“But the LORD is the true God” (Jeremiah 10:10).
People who do not believe in God generally present this challenge to people who believe: “prove that God is real.” People of the Bible were also confronted with a similar request: “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3). In response to those who asked this question, a psalmist wrote: “The fool says in his heart, ‘God does not exist’” (Psalm 14:1).
Whenever the prophets spoke or wrote about God they were referring to a spiritual reality that was derived from an inner experience that was common to most people in Israel. The people of Israel had experienced a divine presence that was beyond human explanation.
The reason some people today have a difficult time believing that God is real is because we live in a three-dimensional physical world, which limits what we can see and do. The spiritual world has dimensions that we cannot imagine, so that when we use human language to describe this new dimension, we discover that human language is inadequate to describe the spiritual world.
When Jeremiah tried to compare the God of Israel with the gods of the nations, he said that God was real. He wrote: “But the LORD is the true (emeth) God; he is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:10).
Jeremiah, in trying to describe God as real, used the Hebrew word emeth. The word emeth comes from another Hebrew word that means “to be certain, sure” or “to be certain about,” “to be assured.” The word “amen” is derived from the same Hebrew word and it is used to stress the certainty of a statement.
The word emeth is used in different ways in the Hebrew Bible. When the word emeth is used to characterize human speech, the word can be translated “true”: “The report was true that I heard” (1 Kings 10:6). When the word is used to describe a personal characteristic of an individual, the word emeth is translated “faithful” or “trustworthy”: “He was a faithful man” (Nehemiah 7:2).
In certain cases, the word emeth can be translated “real,” in contrast to something that is not-real or is imaginary. For example, In Jeremiah 28:9 we read: “So if a prophet prophesies good fortune, then only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that the LORD really (emeth) sent him” (Jeremiah 28:9 TNK).
The Psalmist asked: “Do you rulers really (emeth) pronounce just decisions? Do you judge people fairly?” (Psalm 58:1 NET).
In the two examples above, the word emeth contrasts that which is genuine with that which is fake. So the word emeth in this context is used to mean that the false prophets were fake and the judgment of the rulers were not true.
The difference between the real and the imaginary is that which people learn by experience. Learning how to differentiate between that which is real and that which is imaginary is crucial to our everyday decision-making. For instance, when Abimelech asked Abraham why he had deceived him, Abraham said: “Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place” (Genesis 20:11). The danger Abraham thought was real turned out to be false once he knew the facts. Thus, the difference between the real and the imaginary is something we learn by experience and participation.
The people of Israel also learned the difference between the real and the not real by participation. To them, everything was either real or not real. When the people of Israel used the word emeth to describe God as “faithful,” they knew that God’s faithfulness was real: “Your steadfast love (hesed), O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness (emeth) to the clouds” (Psalm 36:5).
However, when the word emeth is used in the sense of real, it provides a contrast to that which is imaginary. And this is the way Jeremiah used the word emeth in contrasting the God of Israel with the gods of the nations. This is what Jeremiah said about the gods of the nations:
“For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan; people deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:3-5).
But this is what Jeremiah said about the God of Israel: “But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:10).
Jeremiah contrasted the one real God with the multitude of imaginary gods of the nations. The gods of the nations are described as artifacts, things manufactured by human hands. Because they are nothing but artifacts, they are not gods and they cannot do harm to anyone and people should not be afraid of them.
By contrast, the God of Israel was real: “But the LORD is the real (emeth) God” (Jeremiah 10:10). Here Jeremiah made a contrast between the real God and the false gods. God is emeth, “true,” “real” while the gods of the nations are shequer, “false,” “imaginary,” “unreal.” Jeremiah wrote: “for their images are false, and there is no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14).
The truth about the gods of the nations was that there was no life in them. The claim people made that their gods could speak, walk, and do harm to others was false. Although people claimed that their images were gods, their claim was false because their gods were not real.
Jeremiah was not the only prophet who proclaimed that God was real. When the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon and were probably confronted with the claim that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the God of Israel, we find the Lord himself proclaiming that he was the real God:
“Besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6).
“Is there any god besides me?” (Isaiah 44:8).
“I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 45:5).
There is no doubt that Jeremiah experienced God in a very personal way in his life. God took his life, turned it around, and led him to a place which was not of his choosing. This experience with God gave Jeremiah proof that God was real. Jeremiah’s whole life was shaped by this experience with God, an experience that opened the way for an intimate relationship with God.
It was Jeremiah’s experience with God that led him to proclaim to the people of Judah that God was real, even at the risk of his own life. Jeremiah became a prophet because he believed that God was guiding his life. Jeremiah preached God’s words because he believed he was proclaiming the very words God put into his mouth (Jeremiah 1:9). It was this experience with God that made Jeremiah desire God’s presence in his life, even in the midst of rejection and persecution.
Jeremiah knew that the message he was proclaiming was not his own. It was a message given to him by God. Once Jeremiah considered stopping his proclamation of God’s word. He said: “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name” (Jeremiah 20:9). At that time, the word of God took hold of him and became a burning fire in his soul.
