God sent Jeremiah to confront the religious institutionalism that stood in the way of true worship of the Lord. This truly is a stunning message, because it takes place at the temple that God Himself had established for true religion, the dwelling-pace where His shekinah glory had once shone and where He had commanded the priests to make offerings to Him.
What was wrong, then, with the people's chant, "The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD" [Jer. 7:4]? The problem was that the people were trusting simply in their great religious heritage, in the physical presence of the great temple, and because of this they gave no attention to turning their hearts to the Lord. The temple had been established to lead the people in worship of the Lord, not to be a substitute for God and for a living faith in Him ...
All this was revealed in the gross immorality of these would-be worshippers. The people were violating God's commandments with vigor, without a thought as to how it might affect their relationship with God, simply because they had the temple in their midst. ... The record of Jeremiah's era shows that it was not safe to do these detestable things — it is never safe for God's people to flout His laws — for God removed even a glorious institution like the temple when it was serving as a cover for godlessness, both in terms of truth and lifestyle.
This brings us a sober message to Christians in every era, but especially to our own age when so many are convinced of God's blessing regardless of our fidelity to His Word. How much of our religious confidence today is invested in institutions rather than in God — in this parachurch organization, in that college or seminary, in our denominations and even in our church buildings, good things that cease to be good when put in God's place. Yet none of our institutions compare to the spiritual glory of the temple of the Lord. God's people vigorously supported the alumni fund of the temple of the Lord. It was the temple they lauded, and on its very presence they trusted; but God was willing to tear the temple down when the people turned their hearts from Him to it. How much more willing is He, then, to take His Spirit from our midst and send our congregations and organizations into the spiritual exile that looms so near? (p. 99-100)
Shiloh looms before every faithless generation. Regardless of how impressive religious institutions are, when God abandons them they can be lost in a moment. Once our hearts have turned away from God, once we stop living in holy ways, once we seek not His approval through truth and godliness but rather seek the ABCs of worldly success, we stand in grave jeopardy of losing the things we have so fondly trusted in the place of God — our institutions and endowments and buildings and empires. When these are placed first, when success nudges aside what is faithful to God, then God may write Shiloh upon our churches and organizations, having delivered us over to the world we have loved. (p. 101)
- Richard D. Phillips, Turning Back the Darkness: The Biblical Pattern of Reformation, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, Il, USA, 2002).