The Course of Wrongs (Jeremiah 31:19)

‘For after I turned back, I repented;
And after I was instructed, I smote on [my] thigh;
I was ashamed and also humiliated
Because I bore the reproach of my youth.’

Jeremiah 31:19

In this verse, God relates to Jeremiah what He (God) has heard Ephraim say. This Ephraim is, I suspect, an instance of synecdoche — the tribe of Ephraim standing in for all of the northern kingdom. What is Ephraim saying?

For after I turned back, I repented — I have been taught that repentance was simply a turning away from one thing to another; from wrong to right. But this seems to indicate that there is more to repentance than a mere turning away, as turning back precedes repenting. Regardless of whether repentance is merely a turning away or if there is more, the first step to repentance is and has always been to turn back to God.

And after I was instructed, I smote on [my] thigh — This confuses me. I went looking for help in understanding it on the web and only found irrational and unhelpful claptrap. The concordance says that the word for thigh can mean thigh, side, flank, base, or loin. Essentially, anywhere from knee to waist. This could be a metaphor for “disciplining” (smiting) one’s loins (genitals, is the direction I am heading) as much of what the prophets, Jeremiah included, said had to do with Israel’s infidelity to God. This might be a metaphor for curbing their desires to be unfaithful.  Or it could just be Ephraim giving himself an old-fashioned spanking as part of discipline. Regardless, the imagery is of someone inflicting physical discipline on themselves in the wake of learning something.

I was ashamed and also humiliated / Because I bore the reproach of my youth.

— Everyone has heard talk about the mistakes of youth and how we make bad decisions when we are young. It is not always the case, but modern society seems wont to give the young a pass when it comes to making foolish choices. And why not, Proverbs tells us that folly is bound up in the heart of a child. It does, however, go on to say that the rod of correction will remove it (folly) far from him (the child). So, perhaps we should revisit the notion of giving the young a bye when it comes to poor choices and make sure that foolish choices carry consequences. Ephraim claims to not have been given a bye; no allowance was made for his youth. He carries the reproach of his youth. The things he did wrong, the bad decisions he made are all weighing on him.

Bring it all together and I find that Ephraim says he turned back and repented and disciplined himself and still felt that he carried the weight of his bad decisions. And most of us can relate. No matter what I might do to try to atone for my wrongs, their consequences remain. There are those who are promiscuous and that promiscuity sometimes results in diseases that cannot be cured. There are some who abuse substances of various sorts only to find that repentance removes their guilt but their body’s scars abide. Ephraim may have been in a very similar place. He has forsaken the old and worked to become more disciplined, but he has also the consequences still to endure.

And that is how this applies to me today. Turning back to God and repenting and working to become disciplined are all excellent and God responds to those things in love and mercy and more. But my choices have consequences and these God will not always protect me from or remove. I may choose to lie and God may choose to allow that lie to run its course and destroy a friendship. I may choose to be angry; to, as Christ put it, commit murder in my heart and God may allow that to run its course as well. I am always welcomed back by God with open arms and forgiveness for the wrongs of which I repent. But the consequences of those wrongs may still have to run their course.

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