The Way Back
Tim Temple


Our nation today is very much like the nation of Judah as it was when the prophet Jeremiah appeared to it. For that reason, as I mentioned in our last lesson, I've chosen to spend the next several weeks looking at the twelve messages that Jeremiah brought to that nation as it was literally on its death bed, as it was in its final days, messages that God brought to that nation in its closing days, and perhaps, because it is His Word and His principles are eternal, messages that He would bring to our nation, at least to this little segment of our nation as we face such perilous days in our nation.

Judah was the southern part of what had been the nation of Israel, the Israel of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Israel that God brought into existence Himself as His own special, unique people, Israel of the glory days of David and Solomon, but Israel the nation that had been divided after the death of Solomon because of failures internally and because of sin even in the great lives of David and Solomon.

The kingdom was divided. Ten of those tribes became the northern kingdom, keeping the name of Israel . Benjamin and Judah, the other two tribes, became the southern kingdom and they took the name Judah . One way to remember this division, at least a way that has helped me to remember the division all through the years, has been that the southern kingdom, Judah, kept the capital city of Jerusalem. The northern kingdom kept the name of Israel. So both of them got something of the history of their nation, but the kingdom was divided.

The northern kingdom of Israel went into idolatry and worship of false Gods and all kinds of wickedness and sin a couple of hundred years before the southern kingdom. God judged them by allowing them to be taken over by their enemies and dissolved and scattered. To this day, those ten tribes of the north have never been restored, but the southern kingdom of Judah lasted another couple of hundred years. Amazingly enough, they went along the same pattern of rebellion, of forgetting about God, of turning against God. In fact, they watched the northern tribes go through all of this and yet, they were turning away from God even at that.

So Judah, as Jeremiah came to it, was a nation falling apart at the seams where, because of their abandonment of God and His principles, everything was going wrong. Enemies were surrounding it externally and troubles were everywhere internally. Government was corrupt. Disasters were looming. Degeneracy was everywhere. This nation was suffering from tremendous moral decay and disorder.

Jeremiah's Message to Judah

In the midst of all that, God in His faithfulness sent a man named Jeremiah to speak a word which would arrest the attention of that nation and bring them to an awareness of their failing relationship with God.

We saw in our introductory study that in the midst of that chaos and consternation and trouble in the nation, God didn't choose an ambassador or a prime minister or other political guru. Rather, He chose a young man whom nobody had ever heard of from a small town in that already small nation. But that young man, whose heart was in tune with God, came with God's message for that nation. For the next forty-three years he preached in Judah, trying to awaken the nation to what was about to happen to it, to get them to turn around and to save them from the judgment of God.

We want to look at the first message that Jeremiah gave to the nation of Judah. We talked about him and his life and the background of the book in our last lesson. Today we want to look at the first message that Jeremiah brought. I want to pick out several passages from this long sermon that Jeremiah gave which I think highlights for us what God had to say to that nation of Judah and what God has to say to any person who begins to drift away from Him. Did you notice how I said that? A person who begins to drift away from God. I say that because even though the message is addressed to a whole nation, it is at its heart an extremely personal message.

Have you ever had this problem of drifting away from God? I'm quick to tell you that I have, and I want to remind you today, and as often as necessary, that I am human just like you. I have those same problems and temptations that you do. If you have set me or any other Christian, whether he is a pastor or whoever it might be, on a pedestal as an example of what a Christian ought to be, then sooner or later you are going to be disappointed because all of us are only human.

Hopefully, my example to you will at least be one of confession of sin and victory over temptation and walking closely with the Lord, but don't ever think that I don't face the same spiritual stresses and temptations that you do. Above all, don't ever get the idea that I'm sinlessly perfect or that Jeremiah was or that anybody but Jesus Christ has ever been.

