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Rebuke and Retribution for the Hard of Heart


Sabbath School Commentary for discussion on Sabbath, October 24, 2015

No one likes a rebuke. Even when deserved, maybe especially when deserved, rebukes sting, depress us with shame and guilt, and we tend to get defensive. Retribution is even harder to bear and harder to read about in the Bible. Students in my Old Testament classes struggle with the portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible, wishing to understand how the Bible could portray such a God on the one hand and the gentle Jesus on the other. Some try to harmonize the difference by explaining that Jesus drove the profane from the temple, but the truth is that Jesus never threw rocks at them until they died. Regardless of how we read the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, the difference between Jesus and the Old Testament portrayals of God remain a profound dichotomy, one that I’ve been told by two students is the biggest deterrent to my students having a close relationship with God.

Of course, nearly 400 years ago, this was not a problem. The Puritan fathers of America lived by the Old Testament. Their reading of it was mirrored in their faces, voices, and verdicts of justice. What has changed? To answer that question with any aptitude would require an article of a different kind. But perhaps one answer is that we have learned more humane treatment of others. From the way we rear our children to the way we relate to our neighbors to the way we seek justice and what kind of justice we want most, the western world in many respects has grown kinder—or is it that we just are more tolerant?

Many believe that a return to the Old Testament way of doing things needs to take place. We have grown soft on sin, unable to level rebukes where needed, unwilling to render retribution upon sin. The world is getting ever more sinful and cries out for unmitigated justice—the kind that doesn’t seek restoration but destruction. Oh for a prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel to pronounce the doom that is coming! Oh for the wrath of God to get poured out!

Readers who have become acquainted with my theological leanings will be surprised to learn that I agree that rebuke is needed. I believe there is a need for rebuke of the things against which Jeremiah raised his voice in protest. Against departure from abandoning a close relationship with God for the worship of false gods of power (Baal), wealth, and accomplishments (“the works of their hands”—self-righteousness) (Jeremiah 1:17; 2:8, 23). Against their falling in love with foreign gods (2:25), gods that have no value and are worthless (2:8, 11, 28). (After all, do our idols ever really love us?) Against having ruined the land and disgracing the Lord’s heritage (2:7). Against acts of injustice, dishonesty, and stealing (5:1-3; 6:13; 7:9-11), against deeds of violence—doing injury, wounding, and shedding blood. Against taking advantage of the less powerful—immigrants, orphans, and widows (7:5-6). Against using the temple as a hiding place for criminals (7:11). Against offering children as child sacrifices (7:30-31).

At the core of all of these sins lay the idolatrous lust for power. And that lust found refuge and protection in the exchange of Yahweh worship—a god whose concerns for moral behavior stand in stark contrast to the gods of the ancient Near East—for that of Baal worship. According to the Baal Cycles from the kingdom of Ugarit, this deity had chief concern for himself and desired supremacy over other gods. His initial goal was to build a house (i.e., palace) so that he could rule because in ancient Semitic understanding, no deity could rule without a palace (Yahweh uniquely seems reticent to have such a dwelling place in 2 Samuel 7:6-7), and no king could rule ably unless his god had a proper palace (i.e., temple) as well. Even the term Baal is really a title that means, “lord.” In the Hebrew Bible, it also means the “owner” of property (Exod. 21:28, 34), and the legal “husband” of a wife (21:22). Baal’s title and dominance seemed more palatable to the men of Judah than Yahweh’s morality did. Women, marginalized by the male dominance over religion by the priesthood, sought refuge and solace in Asherah worship, dubbing Asherah as Yahweh’s wife, for the things they went through in risky childbearing and having to work hard to help eke out an existence in the harshness of Palestine. No doubt many of them had suffered from the abuses listed above.

Yahweh’s rebuke against this worship of the “Queen of heaven” (44:17, 25) stems from a fact that only clearly emerges in the prophets, as though the men in Israel found the truth unsavory: Yahweh had already chosen His wife and to choose another in effect diminished the power of the metaphor that in ancient Israel’s mind should have been a concrete reality. Who was Yahweh’s chosen wife? Israel! Although embedded in the second commandment that refers to Yahweh as a “jealous God” when faced with idolatry, it seems that the men governing religion in Israel found it too much to swallow that they were Yahweh’s wife. They preferred to think of the Sinai covenant, in masculine terms, as a kind of suzerain-vassal treaty than to view it as a marriage contract. Despite the fact that God had initiated Israel’s bond to Himself with the promise that Israel would be a “kingdom of priests and a royal nation,” it is clear from the response of the people via male leaders in Exodus 19, that “the priests” would be male. Had Israel been viewed as Yahweh’s wife, much of the idolatry and the marginalization of women would have been prevented.

