Some sins seem almost insignificant to us. Sure, we recognize the big ones, such as murder, adultery, and robbery, as things that can cause a lot of problems for everyone. But there are many sins that we look at and say they aren’t that harmful. Often those sins involve things we say. Even as kids we are told that sticks and stones may hurt us, but words cannot be that bad.
In Rom 1:26-32, Paul lists a number of sins that bring the wrath of God upon individuals and society. What is interesting is that he lists some sins that we consider really big, but he also includes some that we tend to shrug off. He mentions, for example, gossip, slander, and bragging. We might consider such things as being insignificant. James also says that our words can cause a lot of damage. Our tongues, he maintains, are like a flame that can set our whole lives on fire (Jas 3:5-6).
Jeremiah the prophet lived in a time in which he saw a lot of really big sins. In his society, the innocent were murdered by the powerful, and the weak could do nothing about it. Children were sacrificed by their parents to idols made of stone and wood. The people worshiped these idols and engaged in various sexual perversions in the process. If Jeremiah had only focused on those types of sins, there was plenty of material to keep him busy for years.
But like Paul and James, Jeremiah also spoke of what we would consider the small sins. He spoke about what people said to one another. Whereas God’s people were to be “valiant for the truth” (Jer 9:3), neighbors slandered each other and tried to deceive one another (Jer 9:4-6). This, in turn, caused the people to look at each other with suspicion. He says that the people of his day “weary themselves to commit iniquity” (Jer 9:5). And it all started with the lies they told each other. It was as if they were running a marathon of evil, and they started the race with stretching exercises that involved how they spoke to their fellow Jews (Jer 9:4-5).
Jeremiah says those stretching exercises were indeed serious. It caused them to live in an atmosphere of deceit. If they treated their neighbor like that, they could not have an intimate relationship with the Lord (9:6). Perhaps his point is what John says in 1 John. If we don’t love our neighbor, how can we love God who created that neighbor in His image?
What the Jews of Jeremiah’s day saw as harmless, the Lord saw as deadly. He says that a lying tongue is like a deadly arrow. Such use of the tongue attempts to tear down one’s neighbor with words. That kind of attitude is one that desires the death of that neighbor. The way Jeremiah says it is that when one speaks towards somebody with deceit and slander, the next step is to plan to set an ambush against him and do away with him. In a society where the powerful could often get away with such plans, Jeremiah is probably talking about more than simply wishing for something. He had probably seen such things happen (9:8). We might live in a country where such sinister desires are not easy to carry out. But Jeremiah’s admonitions remind us of the words of the Lord Himself when He taught that anger in our hearts is the same as murder (Matt 5:22). We desire someone’s death even if we don’t have the means to bring it about.
God interrupts the message of Jeremiah at this point. He says He does not see such words and attitudes towards others as no big deal. He says that He will indeed judge those who engage in them (9:9).
All of us tend to trivialize certain sins. We can become immune to them. What’s the harm if we gossip and slander others? What’s the big deal if we tell little white lies? There is no real harm in any of that. Jeremiah says we should reconsider such thinking. It creates an environment of distrust. Such communities are not good for anybody who lives in them. Such an environment can lead to other sins, sins that even we recognize are serious. Most importantly, the Lord instructs us to take such sins seriously. He sent His prophet Jeremiah to tell His people these things centuries ago. His Word tells us the same thing today.