“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:1).
Following the opening prosecution of Judah for her marital infidelity (chapter 2) God leads the witness asking if there is any hope to restore relationship? While leading questions are forbidden in our courts of law, here the Prosecutor is the Judge. Lawyers may wickedly use leading questions to establish false evidence; God righteously uses them to expose the truth we deny. With this question God draws from His law.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 24:1–4).
Several questions arise in out mind, but in light of this, what is the obvious answer to God’s question? An undoubted and resolute “No!” And yet, everything established here will seemingly be flipped on its head by the end of this passage—seemingly.
Initially there seems no hope of return, but then vv. 11–18 give way to two pleas for Israel to return accompanied by a plethora of promises. Topsy-turvy? No, note two things. The pleas and the promises are made to Israel, not Judah, although there is a glimmer of hope as Judah is included as part of the promise made to Israel (v. 18). It appears subtly assumed in this is that Judah will have to first face the same judgment that has befallen Israel.
Second, there’s returning and then there’s returning. The returning spoken against in v. 1 is a presumptuous returning. Following the question, God commands Judah to lift up her eyes and see her whoredom (v. 2). Judah may not return without seeing her sin. Judah’s pious words are empty, but her wicked acts are full (v. 5). Her return is not with her whole heart, but in pretense (v. 10).
So may the whore return? God’s covenant name is His vow. He explained His name and revealed His glory to Moses saying that YHWH is a God “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7). May the unfaithful bride return to her Husband? Never and always; it depends on what you mean by return.