Jeremiah 17 is a hallmark passage for biblical counseling. The reason we often teach this passage is because it highlights what is fundamentally wrong with our hearts: we were made to trust God, but we all choose to trust in our own flesh instead. The text beautifully depicts the outworking of this harmful choice, but also gives a stirring call to repentance. I like to use this passage early in the counseling process to teach counselees about their hearts and set the stage for the rest of our agenda. Without this basic biblical understanding of the heart, it is difficult for counselees to understand how to resolve their presenting problems. Jeremiah 17 can be broken down into the following sections that emphasize different points of application:
1) Consider the context and set the stage (vv. 1-4). The passage begins with the Lord’s declaration of Judah’s guilt. You can begin the teaching by asking your counselee to read verses 1-4 and then tell you the sins of Judah that they notice. Judah has embraced other gods and they have not instructed their children in the way of the Lord. Help your counselee to understand what the outworking of sin looks like for Judah. This will help them identify the fruit and thorns of idolatry in their own hearts.
2) The man who trusts in man (vv. 5-6). Jeremiah 17:5-6 says,
“Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.”
Have your counselee read the text and then ask them what happens to the heart that turns away from God. Make sure they see the repetition of the imagery in this passage—such as the shrub in the desert, parched places of the wilderness, and uninhabited salt land. This will help establish contrast later in verses 7-8. Also point out to them the second half of verse 6: “and shall not see any good come.” Ask your counselee how they’ve felt parched and dry in their life—allow them time to consider the barrenness of heart they’ve experienced. Remind them that the Israelites turned to idols and sought the desires of their own hearts. Help them understand how they have elevated their own desires above trust in God.
3) The man who trusts God (vv. 7-8). Jeremiah 17:7-8 says,
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Praise God that the text does not leave us there! Similarly to the above section, have your counselee read through the section and ask them to identify the contrasting images such as a tree planted by water, roots by a stream, green leaves, never ceasing to bear fruit. Ask your counselee what happens to the tree when the drought comes. I always make sure to emphasize that drought comes in both scenarios—trusting God and trusting man. This is the heat of our lives. There will always be difficulties and suffering because of sin in the world and in us. However, look at the difference! In verses 5-6, the tree is parched and does not see any good come. In verses 7-8, the tree’s leaves remain green! Even when the drought and heat come, the tree planted by water does not fear and does not grow anxious. I often pause here and ask my counselee if they would like to experience a life of no fear or anxiety even when the worst comes. This passage tells us we can experience this through our trust in God.
4) God our authority (vv. 9-10, 13-14). Jeremiah 17:9-10 and 13 say,
“The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”
“O Lord, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake you shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth,
for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.”
The goal in this section is to teach the counselee that their heart cannot be their own source of authority for how to live. Instead, they must turn to God. Verses 9-10 show us that our hearts are not trustworthy. But praise God He knows and reveals what is right. I remind counselees that there is residual sin in their hearts that will call to them and confuse them. We must trust in an authority outside of our own hearts. Verse 13 shows God to be the source of living water. Here we see a connection back to verse 8. God Himself is the living water for the tree. He is the water that sustains them when drought and heat come. He is “the hope of Israel.”
5) The call to hope (v. 14). Jeremiah 17:14 says,
“Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved,
for you are my praise.”
Always bring Gospel hope to the counselee. This passage contains rich hope. Do you, counselee, want to have water? Come to the Lord and He will heal! Though you have forsaken the living water, as we all have, come back to the Lord and trust in Him. Help your counselees to see that there is a promise here in verse 14. If we come to the Lord, He will heal and He will save. Let your counselee know that this is the goal of biblical counseling. As a counselor of God’s Word, you are uniquely positioned to walk with counselees through their life circumstances. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you can help them trust the Lord, so that they might be healed.
There is so much in Jeremiah 17 that can be fleshed out over multiple sessions. Sometimes we counselors are too quick to jump to other passages. Instead, let us model for our counselees how to walk through one part of Scripture and really pull out truths that apply to their lives. In these verses we identified truth about God and about ourselves. A useful homework application would be for them to re-read and study this passage during the coming week as well as James 4:1-10 (which can be used for teaching in the next session). Make sure to have your counselees write down what God shows them about things they are trusting in other than the Lord.