Difficult Bible Passages: Jeremiah 7:31

Does God not know certain things?

The verse I am examining today is once again not necessarily difficult, but it does raise a few questions – important questions. These questions have to do with issues such as: how much does God know? Most Christians will reply, ‘God knows everything of course.’ And I would concur.

But there are some passages which on the face of it seem to suggest that he might be lacking in knowledge in certain areas. This passage from Jeremiah 7:31 is a case in point: “And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”

Two other times in this book we find quite similar things:

Jer. 19:4-6 Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.

Jer. 32:34-35 They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

In all three cases some readers might be asking: Was the horrible reality of child sacrifice that God’s own people were even involved in something outside of God’s knowledge? Is the idea of divine omniscience not correct after all? Let me deal with those matters here.

First, let me mention that related to this is the issue of whether God has full and complete foreknowledge. Some minority theological positions have tried to argue that he does not. I recently dealt with this subject here: billmuehlenberg.com/2022/01/05/what-does-god-know/

In that article I sided with classical theism over against what is known as Openness Theism or Freewill Theism. These folks argue that God does not have knowledge of the future, and he does not have full knowledge of all events. And they take a passage like Jer. 31:7 to make their case.

But are they right? Let me point out that we have a few other similar texts in Jeremiah that might be something the openness theologians can appeal to. These include:

Jer. 3:7 And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.

Jer. 36:3, 7 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin. . . . It may be that their plea for mercy will come before the Lord, and that every one will turn from his evil way, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.

Do these sorts of passages mean that God really does not or did not know? Before I deal with the claims of the openness theologians, let me say one important thing: Whatever we make of the issue of God’s knowledge, we must not let that debate detract from what is being said in this passage.

The very thought of child sacrifice is absolutely loathsome. Whether it was burning children alive to some pagan god back then, or killing them in the mother’s womb today in the name of the ‘right to choose,’ it is completely abhorrent. And that is my take on this text: it is such a horrible and demonic sin that God had to use anthropological language to express his utter outrage over it.

Returning to our passage then, it is clear from the rest of Scripture that God was fully aware of child sacrifice and he had condemned it repeatedly. Here are some of the main passages on this:

Leviticus 18:21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

Deuteronomy 12:31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

Deuteronomy 18:10a There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering.

Ezekiel 20:31 When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.

Ezekiel 23:36-39 The Lord said to me: “Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Declare to them their abominations. For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. Moreover, this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my Sabbaths. For when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it. And behold, this is what they did in my house.”

So these things most certainly had entered God’s mind. To talk of it ‘not entering my mind’ is a figure of speech to indicate just how repulsed God is by all this. As Michael L. Brown put it in his 2010 commentary on Jeremiah: “How could such a thing be? God never commanded it, nor did such a thought ever cross his mind, meaning he never intended that people commit such abominable acts, rather than meaning he never conceived of the possibility that people would be capable of such evil.”

Image of Jeremiah, Lamentations (The Expositor's Bible Commentary)
Jeremiah, Lamentations (The Expositor's Bible Commentary) by Brown, PhD , Michael L. (Author), Ferris, Paul W. (Author) Amazon logo

Brown also has a four-page excursus on “Open Theism and Jeremiah’s View of the Foreknowledge of God.” In it he looks at verses that the open theists use to ‘prove’ limitations on God’s knowledge. These include verses that speak about divine disappointment or seem to speak about divine ignorance. He says this in part:

First, greater weight must be given to biblical statements that describe God’s essential nature and that boast of his omniscience (in particular, his knowledge of future events, as in Isa. 44:28-45:1; 46:9-11) than to “experiential” verses such as Genesis 22:12b….

 

Second, and conversely, the very language used in the many passages marshaled by open theists indicates that in a real way God experiences not only pain and joy but also hope and disappointment. In a real sense, his heart aches (cf. already Ge. 6:6), and he grieves over the destruction of his people….

 

The divine shock [of Jer. 7:31] is genuine, but not because of the “surprise element” as much as because of the horrific nature of the sins committed….

 

I suggest that the best way to balance the whole of the scriptural witness, neither negating God’s complete omniscience nor downplaying his “emotional” involvement with this world, is to recognize that God is able to enter into our situation and actually experience it as though he didn’t know the future. Thus his invitations, appeals, and entreaties are real, even if he knows his people will fail in the future, and his grief and even “disappointment” are real, despite his foreknowledge.

Quite right. And we get this same double-edged truth early on in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet is told two different things that may seem to be contradictory but are not. First, he is told to go preach to the people, urging their repentance in the face of coming judgment. Second, God tells him that the people will NOT listen! Yet he is to go and proclaim God’s word to them nonetheless.

God knew all about the diabolical horror of child sacrifice. Yet it was still shocking to him that his own people were involved in it. And as mentioned, it is the same today. The slaughter of millions of unborn children – even by ‘Christian’ parents – is no less reprehensible and evil. It too must be repented of and turned away from, and it too is something that God has not commanded, nor has it entered his mind.

