Chapter Four

Guard Against a Treacherous Heart

SUPPOSE that early one morning while still in bed, you felt an acute pain in the middle of your chest and had shortness of breath. You might wonder, ‘Could it be a heart attack?’ Just denying the problem would not help. Immediate action would be in order. So you might call for an ambulance in order to get expert medical care. A physician might carefully examine you, perhaps employing an electrocardiogram. Prompt diagnosis and treatment could mean the difference between life and death.

2 How about our figurative heart? It may not be easy to know its real condition. Why? We read in the Bible: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9) So our heart can deceive us, leading us to believe that no real spiritual problem exists, while others may see warning signs and be concerned. Why might we be deceived? Well, our sinful inclinations may work against us, as Satan and this system of things mask our real situation. As for examining our heart, we can learn from Jeremiah and the people of Judah in his day.

3 The majority of the Judeans had shown that their hearts were spiritually defective. They left the only true God for Canaanite gods, feeling no qualms of conscience. Jehovah challenged those worshippers: “Where are your gods that you have made for yourself? Let them rise up if they can save you in the time of your calamity. For as the number of your cities your gods have become.” (Jer. 2:28) In our case, we certainly do not think of ourselves as worshippers of idol gods. However, under the heading “god,” one dictionary says: “A person or thing of supreme value.” Many people in the world place first in life their career, health, family, and even pets. Others consider sports, celebrities, technology, travel, or their traditions to be of supreme value. Many pursue such things at the cost of their relationship with the Creator. Could true Christians be affected, even as were people of Judah in Jeremiah’s day?

TREACHEROUS HEARTS CAN DECEIVE

4 You will likely find interesting the context of Jeremiah’s statement describing the heart as desperate. He realized that people were saying: “Where is the word of Jehovah? Let it come in, please.” (Jer. 17:15) But were they sincere? Well, that chapter of Jeremiah opens this way: “The sin of Judah is written down with an iron stylus. With a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their heart.” A key problem was that those Judeans were ‘putting their trust in earthling man, making flesh their arm, and turning their heart away from Jehovah.’ That was in contrast to the minority, who trusted in God, looking to him for guidance and blessings.—Jer. 17:1, 5, 7.

5 The hearts of the majority were revealed in their reaction to what God said. (Read Jeremiah 17:21, 22.) For example, the Sabbath was to be a rest from regular labor and an opportunity to share in spiritual activities. Jeremiah’s countrymen were not to conduct business or run errands on the Sabbath. But their response revealed the condition of their heart. “They did not listen or incline their ear, and they proceeded to harden their neck in order not to hear and in order to receive no discipline.” Although they knew God’s law, they had their own view—they had things to do on the Sabbath.—Jer. 17:23; Isa. 58:13.

6 Today, we are not under Sabbath law. Yet, there is a warning lesson in the way those people reacted, showing their heart condition. (Col. 2:16) In order to do God’s will, we have put aside our selfish or mundane pursuits. We realize how foolish it would be to choose for ourselves a convenient way to please God. And we have likely come to know many who have concentrated on doing God’s will and have indeed found that to be refreshing, restful. Hence, how might we be misled?

Has your heart deceived you into missing meetings?

7 A Christian might mistakenly think that his heart could never deceive him, as happened to many in Jeremiah’s day. For example, a man might reason, ‘I have to hold down a job to support my family,’ which is understandable. What if that led him to think, ‘I need more education to secure or hold a decent job’? That too might seem logical, leading him to conclude, ‘Times have changed, and to survive today you need to get a college or university education to hold on to your job.’ How easily one might start to minimize the wise, balanced advice from the faithful and discreet slave class about additional education and start to miss meetings! In this area, some have gradually been molded by the world’s reasonings and views. (Eph. 2:2, 3) The Bible aptly warns us: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”—Rom. 12:2, Phillips.*

8 Granted, some Christians in the first century had riches and perhaps a bit of prominence in the world. That is true of some Christians in our time too. How should they feel about their accomplishments, and how should we view such ones? Jehovah provided the answer through Jeremiah. (Read Jeremiah 9:23, 24.) Rather than bragging about human accomplishments, a person is wise to acknowledge that knowing the Universal Sovereign is of chief value. (1 Cor. 1:31) What, though, does it mean to have insight and knowledge of Jehovah? Well, the people of Jeremiah’s day knew God’s name. They were also aware of what he did in saving their ancestors at the Red Sea, during the entry into the Promised Land, in the times of the Judges, and during the reigns of faithful kings. Nevertheless, they did not really know Jehovah or exercise genuine faith in him. Yet, they said: “I have remained innocent. Surely [God’s] anger has turned back from me.”—Jer. 2:35.

Why is it important to recognize that our heart is treacherous? How can we examine our heart and learn how the Great Examiner of hearts might view us?

THE WAY JEHOVAH MOLDS US

Are you letting Jehovah mold you?

