:1). Motivated by sheer desperation, King Zedekiah leads the people in a covenant that proclaims freedom for all slaves (Jer. 34:8). The Mosaic covenant had in principle greatly ameliorated slave conditions by limiting servitude to six years (Jer. 34:14; Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:1, 12). A stream of prophets—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah—excoriated the covenant people for their callousness, for their mercenary defiance of God’s Law, especially in the matter of slavery. And now Zedekiah leads the Jerusalemites in this major reform.
From other sources (see meditation for August 9) we know that news reached the armed forces of Babylon to the effect that an Egyptian army was advancing to relieve Jerusalem. So far as we know, this report was untrue. Nevertheless the Babylonian army withdrew to face this new threat from the south. To the citizens of Jerusalem, this must have seemed like almost miraculous relief. Stupidly, sinfully, wickedly, the former slave-owners “changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again” (Jer. 34:11). Their real hearts are thus completely exposed.
Inevitably, the Babylonian forces discover there is no threat from Egypt, and the siege closes in again. There is no hope of relief this time. Who will believe any of their acts of “repentance” now? God declares, “But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again” (Jer. 34:16). They have not “proclaimed freedom” to their “fellow countrymen” (Jer. 34:17). So the only “freedom” they themselves will experience is the freedom to fall by sword, plague, and famine (Jer. 34:17).
What hope is there for people who put on a show of “repentance” calculated to earn some mercy, but who return like a dog to its vomit and like a pig to its muck (2 Pet. 2:20-22)?