If you listen to sermons by Independent Fundamentalist Baptist pastors and evangelists, or you study enough into the IFB movement in general, you’ll hear about something called “the old paths.” The term comes from the King James rendition of Jeremiah, specifically this passage:
Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.Jeremiah 6:16; KJV
The part I put in bold is what often gets cited by IFB pastors. In almost every context it’s cited, it’s used to refer to “old-time religion.” What’s old-time religion? To quote IFB pastor Tony Hutson, it’s being an “old-fashioned, King James, slobber slinging, spit wiping, high blood pressured, bug eyed, gravy sopping, biscuit eating, red book singing, Stamp’s-Baxtord four-part harmony” Baptist.
At this point, some of my readers might be wondering if IFB pastors really, truly, unironically think this refers to modern day, southern American Baptist thought? Below is a reference from a book by John Hamblin, the well known IFB evangelist, where he talks about what the “old paths” of Jeremiah 6:16 refer to:
These ancient lanes include red-hot Bible preaching, personal and ecclesiastical separation, inspired and preserved King James Bible, church on Sunday night, choir members and special music that are spirited but not sensual, hymns for the church service, confrontational soulwinning, revival meetings, weekly prayer meetings, Sword of the Lord conferences, camp meetings, lively worship, pastor-led congregations, modesty for all believers, and standards for workers. These are the ancient lanes.Give Me that Old-Time Religion; pg. 35
I’d like to be gracious and say this is hyperbole. We’ve all heard jokes about the Reformers or other theologians where we make comparisons between their times and ours, but always in jest. Unfortunately, if you listen to enough of these IFB messages, you realize… no, this truly is what they think the “old paths” of Jeremiah 6:16 are. Or at the very least, it seems to be hyperbole in delivery and absolute serious theology in application.
Is this a proper interpretation of the verse? We shall look at this passage in context, and see just what these “old paths” are. Out of respect for any IFB readers, and in the interest of avoiding being a stumbling block, I intend to only use the KJV translation for the entirety of this post.
The Verse in Context
At the beginning of the chapter, God had been warning of coming judgment upon God’s people – specifically, the Babylonians, described as the “evil… out of the north” (v. 1). Why is judgment coming? Because “as a fountain casteth out her waters,” so God’s people “casteth out her wickedness” (v. 7).
We then get this section, which ends with verse 16:
Be thou instructed, O Jerusalem, lest my soul depart from thee; lest I make thee desolate, a land not inhabited. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall throughly glean the remnant of Israel as a vine: turn back thine hand as a grapegatherer into the baskets. To whom shall I speak, and give warning, that they may hear? behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken: behold, the word of the Lord is unto them a reproach; they have no delight in it. Therefore I am full of the fury of the Lord; I am weary with holding in: I will pour it out upon the children abroad, and upon the assembly of young men together: for even the husband with the wife shall be taken, the aged with him that is full of days. And their houses shall be turned unto others, with their fields and wives together: for I will stretch out my hand upon the inhabitants of the land, saith the Lord. For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore they shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the Lord. Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.Jeremiah 6:8-16; KJV
Though judgment had been warned about, God always includes mercy and an offering of repentance with His judgment. “Be thou instructed,” God commands the people, “lest I make thee desolate, a land not inhabited” (v. 8). Unfortunately, the people will not listen, for “their ear is uncircumcised,” and “the word of the Lord is unto them a reproach” (v. 10). For this reason, judgment is surely coming, as the Lord describes to Jeremiah (vv. 11-12). Again, why is judgment coming? Because every person “from the least of them even unto the greatest” is “given to covetousness”; they don’t even blush at the sin they’ve committed (vv. 13, 15). Even the prophets and the priests – who should have been guiding the people to follow and obey God – have given themselves over to wickedness (vv. 13-14).
Now we get to the famous verse 16, which says, “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way…” Let’s pause here a moment and ask: just what are the “ways” and the “old paths”? Is it eating fried chicken? Is it using the King James Bible? Is it singing from the red hymn book? Is it men wearing three-piece suits? Is it doing door-to-door soul winning? Is it bus ministry?
I think even the most die-hard IFB individual would have to admit (if they were being honest with themselves) that none of these things existed at the time of Jeremiah. Even if they did, we’d have to admit, given the context, they would not have even been on his mind. In fact, when we follow the flow of thought in this passage, we see that Jeremiah couldn’t be talking about this, as it would break his train of thought. Why would Jeremiah suddenly lecture the people and tell them to start doing door-to-door soul winning or leading tent revivalism when he was pronouncing the coming judgment of Babylon and had already made it plain that their “ear is uncircumcised” to begin with? The people needed to repent before they even worried about what color the hymn book was!
So what are the “ways” and “old paths”? They are the written commands of God in regards to true faith. When it says “stand in the ways” beforehand, it refers to commands or traditions passed down through the Law and Prophets. Remember that elsewhere scripture speaks more fully of “the ways of the Lord” (cf., 2 Ch 17:6; Ps 138:5). It uses similar language when it speaks of kings imitating “the ways” of previously reigning wicked kings (cf., 2 Ch 22:3, 28:2), or even when it speaks of “the ways of darkness” (Pr 2:13). These “ways” and “paths” are synonymous – just an example of a Hebrew use of parallel.
Remember, too, that earlier, in verse 8, God had commanded “be thou instructed, O Jerusalem”, so that they would not be punished. Yet God later laments in verse 10, “behold, the word of the Lord is unto them a reproach; they have no delight in it.” He adds in verse 15, “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush.” What was it the people were doing? They were violating the commands of God. They were not receiving God’s instructions through the Law and Prophets. By contrast, Jeremiah instructs them to “ask for the old paths,” so that, like the Psalmist, they can honorably request, “Shew me thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths” (Ps 25:4).
Consider likewise that in staying in the old paths, the people “shall find rest” for their souls. Where does one find rest? In the commands and written word of God and His salvific message. It is just as when Christ says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Mt 11:29). And when it says that the people reply to the prophet, “We will not walk therein,” what was it they were refusing to do? What would they “not walk therein”? Again, we must examine the context within the entire passage: they were ignoring the Law of God and the commands of His prophets. “By the word of thy lips,” says the Psalmist, “I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer” (Ps 17:4).
It is interesting that, without even going to the original Hebrew of the passage, or looking at more modern translations, we can see the true context of what the “old paths” in Jeremiah 6:16 are. Jeremiah was not giving a call to early 20th century American Baptist practices, but rather a call to return to the very word of God. It was a call not only for repentance, but for Reformation. God’s ways are the true “old paths,” because God Himself is eternal.
It is also wonderful that, as with any passage that often gets mistreated or misquoted, when we look to the true meaning of a verse, the tarnished reputation is melted away, and the beauty of God’s truth shines through. May God’s people stand in the old paths – the true old paths, and not the burdens and traditions of men. God bless.