Saturday, January 26, 2008

They Shall Say No More, The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord

In those days, saith the LORD, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the LORD: neither shall it come to mind: neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more.
--Jeremiah 3:16

This, to my mind, is a most startling verse.

Maybe not so startling, if we do not consider it in historical context. Because, of course, nowadays nobody -- neither Christian nor Jew -- focuses much cultic attention on the ark of the covenant. We do not speak of it, we do not remember it, we certainly do not visit it. This prophesy has come so literally true in our time, it is tempting to give it not a second thought.

But first consider the textual context. The first half of this chapter (vss. 1-13) is spent denouncing idolatry. The northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah are each singled out and condemned separately (vs. 8). In condemning the idolatry of Israel, Jeremiah invokes the usual scenes and props of pagan worship (e.g., "she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot," vs. 6; "she ... committed adultery with stones and with stocks," vs. 9). But the condemnation of Judah's idolatry is a bit more subtle: "Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the LORD" (vs. 10).

In other words, Judah's idolatry consists in maintaining the forms of true devotion, but without the substance, without truly turning one's whole heart to God.

So now, reconsider this statement that "in those days ... they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the LORD." One of the main reasons the northern kingdom turned to pagan idolatry was because the cultic center of the worship of the true God was at the temple in Jerusalem, with the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. With the split between the two kingdoms, the north set up rival cults to strengthen its political independence from Judah. The southern kingdom, on the other hand, had a vested interest in encouraging the temple cult. They had, let us say, less than pure political motives for maintaining the cult of Jahweh. And that cult had -- despite its purity of form -- become idolatrous. Judah is described repeatedly here as "treacherous Judah," as "playing the harlot" (vss. 7, 8, 10, & 11).

Jeremiah's statement about the ark of the covenant may be something like Isaiah's denunciations: "Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting" (Isaiah 1:13). But it is still startling, set in the context of denunciations of pagan idolatry "upon every high mountain and under every green tree." One would think that the normal response to such idolatry would be to reinforce the true worship, centered as it was in the temple, around the ark, the symbol of God's holy covenant with Israel.

But the way Jeremiah speaks of the ark is almost suggestive of an idolatrous cult focussed on the ark itself. The negatives projected into the messianic future -- "they shall say no more... neither shall it come to mind... neither remember... neither visit" -- suggest a common obsession with the ark in his own time, an obsession in which people speak of the ark, think of it, remember it, visit it. "Neither shall that be done any more," says Jeremiah.

Is it possible that we who live still in a pre-messianic time have our own cultic, idolatrous obsessions, forms of true worship that have become idolatrous because our hearts are not in the right place?


Maraiya said...

I realize that this is an old post and you may never see this comment but this post has been rolling around and around in my head. First of all, I love your blog. I think you are a fabulous human being and I enjoy so much your perspective and your sensitivity.

That said, I think LDS culture is incredibly given to idolatrous worship. I find myself guilty of it from time to time. It so easy to get caught up in the appearances - regular attendance, sacrament taking, accepting callings, temple worship, etc, - that I think many do it by rote or because it is expected of them by their families. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that each of the aspects of worship are only meant to deepen our relationship with and understanding of Jesus and our Heavenly Father.

Just my two cents.

J G-W said...

Maraiya -- thanks! I receive automated notices when folks post, so I see even the comments on old posts.

All worship can become idolatrous. I think it is in the nature of the world. We want control, we want predictability.

For me, idolatry is what happens the moment we stop listening to the living God, the living Spirit.