God was so real to Jeremiah that when one reads the book of Jeremiah, it becomes difficult to distinguish the words of God from the words of Jeremiah. In his attempt at distinguishing the speakers of Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Terence Fretheim, in his book Jeremiah (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), p. 148, wrote: “Yet, the voice of God is primary; if Jeremiah speaks these words, it is because God first speaks them. The lamenting prophet embodies the words of a lamenting God.”
Jeremiah’s experience with God was so real that Jeremiah became the embodiment of God’s grief. Idols are silent and cannot enter into the human predicament. Only a real God could be affected by the actions of a rebellious people. This is the reason Jeremiah proclaimed that God is real.
Eventually, the truth that God is real became so ingrained in the mind of the people of Israel that by the time of Jesus there was no need to prove the existence of God. The writer of Hebrew wrote: “Whoever goes to God must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
This is the reason many people do not come to God: they do not believe that God exists, and as a result they cannot experience God in their lives and they cannot receive the blessings God promised to give to those who believe.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Based on what you are saying then, I cannot help but feel that because of the “experience” Israel had as a collective, and the “personal” experience that Jeremiah, the prophets, David, etc. had of God, that things like prophecy cannot be anything more than self-fulfilling, even fabricated in scripture to prove that prophecy is fulfilled. How, then does one really prove the existence of God outside of one’s own personal experience? The heavens are proof of the work of God, but is that an adequate argument? I just started reading William Lane Craig’s “Reasonable Faith”. I’m not even 50 pages into it and he seems to be using circular reasoning to make an apologetic for God’s existence. How do we know, too, that Calvin’s sensus divinitatis is a valid argument, or any argument one can make that God objectively exists. Now, I am saying this as one who considers himself a believer. When confronted with someone who does not believe in God, I don’t even entertain the argument of whether or not God exists. Frankly, I don’t think it matters to me whether anyone else believes in God or not. I believe that God exists because I was taught that and I have a intuitive feeling that He (for lack of a better, nongeneric term) exists. Is there really a difference, then between a belief that is “self-centered” and one that is “God centered.” The problem I have with pro-God arguments that Christian apologists make is basically, well, the Bible is the Word of God because it says so. Everything is historically accurate and inerrant, well, because that’s what it says. Is that a valid argument? Thanks for any feedback as I am thoroughly interested in being at peace with this. For me, God is a soft whisper and not a whirlwind. Is that enough? Am I doing wrong by God by meeting Him at that point?
I believe you misunderstood my argument. The belief in God is more than just a personal experience. Belief in God is based on God’s revelation of himself to an individual. The Bible says that before Abraham became a believer in God, he worshiped other gods. How did Abraham come to believe in God? It was not because of experience since he did not know God. God has to reveal himself to an individual and through that revelation people come to faith in God. You said: “Frankly, I don’t think it matters to me whether anyone else believes in God or not.” This view is not biblical. If you are a believer then you are “God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). You have been called to proclaim to others the God who saved you. The Bible may not be inerrant, but it is a testimony of what God did in the history of Israel. Maybe you should read the book by Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason. This book will help you put faith and reason together.
“Whenever the prophets spoke or wrote about God they were referring to a spiritual reality that was derived from an inner experience that was common to most people in Israel. The people of Israel had experienced a divine presence that was beyond human explanation.”
Surely this is to make the prophets existentialists when they were far more concerned with external historical events, i.e. God who was made know through his external acts of salvation, the exodus, etc, rather than an inner experience. Surely for Jeremiah it was immmaterial whether the Jews could “feel God in their hearts” but very important whether they were remaining faithful to the one who had historically and publically saved their ancestors? Or have I misunderstood you, or Jeremiah?
Thank you for your comment. As I mentioned to Matteo in my response to his comment, Jeremiah’s faith in God was not based of “feelings” alone. Jeremiah had a personal experience with God. This experience come out of revelation. God reveals himself to an individual and that manifestation of God produces the faith we need to believe that God exists. Take the case of Abraham. The Bible says: “Long ago your ancestors– Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor– lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). Abraham believed in other gods, but something happened to Abraham and this led him to believe in the true God. What happened? We do not know, but God chose to reveal himself to Abraham and Abraham responded to God’s revelation. It was that experience that convinced Abraham that God was real. God revealed himself to Jeremiah and Jeremiah believed. The faith of Israel was based on the mighty acts of God, not on emotionalism.
Hello professor, Jeremiah 10 is obviously a very rich passage of scripture. I sometimes analyse the greek or hebrew word of a particular text I’m studying and have enjoyed the your analysis of ’emeth’. I suppose as professor of the Old Testament you may have one or more favourite Hebrew/Greek words, which would you say is your favourite and why? If you do not mind my asking…
I believe my favorite Hebrew word is hesed. I have written many posts on this word. Would you like me to post a list of posts on hesed? Let me know and I will do it in a few days.
Hi Professor, yes please do!
I will be on vacation until August 1. After I return from vacation, I will make a list of posts on hesed.
Pardon the pseudo-spam but you may be interested in an “Argument for God’s Existence from Jewish Folklore”:
Thank you for the reference. I read that story a long time ago and I have told it in class many times. My students like the story.