I have found, as I'm sure you have, that there are times in my life when, sometimes without even realizing it, I begin to drift away from Him and realize somewhere along the line that I have failed to take advantage of all the riches of God's grace and have begun to lose some of the fervor and the joy of a relationship with God in my life. I'm sure that from time to time you have, too.

The tragic thing about that condition is that often when it happens we don't really even know it is happening and we don't know what's wrong. We just suddenly realize that something is wrong or maybe gradually we realize that something is wrong. That was exactly what was happening to the nation of Judah when Jeremiah came on the scene. Things had gone badly wrong and they weren't sure what was happening and nobody could figure out why. In His love and His grace and His mercy, God sent this young man, Jeremiah, to help open their eyes to the true situation.

They really blamed God for the whole thing. Really, that is what most of us do, too. That is what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. When God confronted them with their first sin, Adam said, “The woman whom you gave me tempted me and I sinned.” The woman said, “The serpent tempted me, and I did eat.” We all tend to blame things on God when they're not going as they should. These people said that God hadn't kept His promises to them as a nation. He didn't deliver them when He should have. He didn't keep them from their enemies as He had promised. They were accusing God of misconduct, really, with the inability to keep His promises. So God had something to say to this nation. What does He say?

It gathers around four words that Jeremiah uses. Those four words are: remember, realize, return and beware , and they will form the outline for us. That last word may catch you off guard. This is just one of those few times that I can remember in my ministry when I just couldn't come up with a fourth word that started with an R that carried the implications that the word beware does. So we will just have to do it this way this time. If you can think of a word that starts with an R , then you will have perfect alliteration. If that is important to you, then that will help maybe. These four words summarize the message that Jeremiah gave to Judah. These four words were what God had to say to this nation.

As we look at them, even though they were addressed to Judah, a nation, I hope that you will take them as a word to your own heart about how to get back to God when you sense either today or at some time in the future that you have lost some of the joy of that relationship of your Christian experience.

Remember Your First Love

The first word is found in chapter 2, and the word is remember . Notice, beginning in verse 1 of Jeremiah, chapter 2:

Jeremiah 2:

1 Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
2 Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.
3 Israel was holiness unto the LORD, and the firstfruits of his increase: all that devour him shall offend; evil shall come upon them, saith the LORD.

We will stop there with that third verse. As you can see, the first word of the theme of this message is remember . This is a look back for Judah. It is a call to remember what life was like when they first began a love relationship. In fact, it is God who is saying, “I remember the devotion of your youth. I remember, Judah, what it was like in the beginning of our relationship. I remember your love like the love of a bride as you followed Me.”

Sometimes in premarital counseling or in marital counseling, especially when I don't know a couple as well, I will say, “Tell me about yourselves. How did you get to know each other. Where did you meet?” Sometimes you can almost feel the atmosphere soften as these people who have serious enough problems to come for counseling, begin to think back to those early days of their marriage and when they were not angry or upset with each other, but they were in love. As they just go through the exercise of remembering that, sometimes it makes a lot of difference. Sometimes in counseling the battle is halfway won when you get couples to thinking back on what things were like in the beginning of their marriage when they first knew each other, when they first loved each other.

Putting the spiritual face on that concept, let me ask you something. Do you remember what it was like in those early days in the relationship between you and the Lord? Do you remember what it was like when you knew the surprising wonder of the fact that He loved you? Maybe some of you were saved at such a young age that you don't remember that as a part of your early days of salvation. Have you had a time in your life, perhaps a time when you have come back to the Lord or a time when the Lord has shown Himself to you in some powerful way, in some crisis of life? “Do you remember such a time,” God said to Judah, and God says to you and me, “and what it was like when you did love Me and when you were aware of My love for you?”

What the prophet is bringing out here is that in that kind of situation, the Lord and your love for the Lord is the first priority of your life, isn't it? No other relationship is more important than your relationship with Him. Other relationships still have importance, but your relationship with Him is the most important in those times. That's what God wants them to recall and that is what God wants us to recall today, I believe. That is the first thing that God says to these hearts that had begun to drift from Him: “Remember what it was like when you were secure in My affections, when you were devoted only to Me.” There was a time when Israel was holiness to the Lord, exclusively His.

