The phrase “ancient paths” in Jeremiah 6:16 refers to following God’s original instructions and ways He set out for His people. After years of Israel rebelling and turning away from God, He urged them through the prophet Jeremiah to return to the “ancient paths” where the good way is so they can find rest for their souls.
In Jeremiah’s time, the people of Judah had strayed far from God’s laws and instructions. They were worshipping idols, committing injustice, and living in open rebellion against God. Through Jeremiah, God confronted their sin and called them to repent and return to Him. If they would walk in the “ancient paths” and follow God’s ways, they would experience blessing and restoration.
The “ancient paths” represent obedience to God’s laws and instructions given long ago to His people. Some key elements of the “ancient paths” include:
- Obeying the Ten Commandments and God’s moral laws
- Following the instructions for worship that God established
- Observing the Sabbath day and appointed festivals
- Carrying out the requirements of the sacrificial system
- Generosity and care for the poor and needy
These practices had been clearly laid out for Israel long before, going all the way back to the time of Moses. But they had wandered from the “ancient paths” by disregarding God’s laws and doing whatever seemed right in their own eyes. God wanted them to repent and return to the old reliable ways He had prescribed for their good.
In calling Judah to return to the “ancient paths,” God was showing the timeless value and importance of His instructions. His laws are not arbitrary or temporary but are given for the lasting benefit of His people. Even though centuries had passed, the ancient paths remained relevant and life-giving. Turning back to them was the only way Judah could experience renewal and avoid judgment.
This phrase speaks to believers today about the importance of remaining faithful to God’s Word. His instructions there are ancient paths for how to live in covenant relationship with Him. Even with changing times, these ancient paths—honoring God, loving others, pursuing justice, worshipping rightly, living with integrity—remain the ways of blessing. Straying from them may seem appealing in the moment but ultimately leads to pain and emptiness.
The Historical Context of Jeremiah 6:16
To fully understand the meaning of the ancient paths, it is important to see the historical context in which Jeremiah gave this message. Jeremiah prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah roughly between 626-586 BC leading up to and during the Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem.
During this time, the kings and people of Judah had abandoned God’s laws and commands. Idolatry and false worship were widespread as the people embraced the pagan practices of surrounding nations (Jeremiah 2:13, 11:13). Greed, dishonesty and mistreatment of the poor was commonplace, as those with power and wealth took advantage of the weak (Jeremiah 5:26-28). False prophets spoke lies and gave hollow assurances of peace to the people (Jeremiah 6:14).
In the midst of rampant sin and rebellion, Jeremiah urged the people to walk in the ancient paths by returning to faithful obedience to God. This was their only hope for experiencing restoration and avoiding the judgment their sin deserved. Sadly, they largely rejected Jeremiah’s warning and continued headlong into idolatry and wickedness. The end result was the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon Jeremiah had foretold.
But God still extended the offer in Jeremiah 6:16 – if they would even at that late point turn and follow His ancient paths, they would find the life and shalom He desired for them all along. Tragically, they continued to reject God’s outstretched hand.
Key Elements of the Ancient Paths
What were some of the key “ancient paths” God desired Judah to walk in that they had departed from?
1. Obeying the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments were foundational commands God gave Israel to live by when He established His covenant with them at Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). Sadly, by Jeremiah’s day hundreds of years later, Judah was breaking all ten:
- They had embraced idols and false gods, violating the first two commandments.
- They misused God’s name carelessly in their oaths and rituals.
- They worked on Sabbath and failed to honor it as holy.
- They dishonored their parents and ancestors who had honored God.
- They committed murder, adultery, theft and lied rampantly.
- Leaders coveted wealth and power at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.
Returning to the ancient paths meant living by these timeless moral standards that reflected God’s righteous character.
2. Following Prescribed Modes of Worship
In addition to the Ten Commandments, God also gave Israel detailed instructions for tabernacle and temple worship. There were specific guidelines for the priesthood, offerings, rituals, feasts, and more that God commanded as the right and acceptable ways to approach Him (Leviticus 1-7; 16-17).
But by Jeremiah’s day, worship was chaotic and idolatrous. The people adopted pagan customs and brought offerings carelessly, failing to follow God’s instructions (Jeremiah 7:21-23). The ancient paths called them back to diligent obedience in worship that honored God’s specifications at the temple.
3. Observing the Sabbath and Appointed Festivals
Another key aspect of the ancient paths was maintaining the Sabbath day and festivals the Lord instituted in the Torah. The Sabbath was intended as a gift – a weekly day of rest and remembrance of God’s covenant. The festivals like Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles commemorated God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history and offered times of joyful celebration.
But by Jeremiah’s day, the Sabbath was treated carelessly as people worked and sought their own pleasure (Jeremiah 17:19-27). God’s appointed festivals were ignored as the people adopted pagan festivals instead. Part of returning to the ancient paths meant re-embracing this biblical rhythm of work and rest, obedience and joyful remembrance before the Lord.
4. Carrying Out the Sacrificial System
One of the great privileges of the ancient paths was access to God through the sacrificial system. God provided a way for sinful people to approach Him through offerings and sacrifices made by the priests on their behalf. This foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.
