To understand the book of Jeremiah and his message of judgment against Judah, there is no better place to go than Jeremiah’s famous temple sermon in chapter 7. This passage is like a one-stop shopping center for all things “Jeremiah and judgment,” so understanding what’s happening here will help you better grasp what’s going on in the rest of the book. But (spoiler alert!), this isn’t a “feel-good” kind of sermon. Rather, Jeremiah is sent into the temple courts to accuse God’s people of their false religion and idolatrous practices.
They worship God in the temple but all the while they allow the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow to suffer in their midst. There’s no justice or righteousness in the land. Judah’s corporate and covenant life is morally bankrupt and deserving of God’s judgment. To expose their vulnerability, Jeremiah preaches in the very place they think is most safe.
The Temple as a Lucky Charm
Jeremiah’s sermon is sandwiched between the fall of the Assyrian empire and the rise of the Babylonian empire. This was a politically turbulent time in Judah’s history, in which the nation grasped for any sense of security. This period birthed the popular belief that the temple itself was some sort of guarantee of God’s presence and protection as if He were bound to it despite their disobedience and corruption.
After all, they could reason, hadn’t God made a covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7 promising that his kingdom and throne would be established forever? And hadn’t they been spared the devastating fate of the northern tribes in 722 B.C.E.? Thus, the temple became a false assurance of God’s protective power. Like a good luck charm, they trusted in the temple rather than God. They felt they were untouchable (even as Babylon cast a formidable shadow over Jerusalem). They couldn’t have been more wrong. God sends Jeremiah into the temple to proclaim this message.
Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord! If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
The real issue here is that they were preoccupied with the temple rituals while giving little-to-no concern to the ethical demands of the covenant; the vulnerable: the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow were suffering in their midst. They were breaking the Ten Commandments (see Jer. 7:9) and were wrapped up in idolatry. Yet they kept going about their external worship as if God was pleased by this!
In Jeremiah’s view, nothing short of moral reformation and spiritual renewal could deliver them from the coming judgment. Persistent covenant violation would result in the outlined curses of Deuteronomy 28 — namely, exile from the land and expulsion from God’s presence. They couldn’t tie God’s hands in the matter. If the temple became a refuge to flee to so they could feel safe in their idolatry and sin (the meaning behind the phrase “den of robbers”), God would destroy it.
Jeremiah illustrates this point by reminding them of Shiloh, the first permanent place of the tabernacle less than 20 miles north of Jerusalem. It was well-known to Jeremiah’s hearers that worship at Shiloh had been shut down and overrun by the Philistines because of Israel’s chronic sin (see Ps. 78:60-64). Since God destroyed a city that housed the tabernacle and ark in the past, how could Jerusalem be so sure that it would escape the same fate? The answer is it wouldn’t. Yahweh was about to resign Jerusalem to the same fate as Shiloh.
Thou Shalt Not Pray
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “These people need all the prayer they can get!” But God gives Jeremiah a startling command in verse 16 saying,
“So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.”
The talk of intercession echoes back to the story of Moses and Israel’s golden calf incident (Exod. 32). There Moses interceded successfully for Israel after their blatant covenant-violation. But here, God is intentionally not going to allow Jeremiah to intercede for Judah. "Why" you might ask? Take a look at verses 17-18.
Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger.
The description brings to mind preparations for a wholesome family afternoon. Seems like a picturesque fall day until you realize they’re doing this to worship the queen of heaven, an astral deity the pagan nations worshiped. Idolatry had so infiltrated Judah that whole families were engaged in the cultic worship of false gods. It wasn’t only misplaced confidence in the temple on a national level, it was demonic idol worship on a familial level. Judah, like Israel, had become so thoroughly corrupt that there was nothing left for them but divine judgment.