He says in verse 2, “Remember when you loved Me in the wilderness?” Of course, this generation of Israelites weren't alive then, but they knew the history of their nation. They knew that dependence upon God that their forefathers had had as they had to go day by day, literally one day at a time at God's leading and under God's leadership. No doubt most of them remembered some time like that in their own personal lives.

In verse 3, He says, “You were the firstfruits of My harvest. Remember when you were safe?” He says, “Disasters came upon all of those who tried to harm you. I protected you. Do you remember those days? Remember, Judah, those days in the wilderness when you walked as a bride with her husband. You were safe, you were satisfied, and you were exclusively Mine.” That is the first word that God would say to those drifting from Him. “Stop and think. Remember your relationship with Me and My relationship with you.”

Realize Your Spiritual Need

Then there is a second word which God uses to try to wake these people up and it is found in chapter 2, verse 19. It is the word realize . Notice verse 2, where we read:

Jeremiah 2:

19 Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts.

Notice there he says, “Know and see.” That is what it is to realize, isn't it? Open your eyes. Understand what is going on here. That is a word for the present, isn't it? “Look around, realize where you are and what's happened to you, where you were in the beginning. Remember; realize where you are now.”

Let me ask you: What are you like right now? Remember the past and realize the present. What has happened to you in your life? This is God's way of getting Judah's attention, of helping them to see how needy and how far they had come away from Him and how much they needed Him. So He says, “Know and see that it is evil and bitter that you forsake the Lord your God.”

In this section of the sermon I want to highlight two illustrations which God gives Jeremiah to give to the people. He comes to Judah and He says, “I want you to realize how bad things are,” so He holds up two pictures before them which will help them to see themselves and hopefully will help us to see ourselves as well. The first is in chapter 2, verse 13:

Jeremiah 2:

13 For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Here is the first illustration, and what a picture it is. Think about a valley, perhaps a beautiful lush, green, peaceful valley with a stream flowing through it. It is a spring-fed stream and the water is cold and clear and pure and running. The people have been drinking from that water. They have been satisfied with it. For some reason, and we are not told why, they have abandoned that beautiful, flowing stream in the valley and they go up on the barren, rocky hillsides. There they hew out cisterns—little ponds, maybe miniature stock tanks we would think of in this part of the country—to catch whatever water may be draining down the mountain. Of course, along with that water draining down the mountain is going to be dirt and leaves and bugs and dead mice and whatever else may be washing down the mountain into those cisterns, and they try to satisfy themselves out of those cisterns. “The cisterns leak; they are broken cisterns,” He says in His illustration, but people keep on mending the cisterns and digging others at great expense. In spite of all of that, they don't have enough to drink and all the while that stream of cool, pure water is flowing in the valley below them.

God's Provision or Passing Pleasures

What a picture that is and you think, how ridiculous. Why would anybody do something like that? A lot of people do that today, don't they? A lot of Christians do that and particularly a lot of unbelievers do that. They turn from the God Who is able to bring peace and joy and satisfaction and love into a life, and they start trying to meet those needs with their own resources, in fragile friendships or in momentary pleasures, in thrills, in acquisition, or whatever it may be. Those broken cisterns really can't hold any water for any length of time. They are passing pleasures, temporary things. When that happens, this is when a nation, as in Jeremiah's day—in principle, a home or an individual life—begins to die. God says that that is what Judah has been doing, and He details it for them in verse 4:

Jeremiah 2:

4 Hear ye the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel:
5 Thus saith the LORD, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?

There is the fulfillment of the picture. They are trying to find in these human acquisitions, human idols, human practices, that which God had been providing them so abundantly from the very beginning of their nation. Remember how many times in Scripture God pictures Himself as a river of living water like that mountain stream that would be so refreshing and cleansing and healing.

