Question: "What are the ancient paths in Jeremiah 6:16?"
Answer: Less than twenty years before Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, first invaded Judah and Jerusalem, God told the people through Jeremiah that the judgment was coming and it was certain—at that point it was unavoidable. God had repeatedly warned the people by revealing His truth through the various prophets, and He had told the people of Israel and Judah to look for the ancient paths that God provided (Jeremiah 6:16). Sadly, the people did not heed those exhortations and instead turned away from what God had said—they rejected those ancient paths and instead walked a path deserving of and ultimately receiving judgment from God at the hands of the Babylonians.
Centuries earlier, God had made a covenant with Israel through Moses. The Mosaic Covenant was an agreement between God and the people that, if the people would obey the law God gave, they would be allowed to live in the land of Canaan and be blessed. But, rather than obey God, they turned away to follow after other gods and committed all sorts of idolatries. The covenant had been broken, and in Jeremiah’s day it was time for the consequences. The people had rejected the ancient paths (the paths laid out in the law of Moses), turning away from God’s Word.
As the nation was moving further away from God and His ancient paths, God added to those ancient paths, providing messengers to encourage the people to return to God. Prophet after prophet was sent, yet the people still turned away. So God brought judgment. The kingdom of Israel was divided (in 931 BC) after Solomon’s rule. The northern kingdom of Israel was so corrupt that they were judged first, being defeated at the hands of the Assyrians around 722 BC. Still, those who remained did not heed the ancient paths and the words of God through the prophets. So God sent Jeremiah to announce the certainty of coming judgment for the southern kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah witnessed the coming of that judgment as Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded in 605 and 597 BC and ultimately destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Survivors were exiled to Babylonian territories.
God pre-announced through Jeremiah that the coming judgment was certain and unavoidable. As God communicated that troubling news, He listed indictments against the people, including that He had entreated them to stand by and ask for the ancient paths. That was the good way, and that was the path of rest for their souls. But they refused to seek out or walk in those ancient paths (Jeremiah 6:16). They would not pay attention to God’s Word, nor would they walk in it.
Because of Judah’s stubborn refusal to return to the ancient paths, God said He would bring about the promised disaster—not as an arbitrary expression of anger but as the fruit of the people’s plans (Jeremiah 6:19). The judgment would just and deserved. Yet even in announcing that judgment, God also foretold that He would one day restore the nation, delivering them and redeeming them under a new covenant. He would be their deliverer despite their unfaithfulness in the past (Jeremiah 31:31ff). Even in judgment God shows His grace—the ancient paths have much to say about that grace.
Just as the people of Israel faced a choice of whether or not to follow God’s ancient paths, we stand at a crossroads. In those ancient paths, God calls us to acknowledge Him (Proverbs 3), to view Him as our God and treat Him accordingly (Ecclesiastes 12). Those ancient paths explain our lostness and our need for a savior (Isaiah 64:6), and they explain how God provided that Savior (Isaiah 53). Those ancient paths show us that the road to redemption is a simple one—belief in Him (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4)—and that He is faithful to all who believe (Psalm 37:25). In the final chapters (what we call the New Testament) of His revealed Word, we are given much more detail and specific guidance about how God has worked and is working. Those chapters stand as evidence that the ancient paths are not archaic or inaccessible or irrelevant. Rather, they are indeed a light to our path (Psalm 119:105).