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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Break up the fallow ground!
Text:Jeremiah 4:1-4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 24:1,2,3                                                                                         

Ps 1:1,2,3

Reading – Jeremiah 3:1-25

Ps 143:1,5,6,7

Sermon – Jeremiah 4:1-4

Ps 75:1,3,4,6

Hy 15:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, there once was a book-burning in the palace of Judah’s king. A scroll-burning actually, but the idea is the same. For the LORD told Jeremiah to take a scroll, write on it everything He’d said—and then to have that scroll read before the king. So that’s what Jeremiah did. He wrote down God’s words, then Baruch his scribe went and read the scroll in the court of Jehoiakim.

And the king didn’t like what he heard at all. It was during the winter, and the fireplace was on in the palace. So after a few columns were read, the king sliced them off with his knife and tossed them into the fireplace—and he did that, until the whole scroll was consumed. A book burning in the place of Judah’s king! Not just any book either: the book of God’s own Word!

Were Jeremiah’s prophecies lost forever that day? They weren’t lost—we read from them this morning. Because after the king burned the scroll, God simply told Jeremiah, “Take yet another scroll, and write on it all the… words that were in the first” (36:28). Because this was a message that God’s people needed to hear. God speaks his Word, preserves his Word, and has his Word proclaimed, so we can listen to it often.

For even if we’ve heard God’s Word on Sunday—or read through it at home—even more times than we can count, we’re never done with it. It’s a message we always need to hear: like the message of God’s love in Christ, because we soon forget how great it is. And the message of our holy calling, because we forget how great that is, too! To hear the Word: this has always been the need for God’s people, also in the days of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah had a job description that few people would envy. His fellow prophet Isaiah is known for prophesying a lot about the coming Messiah; Isaiah had a message full of hope! But Jeremiah has a reputation for being a bit grumpy. He had a difficult task, calling Judah to repent and announcing that she’d soon be destroyed. During his ministry he had to endure a lot of mockery and harassment. A book-burning was just one of many setbacks he faced. But the Word had to go out. He’d be faithful, so that Judah could hear—and so that we can hear. I preach to you God’s Word from the Jeremiah 4:1-4,

Break up your fallow ground, and circumcise your hearts!

  1. our repentance and its results
  2. God’s fury and his favour


1) our repentance and its results: “If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him, and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?” (3:1). That’s the question at the beginning of chapter 3. Any Israelite would answer without a moment’s hesitation, “No!” Once there’s a divorce, and even a remarriage, that’s it. The situation is already broken, without making it worse by undoing the second marriage to go back to the first. As Jeremiah says, “Would not the land be greatly polluted?” (3:1).

Yet this was how things stood in his day. God’s people had “played the harlot with many lovers” (3:1). Judah had committed adultery—and not only in some external way, but inwardly. For she had joined herself other gods in worship and devotion. And not just once, but many times, and with many gods. Wherever she could find a little loving, a little security and reward, there she went running. Judah had become a spiritual whore.

Unfaithfulness had wrecked God’s covenant with his people. Wayward Judah had divorced God, had “married” again—so that’s the question asked by the prophet: Could she return to her first love? Could she now return to the LORD, and He to her? By the letter of the law, it could never be. It’d be a terrible scandal!

But what do we see? The LORD is so faithful to his bride, He’s so determined in his grace toward us, and untiring in his love. This is why He calls in our text, “If you will return, O Israel… return to me” (4:1). Once more, God reaches out to his people. Because of who God is, He’s always interested in restoring things, in healing what’s broken.

But there needs to be change. God grants his forgiving love in Christ, without any merit of our own—yet we can’t expect to receive his forgiveness, if we’re not ready to confront the sin in our life. In short, God’s love might be free, but it doesn’t come without obligation. Imagine a marriage where you expect total commitment, total devotion from the other person, but where you won’t commit to being faithful yourself; you want to keep open the possibility of taking another lover. That’s absurd—that’s not what being in covenant is about.

