The Old Paths — Obsolete, or Pressing Need?

By Wayne Jackson

The prophet Jeremiah had one of the more difficult tasks in the history of Israel. His divine assignment was to admonish the citizens of ancient Judah to return to the Lord, from whom they had wandered. The nation was languishing under the threat of impending punishment (the Babylonian captivity), and repentance was its only hope. Note, therefore, the prophet’s plea.

“Thus saith Jehovah, stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way; and walk therein, and ye shall find rest unto your souls: but they said, We will not walk therein (Jeremiah 6:16).

This passage contains such a range of truths that it is worthy of careful analysis — even for our day (cf. Romans 15:4).

The immediate context has to do with Jeremiah’s declaration that a sinister force threatened Jerusalem because of her great wickedness. O, that she would receive instruction from the Lord (6:1-8). Should this disciplinary force assault the land, Judah will be harvested like a crop of grapes — a token of the wrath of God. Even though false prophets protested, claiming that “peace” would prevail (i.e., destruction would not come), nevertheless Jehovah would “visit” them, and cast them down (vv. 9-15). Out of this background came the prophet’s invitation to return to the “old paths.”

Several important truths may be extracted from this powerful narrative.

  1. The true mode of serving God is characterized as the “old paths”; it is further described as “the good way.”
  2. The Hebrews were under obligation to “walk” in these paths.
  3. They had, however, strayed from the noble way.
  4. It was imperative that they repent and hasten back to the Lord.
  5. If they would return, “rest” could be their possession again.
A consideration of these truths is of utmost significance.

The Good Way

The prophet speaks of the “old paths” where is “the good way.” In biblical literature these expressions suggest several ideas. They may denote the days of their early history (Deuteronomy 32:7; cf. Micah 7:14) — happier times in contrast to the present distress (cf. Psalm 77:5-6). There certainly is a reference to a standard of truth, a path charted by God (Psalm 17:5), and characterized by righteousness (Psalm 23:3) and straightness (Psalm 107:7; cf. Jeremiah 31:9). It is the way wherein one “should walk” (1 Kings 8:36).

In the days of Jesus, he announced himself as “the way” to fellowship with the Father (John 14:6). When the Lord implemented his new covenant system, inspiration makes it plain that this “way” became the exclusive path of truth (Acts 4:12). In the book of Acts, the expression “the Way” is synonymous with the kingdom of Christ, the citizens of which must yield to the Lord (9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22).

How strange this seems to those of our present “pluralistic” society who so disdain the concept of a solitary “way” of truth in which all members of the human family are required to walk. The reality is, only “the truth” sets men free (John 8:32).

The “Walk”

To “walk” in the “old paths” is the equivalent of obeying that which the Lord has commanded (Jeremiah 7:23), and from that restrictive way one was not to digress — neither to the right nor left (Isaiah 30:21). The way in which the Hebrews were to “walk” was that which was taught by God (1 Kings 8:36).

The NT uses the term “walk” extensively. The Greek word, peripateo — literally to “walk around” — denotes a sphere of spiritual existence. The Christian is to “walk” in “newness of life” (Romans 6:4), following the instruction of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:4; Galatians 5:16), as this divine Guide leads through the revelation of Scripture (Ephesians 6:17).

The heavenly command to “walk” in the right way presupposes several things.

  1. God has the right to command obedience (cf. Romans 9:21).
  2. There is an objective “way” in which the walk is to be pursued. Humanity is not permitted to “direct” its own steps (Jeremiah 10:23).
  3. Man can know the way in which he is to walk. He does not have to rely upon religious “hunches.”

Drifting from the Way

Jehovah’s invitation to ancient Judah, to stand in the “old paths,” is clear evidence that the Hebrew people had wandered from the Lord’s teaching. Elsewhere we have summarized the matter in this way:

“Over and over again the prophet [Jeremiah] stresses that the nation of Judah is a ‘backsliding’ people (13 times). The Hebrews have ‘committed iniquity’ (or sin, transgression, etc. — 53 times) against Jehovah. She should thus ‘return’ (47 times) to the Lord. Because of their sins, the people of Judah would be ‘scattered’ (14 times), and held ‘captive’ (or be in ‘captivity’) (51 times) by the Babylonians ({glossSub (”Courier Publications",“Jeremiah & Lamentations”)}, p.4).

It is one of the remarkable oddities of theological history that some should allege that God’s people can never drift away from him, so as to finally be lost. Scripture is saturated with protestations to the contrary (cf. Numbers 14:12; Galatians 5:4; Hebrews 3:12; 2 Peter 2:1; Jude 5ff). For further study, see our booklet Eternal Security – Fact or Fiction?

The Urgency of Restoration

There will ever be the need to speak to wayward brethren, urging them to reunite with their God. There are numerous passages in the New Testament that stress this concept. For instance, the book of Galatians is an appeal for restoration.

