Jeremiah 10:2-3. “Do not learn the ways of the nations . . . For the customs of the peoples are worthless;”
Exegesis and Application
In this passage Jeremiah is speaking to the church in Israel and he is telling them not to be influenced by the religious “ways” and “customs” of their Babylonian neighbors.
The focus here is on religious observances and laws and not cultural practices. While we know that religious convictions result in cultural and political policy, Jeremiah in this chapter is specifically addressing the spiritual life of idol worship. This is a fine balance to be struck by the followers of Yahweh because in chapter 29 the great prophet tells the same audience to, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” So the Israelites are to peacefully and productively live among the Babylonians, all the while praying for Babylonian prosperity and peace. It has been pointed out that this is the only place in the Old Testament where God’s people are enjoined to pray for unbelievers and enemies. At the same time, they are to keep themselves spiritually separate from the reigning religious culture which dictates the direction of the society. The LORD is requiring His people to live smartly and skillfully among enemies of His. Sounds like Paul in Romans 12:2.
In a very interesting and precautionary verse for the Old Testament believer, the prophet Hosea 9:10 warns that idol worshippers will become like the idols they worship: “They consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.” What irony! We make the idol to our specifications with our hands and then we become like the thing we made. Hosea was warning Israel 150 years before Jeremiah, before the Babylonian captivity, to eschew idols lest they become like them. Indeed, in Zephaniah 1:12 (a Judean contemporary of Jeremiah’s) we see the same charge leveled against Yahweh as is leveled against the idols here: “the complacent . . . think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’” Jeremiah, now captive in Babylon, is repeating the warning.
The Hebrew word for “way” is “derek” and has no inherent religious meaning but rather is defined by its context. The word means “treading,” “walking,” or “a way of conduct or living.” The “learning” is not an intellectual exercise of understanding our culture, which we all must engage in, but rather the accustoming oneself by practice, emulation, discipleship, and even addiction to the cultural pieties (Hebrew: “lomad”). Don’t play with spiritual fire lest you become the fire itself! The other important word in this verse is “customs” which is “huqqot” in the Hebrew. Interestingly, this word can also be translated “law” or “statute” or “ordinance,” clearly giving the Old Testament transition from customs to written laws. There are some scholars which translate this Hebrew word to mean “fear,” thus reflecting back on the “terror” caused by natural phenomena (“signs in the sky”). Moses gives the same warning to the children of God hundreds of years earlier in another context concerning other countries and their religious cultures. Apostasy and spiritual accommodation has always been an issue for God’s people. Finally, the word “worthless” is “hebel” which can be translated also as “wind,” “emptiness,” “delusion,” “meaningless,” as in Ecclesiastes, “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher.” (1:2) Jeremiah is telling the people of God that the religion of the surrounding culture is delusional based on false premises, foolishness and empty of content. The culture is right to be mystified and terrified by what it sees for it has no true answers to life.
Christian journalist, you live in a non-Christian nation and probably work in a non-Christian workplace, so Jeremiah’s words are for you. Guard your heart and mind as you thread your way through your environment. What frightens your colleagues ought not to necessarily frighten you. Your workplace neighbors may have no satisfying answers to what is going on around them but you have faith in one who does have answers. Ultimately, the structures our culture sets up to solve their problems and to enable them to live according to its value system will fail and not provide the protection it so desires.