Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods that ye have not known, and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered;’ that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” saith the LORD (Jeremiah 7:8-11).
The people of Judah were about to learn the disastrous consequences of their misplaced confidence.
For generations the people of Israel had served all sorts of gods. Yes, the prophets persistently warned them against serving the gods of the nations, and to avoid their practices abhorrent to YHWH, yet they were still in the land of Israel, a Davidic king was on the throne, and in their minds, YHWH would most assuredly glorify His name against the nations. After all, in the days of Hezekiah, did YHWH not deliver Jerusalem from the hand of the king of Assyria? If YHWH protected His city, His house, and His people from the Assyrians, He would surely do the same from the Babylonians. The people of Judah looked to the existence of the Temple as their refuge and protection from danger; such was their confidence in YHWH.
The people of Judah had good reason to trust in YHWH, but they really did not trust in YHWH, for they did not pursue after Him alone. Even when they did not introduce abominations into the Temple itself, they still practiced abominations, but then expected to find refuge and forgiveness in the Temple of YHWH. Thus God sent Jeremiah to warn the people regarding the folly of their position: just because YHWH delivered Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah does not mean that He will do the same again. The people of Judah treat the Temple as thieves treat their den: they may not commit terrible sins there, but they seek refuge there from the sins they commit elsewhere, and perhaps even seek to enjoy comfort from the fruit of their iniquity there. When the place where YHWH and His name are to be glorified becomes a place where the people of God seek YHWH’s protection despite not trusting in Him alone, that place becomes a stumbling block. Within a generation the city of YHWH was cast down, His house destroyed, and His people led away to Babylon. It pained YHWH to see it, yet Israel gave Him no recourse: they abused God’s concern for them and treated it as license to continue as they always had been.
The Jews of the first century CE would learn the same lesson. As Jeremiah warned the people of Judah regarding the imminent demise of the first Temple, so Jesus warned the Jews regarding the imminent demise of the second: as He entered Jerusalem in triumph, He ritually cleansed the Temple, and in so doing declared that the people had made YHWH’s house of prayer into a den of robbers (Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46). No doubt Jesus has some concern regarding how the money-changers exploited the people and how such profiteering in the Temple did make it an actual den of robbers. Yet Jesus’ allusion to Jeremiah’s words would not have been lost on the Temple authorities, the Sadducees and chief priests, who perceived Jesus’ threat to the entire Temple establishment and thus their center of power, and they proved pivotal in engineering the conspiracy which led to Jesus’ death (cf. Luke 19:47-48). Nevertheless, Jesus’ witness was appropriate: many of the Jews had seen how their ancestors had overthrown the rule of the pagan Seleucids and were convinced that they could do the same against the Romans. Their confidence remained in the Temple and how YHWH would not allow the pagan Romans to overthrow that Temple. Yet in the process they rejected Jesus their Messiah and followed after those who taught lies, and within a generation of Jesus’ death Jerusalem was again destroyed and the Temple razed to the ground, never to be built again.
The logic used by the people of Israel is always tempting: YHWH is our God, YHWH is forgiving, YHWH will get glory over His enemies, so YHWH will protect His people no matter what. It is true that YHWH is God, that YHWH loves His people, and always proves faithful (cf. Romans 8:1-39), but YHWH is also holy, righteous, just, and does not provide cover for persistent sin (Hebrews 10:26-31, 1 Peter 1:16-17)! God’s judgment begins with His own household (1 Peter 4:17-19), and we do well to learn that lesson.
There is no longer a physical Temple, but God’s presence remains among His people, individually and collectively, through the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). How shall we treat the place where God maintains His presence? God expects the body and the church to be holy places, used in sanctification for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Ephesians 4:11-16, 5:23-33). Yet we are tempted to turn them into dens of robbers, a place where we seek refuge from the consequences of our sinful behavior without any real intent to reform or change. We must not be deceived, for God sees all. If we treat the body or the church as a den of robbers, God knows it, even if we deceive other Christians or, God forbid, other Christians participate in the same forms of darkness with us. Retribution may not be immediate, but retribution will come, and it will be swift and severe.
The Israelites persistently trusted more in God’s willingness to overlook their faults so as to uphold His name and His glory than to actually repent and reform themselves, and for it they twice watched all they held holy and sacred defamed, defiled, and destroyed. We do well to learn from them and turn aside from such folly. Let us not consider our bodies or the church as a den of robbers, seeking refuge from the consequences of sinful behavior without needing repentance, but instead turn and be holy as God is holy to His glory and honor forevermore!
Ethan R. Longhenry