“Return, O faithless sons,” declares YHWH; “For I am a master to you, and I will take you one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” Jeremiah 3:14
Return/Faithless – God is in the destruction business. Yes, I know. We often think of God as the One who creates good, who lifts up the downtrodden and who cares for His own. All that is true, but it ignores the other side of the coin – a side which is obscured in our translations. Once we see what the Hebrew word shuv is all about, we will be much more cautious in our approach to the Holy One of Israel. Things aren’t as easy as they seem.
You won’t recognize the pattern in translation, but in Hebrew these two words, “return” and “faithless,” come from the same root shuv. In fact, Jeremiah has more than a dozen variations of this word. It is the same word that means “repent.” To repent is to turn back to God. To be faithless is to refuse to turn back to God. Literally, this verse says, “Turn back, O sons who refuse to turn back.” Repent, you who remain unrepentant. Jeremiah’s play on words underlines the thought in Hebrew. Shuv is critical to our understanding of God.
So, why don’t these sons return? A deeper examination of the concept of shuv reveals the answer. Shuv is a word about destruction. Yes, that’s right. You thought that “repent” meant excusing your behavior, overlooking your mistakes and welcoming you into the Kingdom. That’s the typical kind of mythology we often hear. But that’s not what shuv implies. This word means “to destroy the house.” In other words, repentance literally means to demolish everything that used to be part of where I lived, to knock it all down, smash it to dust – and walk away. Repent means leaving nothing behind. Unless we realize that repentance is total destruction of the past, we will not return to God. We will become conditional believers, those who keep just a little of the past life in case it doesn’t work out. As far as God is concerned, leaving something behind just in case is faithlessness. Why don’t these sons return? Because they don’t want to give it all up, that’s why. And because they don’t want to destroy their past, they are not fit for the Kingdom. Without demolition work, God can’t rebuild.
Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace.” It’s the idea that I can believe without using ego-dynamite. It’s the heresy of the carnal Christian, a convenient fiction created by Louis Sperry Chafer early in the last century. God requires destruction. What goes on the altar is burned to ashes. What passes through the water dies. What crosses the wilderness expires. God is not interested in anything you bring to the table. It’s all tainted. It’s all compromised. When the church preaches forgiveness without demolition, it doesn’t do anyone a favor. Forgiveness comes at a great price to God. Can we imagine that God will dispense it like a loss leader in a supermarket sale?
“Return, O faithless sons,” is serious business. It’s a serious call from God to abandon our egocentric living. It’s a serious condemnation if we try to hang on to just a bit here and there. Shuv has teeth.
Topical Index: Repentance