Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil. — Jeremiah 13:23
For years I have worked with men and women in the prison system and have seen a common thread in the mindset of those getting close to being released on parole. In many cases, these inmates initially come to chapel services and confess they need God in their lives. However, once they are within a few weeks of getting out, they fall away from their chapel service attendance and tell their fellow inmates they can make it on their own. They seem to think they have it all figured out, and intend never to do anything that will bring them back into the penal system.
For example, I remember one man who seemed very sincere and told me that once he was out, he was going to come to every service we had at our church. Sadly, after a few weeks of attendance, he missed more and more, and I could not convince him that he needed God in order to live right. He would tell me he was doing great and was very busy with his activities. Then, after a few months, I saw him in the prison again, where he came to me frustrated and angry at himself. “Why did I do such a stupid thing?” he asked me. He then confessed his sins to God and admitted he could not change himself. When he was honestly repentant, God changed his heart.
Prisoner or not, it is very hard for mankind to admit that he needs God’s help in order to escape from the bondage with which Satan has ensnared him. During a time of crisis, he may call out for God to help, but then, when the crisis is over, he continues in trying to succeed on his own.
God, of course, is fully aware of this tendency in the human race. In Jeremiah’s time, He used the leopard as an illustration. These animals have spots naturally, and there is nothing they can do to alter them. Nor can a person change his skin color. The human race can no more successfully change the inbred tendencies of the carnal heart with which each of us was born.
Even if some of its symptoms can be corrected, only through the transforming power of the Blood of Jesus can individuals be transformed from sinners into believers. This is the wonderful message of hope that the Gospel extends and we have the privilege to share. Even when situations look impossible, God can do what man cannot, because He can change the heart.
Jeremiah’s fifth sermon to the inhabitants of Judah began with an object lesson concerning God’s relationship with Judah. A girdle (also known as a loincloth) was frequently worn to secure outer clothing. Girdles worn by the common people were made of leather, but the linen that God instructed Jeremiah to wear denoted a finer girdle such as those worn by the priests. God first charged Jeremiah to wear the girdle without washing it, which would have caused the linen to become soiled. After a time, God told Jeremiah to travel to the Euphrates River (a distance of 250-400 miles) and bury the girdle under a rock. The fact that the Euphrates River was in Babylon, the place of Judah’s impending captivity, may have been God’s reason for sending Jeremiah there.
After “many days,” God told Jeremiah to go back to the Euphrates River and retrieve the girdle, where he discovered that it was totally ruined and worthless. God used this illustration to make the comparison that just as Jeremiah’s unwashed loincloth became soiled and of no value after being buried in the mud, Judah had become tarnished and useless to God because of the people’s unwillingness to accomplish His purpose. Comparable to how a man would tie a loincloth snugly to his body, God had clothed Himself with Israel and Judah in a covenant relationship, but their sin and idolatry had marred and destroyed the pure bond that God desired.
Jeremiah’s edict that “every bottle shall be filled with wine” may have reflected a well-known proverb symbolizing peace and prosperity, thus initiating the confident response from the people of Judah. However, God said He would fill the inhabitants of Judah with “drunkenness” that would cause strife and confusion among the people, and ultimately their destruction. In verses 15-17, Jeremiah pled with the people to set aside their pride, give ear to God’s warnings, and give Him glory, because God had spoken and His judgment would come to pass if they did not turn from their wicked ways. The king and queen in verse 18 probably referred to King Jehoiachin and his mother, Nehushta, referred to in 2 Kings 24:8-20.
Jeremiah compared Judah to a flock of sheep that had been ravaged by the enemy from the north, and he questioned how Judah would respond when the Babylonian conqueror would set over them former allies who had been militarily trained by Judah. He associated the pain of this scenario with a woman in labor. Jeremiah stated that if the people of Judah questioned why this calamity had come upon them, the answer was that their sin and refusal to repent had caused them to walk unclothed and barefoot to the land of their captivity.
Just as it was not possible to change the color of the Ethiopian’s skin or remove the leopard’s spots, the people of Judah did not have the ability to change from their evil ways. Therefore, God would scatter them as the chaff, because they had forgotten Him and trusted in lies. The “skirts upon the face” signified the shame they would feel when disaster came. Jeremiah cried out to his countrymen, reminding them of their sinful behavior, and agonizing that they were coming under the judgment of God.
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II. The pronouncement of judgment against Judah
A. The condemnation of the prophet
5. The fifth sermon: The marred girdle and broken bottles (13:1-27)
a. The warning from the linen girdle (13:1-11)
b. The warning from the wine bottles (13:12-14)
c. The warning to the haughty (13:15-19)
d. The warning of approaching doom (13:20-27)
When we deal with situations that look as impossible as a leopard changing its spots, we want to remember that the God Who is able to change hearts is also able to change situations, and our capacity to deal with those situations.