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10 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Jeremiah 7:31”

  1. God’s disappointment and grief is so at a peak I’m sure with what is happening now days. Though He has full knowledge before and during these dark times. Our horror of children being murdered; sacrificed (yes it still happens today as in OT times). Abortion and parts of babies in vaccinations & the mandatory vaccinations of now 5-12 years old. Must be absolutely tearing at God. Yet He and He alone will judge those who do these abominations. MATT.18:6: But whoever causes one of these little ones to sin it would be better if a millstone was fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the sea.
    Jesus I believe is talking about those who deliberately do this evil for their own gain. Those who deliberately expect innocent children to do what they want. Whether it’s for lust, greed or power. Not for those being coerced by threatening behaviour of others but those who do so by choice for their own gain.

  2. It’s not just the ancients who practiced child sacrifice. Whether: ancient Israelites; pre, or post European Australians; even ‘Christians’; none are guiltless here.

    The motive remains the same – seeking a better life. Ancient Israel sanitised it as worship of Molech; early Australians saw it as essential for survival in a harsh nomadic environment of scarce food; current Australians call it “reproductive health”, AKA abortion).

    Interestingly current Australian child sacrifice rates is about the same as the pre-European child sacrifice rate: about 30% of pregnancies/births. Early Australians often saw the unwanted products of conception, post birth, as a good source of food. Current Australians often see it as medical waste or raw material for experimentation.

    God sees. How long will he tolerate this on our watch?

  3. We also have the fact that Satan “fathered” both deceit and murder (John 8:44) and also God saying He repented of making man (Gen 6:7).

    Clearly we have to take God at His Word but He does not say at which time the thought had not entered His mind. Clearly as soon as anyone thought of the idea we know God knew about it but is God saying that immediately prior to an entity thinking something God had not considered the possibility or is God saying that prior to this creation He did not think people would be as evil as they are. The scripture in Gen 6:7 suggests it was prior to this creation that the evil men would do had not entered God’s mind.

  4. Thanks Michael. That verse is another one that the openness theists latch onto. What I said in this article applies to this one as well, so in one sense I have already dealt with it. But a few more things can be said.

    -It is not just a case of “taking God at his word” – it is rather a case of learning how to properly interpret his word, including the role that various figures of speech and rhetorical devices so often play in Scripture.

    -Even IF we actually think God did not know, we have to step back and first look at bigger, important questions, such as God’s relationship to time. Assuming he created it like he did space, God has a different relation to time than we do. So it is fully possible to speak of God being outside of time, or being in an eternal now, or some such thing. So God is NOT unaware of the future, since God transcends talk of past, present, and future. It is we humans who live in a succession of moments. How an eternal God can relate to and interact with time-bound humans is another one of those mysteries we will not fully understand this side of eternity. So these sorts of issues also need to be taken into account and carefully thought through.

    -Relying on versions such as the KJV is not too helpful here. Other versions rightly translate the term in question in more clear ways, eg.: God grieved over this, or God regretted this, or God was sorry that he made man, etc. God has nothing to repent of, of course, so the old KJV English can be rather confusing here.

  5. Interesting discussion Bill.
    I was just thinking similar thoughts when reading Genesis 22 recently, and the account of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

    GOD says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy.” …. “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son..”

    Is GOD saying he NOW knows that Abraham fears GOD, and that He did NOT have that knowledge before Abraham went to sacrifice his son?

    Love your discussion website. Blessings to you.

  6. Rereading the passage, I have just realized it was “The angel of the LORD” who said he “NOW knew etc”. Not GOD Himself. So my contribution is invalid.
    May as well delete my input. thanks.

  7. Thanks Phil. But given that sometimes in the Old Testament the angel of the Lord seems to be equated with God, there is no prob here. Either it was God himself or God working via the angel. As to the verse in question, it is another one that the openness theists pounce upon as a gotcha verse: ‘See, God does not know!’ But my reply (and that of all classical theists) to them is the same as what I said in the article. Of course God knew the outcome of this. It is best to see this phrase as not being for God’s benefit, but for Abraham’s benefit. Abe needed further divine affirmation given the vital task that he was given by God, going back to Genesis 12.

  8. As a child in groups we would sometimes limbo the phrase said was “how low can you go”. I look at society and every time I think we’ve gone as low as we can we find more room beneath us.

    The perversions man does God did not ordain and it would never have entered his mind to ordain them. Once you remove from society what is TRUE all that is left is what is FALSE. When black and white don’t exist all you have are thousands of shades of grey.

    Society seems to get used to the filth it is rolling in and then go looking for a even filthier mire to roll in. (what is shocking enough to be a mire in one generation or even one decade is no longer dirty but the new clean so something else to make people messy must be found. Instead of greener pastures society finds browner muddier ones.) Sometimes I think we are in mires even pigs wouldn’t lower themselves to roll in!

  9. Thanks for this article, Bill. “Open theism” is self-refuting: in order to prove that God’s knowledge is limited, “open theologians” must have limitless knowledge. These people assume the attribute of divine omniscience by the very act of denying it. Or perhaps they’re so open-minded, their brains have fallen out…!

  10. Hi Bill,

    The part “though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind” from Jer. 32:34-35 is interesting.

    I agree that ‘not entering my mind’ is a figure of speech. It is equivalent to saying something like ‘this was not my idea’.

    ‘I did not command them’ is simple enough, except it may be a difficult text for those with Reformed Theology, since they believe everything that happens is decreed.

    kind regards,
    Kyle

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