9 The Jews to whom Jeremiah delivered God’s message needed a change of heart. That was possible because God said of those who would return from exile: “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am Jehovah; and they must become my people, and I myself shall become their God, for they will return to me.” (Jer. 24:7) A similar change is possible today too. Moreover, most of us can improve the condition of our spiritual heart. Three things are vital: serious personal study of God’s Word, insight into how God works in our own life, and application of what we have learned about him. Unlike those in Jeremiah’s day, we should want to have our heart inspected by the Great Examiner of hearts. And we can examine our own heart in the light of the Bible as well as by noting how Jehovah has acted in our behalf. (Ps. 17:3) How wise it is to do so!

10 Satan wants to shape people by squeezing them all into a certain mold, but molding by God takes individuals into account. We see this illustrated in Jeremiah’s experience. One day, God told him to go to the house of a potter. The potter was working at his wheel, but when the vessel he was forming was spoiled, he simply molded the still-moist clay into a different vessel. (Read Jeremiah 18:1-4.) Why was Jeremiah directed to watch this, and what can we learn from his experience?

11 Jehovah wanted to show Jeremiah and Israel that He has authority to shape peoples and nations into what He wants. How does God handle the clay? Unlike human potters, Jehovah does not make mistakes; nor does he destroy the works of his hand on a whim. How people respond to being molded by Jehovah determines what he does with them.—Read Jeremiah 18:6-10.

12 How, then, does Jehovah mold individuals? Foremost today, he uses the Bible. As a person reads and responds to God’s Word, he reveals what kind of person he is, and God can mold him. Let us now consider the example of King Jehoiakim to see how people in Jeremiah’s day might have been molded in matters of daily life. The Law decreed that one “must not defraud a hired laborer,” yet the king did just that, exploiting fellow Israelites by using them as a source of cheap labor to build “a roomy house.” (Deut. 24:14; Jer. 22:13, 14, 17) God tried to mold Jehoiakim by means of His word delivered by the prophets. Yet, the king followed the inclination of his treacherous heart. He said, “I shall not obey” and held to the way he had taken from his youth on. Thus, God said: “With the burial of a he-ass [Jehoiakim] will be buried, with a dragging about and a throwing away.” (Jer. 22:19, 21) How foolish it would be for us to respond: ‘That is just how I am’! Today, God is not sending prophets like Jeremiah, but He does offer guidance. The faithful and discreet slave class helps us to see and apply Bible principles. These may touch aspects of daily life, such as our dress and grooming or the music and dancing linked to a wedding or to another social event. Will we allow ourselves to be molded by God’s Word?

13 Consider another example. The Babylonians put Zedekiah on the throne of Judah as a vassal king. Then, contrary to God’s advice through Jeremiah, Zedekiah rebelled. (Jer. 27:8, 12) So the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem. The king and his princes felt that they should do something to comply with the Law to gain God’s favor. Aware that Hebrew slaves were to be released in the seventh year of their bondage, Zedekiah concluded a covenant to liberate such slaves. (Ex. 21:2; Jer. 34:14) Yes, with Jerusalem surrounded by enemies, it suddenly seemed advisable for the people to free their slaves!—Read Jeremiah 34:8-10.

14 Later, an Egyptian military force came to Jerusalem’s aid, causing the Babylonians to lift the siege. (Jer. 37:5) What would those who had freed their slaves do? They forced back into servitude those whom they had emancipated. (Jer. 34:11) The point is that when they were in danger, the Jews seemed to observe divine statutes, as if that could offset their former conduct. But when the danger subsided, they went back to their old ways. Despite their pretense of accepting the spirit of the Law, their later actions revealed that at heart they did not want to comply with direction found in God’s Word and be molded by it.

What practical lesson can you take away from what Jeremiah wrote about a potter? How does Jehovah mold us today?

ACCEPT MOLDING BY JEHOVAH

15 With the help of Jehovah’s worldwide congregation, we may become aware of Bible principles that deal with a specific course. For instance, we might know how we ought to respond if a brother seems to rub us the wrong way. (Eph. 4:32) We might admit that the Bible’s counsel is right and wise. Yet, what kind of clay will we prove to be? Will we really respond to being molded by Jehovah? If our heart is malleable, we will change for the better; the Great Potter will mold us into a vessel more suitable for his use. (Read Romans 9:20, 21; 2 Timothy 2:20, 21.) Rather than show a heart attitude like that of Jehoiakim or the slave owners in Zedekiah’s day, we should accept being molded by Jehovah for an honorable purpose.

16 Even Jeremiah was molded by God. What was the prophet’s attitude? You can tell from his admission: “It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.” He then pleaded: “Correct me, O Jehovah.” (Jer. 10:23, 24) Young ones, will you imitate Jeremiah? You likely have many decisions ahead of you. Some youths want to ‘direct their own step.’ Will you look to God for guidance when making decisions? Will you, like Jeremiah, humbly admit that humans have proved incapable of directing their own steps? Remember: If you seek God’s direction, he will mold you.