In John, chapter 4, verse 10, speaking to that sinful woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus said that if she would take of the water that He had to drink, it would be a well of living water springing up into everlasting life. That is how God pictures Himself even to us today. You know what those times are like, don't you? You have had those times of fellowship with the Lord. Maybe it was in a time of special blessing in a camp or a Bible Conference or a revival or maybe it was in a time of walking closely with the Lord and seeking to do only what He led you to do. You know those times when it was almost literally like having fresh stream water to drink, joy that really can't be described and it really can't be fully understood.

If you know the Lord as your Savior, there have been at least times like that when you were aware of that kind of relationship with Him. But to forsake that and to turn from it and to try to be satisfied with a lot of cheap, temporary things, why would anyone do that? Why do we do that? It would be like turning away from the sunshine and going into a cave somewhere and huddling around the light of a candle trying to think that was as satisfying as the sunshine is. Or it would be like a person's deciding to give up eating and trying to satisfy himself or herself by getting a magazine and looking at all of the ads that have pictures of food and their trying to be satisfied with that kind of thing.

That is what God says it is like when we turn from the living God, Who is the only One Who can truly satisfy our hearts, and try to satisfy our own needs in some other way with these empty things. Sometimes we do that because we allow ourselves to lose the sense of the greatness of God and the power that is at His disposal and the ability that He has to bring joy into our lives.

That is what had happened to Judah and Israel. They had gotten their eyes on the nations around them and the human power that was in their history under David and Solomon and in the armies and the possessions of other kings of nations around them—Assyria and Egypt and Philistia. They had gotten their eyes off the Lord and on the things of this life.

Sometimes we are like Peter walking on the water when we take our eyes off the Lord and get our eyes on the storm that is going on around us. We forget to look back at Him. We turn from Him sometimes without even realizing what we are doing. Maybe some of us are like Israel in this passage. We get so wrapped up in the things of this world that we forget that love that we had for Him that we enjoyed in the beginning—that newlywed love—and turned from that to all these kinds of other things—attitudes, philosophies, possessions, relationships. Trying to satisfy ourselves with those kinds of things is to drink from broken cisterns which won't hold any water. God says, “That is what you have done, Judah.” Does He say to you through this message, “That is what you are doing.”? Is this a realization that you need to come to today?

Worse than that, He says, in verse 20-21:

Jeremiah 2:

20 For of old time I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou saidst, I will not transgress; when upon every high hill and under every green tree thou wanderest, playing the harlot.
21 Yet I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?

You see, that is what happens when we forsake the Lord. It is not very long before a deterioration sets in, before degeneracy sets in, and we become available to any and every force that will bring us to a better satisfaction, a bigger kick, a bigger thrill. God calls that harlotry, whoredom, and spiritual adultery.

I said that there were two illustrations that God uses through Jeremiah of our turning away from God, and the first one is this turning away from the living water to the broken cisterns. The second illustration is in verses 23-24, where we read:

Jeremiah 2:

23 How canst thou say, I am not polluted, I have not gone after Baalim? see thy way in the valley, know what thou hast done: thou art a swift dromedary traversing her ways;
24 A wild ass used to the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind at her pleasure; in her occasion who can turn her away? all they that seek her will not weary themselves; in her month they shall find her.

Here is a glaring picture which we have to think about for a minute to realize. We are not used to seeing this kind of thing in the Scripture, but those of you who have ever worked around animals probably picked it up pretty quickly. He is talking about an animal in heat and the lusting that that animal in heat does and the sensitivity that other animals have toward that. A little later in chapter 5, He speaks in the same sermon of lusty stallions neighing after their neighbors' wives.

Let me remind you that I am not the one who thought up this illustration. It is God Who is using these illustrations. You may be getting a little upset with me for talking about this kind of thing in church of all things, so let me just remind you that this is God's Word; it is God's illustration. It shows how anxious God is to get our attention that He would use frank illustrations like this.

