This article was originally written for 1517.
Jeremiah’s prophecy is often caricatured as the “Bible’s buzzkill.” The Weeping Prophet’s oracle is seemingly entirely comprised of doom-and-gloom messages, which is mostly true to some degree. Indeed, it is biblical accounts like Jeremiah’s that have led many to surmise that “the Man Upstairs” is nothing but a grumpy, bearded, old man with a long grey beard who just wants kids to get off his lawn. There are portions of Jeremiah where it really does seem as though God is just perpetually annoyed with everyone, whose only care is that his children “straighten up and fly right,” by any means necessary. This certainly seems to be the case in Jeremiah 17.
There, in the opening verses, God’s prophet emphasizes the severity of Judah’s problem. Namely, their national decadence and spiritual rebellion against God had left a permanent stain on their record. If there was a ledger which accounted for all the bad deeds of every person, Judah’s was not written in pencil, something easily erased. It was inscribed “with an iron stylus” that featured “a diamond point.” (Jer 17:1) Their wrongs were engraved on their hearts, embedded into the fabric of who they were, without a hint of it being blotted out. The very center of who they were was marred by their adulterous faith. Accordingly, they were about to suffer the consequences. (Jer 17:2–4)
The real bad news of this devastating oracle, however, came about in the pronouncement that Judah couldn’t really do anything to remedy this problem. To rely on human strength was tantamount to turning from the Lord altogether. (Jer 17:5) The depth of their rebellion went far beyond even their ability to comprehend it. (Jer 17:9) Their heart was “more deceitful than anything else,” fraudulent to the core, incurably sick. They were wicked and rebellious to the very depths of their person. Jeremiah’s diagnosis of Judah’s heart is terminal. They are “desperately wicked,” incurably sick. But it’s even worse than it sounds.
For Judah, “sin did not consist in the mere violation of a law or transgression of a commandment. It was not only that [they] had done something evil or had neglected to do something good. In fact, it was not primarily something that [they] did at all.”1 It was who they were. They couldn’t rectify the problem of diamond-point sins precisely because they, like all humans ever since Genesis 3, have skewed estimations of themselves.
Humans throughout the ages have existed under the assumption that they can remake themselves. Let the impurities be what they are, man has control of the operation by which those impurities are made pure again. Such a notion of sin is only half correct. If sin was a matter of grievances (“doing”) against a specific code of conduct, the remedy would be a new and better code, and the gumption to live up to its new and better standard (more “doing”). If sin is only a matter of “doing,” then “undoing” and/or “redoing” would serve as the equivalent savior necessary to find redemption. Such a scenario is very appealing.
Sin is, indeed, a breach of conduct. But it’s so much more than that. “Sin [is] not primarily a moral category but a religious one,” observes Jaroslav Pelikan, “and that what determined sin [is] not relationship to a moral code but relationship to the Holy himself.”2 Sin a breach of fellowship, of relationship. Therefore, what’s necessary to remedy this breach isn’t more “doing.” What’s categorically necessary is God’s forgiveness and remission of sin — which is not, as Pelikan continues, “the act of God by which He forgot a given number of deeds against the Ten Commandments, but the act of God by which I was made worthy of His fellowship.”3 The “fix” for Judah and for us is the same. It’s not a matter of different things to “do.” It’s about being remade. What’s necessary isn’t an IV of antibiotics. It’s a heart transplant. It’s resurrection.
To whom should Judah turn to remedy this problem?
To whom can they look to remake their desperately wicked hearts?
There is only one recourse for Judah, and for us, too. Despite all of their inherent atrocities, Judah was offered a “sanctuary” in, perhaps, the most unlikely place of all.
A glorious throne on high from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary. Lord, the hope of Israel, all who abandon you will be put to shame. All who turn away from me will be written in the dirt, for they have abandoned the Lord, the fountain of living water. Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me, and I will be saved, for you are my praise. (Jer 17:12–14)
A throne, and precisely the One who has sat on it “from the beginning,” constitutes Judah’s hope. Such is the good news which undergirds the gloom of Jeremiah’s oracle. But such, too, is God’s good news for us today.
Like Judah, our sins go deeper than we know. We’ve compiled a register of wrongs that is recorded “with an iron stylus” and “a diamond point.” We cannot do anything against this index of holy crimes. It is painfully permanent, eternally condemning. But yet, in the middle of that gloomy reality comes the message of the throne which is “our sanctuary.” Wonderfully, remarkably, the very place where our transgressions should be met with righteous damnation becomes the place of our safety and salvation. Precisely because of the One who occupies that throne.
This “glorious throne on high” is occupied by none other than the God who erases diamond-point sins. The “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Seated on that throne is the One who searches the depths of our souls. (Jer 17:10) Who replants dried up shrubs and makes them fruitful again. (Jer 17:7–8) Who gives us new hearts and never again remembers our sin. (Jer 31:31–34) Who alone cancels the record against us. (Col 2:13–15) For all the sins that are written with unerasable ink, for all those who are incurably sick with sin, look to the throne. It is occupied by none other than the King who left his throne precisely for those who sick. (Mk 2:17)
For those whose sin is deeper than they could ever imagine, there’s a grace that goes deeper still and erases diamond-point sins.
Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955), 72–73.