“Every seven years each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you for six years, you shall set them free.” – Jeremiah 34:14a (NET)
This seems simple enough, and is prefaced with God’s reminder to His people, through Jeremiah, that “I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt where they had been slaves” (34:13b). The text above is what follows. Because the people of Israel had been in perpetual slavery in Egypt, God wanted to be sure that His people did not perpetually enslave any of their fellow countrymen. Just as God had entered in to their situation in order to free them from their slavery to Egypt, having heard the groaning of His people in their oppression, so God was here entering in, in a sense, to make sure that a state of slavery among His people would not be persistent. Not only was the basis for the freeing of slaves rooted in the remembrance of their Egyptian slavery and subsequent deliverance, but the act of freeing the slaves would be a great reminder of God’s saving power. Unfortunately, we go on to hear God saying “But your ancestors did not obey Me or pay any attention to Me” (34:14b).
What was the basis for this communication? During the reign of King Zedekiah there was an agreement that the people of Jerusalem were “to grant their slaves freedom” (34:8b). It had been the case that “All the people and their leaders had agreed to this” (34:10a). We read that, “They originally complied with the covenant and freed them. But later they had changed their minds. They had taken back their male and female slaves that they had freed and forced them to be slaves again” (34:10c-11). “That was when the Lord spoke to Jeremiah” (34:12), expressing His displeasure at this situation.
For a moment, by freeing their slaves, the people showed God something different than what He had been consistently shown by their ancestors. Through Jeremiah, God says to His people that “Recently…you yourselves showed a change of heart and did what is pleasing to Me” (34:15a). They actually showed some trust in their God, relying upon His just decrees and trusting that things would work out just fine even if they were to suffer what might seem to be financial loss in releasing their slaves. God says that they pleased Him in that “You granted your fellow countrymen their freedom and you made a covenant to that effect in My presence in the house that I have claimed for My own” (34:15b). However, they quickly returned to form, as God says “But then you turned right around and showed that you did not honor Me. Each of you took back your male and female slaves whom you had freed as they desired, and you forced them to be your slaves again” (34:16).
This turn of events was not going to go well for them. They violated the terms of their covenant. They went right back to being oppressors. They did not want to remember Egypt and God’s saving power. God’s response to this is to grant His people freedom. Yes, in the midst of this continued rebellious forsaking of covenant, God says “Therefore, I will grant you freedom, the freedom to die in war, or by starvation or disease. I, the Lord, affirm it. I will make all the kingdoms of the earth horrified at what happens to you” (34:17b).
Since there has been talk of Egypt, we should not be surprised to find ourselves being reminded of Egypt and Moses and the dealings with Pharaoh. What happened in those dealings? Effectively, Pharaoh would agree to release the slaves, in essence granting them freedom in expectation; but then, he would have a “change of heart,” and turn right around, taking back the people that had been given a proclamation of freedom, and forcing them to be slaves again. Ultimately, what was Pharaoh able to earn through this? God granted Pharaoh and Egypt the “freedom to die in war,” which we see when they attempt to re-take a freed people back into bondage. We see that along with the freedom to experience “starvation and disease,” as they most certainly did because of the plagues that God brought upon the land, in which locusts ate up the crops, and in which the peoples were afflicted with painful boils.
Is there an application for us in all of this? Certainly there is, as each of us can consider ourselves to have been slaves, earning nothing more than death, with no hope for liberation. Through the hearing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Lord, “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son He loves, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). For God’s people, throughout the Bible, the state of non-forgiveness of sins is equated with the state of exile (enslaved by oppressors). Like Israel, God reaches into that state of exile, and removes a people that He has chosen for Himself and for His glory. Before God exercises His saving power towards us, by grace, we share that state of exile from Him and from the blessings of His covenant, with every other person. Now obviously, we know that some of us are delivered from exile before others. For some reason, there is a tendency on the part of those that have already experienced their liberation, when they see others experience their deliverance from exile and slavery---when their fellow countrymen are granted freedom and enter into a covenant to that effect---to turn right around and attempt to enslave those that have been newly liberated, to traditions, creeds, subjective requirements, and supposed standards of Christian performance that somehow reflect true holiness.
God’s response to this, and to those that attempt to re-enslave their fellow countrymen, to re-enslave those with whom they shared exile (just as all Israel had been slaves), is to say “I will grant you freedom, the freedom to die in war, or by starvation or disease. I, the Lord, affirm it” (34:17b). Let us cease and desist from playing God and becoming Pharaohs to His chosen ones. Let us really and truly believe, perhaps for the first time, that there is a God, that there is a Holy Spirit, that the Gospel message that we purport to believe truly is the power of God unto salvation, and that “the One Who began a good work” (Philippians 1:6b) is also capable of completing the work by the same power that raised Christ from the dead, empowers the preaching of the Gospel, and gifts transformative faith.