No, God calls his bride to cleanse herself, and be true. And what Judah must do is clear. Verse 1: “If you will put away your abominations out of my sight…” Literally, God says, “If you put away your disgusting things.” The Hebrew word speaks of something despicable, shameful and ugly—something of great offense.

What is the LORD referring to? What mess does his bride have to clean up? It’s all her gods. She’d chased after many idols, “committing adultery with stones and trees” (3:9). That’s provocative language. Because the people need to see what they’ve been doing. These idols are false, they’re dead, shameful—so think of how they stain Judah’s heart when she embraces them, commits adultery with them.

Beloved, think what it does to our heart when we trust in “disgusting things.” The human heart is always ready to worship, ready to give its best to something. Something you can touch, something you can see—something that has an appeal, that promises a reward, that can be controlled. We unite ourselves so deeply to these things, “stones and trees,” houses and boats, food and drink, spouses and children, image and reputation. Our embrace of some created things becomes so strong and passionate, that it’s adultery.

“Put them away,” says God. “Because only once you put them away, will you be ready to return to me.” There’s not enough room in this marriage for three: God, and us, and someone else—some other god. If we have divided loyalties, God will always end up receiving less, or none at all. So put your gods away, and delight in God alone.

The second change for Judah is in verse 2. It’s best translated as another conditional sentence, like the first, “And [if] you… swear, ‘The LORD lives,’ in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness…” Jeremiah is talking about swearing here, because you tend to swear by the things that you believe in. If you make an oath, you name some higher being as your witness and your help. Well, idolatry was so engrained that the people of Judah would actually call on Baal with their oaths. They felt closer to Baal than to the LORD—probably because they could see Baal, and not the LORD.           

But how much better if they learn that it’s the LORD alone who lives, that they can swear by His true Name. How much better for us, when we remember that it’s the LORD we can call on as our help. Think back to a recent time when you were in need; maybe you were sick, or stressed, or suffering. Where did you look for help? We’re quick to look to many places for aid, but not always to God. When we’re in trouble, we call up our trusted friend, doctor, manager, or our mother. Or if we’re bothered, we might vent it on social media, or take it out on our loved ones. And only later we think of placing our lives before the LORD. But it’s his Name that should be first on our lips; it’s in Him that we can glory, because He will help us!

Jeremiah has given two examples of change. But there’s more to be done. For it’s not enough to get rid of your idols, or stop calling on Baal. If you’re going to change your life and walk with God, it has to go deeper, all the way to the heart.

No one knew this better than Jeremiah. He began prophesying during the reign of Josiah, one of the “good” kings of Judah. He tried to reform the land. Convicted by the Word of the LORD, King Josiah cleansed and repaired the temple, he broke down high places, and restored the Passover. These were good changes.

Yet when Jeremiah looks around, there was still so much fakery and facade. God declares, “Judah has not turned to me with her whole heart, but in pretense” (3:10). After all that reform, something essential was missing. The packaging was nice, but what about the inside? For proper worship, you need more than a cleaned-up temple! That splendid building was all they wanted to talk about, even as they worshipped idols. They thought Jerusalem was secure just because the temple was there and could make their offerings. But it was pretense.

It’d be kind of like us feeling holy and Reformed because we have an attractive church building, because we have a good ecclesiastical set-up with confessions and a church order. Like saying: “We have nice structure, so our hearts must be OK, too.” But external renovation is not the same as a real transformation. God wants us to know that repentance is when we are constantly moving toward holiness. Repentance is a persistent effort, where every day we are seeking to walk worthy of Christ.

So this is what God says, “Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns” (4:3). Maybe you’ve seen fallow ground before, driving in the countryside. It’s a field that has been neglected, left alone for a time, untilled and unplanted. It’s good for the land to lie fallow, but it doesn’t take long to be overgrown with weeds and grasses, and hardened by a year of rain and sun. So if you were going to farm that fallow field, you’d have to break it up. Get out the plow and turn over the soil, break up the crusty layer, and be rid of the thorns.