17 Jeremiah’s assignment involved obedience to God’s direction. If you had been Jeremiah, would you have accepted any such instructions given? At one point, Jehovah told Jeremiah to get a linen belt and wear it. Next, God commanded him to travel to the Euphrates. Consult a map, and you will see that this meant a trip of some 300 miles [500 km]. Once there, Jeremiah was to hide the belt in the cleft of a crag and then travel all the way back to Jerusalem. And God later had him return to get the belt. (Read Jeremiah 13:1-9.) In all, Jeremiah would have traveled about 1,200 miles [1,900 km]. Bible critics just cannot believe that he would travel so far, walking for months.* (Ezra 7:9) Still, that is what God said and what Jeremiah did.

18 Picture the prophet trekking through the Judean mountains and then, depending on his route, into a desert toward the Euphrates. All of that just to hide a linen belt! His long absence must have aroused the curiosity of his neighbors. When he returned, he did not have the linen belt with him. Then God told him to make the long trip again, to retrieve the belt, now rotten and “not fit for anything.” Imagine how easy it would have been to think: ‘Now that is just too much. I see no point to it.’ Yet, having been molded by God, he did not react that way. Rather than complain, he did as he was instructed!

Why should we obey Jehovah’s instructions even if we do not fully understand them?

19 It was only after the second journey that God explained matters. Jeremiah’s actions set the stage for him to deliver a potent message: “This bad people who are refusing to obey my words, who are walking in the stubbornness of their heart and who keep walking after other gods in order to serve them and to bow down to them, will also become just like this belt that is fit for nothing.” (Jer. 13:10) What an impressive way for Jehovah to teach his people! Jeremiah’s heartfelt obedience to Jehovah in what may have seemed trivial played a role in His efforts to reach the hearts of the people.—Jer. 13:11.

20 Christians today are not being asked to walk hundreds of miles as part of a divine lesson. Might it be, though, that the Christian course you pursue could cause neighbors or associates to be puzzled or even to criticize you? It may involve your dress and grooming, your choice as to education, what you prefer as a career, or even your view of alcoholic beverages. Will you be as determined to comply with God’s guidance as Jeremiah was? Your choices because of allowing your heart to be molded by God may lead to your giving a fine witness. In any case, being obedient to Jehovah’s direction found in his Word and accepting the guidance given through the faithful slave class is for your lasting good. Rather than being led by a treacherous heart, you can be like Jeremiah. Be resolved, then, to accept being molded by God; let him form you into an honorable vessel for his lasting use.

Why is it vital to fight pressures from Satan, from our imperfect heart, and from the world?

[Footnotes]

The NET Bible (2005) reads: “Do not be conformed to this present world.” A footnote adds: “It is very telling that being ‘conformed’ to the present world is viewed as a passive notion, for it may suggest that it happens, in part, subconsciously. At the same time, . . . there may be some consciousness of the conformity taking place. Most likely, it is a combination of both.”

Some consider Jeremiah’s destination to be nearby instead of at the Euphrates. Why? “The sole object of this criticism,” states one scholar, “is to save the prophet the labour of two supposed journeys from Jerusalem to the Euphrates.”

[Study Questions]

1, 2. Why is it difficult to know the real condition of our figurative heart?

 3. What have become gods for many people?

 4. How sincere were the people who said: “Where is the word of Jehovah? Let it come in”?

 5. In what ways did Jeremiah’s countrymen respond to Jehovah’s direction?

6, 7. (a) How might a Christian unwisely reason, despite counsel from the faithful slave class today? (b) How might our meeting attendance be affected?

 8. (a) About what might a Christian feel some pride? (b) Why is more needed than knowing facts about God and his dealings?

 9. Why can we be sure that a change of heart is possible, and how can it come about?

10, 11. (a) Why did Jeremiah go to see a potter? (b) What determines how Jehovah molds people?

12. (a) How did Jehoiakim respond to Jehovah’s efforts to mold him? (b) What lesson do you see in the account about Jehoiakim?

13, 14. (a) Why did slave owners in Jerusalem agree to free their Hebrew slaves? (b) What revealed the real heart condition of the slave owners?

15. To what extent would you like to be molded by Jehovah? Illustrate.

16. Jeremiah was aware of what important truth?

17-19. (a) Why did Jeremiah make a long trip to the Euphrates? (b) How could Jeremiah’s obedience have been under test? (c) What was accomplished by Jeremiah’s actions involving the belt?

20. Why might your obedience puzzle some, but of what can you be sure?

[Pictures on page 46]

Has your heart deceived you into missing meetings?

[Picture on page 48]

Are you letting Jehovah mold you?

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Why should we obey Jehovah’s instructions even if we do not fully understand them?