The date of this sermon must be observed, in order to the right understanding of it; it was in the days of Josiah, who set on foot a blessed work of reformation, in which he was hearty, but the people were not sincere in their compliance with it; to reprove them for that, and warn them of the consequences of their hypocrisy, is the scope of that which God here said to the prophet, and which he delivered to them. The case of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah is here compared, the ten tribes that revolted from the throne of David and the temple of Jerusalem and the two tribes that adhered to both. The distinct history of those two kingdoms we have in the two books of the Kings, and here we have an abstract of both, as far as relates to this matter.
I. Here is a short account of Israel, the ten tribes. Perhaps the prophet had been just reading the history of that kingdom when God came to him, and said, Hast thou seen what backsliding Israel has done? Jer. 3:6. For he could not see it otherwise than in history, they having been carried into captivity long before he was born. But what we read in the histories of scripture should instruct us and affect us, as if we ourselves had been eye-witnesses of it. She is called backsliding Israel because that kingdom was first founded in an apostasy from the divine institutions, both in church and state. Now he had seen concerning them, 1. That they were wretchedly addicted to idolatry. They had played the harlot upon every high mountain and under every green tree (Jer. 3:6), that is, they had worshipped other gods in their high places and groves; and no marvel, when from the first they had worshipped God by the images of the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. The way of idolatry is down-hill: those that are in love with images, and will have them, soon become in love with other gods, and will have them too; for how should those stick at the breach of the first commandment who make no conscience of the second? 2. That God by his prophets had invited and encouraged them to repent and reform (Jer. 3:7): “After she had done all these things, for which she might justly have been abandoned, yet I said unto her, Turn thou unto me and I will receive thee.” Though they had forsaken both the house of David and the house of Aaron, who both had their authority jure divino—from God, without dispute, yet God sent his prophets among them, to call them to return to him, to the worship of him only, not insisting so much as one would have expected upon their return to the house of David, but pressing their return to the house of Aaron. We read not that Elijah, that great reformer, ever mentioned their return to the house of David, while he was anxious for their return to the faithful service of the true God according as they had it among them. It is serious piety that God stands upon more than even his own rituals. 3. That, notwithstanding this, they had persisted in their idolatries: But she returned not, and God saw it; he took notice of it, and was much displeased with it, Jer. 3:7, 8. Note, God keeps account, whether we do or no, how often he has called to us to turn to him and we have refused. 4. That he had therefore cast them off, and given them up into the hands of their enemies (Jer. 3:8): When I saw (so it may be read) that for all the actions wherein she had committed adultery I must dismiss her, I gave her a bill of divorce. God divorced them when he threw them out of his protection and left them an easy prey to any that would lay hands on them, when he scattered all their synagogues and the schools of the prophets and excluded them from laying any further claim to the covenant made with their fathers. Note, Those will justly be divorced from God that join themselves to such as are rivals with him. For proof of this go and see what God did to Israel.
II. Let us now see what was the case of Judah, the kingdom of the two tribes. She is called treacherous sister Judah, a sister because descended from the same common stock, Abraham and Jacob; but, as Israel had the character of a backslider, So Judah is called treacherous, because, though she professed to keep close to God when Israel had backslidden (she adhered to the kings and priests that were of God’s own appointing, and did not withdraw from her allegiance, so that it was expected she should deal faithfully), yet she proved treacherous, and false, and unfaithful to her professions and promises. Note, The treachery of those who pretend to cleave to God will be reckoned for, as well as the apostasy of those who openly revolt from him. Judah saw what Israel did, and what came of it, and should have taken warning. Israel’s captivity was intended for Judah’s admonition; but it had not the designed effect. Judah feared not, but thought herself safe because she had Levites to be her priests and sons of David to be her kings. Note, It is an evidence of great stupidity and security when we are not awakened to a holy fear by the judgments of God upon others. It is here charged on Judah, 1. That when they had a wicked king that debauched them they heartily concurred with him in his debaucheries. Judah was forward enough to play the harlot, to worship any idol that was introduced among them and to join in any idolatrous usage; so that through the lightness (or, as some read it, the vileness and baseness) of her whoredom, or (as the margin reads it) by the fame and report of her whoredom, her notorious whoredom, for which she had become infamous, she defiled the land, and made it an abomination to God; for she committed adultery with stones and stocks, with the basest idols, those made of wood and stone. In the reigns of Manasseh and Amon, when they were disposed to idolatry, the people were so too, and all the country was corrupted with it, and none feared the ruin which Israel by this means had brought upon themselves. 2. That when they had a good king, that reformed them, they did not heartily concur with him in the reformation. This was the present case. God tried whether they would be good in a good reign, but the evil disposition was still the same: They returned not to me with their whole heart, but feignedly, Jer. 3:10. Josiah went further in destroying idolatry than the best of his predecessors had done, and for his own part he turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul; so it is said of him, 2 Kgs. 23:25. The people were forced to an external compliance with him, and joined with him in keeping a very solemn passover and in renewing their covenants with God (2 Chron. 34:32; 35:17); but they were not sincere in it, nor were their hearts right with God. For this reason God at that very time said, I will remove Judah out of my sight, as I removed Israel (2 Kgs. 23:27), because Judah was not removed from their sin by the sight of Israel’s removal from their land. Hypocritical and ineffectual reformations bode ill to a people. We deceive ourselves if we think to deceive God by a feigned return to him. I know no religion without sincerity.
III. The case of these sister kingdoms is compared, and judgment given upon the comparison, that of the two Judah was the worse (Jer. 3:11): Israel has justified herself more than Judah, that is, she is not so bad as Judah is. This comparative justification will stand Israel in little stead; what will it avail us to say, We are not so bad as others, when yet we are not really good ourselves? But it will serve as an aggravation of the sin of Judah, which was in two respects worse than that of Israel:—1. More was expected from Judah than from Israel; so that Judah dealt treacherously, they vilified a more sacred profession, and falsified a more solemn promise, than Israel did. 2. Judah might have taken warning by the ruin of Israel for their idolatry, and would not. God’s judgments upon others, if they be not means of our reformation, will help to aggravate our destruction. The prophet Ezekiel (Jer. 23:11) makes the same comparison between Jerusalem and Samaria that this prophet here makes between Judah and Israel, nay, and (Ezek. 16:48) between Jerusalem and Sodom, and Jerusalem is made the worst of the three.