There are many reasons why I love the Scriptures and there are many reasons why they speak to me at different seasons in my life. One reason in particular comes because of a phrase called “illocutionary force.” I want to share with you why this phrase holds meaning in my love of the Scriptures and then give you a reasoning behind this phrase. A University of Pennsylvania article describes this phrase as: “The illocutionary force of an utterance is the speaker’s intention in producing that utterance.” With any communication there lies a meaning to that message. When I say, “I’m cold” I could simply be telling you the fact that I am cold, but you could understand my message as me telling you to change the fact that I am cold. This act of illocutionary force is essentially understanding that language is vast and could mean several different things all at the same time. I could tell you that I am hungry expecting you to give me food, but you could hear me as simply stating the fact that I’m hungry—nothing more.
This act of illocutionary force is seen in several parts of the Bible but I want to share one in particular with you. In Jeremiah 2 we have the prophet Jeremiah telling us what the LORD said to him. Jeremiah tells us that the LORD said, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (2:1-2). When you read this, I don’t want you to think of God as an emotionless machine as we sometimes make him out to be. Sometimes we get in this habit of thinking of God as this all controlling, judging machine that has no feelings, but that is not how God works as we see in this text. God is speaking to his nation Israel and he says, “I remember how devoted you were to me.”
Move down to verse 5, we read that God asks a question of his nation Israel: “What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves” (2:5). That sounds like so many of us in our relationship with God. We get so connected with God—we are on fire for him and are ready to do his mission, but for whatever reason we lose that connection and God is left there going, “What did I do?” We see God’s heart in this text, and then we skip down to verse 13 to continue to see his heart where he says, “My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (2:13). As a historical side note that will hopefully connect you with what God is saying, I want to share Palestine’s way of collecting water. Palestine has three methods of collecting water, the first and best way is fresh running water that is found in springs and streams (hence the phrase living water). The second method comes from ground water that is collected from a well. The last method is runoff water that is collected in a cistern. This last method is what Jeremiah uses to explain God’s heart. Cisterns collected water, but they also collected silt and mosquito larvae. Cisterns were not the best source of collecting water, so we can see the insanity that God is showing to us when he says his people left his spring of living water for cisterns that can’t even hold water.
The Israelites committed two sins: they abandoned God and tried their own methods. The Israelites chose sin, and they chose their sin over God. It’s insanity that the Israelites chose their sin over God, but it’s the same thing we do time and time again. For those of us who time and time again choose our sin over God, let me encourage you with this: the Apostle Paul, a man who called himself the worst sinner (1 Timothy 1:15) also says “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Too often we run back to our former lives—we return to broken cisterns that don’t hold water expecting something different but we already know the outcome.
I want you to notice the illocutionary force in Jeremiah’s account and in what Paul says to us. Though the text does not say a thing about God’s love, you know it’s there. You see God’s heart for Israel as they turn their backs on him. You see God’s heart for us as Paul speaks of the crucifixion and how it’s no longer us, but it’s all Christ who died for us. Notice the second part of Galatians 2:20 where it says, “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” This second part speaks of Christ’s love for us, but I want you to notice the display of that love: “and gave himself for me.” We can hear that God loves us, but his love takes on new meaning when we see it displayed in the cross of Jesus Christ. That love is displayed for all, even the ones who try to dig their own cisterns. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Jeremiah 2:1-2, 5, 13 // Galatians 2:20 // 1 Timothy 1:15 // Romans 5:8