In Judah, many hearts were fallow and overgrown. Because they had let sin take root. They hadn’t broken up their bad habits of idolatry, or tried to chop down the weeds of corruption. For them sin had become the status quo, a continuous pattern—as it so often becomes—a life of thoughtless decisions.

Our hearts become that way too. Our hearts become fallow when there’s the same sin, repeated endlessly, done thoughtlessly, and in the end it’s left alone. Our hearts become fallow when sin is allowed to remain, when we think that a bit of swearing can’t be so serious, or a bit of overdrinking on Friday night. Is it so bad for me to pursue more wealth? If I don’t deal with this bitterness and anger or this lust, who’ll ever know? We neglect our hearts, and there’s no breaking up of that unplowed ground.

Hearts also become fallow when we neglect spiritual nurture—when we hardly pray, or read the Bible carelessly, or when we avoid Christian fellowship. Without tending, you’re left with a heart that’s lifeless and won’t yield fruit. If you’re not busy with Scripture and the other means of grace, any superficial change to your life won’t count for anything. You need to start again, and let the Word of God sink in, into every corner of the field.

Remember again what Jesus said in the parable of the sower. There He compared human hearts to four different kinds of soil. You might be like the hard soil of the path, when you let God’s Word be stolen by the devil. Or like soil full of stones, when you joyfully receive the Word, but you fail as soon as there’s a bit of distress. Maybe you’re soil that’s infested with thorns, when you’re choked by all the interesting things in this world. No, pray to God that you would be that good soil, broken up and cultivated—not crusted over with routine sin, not overrun by creeping doubts, but ready to receive God’s Word.

The same idea of heart change is in verse 4, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your hearts.” You know God’s covenant with his people used to be marked by circumcision. The foreskin was cut away, so there would be a lasting reminder in the flesh of the LORD’s bond with Israel. It was an outward act, but one with profound meaning. Blood had sealed them to God, so they were holy to Him. They had his promises, and they needed to obey his Word, even to cut away all sin from their life.

Jeremiah rebukes Judah, but not because they failed to do the external ritual—that was easy enough. But they forgot what it meant. For do you think God really cares about the outward form, done for its own sake? God is smarter than that! He sees beyond what’s on the surface, and He looks at the inner attitude. Do his people believe his Word? Are we committed to holiness? Does God’s purpose and promise reach the heart? He wants his mark of ownership to reach all the way inside. For will his people really trust his promises? Will his people really be rid of sin, cut away all filthiness?

For those living in covenant in Christ, we have a new and bloodless outward sign—holy baptism. Just like circumcision was, it’s a sign and seal of God’s promises in Christ, a witness to how much He’s done for us. And just like circumcision, baptism doesn’t let us slacken. Baptism shouldn’t give a false sense of security, where we say, “Well, I should be OK, I was baptized once. I’m still part of the church, aren’t I?” For baptism is also a reminder of our holy calling; it’s like an identity card that we carry with us, and that directs us to what we should be doing each day in Christ’s service.

If you’ve received the outward washing, now show that you’re truly washed! Getting baptized on your head must have an impact on your heart. If you’ve been baptized, God calls you to put off the old nature and its sinfulness, and to put on the new. There’s no salvation without a change of life; there’s no redemption without repentance. So standing at the crossroads, we see two possibilities: God’s fury, and his favour.


2) God’s fury and his favour: We always want to know what’s coming. It’s why we pay close attention to the weather forecast: “What’s headed our way?” Well, Judah could’ve known exactly what was coming—and it was a great storm. Not a storm of rain, but of fire. In chapter 3 Jeremiah reminds them of how the northern tribes of Israel had been taken away to Assyria. The cause wasn’t hard to see: Israel had committed adultery. After years of being patient with them, God had enough. Now Judah was doing exactly the same thing, which made the forecast unmistakable. As God says, “Break up your fallow ground…Circumcise your hearts… Lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it” (4:4).

Where was this storm system coming from? No surprise: “I will bring disaster from the north, and great destruction” (4:6). Judah lived in constant fear of Babylon to the north, and was forever trying to avoid its sharp claws. And little wonder, for this nation was most cruel. Babylon would think nothing of besieging cities for years on end, then offering mercy to none, raping the women, throwing the children onto the rocks, and forcing the men into slavery. As the prophet warns, “The destroyer of nations is on his way” (4:7).

