Jeremiah was one of the last prophets to hold out any hope for Judah, but even that was slim. Jeremiah was not pessimistic because of hardness on the LORD’s part, he simply knew the fickleness of the people of Judah. If there were signs of repentance, there was a good chance that they were not from the heart. Jeremiah was appointed to investigate not thus the religious activities of Judah, but her character. What did the prophet discover? “All are stubborn rebels spreading slander. They are bronze and iron; all of them are corrupt” (Jer 6:28), he said. There was no true spirituality among the people.
While Jeremiah continually sounded a harsh tone, the severity of God’s discipline was not removed from the exuberance of His goodness; Judah had chosen wood and stone over the One who had delivered them from Egypt and given them an inheritance in Canaan (Jer 2:4-13; cf. Deut 4.1-8; Isa 5.1-7). If God did not react in wrath, He would forsake the glory of His goodness—which Judah could have enjoyed if they had turned from their evil ways. The prophet thus announced, “‘If you return Israel,’ this is the LORD’s declaration, “if you return to Me, if you remove your detestable idols from My presence and do not waver, if you swear, As the LORD lives, in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then the nations will be blessed by Him and will pride themselves in Him’” (Jer 4:1-2). Jeremiah’s audience did not seize their opportunity to bless the nations—and in Jesus’ day their descendants went so far as to impede the Gentiles coming to worship at the temple. Jeremiah’s sermon in Jer 7:1-11 and Jesus’ use of Jer 7:11 in Mark 11:17 (Matt 21:13//Luke 19:46) bear this out.
The hypocrisy of Jeremiah’s audience is expressed in their attitude toward the temple (Jer 7:1-11). To those who thought themselves exempt from God’s wrath because of the temple and their place in Canaan, Jeremiah said: “If you really change your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors forever and ever” (Jer 7:5-7). Because the people of Judah failed to administer justice to the needy among them—leading the prophet to address them as thieves—but walked into the temple for worship as if innocent, Jeremiah said that their pattern of life turned the temple of the LORD into a den of robbers. The greedy acts of the people of Judah done outside the walls of the temple made the temple a gathering of thieves upon their entry. Their sinful ways prevented them from being a blessing to the nations.
Though the margin of comparison is slim, the descendants of Jeremiah’s audience may be the worse off. As Jesus entered Jerusalem just days before He was crucified, He went into the temple complex and saw that the descendants of Jeremiah’s audience had taken over the court of the Gentiles and made it into a marketplace. Instead of worship, there was distraction. By acting like thieves outside of the temple, Jeremiah’s audience had missed their opportunity to be a blessing to the nations; Jesus’ audience brought their greedy practices inside, inhibiting Gentiles from seeking God. While Judah’s sin is not to be excused, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were the worse off. They not only rejected Jesus, but even set up structures that prevented the Gentiles from seeking God. Jesus’ wrath is justified. After overturning the money-changers’ tables, He quoted Jeremiah, saying: “Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you have made it ‘a den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17).