THREE OBSERVATIONS ON Jeremiah 16:
(1) The opening section of this chapter probably occurs quite early in Jeremiah's ministry. He is forbidden to marry, not merely because women and children will within a few decades face an extraordinarily difficult time under siege warfare and subsequent exile, but as a symbolic way of anticipating the enforced asceticism that judgment will bring. In a culture in which almost all males married, his celibacy was doubtless a powerful symbol.
(2) One of the most striking features of this chapter is that the people really do not seem to be aware of their guilt. They cannot see why they should face judgment. "Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us?" they ask. "What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the LORD our God?" (Jer. 16:10). One of the most terrible indices of how far a people have strayed from righteousness is the degree to which they can no longer perceive their own guilt. Men and women who truly love righteousness and integrity are invariably aware when they breach it. The most holy people are the first to confess their sin with shame and contrition. The most guilty people are blissfully unaware of their corruptions and idolatries. So we must ask ourselves: where on this sort of spectrum are our churches found? Or our culture? Are we characterized by profound contrition, or by a frank inability to think that we have really done anything all that wrong? What does that say of us? What does that say about the Lord's stance toward us?
(3) Although the Lord promises judgment, there are two hopeful elements. The first is that God will one day bring the people out of exile with so dramatic and unexpected a rescue that it will eclipse the glory of the Exodus (Jer. 16:14-15). The second is that part of the purpose of this judgment is pedagogical. The people have cherished false gods. "Therefore I will teach them---this time I will teach them my power and might. Then they will know that my name is the LORD" (Jer. 16:21). The exile was to reduce if not eliminate the chronic idolatry of the covenant people. At least at the level of formal idolatry it turned out to be remarkably effective in this respect. The history of the Jews after the return from exile is far different in this respect than what it was before. Despite horrible lapses, postexilic Jewish history displays far less polytheism and syncretism than preexilic history. Of course, for Jew and Gentile alike, the snare of idolatry is much more subtle and corrosive than the attractions of formal polytheism.