By Ken Yates
We have all heard the phrase, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” What that means is that when a man is facing death, he often finds religion. He will promise God all kinds of things if God gets him through the danger he finds himself in. A soldier, for example, might promise to go to church, stop drinking, or stop swearing, if he survives his time in battle.
Of course, what usually happens is that when the soldier does survive, he doesn’t keep the promises he made to God. When the danger has passed, he no longer needs God’s assistance. Those promises of turning over a new leaf were literally made in the heat of battle, and that battle is now in the past.
Most readers can relate to this experience, even if they have never been in combat. If we go through a particularly hard time, like losing a job or having a loved one who is sick, we might bargain with God or make promises to Him. If He makes our problems go away, we will love and obey Him in some kind of way. But these fervent prayers are often forgotten when the troubles have disappeared. If we later think about what we said we would do, in a roundabout way, we say, “Never mind, Lord.”
There is a clear example of this human tendency in Jeremiah 34.
HELP US, LORD!
The people in and around Jerusalem are in trouble in Jeremiah 34. In fact, they are like the soldier in the foxhole. The prophet Jeremiah had preached to them for over three decades. He told them they needed to repent of their sins or God was going to judge them. God told them they would die by starvation, disease, and the sword. The people did not listen, and now the Babylonian army was invading their land. Jerusalem and the lives of the people in it were in danger.
This situation got their attention. They decided to make some promises to God. In the covenant Israel had made with the Lord, they had agreed to set their Jewish slaves free after so many years of service (Exod 21:2). This was a way for the Jews to be merciful to those who were poor and weak, and a reminder that God had set their ancestors free from their slavery in Egypt. By releasing their slaves, they were being like God.
Evidently, those in power had not obeyed the Lord in this matter. But in light of their present circumstances, they decided to bargain with Him. Jeremiah had told them to turn from their sins to avoid God’s punishment, and this was an example of what they could do to obey the Lord. Perhaps, they thought, God would deliver them from the Babylonians if they would do what the Lord had commanded them and be kind to their fellow Jews.
Jeremiah tells us that this is exactly what they did (Jer 34:8-10). Some have suggested there was another reason they let their slaves go free: they needed more soldiers to fight against the Babylonian army. If these slaves were released from their servitude, they would be much more likely to fight for their country. Whatever the reasons those who owned slaves set them free, they were hoping God would reward them for doing the right thing and spare their city and lives.
WE REALLY PROMISE TO DO IT!
The Jews wanted to make sure the Lord knew of their sincerity when it came to obeying Him in this matter. They made a public declaration of the promise they had made. The leaders of the people held a ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. They called upon the name of the Lord and made a covenant with Him (34:15). They swore by His name, in His house, that they would release their slaves.
To show how committed they were to keep their promise, they put on quite a show, taking a calf and sacrificing it. Then they cut it in two, and the political and religious leaders then walked through the pieces of the body (34:19). This signified that God should do to them what happened to this calf if they did not keep their promise. In other words, they were so serious they told God to kill them if they didn’t allow their slaves to go free. They would deserve to die if they reneged on what they said they would do.
When we look at the actions of these Jews, we have to be impressed. They did the wise thing. They turned to the One who was able to get them through their difficult circumstances. They had no other place to turn. We understand why a soldier in combat calls out to the Lord. That is what these Jews did. We can also conclude that they were completely sincere.
But we also know that the promises made in those circumstances can soon be forgotten.
WE DIDN’T REALLY MEAN IT
In the Book of Jeremiah, some of the things written are not in chronological order. The prophet tells us what happened after the people let their slaves go free. We don’t know how long afterwards, but they went back on their promise. They forced their former slaves back into slavery (34:11).
We are also not told why they reversed course. But we have a really good idea. God had told the king and the people not to rely on others in the war against the Babylonians. However, we are told in other places that they disobeyed. They asked Egypt to help them. King Zedekiah wanted the army of Egypt to fight against the Babylonians.
The Egyptians did just that. They were moving toward Jerusalem to provide aid, and it seemed to be a harbinger of great things. The Babylonian army left Judah to meet the Egyptian army in battle (Jer 37:5; Ezek 17:11-16). When the Babylonian soldiers left their land, the Jewish people thought all was well.
It didn’t take them long to forget what they had promised the Lord. Maybe they rationalized that their decision to release the slaves had been a rash one. Maybe releasing their slaves had nothing to do with the Babylonians leaving. Maybe the Egyptians, and not God, had delivered them from danger. Their decision certainly cost them money. With the Babylonians gone, they didn’t need more soldiers to defend the city. They wanted their slaves back.
It is hard to find a clearer example of hypocrisy. It is so blatant, it is almost comical. The Jews showed that their oath at the temple, their gestures of mercy toward their slaves, their expressed desire to obey God, and their sacrifice of an animal, were all a show. They did not do any of these things out of love for the Lord or their neighbor. They obviously did what they did as a way to trick God into giving them what they wanted. Now that they thought they had it—now that they thought they were out of danger—they could go back to doing what they were doing before the Babylonians had threatened them.
It is like the soldier who promises to quit drinking when he is in the midst of battle. After he returns home, he is eager to go to a local bar and celebrate with his friends.
Hopefully, none of us will be as boldly hypocritical as the Jews in Jeremiah 34. Maybe they did what they did because of their exposure to, and participation in, idolatry. They saw the God of Israel as just another god that they could placate. Once they received from Him what they wanted, it was business as usual. They could treat all the idols around them in that way. Unfortunately for them, God was not like those idols; He held them accountable for what they had promised. The Babylonians soon returned after dealing with the Egyptians, and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. Many of the Jews of the city lost their lives, just like the calf they sacrificed.
Even if our hypocrisy is more subtle than theirs, we are still subject to that sin. How often do we “get serious” in our relationship with God when we find ourselves in a tight spot and we need something from Him? When things are going well, we are much more likely not to see the importance His Word and Spirit have in our lives. After the trial has passed, we can take the attitude of “Never mind, Lord.”
All of us can look at what the Jews did in Jeremiah’s day and conclude that it was wrong. That should lead us to an obvious conclusion: our love for the Lord, and the obedience that flows from that love, should not depend upon our outward circumstances. Wouldn’t it be great if our desire to please Him did not just depend upon Him getting us out of some kind of trouble?
That kind of attitude will not come automatically. In our flesh, we are not wired that way. The Jews in Jeremiah 34 are a striking example of that fact. But let’s ask the Lord to transform our minds so that we realize He is worthy of our love and obedience in both good and bad times.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He leads the GES international ministry, cohosts the daily podcast, and assists Bob in all aspects of the GES ministry. His new book, Elisabeth, is a powerful testimony to the power of God manifested in a Christ-centered family. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.