There are other stories like this. Ezekiel, chapters 27-28, is all about two sisters who committed adultery. It is frank language; it is a frank story. It is not smutty; it is not dirty; but it is frank. God uses this kind of language to try to get our attention as to how we look when we start lusting after everything that comes along, making ourselves available for any kick and any thrill, any drive that we think might bring us some satisfaction. Anything but God Himself. So God holds up this vivid picture. This is what happens when the heart of a nation or the heart of an individual begins to drift from God. It always goes into degeneracy—mentally, if not physically.

Call to Return to God

There is a third word in this sermon. It is a wonderful word. It is amazing that we find it in this sermon but it is the word return . It is used several times in this passage because of God's grace. We have seen the word remember and the word realize , and now we see the word return . Look at chapter 3, verses 11-12. Here is a place where we find this word in this sermon:

Jeremiah 3:

11 And the LORD said unto me, The backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah.
12 Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever.

“Return.” Then He says it again in verse 22:

Jeremiah 3:

22 Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the LORD our God.

Then, on over in chapter 4, verse 1, we see:

Jeremiah 4:

1 If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the LORD, return unto me…

You should return. Think about this logically for a moment. He says, “Remember your first love. Realize how far you have come from that.” What else should they do but return to God? The amazing thing is that God would be remembering and realizing and that God would say, “Return,” to them. If we were only honest with ourselves about our sin. It is amazing, isn't it, that God would say to you and me in that sinful state that He finds us, “Return to Me.”, but that is what God said to Israel. That is what He says to Judah, and that is what He would say to you and me. Really, what else is there to do? If you realize that you are going down the wrong road, and if you realize further that that road is leading to nothing but a wrong destination, the only logical thing to do is to turn around. That is what we find so hard to do, isn't it? You know why? Because the first step, which is clearly described in chapter 3, verse 13, says:

Jeremiah 3:

13 Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the LORD thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith the LORD.

Do you see what He says? Admit it. Only acknowledge your guilt. God sees the heart and we can't fool Him. We can fool other people for awhile. We can justify ourselves and excuse ourselves to ourselves and to others around us, but we can't fool God. I'm afraid, too, that a lot of times Christians take these beautiful promises of God's forgiveness in the New Testament and treat them as though they are automatic.

We think of I John, chapter 1, verse 9, and we think that somehow that once we realized that we have sinned, that it is just kind of automatic that God will forgive the sin. Let me remind you that even though God is so ready and anxious to forgive our sin, He does say to us, “Acknowledge your guilt.” You see, God doesn't want us to confess our sin, to acknowledge our guilt, for His sake; it is for our sake. He wants us to come to grips with the fact that, “I have sinned. I am the one who has turned away from God,” so that we can see what is wrong and learn from it. That is the way to return to God.

He goes on to say, in verse 15:

Jeremiah 3:

15 And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.

Here is a beautiful further promise to these people. He says, “It is not too late. Return. Come back to Me. If you will, I will feed you. I will open your eyes. You don't have to walk in that ignorance and that darkness any longer. If you will come back to Me, I will give you the guidance and the supply that you need to continue to walk with Me.”

Beware of the Consequence of Sin

There is one more word here and we have to look at it also. That has to do with what happens if we don't remember and realize and return. The word is beware . As I said, I can't think of a word that begins with an R that adequately states what these verses state. Look in chapter 5, verse 29. Let me just remind you that in these verses that we are skipping over, God sets the stage to say through Jeremiah what is going to happen if we don't accept His offer. He says, in verse 29:

Jeremiah 5:

29 Shall I not visit for these things? saith the LORD: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?
30 A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land;
31 The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

Now notice this: “…and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?” What poignant verses. False prophets, false priests, and people who like it that way! That is the worst part of all. Do you see the issue here? The responsibility for sin is with the individual. It is easy to blame it on other things being wrong, not having the right kind of leadership, this or that, but the ultimate responsibility is to the almighty God of the universe on the part of every individual.

