Empty Ritual in the Temple Full of God’s Glory.

Study Series Note: This study is the eighth in a series that examines the Bible’s sacred places (tabernacle, temple, etc.). Previous studies focused on the tabernacle, as well as creation and the Garden of Eden as a Temple.

Previous posts discussed how the tabernacle and temple mediated the presence of the holy God to his covenant people. The temple and its service allowed Yahweh to dwell in the midst of his people and allowed the people to maintain an exclusive covenant relationship with the God of the universe. Solomon built the Jerusalem temple at the height of Israelite national power around 960 b.c.e. For the next few centuries, the temple and its service continued. As time passed, the prophets increasingly warned Judah’s kings, priests, and people that true faithfulness to the Lord was more than a matter of following temple rituals. Solomon's_Temple_JerusalemThe Lord dwelt in the temple, but the temple did not contain him like some genie’s lamp. Yet, some Israelites treated the temple as a charm. They reasoned that if the Lord dwelt in the temple, then he would thwart any enemies that threatened his house and the city that surrounded it. The covenant relationship between God and his people (a relationship cultivated by Moses and King David) had given way to pagan superstition and a magical mindset that sought to manipulate God for human purposes. The temple rituals remained, but the true covenant faithfulness for which the temple existed was largely abandoned.

Around 590 b.c.e., God raised up the prophet Jeremiah to refute the people’s distorted views of God and his house. The Lord was not contained by the temple, it was the place of his choosing. If needed, God could choose to move away from his house and his people. Jeremiah warned that the people’s wickedness, idolatry, and unfaithfulness were making such a departure necessary. If God departed, nothing could protect the kingdom or the temple from the advancing Babylonian empire. A temple full of empty rituals was not compatible with a temple full of God’s glory. God would allow the temple to be physically destroyed if his people were destroying its true purposes anyway.

Scripture study and Discussion:

Jeremiah 7:1-15. The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ 5 For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. 8 Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’- only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. 12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.”

Jeremiah suggest that the people still went to the temple; what was the problem? (Possible answer: Verses 5-7, 9-11 show that they were still doing temple rituals, but they were not actually following God’s laws in their lives. God desires justice, kindness, and loyalty more than rituals. It was hypocrisy to go call on Yahweh in the temple immediately after sacrificing to false gods [9-10].)

In verse 4, Jeremiah warns the people about treating the temple like a magical protective amulet—as if the mere presence of the temple would protect them.[i] The people thought that God would not allow his temple to be destroyed, and in this thought there was a measure of belief in the Lord’s power. However, they still worshiped other gods and did not seek to follow the covenant law in their lives, which showed a lack of true faithfulness and trust.

Do you know anyone who says they believe in God, but their practice of that belief seems to be confined to some rituals that do not seem to reflect a whole life of faith? How does this passage reflect on that person’s “faith”? (Possible answer: This passage suggests that person’s faith is more about them than about God. They want God to make them feel good, or for God to bless them, but they don’t trust him enough to actually follow his ways. It makes people of faith seem like hypocrites.)

Verses 12-15 speak of a place called Shiloh. God tells the people who think that God would never depart from his temple to consider what happened to Shiloh. Shiloh was the location of the tabernacle, or some sort of make-shift permanent sanctuary, during the time of the judges. The first several chapters of 1 Samuel describe the wickedness of the priests at Shiloh and how God allowed these priests to be killed and the Ark of the Covenant to be captured by the Philistines. God judged Israel and its corrupt priesthood first for unfaithfulness and injustice, and secondly for trying to use the object associated with God’s glory as a magic charm to secure victory for themselves. The prophet Jeremiah referred to Shiloh as historical precedent that God will not be contained or manipulated by his sanctuary or its service. God departed from Shiloh (and the Ark never went back to Shiloh even after it was returned to Israel), and he could depart from the Jerusalem temple.

What do Jeremiah’s words reveal about God’s character and what he seeks from his people? (Possible answer: God is powerful and cannot be manipulated. He is all-knowing and sees our motivations. God seeks faithfulness and obedience from his people in all areas of life. The temple was not some religious compartment where all religious obligations were confined. The temple was a place of meeting between God and his people so that his people could carry God’s name to their homes, cities, and to the ends of the earth.)

How do the attitudes that Jeremiah speaks against back then surface in Christianity today? (Possible answer: People call themselves Christians but confine their faith actions to an hour every Sunday. People assume that saying a prayer or being baptized means they are in perfect relationship with God. Although prayer and baptism are important faith expressions, they, like the temple service, can be treated as an empty ritual.)

How can people of faith keep from sliding into ritualism? (Suggested answers: We can examine the heart behind our religious acts and repent when we are going through the motions. We should have at least one deep and transparent accountability partner who can ask these heart focused questions.)

 

Christ Connection and Epilogue

Jeremiah also looks forward to a new covenant when God would forgive his people and give them a new heart and Spirit. Jeremiah (31:31-34) proclaims:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Ultimately, God’s people need to be transformed from the inside out to keep from sliding into ritualism. Jesus gives the Spirit of the new covenant to transform his followers into God’s restored people. The destruction of the temple due to Israel’s faithlessness made them keenly aware of the need for a new heart to follow God. Jeremiah, therefore, mixed his prophecies of judgment with prophecies about a new era when the Ark of the Covenant (remember it is the crucial piece in the Most Holy Place) will no longer be needed because of God’s unprecedented restoration (Jeremiah 3:15-18).

Despite Jeremiah’s faithful ministry, his warnings were not heeded and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 586 b.c.e. One of Jeremiah’s contemporaries, the prophet Ezekiel, saw the glory of the Lord depart from the temple in preparation for the temple’s destruction (Ezekiel 10:18). Israel entered a period of exile outside the land and without a sacred sanctuary. As the next study will describe, however, the Lord was still active among his people. The Lord can occupy sacred places, but he is not dependent on them.

 

Endnotes

[i] John Bright, Jeremiah (AB 21; New York: Double Day, 1965), 57-58.

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