A Single Path

 We’ve probably all heard about the “ancient paths” in Jeremiah 6:16, but have we ever taken the time to pause and consider what that really means? And if so, how does that apply to our lives today? I started meditating upon this verse recently, and I found there’s a whole lot wrapped up in this verse. As we explore this, let’s take a look at the verse in its context—

“Thus says the Lord, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ And I set watchmen over you, saying, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But they said, ‘We will not listen.””

Jeremiah 6:16-17

This begins a new section or oracle against the Israelites for their stubbornness and idolatry. This is sort of the plea, the invitation to return, but it is also the foundation for the judgement that is pronounced in verses 18-21.  Though we often see the first part of verse 16 on a picture frame or cross stitched on a pillow by itself, we have to understand it in its context to see what God truly was saying.

There are three levels of warning God has set here for His people, three things they need to understand/pay attention to if they want to avoid the impending punishment.  There are the “paths” we ought to walk in, the “watchmen” we need to listen to, and the warning we need to here (vv. 16, 17). The warning is referenced by “the sound of the trumpet,” even though it is not explicitly stated in the text (v. 17). By heeding all of these elements, the Israelites would be pleasing to the Lord.

While we could go into each of these more in depth, I want to zero-in on the first part of verse 16. As I have been reading through Jeremiah, the phrase “ancient paths” comes up several chapters later in 18:15. This got me thinking—what actually are the ancient paths?

There are several characteristics we can draw from the text. First of all, they sometimes intersect the wrong paths. We are called to “stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths” (v. 16). When we set out for Christ and choose the “narrow…way,” it doesn’t mean we’ll always walk in it (Matthew 7:14). We are often met with choices of which path to walk on, either the one that leads to sin or the one that honors God. It is an ongoing choice we have to make.

A point closely connected to this is that the choice may not be immediately clear to us. If we could always tell with just a glance which way was the right way, why would we have to “ask?” (Jeremiah 6:16). Many things in life are black and white—there’s no dispute about what the Bible says about them. But there are also many “gray” areas. What about the internet? How about video games? Youth groups? The list could go on and on.

The warning here is to not just rush head long into what seems right, what we feel honors God, or what our friends are doing. Notice that the text says to “stand by the ways” (v. 16). There is a pause, a consideration that needs to take place. During that consideration, we must “ask” godly counsel about which one is the good path, the right path. God has “set watchmen over” us to warn of impending danger (v. 17). To ignore there cautions and stubbornly go our own way is foolish and can lead to disaster.

Still, what are these “ancient paths?” (v. 16) Is it simply what church tradition has done? Well, not necessarily. Tradition itself is not inspired, so that can’t be the basis for how we live.

So I did  a little digging into the word “ancient,” and what I found blew my mind. The word is used a couple hundred times in the Old Testament, so I didn’t look at all the references. But the word has the idea of something going so far back or so far into the future, you can’t see the beginning or end (1). This can also be both, both extremely old and passing far into the future or eternity. How do I know? Well, check some of these verses where the word is used.

  • It is used to describe how Adam would “live forever” if he ate of “the tree of life” (Genesis 3:22)
  •  It is used to describe the “everlasting” covenant between God and Abraham and “his descendants” (Genesis 17:7, 8, 13, 19)
  • It describes how God says that His “name” as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” will endure “forever” (Exodus 3:15)

You get the picture. So what does this tell us? It means that “the ancient paths” are the way God’s people have always walked and will always walk (Jeremiah 6:16). Sure, the specifics will change, but the principles will endure. Take hymnals. Those weren’t even a thing in the early church, not in the back of pews anyway. But pure, theologically-sound, God-honoring music is still what we sing, whether from the hymnal or the projector. “Modestly and discretely” changes in detail from time period to time period, but it still guides the choice of clothing (1 Timothy 2:9).

So when we are faced with decisions, let’s not just go with what seems right to us. We need to examine the ways, see where they will lead. We need to seek godly counsel. What do the spiritual authorities and mentors God has placed in our lives say? They won’t be perfect either, “but in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 11:14). And then, we need to see whether the choice we are about to make aligns with the principles and commands that have always guided the people of God—the words of Scripture. It is by following these steps that we will learn to walk in “the ancient paths” (Jeremiah 16:6).

Work Cited

  1. “Lexicon :: Strong’s H5769” Blue Letter Bible, 2020. https://www.blueletterbible.org/ lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=h5769

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