But armies invading from the north wasn’t just the usual political maneuvering. This was God’s hand: “My fury will come like fire.” In his wrath, God will consume the wicked and all who don’t repent. Not because God is impatient, but because He is righteous. The LORD had always said this would happen, if his covenant people wouldn’t walk in his ways. They knew the forecast—only now God was giving them a chance to prepare. “Gather together… Assemble yourselves, and let us go into the fortified cities” (4:5)

There’s the sense in Jeremiah that destruction is coming. It’s actually too late, God’s hand won’t be turned back anymore. You can say the same for our world today: destruction is coming, and it can’t be avoided. God’s fury will soon burn like fire, and all things are going to be consumed. But God is gracious, so He sounds the alarm. The LORD warns his people about the looming judgment, not because He’s given up on them, but because He hasn’t!

Don’t we do the same, warning someone if they’re going in the wrong direction—maybe a child, or a friend, or a fellow church member? We warn them, and we might even have to use hard language to do so. We tell them the forecast, tell them that they’re headed for disaster. We want them to live, to escape God’s righteous fury by being hidden in Christ!

So also for the LORD when He rebukes his people through his prophet. He loves them—He loves us—and so He calls for change. The fires are surely going to come onto this world, and they will consume all that is unholy. The fires will come, but it’ll make every difference if you’re ready. You’ll be ready for God’s fires, if you’re repenting from your sins, and you’re growing in holiness. Then the fires won’t consume, but purify. If you’re in Christ, the fires won’t burn you, but refine.

No, Jeremiah might have a reputation for being grumpy, but you can see that it’s still the gospel he brings. Because God always gives the hope of restoration. It’s in verse 2 as well. If there would be true repentance in the land, Jeremiah says, “[Then] the nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him they shall glory.” Suddenly the prophet is speaking of a grander things than God’s plan for one people of the earth. We see it also in 3:17, “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the Throne of the LORD, and all nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD.” God had a great plan, to greatly increase the church, to fill his holy city not just with Jews, but those of all nations.

And notice that it all begins with repentance. It begins with a people who are ready to serve their God truly. “If you will return to me… If you will put away your idols… If you will swear, ‘The LORD lives…’” then all this shall happen: blessing for you, blessing for the nations. Only when we wholeheartedly serve the LORD will his favour rest upon us. Beloved, we simply cannot expect his blessing if we won’t walk in his ways—his blessing comes only when his Word of grace finds a home within us.

Are you wondering who can do these things? Are you wondering who can break up that hard and fallow ground, and circumcise that rebellious heart? Maybe you look at yourself, struggling with the power of sin, struggling against doubt, not thriving in your walk with Christ, not growing in faith. You can’t change yourself, can you? No, you can’t. You can’t do it by trying harder, or by working more.

But here too, our God is so gracious. There must be heart change, for the heart is desperately sick. There must be good soil, or that seed won’t take root. Yet God in his mercy brings it about. He calls his adulterous wife to return, and then He makes her return possible—makes his church a radiant bride, pure and spotless in Christ Jesus. This is what God always does: He makes possible those things that He demands. As the LORD will say in a place like Jeremiah 24:7, “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD.” A heart to know me! God can create a new heart, and open that way of return, so that we can truly know him.

And so Jeremiah too points us toward the time of Jesus Christ—to the time in which we’re so blessed to live. For our Saviour has come, and He’s died to pay for all of our sins. He has made the new covenant in his blood, and He has given us its holy signs and seals. And now our Saviour has sent us his Spirit, to dwell within us as temples of the LORD. So now, more than ever, when we hear that command of the LORD, we are ready to obey it. We are able to obey it. We want to obey it.

Pray for that Spirit to work in you. Pray for the Saviour to save you. And then listen again to Jeremiah’s call: “Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns! Return to me,” says your God, “and you shall never be moved!”  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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