In Judah everybody was doing what they wanted to do—whatever was comfortable for them, whatever they liked. It was not just the world, not just the pagans. He says, “My people love to have it so.” I'm going to use a political illustration here. It really underplays the seriousness of what Jeremiah is talking about. I believe that an illustration of what He is talking about can come right from the pages of our own immediate situation. God is talking through Jeremiah for our day about the huge percentage of American citizens who have recently said, “I don't care that my teenage daughter probably would not be safe in a room alone with the president of the United States. The economy is good and that is all that matters.”

I'm very much afraid that if the pollsters who discovered that kind of fact that has been published so much, if the pollsters had asked the people for their religious preference, and if the people had been honest about it, I am very much afraid that we would find a large number of God's people who would say that very thing. “I'm comfortable. My business is good. Things are going well. What does it matter what the principles are? What does it matter what God thinks? What does it matter what God has done in the past? What does it matter what God wants to do in the present or in the future? I am comfortable, and that is all that matters.” “My people love to have it so.”

You are familiar with the story in Matthew, chapter 7, verse 26, that Jesus told about two ways in which we can build a house. You can build it on the rock as Jesus said those who obey His words are doing or you can build it on the sand, which in this story was any system of thought or philosophy or plans other than the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of the Word of God. You can erect a beautiful house in either place, a house that looks attractive and completely adequate to anybody who looks at it, but Jesus said that a testing time will come. Sooner or later a testing time will come.

Jeremiah said, “What will you do in the end?” Jesus said that a storm will come sooner or later and when the winds come and the waves beat against the house, the house that is built on the sand will collapse. It is only the house that is built on the rock which is going to stand no matter how useful that house on the sand may have been before the storm came, no matter how beautiful it looked. No matter how well it had served before the storm came, it is going to fall, and that is the question that God asks Judah at the conclusion of Jeremiah's first sermon. It is the question that He asks you and me now: “What will you do in the end?” What will you do when God calls you to an accounting? What will you do when you stand at the judgment seat of Christ? What will you do if you don't know Christ when you stand at the Great White Throne judgment? What is the final analysis in the road that you are pursuing in your relationship with Christ right now?

The Way Back to God

It is very possible that there could be someone, or more than one, who has been attending this church for years but has never really come to Christ. More likely some of you have come to Christ but you have drifted away from Him. God tells us clearly in this passage, for us as individuals just as much as for that nation of Judah, that He has made a way back. He wants us to return but there is only one way to begin that. Acknowledge your guilt. Come to grips in your own heart and mind with the full extent of what you have done, and God will heal your faithlessness. He will save you if you have never been saved. If you come to Him as a sinner and say, “I recognize what I have done. I confess my sin. I am sinner.”, He will heal your brokenness and your guilt.

If you have backslidden, to use Jeremiah's term, but if you are not willing to acknowledge that guilt and sin, if you are not willing to do business with God about where you are right now, there is nothing else to do but to go on and let the condition get worse until there comes an end. God loves you too much to let you go to Hell. But if you go on in your sin, as a believer in Jesus Christ, He may bring severe discipline into your life. He may bring embarrassment and humiliation. He may or may not, but He may bring public exposure of that sin. I don't know what the end will be for you. I don't know where you are. I don't have any particular person in mind as I address these things, but I know this: As I have studied this passage, my heart has said to me, “I don't want any more of that kind of life. I don't want that kind of an end. I want to continue walking with the God Who loves me. I want to come back to that walk with Him, the God Who can heal me, the God Who will allow me to drink the fountains of living water to keep refreshing my soul, the God Who will send me shepherds as I come back to Him to feed me. I want to walk with Him.” My prayer is that your heart says that, too.

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