But in Jeremiah’s day the sacrificial system had become empty ritual. Jeremiah 7:21-23 makes clear God’s priority was obedient hearts before ritual sacrifice. Still, when offered rightly with repentance, the ancient paths of animal sacrifice remained the means into God’s presence – pointers to the coming Lamb of God.
5. Social Justice for the Vulnerable
One oft-overlooked aspect of the ancient paths was God’s concern for the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners. The law called Israel to look out for the vulnerable and marginalized among them (Exodus 22:21-27). Justice and compassion were closely tied to loving God.
But the rulers in Jeremiah’s time exploited the weak. Jeremiah 5:26-28 condemns those who have “grown fat and sleek” in their wickedness as they fail to defend the vulnerable. Returning to the ancient paths meant re-embracing social justice as inherent to righteous living.
These elements give a picture of what God’s people had abandoned in Jeremiah’s time – right worship, sacrificial access to God, Sabbath rest and delight, care for the oppressed. God pleaded with them to return to these ancient paths not as empty rituals but as the proven ways of walking with God.
Why Were These Called the Ancient Paths?
These laws and practices were called “ancient” for several key reasons:
- Their divine origin – These were given by God and reflecting His character from ancient times.
- To Israel’s ancestors – They had been passed down and practiced since the time of Moses.
- Contrast with recent apostasy – Compared to the fresh paganism in Judah, God’s way stood ancient.
- Truth is timeless – Gods’ commands are always relevant despite changing times.
Though hundreds of years had passed, these “ancient paths” remained the faithful pattern of obedience, worship and care for the marginalized. They were “paths” to walk in – not dusty relics of another age. And at their heart, they reflected God’s heart of justice, mercy and humility Micah 6:8 summarizes so well. God pleadingly held these life-giving ancient paths out to rebellious Judah again in Jeremiah’s day, hoping they would return and walk in them once more.
The Promise of Finding Rest in the Ancient Paths
God gave a wonderful promise to Judah if they would return to the ancient paths – they would find rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16). Why was this rest so needed?
Judah’s rebellion had left them empty, anxious and destabilized. Forsaking God eroded the foundations of meaning, purpose, values and ethics their society was built on. Walking in the selfish and destructive ways of idolatry and injustice had ruined relationships, families and communities. Even their false prophets left them unrestful with hollow assurances of “peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Returning to the ancient paths represented a choice to come back under God’s wisdom and Lordship. To walk where He walked before, uncompromisingly. God knew this was the only way back to wholeness, purpose and blessing. Only by following His ancient ways could rest and fulfillment be re-found. What a promise tucked into this gracious call! God upheld the life and shalom that comes from walking in His ways.
This reminds us that moral relativism, postmodern uncertainty and rejecting biblical values always ends in emptiness. As Tim Keller says “There is a way of righteousness and wisdom that has been known, and departing from it leads to death.” How gracious that God always keeps His ancient paths open to lead us home!
Examples of Walking in the Ancient Paths
While most of Judah rejected Jeremiah’s call to turn back to the ancient paths, there were some shining examples of those who chose to walk in them instead:
2 Kings 22-23 records King Josiah of Judah leading extensive religious reforms based on the Book of the Law that had been neglected and lost for years. Josiah sought to realign the nation with God’s ways by:
- Renewing the covenant between God and Judah
- Removing idols and false altars
- Reinstituting proper temple worship
- Celebrating the Passover feast
His zeal to walk in the ancient paths of obedience led to a season of revival among the righteous remnant who joined him. Sadly it was short-lived, but Josiah models what wholehearted pursuit of God’s ancient ways could look like.
Jeremiah not only preached the message to return to the ancient paths, he modeled it personally. He remained unmarried and celibate to underscore the coming judgment. He called the people back to Sabbath obedience even when it led to persecution (Jeremiah 17:19-27). He purchased a field to demonstrate hope in God’s promises (Jeremiah 32:6-15). In his own life, Jeremiah walked in integrity to the ancient paths he proclaimed.
Daniel’s Exile Faithfulness
After Judah’s exile in Babylon, Daniel became an exemplar of living by biblical values amidst a pagan culture. As an exile in Babylon, he could have compromised and conformed to fit in. But Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself” (Daniel 1:8) and continued obeying and honoring God even under threat of death. His courage held to ancient paths in a “new” setting.
These examples remind us that even when most reject God’s ways, some still choose the ancient paths. In every age and setting, those who walk closely with God look steadfastly to His Word as a lamp guiding their steps on His age-old ways.
The Ancient Paths Lead to Jesus
When we follow the ancient paths to Jesus, we see He is the fulfillment and embodiment of all they speak of. Though the nation of Judah failed to walk in them, Jesus perfectly did. In His life we see:
- Perfect obedience to the law of God
- Zeal for true worship that honors God
- Intimacy with the Father through times of prayer and rest
- Complete surrender to God’s will
- Tireless devotion to justice and compassion for the downtrodden
All the ancient paths find their resolution in Him. And now as believers with Christ’s Spirit, we can walk in these ways too by following Him each day. While Judah failed to find the rest God promised in the ancient paths, as believers abiding in Christ we have full access to it (Matthew 11:28-30).
May this promise from Jeremiah stir us to evaluate any areas where we may have wandered from God’s ancient paths set forth in Scripture. And may we as God’s people turn our feet back to His biblical ways that alone lead to life and peace.