We must not turn back to our old ways:
OK, not the most appealing title one can use to start an article with. But let me explain by way of some examples. Let me mention a few things one will find on various reality television shows. Many have to do with experts coming in and helping people who have really big problems, whether in running a business or what have you.
Usually the expert coming in to save the day will employ a tough love approach, and often very good outcomes indeed occur. I have written on this at various times, such as here: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/23/in-praise-of-tough-love/
Two such reality shows can be singled out here. One has to do with really problematic hoarders who most certainly need massive help. The other is the various shows about helping struggling restaurateurs. Some expert chef will come along to help in a restaurant rescue or makeover.
In both of these sorts of shows – and likely others – there will often be a report at the end about how things are doing further down the track after all the help was given. After getting so much expert advice, counsel and assistance, have they turned the corner and are they doing well? Usually that is the case. Good news.
But sometimes we hear that the hoarder or restaurant owner has gone back to his old ways. For example, the restaurant owner or manager will restore the old failed menu, or the old failed décor, or their old bad habits of how staff and customers are treated. All the hard work that was done seems to have been in vain. The person cannot break free of the old bondage and heads right back to it like a dog returning to its vomit.
Both dog owners and Christians at least should be familiar with what is being said here. We do know that dogs sometimes do this, and the Bible refers to it more than once. As Proverbs 26:11 says: “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.” And this is partially quoted in 2 Peter 2. The whole chapter is about false prophets and teachers and in verses 17-22 we read this:
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
I am writing this piece because in my morning reading I came upon a clear example of this. In Jeremiah 34:8-16 we find these words:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them, that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother. And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that everyone would set free his slave, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again. They obeyed and set them free. But afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.’ But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.
Here the Israelites did what was right – at first. But then they went right back to their old sinful ways. The background for this is the set of commands given in passages such as Exodus 21:1-6, Deuteronomy 15:12-18, and Leviticus 25:39-46.
These texts show that because Israel itself was once a slave in Egypt, it must show compassion to those who sell themselves into indentured servitude to pay off debts. So after 6 years a Sabbath Year of release is to be held, and after 49 years a Year of Jubilee is to be recognised, granting the captives their freedom.
It is not clear why King Zedekiah did the initial release, but it may have been to get the Babylonians off his back by temporarily obeying God. But the renewed disobedience brought the Babylonians back anyway (verses 21-22). In contrast to this disobedience is the obedience of the Rechabites recorded in the next chapter. Michael Brown says this about the situation:
No reason is offered for the king’s actions, but given his track record it is not unreasonable to think that he does this for utilitarian purposes, as he and the people are either hoping to receive favor from the Lord, wanting to have more fighting forces available, or simply not wanting to have the burden of feeding these slaves when they are no longer able to work the fields outside the city.
The helpful comments of J. Andrew Dearman can also be offered here:
Jeremiah 34 … raises the issue of crisis conversions or what some people call “deathbed confessions.” Desperate circumstances can lead to desperate measures. As noted, the emancipation of the slaves during Zedekiah’s reign was apparently prompted by the harsh circumstances of the Babylonian siege. Apparently the obligations the owners had to their slaves were not carried out fairly in the past (34:13–15), so why enact a covenant ceremony now? It is hard to escape the conclusion that the ceremony was one of desperation, carried out because of the grim circumstances of the city. Was this inherently wrong? Nothing in the text indicates that the ceremony itself was wrong; if anything, the text implies that the emancipation was long overdue (cf. 34:15). The point seems to be that there really was no conversion, only desperation.
The covenant God granted Israel at Mount Sinai obligated the people to certain norms of behavior toward God and one another. Obedience, however, was not only an act but also a matter of the heart (and soul). Neither an individual nor a group honors God solely with outward obedience, although obedience is a key indicator of a person or group’s true allegiance.
And Philip Graham Ryken says this about how relevant all this is to our own situation:
This is how many ungodly people behave in life-or-death situations. In desperation they may cry out to God to save them. They pledge to give him their undying devotion if he will only deliver them this once. But when God answers their prayers, they go right back into their former way of life. How many people in the hospital are scared enough to call for a minister but not sorry enough to call for a Savior? Anyone who has ever promised to give his or her whole life to Christ must be sure to live up to that promise.
Yes quite right. A passage like this must not be allowed to fly over our heads. We each need to ask if our faith is one that is there just to get us out of a bind, or one that says Christ is worthy and deserves my all, for all time – and not just when a crisis arises.
Serious thoughts here. Let us not be like the dog that returns to its vomit.