When concerns for power override desires for moral rectitude, idolatry is inevitable. And Yahweh, ever desirous of cutting to the root of the tree of evil, rebuked it through His prophet Jeremiah along with all of its overt manifestations in the list above. The truth is that when people of privilege seek power over others, oppressing them and injuring them in the process, they become bullies, people who intimidate and hurt others in their efforts to control them. They are devoid of empathy. Despite how they hurt and wound others, “they treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing: ‘All is well, all is well,’ they insist, when in fact nothing is well” (6:14).* Such power-mongers get so hard-headed that almost nothing can get through except counter measures of power. Jeremiah complains to Yahweh, “You have struck them down, but they didn’t even cringe. You have crushed them, but they have ignored your discipline. They make their faces harder than rock and refuse to return” (5:3). How can even Yahweh attempt to get through to those whose “ears are shut tight, so they won’t hear” (6:10) except to thunder His sternest rebukes in order to be heard?

And so I believe that rebuke and retribution are not for the humble and gentle, those loving and kind and willing to listen, but for those who are hard-hearted, ready to rebuke where none is needed, ready, in their self-righteousness, to judge and condemn others. When one is hurting from the blows of another, a well-timed and appropriate rebuke can be comforting, providing the hurting one seeks the injurer’s restoration, not their destruction. Yet all—both the wounded and those who wound share alike in the retribution that follows.

Jeremiah describes the source of Judah’s retribution in two ways. On the one hand, he attributes the coming of the Babylonians and their destruction of Jerusalem to God (4:27; 5:15), while on the other, he declares, “Haven’t you brought this on yourself by abandoning the Lord your God, who has directed your paths? . . . Your wrongdoing will punish you. Your acts of unfaithfulness will find you out. Don’t you understand how terribly bitter it is to abandon the Lord your God and not fear me? declares the Lord of heavenly forces” (2:17-19). “Your own conduct, your own deeds have done this to you. This is your payment and how bitter it is, piercing into the depths of your heart” (4:18). Which way should we take as the best interpretation? Jeremiah explains himself in speaking for Yahweh: “Pay attention, earth: I’m bringing disaster upon my people, the fruit of their own devices, because they have ignored my words and they have rejected my teachings” (6:19). “Hear me out, Jerusalem, or else I’ll turn away from you and reduce you to ruins, a land unfit to live in” (6:8). The two ways become one: desperate to save His people from inevitable ruin, God finally accepts their hard-headed refusal of His messages as their final choice and abandons them to its results. Determined to leave Him (2:17), He lets them go and stops protecting them from the results of their choices. Leaving His people is an act on the part of God, without which, nothing terrible could happen. Bereft of His presence and protection, they are left to suffer from the passions of their own hearts and the hearts of their fellow perpetrators and from the harsh cruelty of outside forces without benefit of relief.

Does God abandon them willingly? Not according to Jeremiah. At first it appears that the prophet is speaking of his own emotions over the impending destruction to befall Jerusalem, but soon he is clearly speaking for God. “Oh, my suffering, my suffering! My pain is unbearable; my heart is in turmoil; it throbs nonstop. . . . My people are foolish. They don’t even know me! They are thoughtless children without understanding; they are skilled at doing wrong, inept at doing right” (4:19, 22, CEB). “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people. If only I could flee for shelter in the desert, to leave my people and forget them—for they are all adulterers, a bunch of crooks. They bend their tongues like bows to spew out lies; they are renowned in the land, but not for truth. They go from bad to worse. They don’t know me! declares the Lord” (9:1-3, CEB).

In the despair of ultimate rejection, Yahweh and His prophet weep together.

For further reading:

Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.

Parker, Simon B. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. SBLWAWS 9. Society of Biblical Literature: Scholars Press, 1997.

Sheldon, Jean. “Images of Power and a Kingdom of Priests.” AUSS 52/2 (2014): 161-172.

L. Jean Sheldon, is Professor of Old Testament at Pacific Union College. She specializes in Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

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