Though the recipients of the letter had entered a relationship with Christ through their obedience to the gospel (3:26-27), false teachers had arisen who were leading them away from the truth to “another gospel,” i.e, a perverted one (with Judaistic overtones) (1:6-9). Accordingly, Paul addresses these brethren with great vigor. The tone of his letter is biting. He never refers to these folks as “saints”; he never thanks God for them, or praises them. His warnings are very severe (cf. 3:1ff; 4:8ff; 5:1ff).

Other books, e.g., Colossians and Hebrews, contain similar rebukes. The need for restoration is perpetual, for there will ever be the inclination to drift (cf. Hebrews 2:1ff).

In Jeremiah’s plea for a return to the “old paths,” he appeals (either explicitly or implicitly) to several lines of argument, which he hopes will prevail in convincing his erring kinsmen to stand for truth again.

  1. As indicated earlier, the expression “old paths,” or “ancient paths” is an appeal to history. During the course of their ministries, the prophets had repeatedly urged the Hebrews to “remember” the past (Deuteronomy 16:3; 24:9; Psalm 105:5). Nor does the NT ignore this principle of motivation. Jesus urged his disciples to “remember” the disobedience of Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32). Compare the admonition to Jewish Christians to remember the “former days” (Hebrews 10:32ff). Peter declares that some Christians never develop because they have not remembered their history, i.e. they have “forgotten” the cleansing from their sins (2 Peter 1:9).

    Some of us who are older can “remember” our own history in the church. In days of yore, controversies in the church were mostly matters of disagreement as to what the Scriptures teach, all parties equally reverencing the Bible as a divine production. Now, numerous professing disciples could not care less about scriptural authority. There was a by-gone era when one could travel the country and have little concern about when he would stop for worship; nowadays he is likely to encounter anything from women worship leaders, to a jazzed-up service with instrumental music. Many of our young preachers know little, if anything, about restoration history. Those who ignore history are destined to repeat its mistakes.
  2. A second motivation for returning to the “old paths” is the consequence of not doing so. The weeping prophet warned: “Hear, O earth: behold, I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruit of their thoughts” (6:19). The term “evil” has to do with a judgment from the Lord, not moral evil.

    Jeremiah thus turns from the past to the future. In a word: “If you don’t reflect upon the lessons of the past, you can, in the future, reap the reward of trusting your own thoughts.” This reference obviously is to the impending captivity. This horror was to come because the people said: “We will not walk therein” (6:16c).

    Similarly, the NT rings with the admonition that a horrible future awaits those who ignore the instructions to walk in the ways prescribed by the Creator. A stark example is found in 2 Peter, chapter 3. There, the inspired apostle reminds his readers of the great Flood of the distant past, and of the coming destruction of this globe. In view of such, the Christian must be diligent so as to “be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight” (v.14).
  3. Further, there is an entreaty relative to the law of God. Punishment will come to Judah because she has not “hearkened unto [Jehovah’s] words; and as for [his] law, they have rejected it” (6:19).

    Society cannot survive without law, and legal codes existed in abundance in the antique world. The Sumerians (in southern Mesopotamia) had a law system in the 20th century B.C. Hammurabi, 150 years later, initiated a very advanced law code. It is widely conceded, however, that the Mosaic system was much more elevated in character than the laws of Israel’s heathen neighbors. For a consideration of this matter, see our article, “The Code of Hammurabi,” in the printed version of the Christian Courier (March, 1999). Jehovah expected Israel to abide by his laws.

    There will always be those of the “outlaw” disposition, who choose to do what is right in their “own eyes” (Judges 21:25). There will ever be a need to remind men that they are subject to the “law” of the Creator.

    It is an amazing thing that in our day there are those rebels who suggest that as Christians, we are not under law. Rather, in their view, the New Testament is but a mere “love letter” — a volume of suggestions and/or recommendations. Wrong! We are under law to our Sovereign (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2), who has the “right” to command (Romans 9:21). The call back to the “old paths” is not obsolete.
  4. Finally, a concluding motivation of returning to the ancient way is that this is the only avenue to the rest" that is so sought by the weary. There is considerable parallel, at least in sentiment, between Jeremiah 6:16b and the Savior’s invitation — “Come unto me … and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28ff). There is no genuine rest when one wallows in the muck of rebellion.

A Sad Epitaph

In reading the literature of the pioneers of the American “restoration” heritage, one thrills to the ringing call to return to the “old paths.” Journals incorporated that title; sermons heralded the familiar petition. Thousands responded to this message, which was so uniquely in contrast to stale Romanism and Protestantism. It was a glorious time.

Now, the climate of the brotherhood of Christ is chillingly different. A wide variety of protestors — from the halls of our universities and through the pages of liberal journals — ridicule the concept of restoring the old paths. For ample documentation of this disgraceful phenomenon, see my article published elsewhere (The Spiritual Sword, March, 1991). It is now urgent that courageous men and women repeat the ancient refrain, “… ask for the old paths … and walk therein ….”

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.