“Thus says the Lord: stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” – Jeremiah, the prophet
While it seems that “successful” churches are those who are finding the next new thing to attract people to their events, such chasing after relevance according to the standards of the world has never been in the hearts or on the minds of those who truly know their God. Perhaps the chasing of the religious tail so common in modern church franchises is evidence of our common lack of intimacy with our God.
Jeremiah is speaking to a people who were living from divided hearts. Judah at that time was characterized by a people who for the most part gave only lip service to their God. Many had rejected the worship of the true God and had embraced idol worship. Their leaders looked to the world for their security and solutions and ignored their God.
This was an era of selfishness, disobedience, idolatry, worldliness and self-reliance, covered over by a thin veneer of religiosity. To this rebellion and religiosity Jeremiah is offering an alternative he identifies as the “ancient paths.” He states that it is on these ancient paths that the soul-level rest for which the people sought would be found.
What are the ancient paths of which Jeremiah is speaking? The paths to which Jeremiah is referring are the eternal paths in both antiquity and futurity. The Hebrew word “ancient” means literally eternal or perpetual. Certainly, the paths on which we find rest for our souls have never changed throughout our God’s dealings with humanity.
God demonstrated what the ancient paths were in the Garden of Eden. Instead of having to work and strive after God, humans simply had to walk with Him. We see this in the first couple before sin enters the world. We see it after the fall as well. After being banished from the rest of the race for killing Abel, Cain’s lament is that he would no longer be able to see his God face to face. Later we encounter Enoch, who walked with God so closely he did not see death but was taken directly. These were people accustomed to walking the ancient, eternal path of intimacy with their God.
There were other people who demonstrated walking in the ancient paths. Abraham learned to walk along these ancient paths, becoming so completely tuned in to his God that he spoke with Him face to face. Joseph, Joshua, and Caleb were those whose walk with their God distinguished them as intimate friends and confidants of the Almighty.
David in his early life, also learned to walk this intimate path of communion. We see this clearly in many of his psalms. And Simeon who blessed Jesus as an infant, was known as one on whom the Spirit of God rested, a highly unusual relationship in the Old Covenant era.
It is the life of intimacy with Himself to which our God had invited the people when they first came to the Mountain of God in the wilderness. Twice He invited them all to the mountain to meet Him face-to-face and be joined into a covenant of intimacy with Him. Twice their response was to turn away from their God in fear. The Lord intended to make a covenant of intimacy with all the people. They chose to live at a distance from their God. The relationship Moses had with the Lord put the people into a state of awe. Yet that is the very relationship He wanted with all of them.
Rebellion and running from their God was the course the people chose. Therefore instead of the covenant of intimacy God intended for them, He had to make a covenant of laws with them. He offered them a life path of freedom, intimacy, and glory. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” Instead of freedom, they entered into a life of restriction and defeat.
Thus, the Lord said to them through Jeremiah (18:15), “But my people are not so reliable, for they have deserted me; they burn incense to worthless idols. They have stumbled off the ancient highways and walk in muddy paths.”
Centuries ago, the people of God stumbled off the ancient paths to walk in muddy paths. I fear that in our efforts to help our God be more acceptable to the masses, we have done the same. In today’s Christian franchise religion, we have tried to lighten the religious load and make our God more hip for cooler times. Now, we need only give our God a small portion of our time and effort, just enough to look both cool and religious. We have made commitment to Christ a matter of convenience and our own entertainment, not full surrender. We are helping no one by this, including ourselves.
For most of our converts and adherents, the ancient paths of intimacy with our God and full surrender to Him are strange paths indeed. We are unreliable as well. We have stumbled into the muddy paths.