They might as well offer their burnt offerings along with their other sacrifices and eat the meat, something forbidden in the Torah (burnt offerings were supposed to be consumed by fire, see Lev. 1:3-9), because it was all the same to God. Their sacrifices were meaningless since they didn’t trust and obey Him. Jeremiah 7:23 makes it clear that what he wanted from the covenant relationship was simple trust and obedience. The sacrifices were to be offered on the basis of faith in the God who had delivered them out of Egypt. Like a child, they were called to follow Him and listen to His words. But they didn’t. They rebelled against God in the wilderness and continued to rebel to the present-day. Despite all the warnings of the prophets, they persisted in their sin. The time had come to hand them over to their destruction, which is how Jeremiah ends his famous (and wildly unpopular) sermon.
Judgment’s Coming in the Valley of Hinnom
Judah’s social injustice and idolatry tragically intersected just outside the city walls in the valley of Ben-Hinnom. There they built a high place of Topheth, a name that emphasized the shameful nature of this site, and burned their children alive as sacrifices to please pagan gods, like Molech. Child sacrifice was explicitly forbidden in the Torah (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5). In Jeremiah’s sermon, it’s clear that God hates it; such a thing would not even enter his mind.
Jeremiah proclaims that this valley would become the ironic site of their destruction. It will be renamed the “Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room” (Jer. 7:32). When Babylon captures them, the place where they once slaughtered their children will become the place where they are slaughtered. In those days, the place will be so full of dead bodies that they will remain unburied and left as food for the scavengers, an indescribable horror for the Israelite.
With that, Jeremiah’s sermon concludes. The hearer is left with images of corpses heaped upon one another as Yahweh silences the voices of gladness in the streets of Jerusalem. The point is inescapable—all of their empty rituals will come to a halt as the city and temple they cherish so deeply is laid waste in the Babylonian captivity.
However, Jeremiah 7 isn’t the last time we hear about this particular idea in the Bible. The valley of Hinnom was translated into Aramaic as Ge-hinnom, which was later translated into the Greek Gehenna, a term you might be familiar with. It’s the New Testament’s word for hell. In the Jewish mind, Gehenna was the place of eternal punishment of the wicked. It’s actually the primary metaphor Jesus used to talk about final judgment. His understanding would have been shaped largely in part from this passage in Jeremiah “where children were burned in the terrible fires, illustrating powerfully the way in which all forms of ‘judgment’ are essentially human, making the product and consequence of evil” (Peter Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, Jeremiah 1-26).
For Jesus, hell or Gehenna is final judgment reserved for those who, like Judah, persistently reject God’s call to repentance. It’s for those seeking false security in something other than faith in God’s gracious provision so they can pursue their idols and continue in destructive ways of life.
Speaking of Jesus…
There’s another important New Testament connection with this passage you don’t want to miss. If you turn to Matthew 21, you’ll get a sense of déjà vu: Israel is back in the promised land, the temple is rebuilt, empty ritualistic worship is alive and well, and social justice is totally neglected. God’s people have placed a false sense of national security in the temple, despite being under Rome’s thumb (which is often associated with Babylon in the New Testament). The circumstances are strikingly familiar. This is Jeremiah 7 all over again!
Into this context, Jesus storms the temple courts, turning over tables and driving out money-changers. In a recapitulation of Jeremiah 7, he quotes verse 11,
“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it 'a den of robbers.'”
There wouldn’t have been an Israelite in the temple that day that missed what Jesus was saying through this symbolic reenactment—Yahweh was coming to destroy the temple as an act of judgment against Israel’s empty religious practices and covenantal unfaithfulness.
Jesus also offered an alternative message to all who were willing to listen to his words. Jesus’ own body, as the true temple of God, would be destroyed on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for rebellious covenant-breakers and raised on the third day. All who trust in him as their true source of hope, not merely a lucky charm who offers you a “get out of hell card,” are given new hearts and new lives. These new lives result in the kind of things that God had always wanted from Israel—true worship, acts of justice, and obedience to his words.
Whitney Woollard is a writer, speaker, and Bible teacher in Portland, OR. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Bible with others. You can check out her work at her website, whitneywoollard.com