Circumcision of the Heart

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

As we consider the next sign given by the prophet Jeremiah (4:4), we observe that it is very much a reinforcement of the previous one discussed in the previous article in this series (Break Up Your Fallow Ground– February 2019 Advocate). The figure of Yahweh’s exhortation to the men of Judah and Jerusalem in Jeremiah 4:4 changes from one related to agriculture in verse 3, to that of the ordinance of circumcision; but the substance of the rebuke and warning from the LORD is the same, or at least very similar: Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds (4:4 ESV).

The admonition given through the prophet Jeremiah carries over from verse 1, in which the LORD pleaded with the Israelites to return to Him and remove their abominations out of His sight. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah these abominations are identified as false gods (2:28). As well, Jeremiah 3:6 refers to the days of King Josiah when he was having the temple repaired and the Book of the Law was found. Josiah rent his clothes when he heard Shaphan read the previously neglected Book of the Law, and acknowledged that the Israelites had forsaken God and burned incense to other gods (2 Kings 22:16-17).

Origin of Physical Circumcision

Physical circumcision was originally instituted by God for Abraham and his living male descendants as a token or sign of the everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:9-13). In the preceding verse, the father of the faithful and all his seed were promised the land of Israel as an everlasting inheritance (Genesis 17:8) for the second time (the first time is recorded in Genesis 13:15). Thereafter, all of Abraham’s male descendants (along with those strangers bought with money) were to be circumcised on the eighth day of life (vs. 12).

Circumcision was described as God’s covenant being “in their flesh” (Genesis 17:13) and a seal of the righteousness of Abraham’s faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also(Romans 4:11). Any male of the house of Abraham who was not circumcised would die for violating God’s covenant (Genesis 17:14). The first recorded rite of circumcision of an eight-day-old child was for Isaac (Genesis 21:4), which serves as an example of Abraham’s obedience and faithfulness to the covenant that he had with Yahweh.

The practice of circumcision for eight-day-old males continued as the seed of Abraham multiplied and Israel became a nation, as the commandment given in the Law of Moses dictated: And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3). Circumcision was also commanded for male Gentiles who wished to keep the Passover (Exodus 12:48). Most significant, and in line with the exhortation in Jeremiah 4:4 regarding the subject sign, the Law of Moses also contained a commandment about circumcision that did not refer to actual circumcision, but to spiritual circumcision: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked(Deuteronomy 10:16).

Spiritual Circumcision

The language in Deuteronomy 10 as well as in Jeremiah 4 indicates that circumcision of the heart meant a change of attitude. Specifically, from the context, the Israelites were instructed to develop an attitude of loving the LORD with all their heart and soul so that they would keep the LORD’s commandments and statutes (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). Circumcision had therefore a twofold application for the nation of Israel, which remained the same for the nation of Judah in Jeremiah’s day: that is, both a physical and a spiritual application.

Deuteronomy 30:6 expresses a similar sentiment to Deuteronomy 10:16: And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.There is, however, a key difference between the two passages that we must not overlook: in Deuteronomy 10:16, it was the Israelites who were to initiate the spiritual circumcision, whereas in Deuteronomy 30:6, God is described as the initiator.

An implication of Deuteronomy 30:6 is that God would bring circumstances upon the Israelites which would change their attitude. Thus, there is still a future fulfilment of this verse, as the Jewish people today tend to have hearts of stone that need to become hearts of flesh so that they will follow God’s commandments when they dwell permanently in the land of their eternal inheritance, A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God(Ezekiel; 36:26-28; see also Ezekiel 11:19-20).

This spiritual circumcision may well be spoken of also by Zechariah (12:10), in which the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will have a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy(ESV) once they recognize Christ as the one whom they have pierced. The context of Zechariah 12 is that of Jerusalem as a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it (vs. 3). Perhaps a major conflict in Israel concerning Jerusalem which coincides with the return of Christ is what it will take for the Jewish nation to be spiritually circumcised.

When Jeremiah penned his words in chapter 4, verse 4, the Israelites he addressed were doubtless physically circumcised, since he was writing specifically to men (Hebrew iysh– a male person). However, they had not followed the commandment in Deuteronomy 10:16 to circumcise their hearts, as they were not keeping the LORD’s commandments and statutes. Thus, Jeremiah needed to remind them of this necessity.

Implication for Us

If we are one of God’s covenanted people through baptism, regardless of physical circumcision, we also have an obligation to circumcise our hearts and continually turn to God’s Word for guidance and instruction, following the tenor of Jeremiah’s words. The apostle Paul made it clear in three of his epistles (Romans; 1 Corinthians; and Galatians) that spiritual circumcision had replaced physical circumcision. Paul wrote, For he is not a Jew who is oneoutwardly, nor iscircumcision that which isoutward in the flesh; but he isa Jew who is oneinwardly; and circumcision is thatof the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise isnot of men but of God(Romans 2:28-29); circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God(1 Corinthians 7:19); and, For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love(Galatians 5:6). These three passages emphasize how vitally important circumcision of the heart is to our standing before the Most High, rather than physical circumcision.

The reason physical circumcision no longer mattered when Paul wrote these epistles was that the Law of Moses ceased to be operative upon the death of Christ. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross(Colossians 2:13-14).

Furthermore, baptism into Christ is described by Paul as being circumcised with a circumcision made without hands (Colossians 2:11-12), which obviates the need for physical circumcision. However, the principle in Deuteronomy 10:16 pertaining to circumcision of the heart was still applicable after the death of Christ, as Paul took care to emphasize, and is as relevant for believers today as it was in Jeremiah’s day.

Jonathan Farrar, Binbrook, Ontario