Goodness and Defilement of Work (Jeremiah 2)
Long before Jeremiah lived, God declared that work is good for people (Genesis 1-2). As we have noted elsewhere, Jeremiah’s method was to accept what God had revealed earlier, and call attention to how it is being lived out — or not lived out — in his day. In (chapter 2), Jeremiah called out how the people were perverting the goodness of work. God says to his people, “I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination” (Jer. 2:7). He adds that the people “went after things that do not profit” (Jer. 2:8).
The Lord brought the people to a fertile land where their work would yield plentifully, but they rejected his presence by defiling his land. This is a standard expression of theological privilege in the Ancient Near East: God created the land and owns it, but has given the land to people who serve as his stewards of it. God gave his people the high privilege of working God’s very own land, the central real estate of the cosmos. Although in Jeremiah’s time the people worked God’s land with contempt, the work itself was created by God to be good. “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you (Psalm 128:2). Working the land is necessary and, when done in accordance with God’s ways, brings enjoyment and a deep sense of God’s presence and love. “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24). But work became defiled when people ceased to work in faithfulness. The people defiled the land because they stopped following God and “went after worthless idols and became worthless themselves” (Jer. 2:5). When our work goes bad, it can be a diagnosis that our fellowship with God has dimmed. We may have ceased to spend time with God, perhaps because we're busy working so hard. Yet we are often tempted to try to fix the problem by spending more time at tasks “that do not profit” (Jer. 2:8), neglecting fellowship with God even further. Our tasks profit little not because we aren’t working long enough hours, but because without God in our work, it has become fruitless and inefficient. What would happen if we went to the heart of the matter and spent more time in fellowship with God? Imagine saying to the boss, “My performance hasn’t been up to my highest standards the last 6 months, so I’ve decided to come in 30 minutes early every morning and spend half the extra time praying and the other half getting a head start on my work.” Would that be more or less effective than simply working longer hours? Would the boss be pleased or aggravated that an employee would bring their deepest source of meaning and support into their daily work?
Some theologians refer to God’s people as “tenants” in the land. See for example, Daniel I. Block, The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), 109-110. However, tenancy is not the same as stewardship, which is the clearer implication of Genesis 1:28.