The Lion, the Meat, and the Wheat

Jeremiah tells Israel that if they repent for their sins, God will relent from his judgment of exile (Jer 26:13). He calls the people to circumcise their own hearts (Jer 4:4). However, Moses had already said that only God could circumcise the people’s hearts (Deut 30:6). How can this be?[1]

We must ask: Is it unjust for God to command (and expect) us to do something that we are incapable of doing? By no means! Recognizing this ostensible contradiction, Augustine resolves the tension by parsing out the distinction between natural ability and moral inability. God has graced humanity with both general and special revelation so that we might know him—for we have the natural ability to do so and it is, therefore, our duty believe (cf. Rom 1:18–24). Adam’s sin, which we inherited by virtue of our union with him (cf. Rom 5:12–14), however, has left us with the moral inability to do so. Left to our own devices we will never turn to God because we do not desire him (Eph 2:1–3).

Addressing the unbeliever who rejects the gospel as merely a propositional truth statement coming from a man, Richard Baxter retorted that when the gospel is preached, the unbeliever is no longer in the audience of an evangelist, but hears from God himself. Unlike the hyper-Calvinists of his day, Baxter, swimming in the Augustinian stream, argued that at the preaching of the Word, the hearers are torn, for their flesh aims to reject what the law on their hearts declares to be true. He writes:

God hath a voice that will make you hear. Though he intreat you to hear the voice of his gospel, he will make you hear the voice of his condemning sentence, without intreaty. We cannot make you believe against your will; but God will make you feel against your will.[2]

Ultimately, a denial of the message is not a disagreement with the human messenger, but an outright rejection of the Son of God and his offer of salvation. Since we have the natural ability to respond, God expects us to do that which he created us for (i.e., believe in, thank, and honor him). Yet, due to our sin nature (i.e., uncircumcised hearts), we do not have the moral ability (or desire!) to do so.

A member of my small group gave a fantastic illustration that captures the plight of the human condition. He asked our group to imagine a lion in a cage with two bowls of food set before it: a bowl of meat and a bowl of wheat. He asked, when released from the cage, which bowl will the lion choose? The lion will always choose the meat! In fact, the lion will almost never choose the bowl of wheat. Why so? Is it because he is lacking the ability to eat wheat? No, it is because he does not desire it. In the same way, it is not that humanity is unable to respond to God’s universal call, it is that we are unwilling.

In Matthew 19, Pharisees, coming to test Jesus, ask him about divorce. He explains to them that the normative pattern (“from the beginning”) of marriage was a lifelong covenant between man and woman whom “God has joined together.” They persisted, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7) Jesus answers that Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardness of their hearts (“σκληροκαρδία”). By using this word Jesus alludes to both what Moses and Jeremiah wrote on this issue:

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart (“σκληροκαρδία”), and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16, emphasis added).

“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts (“σκληροκαρδία”)” (Jeremiah 4:4, emphasis added).

As the aforementioned passages showcase, the hardness of heart that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 19 should be understood as an uncircumcised heart (flesh-heart). In Ezekiel God tells Israel that "No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh…shall enter my sanctuary” (Ezekiel 44:9, emphasis added).

This past week we discussed the topic of the will in a philosophy reading group I am part of called the Stinklings (and homage to Lewis and Tolkien’s literary group in Oxford). We concluded that calling a will that is morally incapable of responding to God “free” is a misnomer. Our will is by definition a captive will, a will in bondage (Eph 2:1–3). We need a “freed will” (Eph 2:4–5). In order for our will to be truly freed it must be regenerated, recreated, born again, or circumcised. Herein lies the problem: we are incapable of doing this on our own.

In Ezekiel 36:16–37, God explains how he will be faithful to his people despite their unfaithfulness. He brought them to the promised land, and they responded by breaking his commandments (“they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols” v. 18). They evoked God’s wrath with their disobedience. He scattered them among the nations through exile, with the hope that they would repent. God’s name was profaned among the nations wherever they went, for the nations would say “These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land” (v. 20). God wanted to display the holiness of his great name, which—because of Israel’s malfeasance—had been profaned. But before explaining what he was about to do, he wanted Israel to know that he acted for his own end, and it was not for their sake.

He, then, proceeded to tell Israel:

I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses…” (Ezekiel 36:24–29, emphasis added).

In these six verses God states nine things he will do for Israel (“I will”). He will: “gather” them, “sprinkle clean water” on them, “cleanse” them, “give” them a “new heart” and put a “new spirit” in them, “remove the heart of stone” from their flesh and give them a “heart of flesh,” put his “Spirit” within them, “cause” them to walk in his “statutes,” restore them to the “land” of their fathers, make them his “people,” be their “God,” and “deliver” them from all uncleannesses.[3] By replacing their heart of stone—a heart that is morally incapable of responding to God—with a heart of flesh, and giving them his Spirit, God will enable and move his people to follow his decrees and keep his laws—that which they were previously unable to do.

This passage in Ezekiel shines a light on this purported inconsistency between Jeremiah and Moses by demonstrating that Jeremiah’s call for the people to circumcise their own hearts (Jer 4:4) is not out of step with Moses statement that only God can circumcise the people’s hearts (Deut 30:6). Jeremiah presents the wretched state of our human condition and Moses provides the answer: God will do what we, who are captive to our sin, are incapable of doing.


  1. I was asked to respond to this purported paradox for an Old Testament class I am taking. The following was my response to the prompt.  ↩

  2. Richard Baxter, A Call to the Unconverted (Lafayette, Ind: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2000), 12.  ↩

  3. There are five more “I will” statements in the next eight verses, but stopped at v. 29 for the sake of brevity.  ↩

TheologyDavid KakishComment