The OT is full of examples to follow and examples to avoid. Paul says that we can learn from those examples (1 Cor 10:6). In a recent study on Jeremiah, I found that the book gives a bad example in one chapter, followed by a good example in the next. In this blog, I will discuss the bad example.
In Jeremiah 34, we have the story of what the people in Jerusalem did concerning their Jewish slaves. If a Jew owed somebody money, he could serve that person as a slave until the debt was paid off. The Law of Moses said that all Jewish slaves were to be released from their servitude every seventh year regardless of the debt owed. This would be a reminder of how God had treated their ancestors. He had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. As with most of the Law, however, the Jews did not keep that commandment.
In the days of Jeremiah, the Babylonians had surrounded the city of Jerusalem and put it under siege. God was punishing the people as a result of their sin. Things looked bleak. At this very dark moment, the people in Jerusalem had what looked like a spiritual revival. They agreed to release their slaves (34:10). They would act like God had treated their ancestors. They swore to do so, calling upon the name of the Lord as a witness. They sacrificed an animal to seal the covenant they made with their slaves. They made this solemn vow in the temple of God (34:15, 18).
This would have involved a financial cost to the owners of these slaves. Why did they do it? Jeremiah does not tell us, but it was almost certainly one of two reasons, or both. They had been told by Jeremiah that the Babylonians were attacking them because of their sin. They wanted to appease God by doing what God would want, which was to set their slaves free. This explains why they did it with sacrifices, vows, and why they held the ceremony in the temple. They did it in hopes of avoiding any more punishment from God. Maybe God would call off the Babylonians. All their actions would show that they loved the Lord and His word in the hope that He would respond favorably.
But there was another, practical, reason why they let their slaves go free. They needed these slaves to fight with them against the Babylonians. A freed man would be more motivated to fight for his city in appreciation for what had been done for him.
For a little while, it looked like their actions had been successful. The Egyptian army was coming to the rescue of Judah and Jerusalem. The Babylonians had to leave Judah to meet the Egyptians in battle.
How did the Jews respond? They reneged on their promise to the slaves and to God Himself. They compelled those who had been set free to return to being slaves (34:11). Once they determined they were no longer in danger, they didn’t need to treat God like a genie that would grant them a wish. Once they didn’t need soldiers to fight, they made slaves of their neighbors. They wanted what was beneficial for themselves.
What a display of sinful human nature. What a warning for us. It is so easy to get serious about our relationship with God in times of trouble, but forget Him when things improve. To placate our guilty consciences or to obtain something we want from God, we can outwardly appear to love and obey Him. Jesus warned the Jews of His day of this very thing (Matt 15:1-9). It is a warning for believers today.
The Lord, of course, is not fooled. In the case of the Jews in Jeremiah’s day, He called them hypocrites and told them the Babylonians would return soon and finish their defeat of Judah. He is not fooled by our outward hypocritical displays of love for Him either.
The Lord knows when our devotion of Him springs from a heart that loves Him or one that is hypocritical. May we learn a lesson from the negative example set by the Jews in Jeremiah 34 and ask the Lord to give us a heart devoted to Him regardless of outward circumstances.