God gave the prophet Jeremiah a thankless task. Jeremiah was to prophesy, for decades, to his own people of Judah. Those people were a sinful, proud, stiff-necked bunch. Their nation stood on the precipice of being conquered by the Babylonians, and time and time again Jeremiah warned them of this impending doom. Still, despite his pleadings, the people wouldn’t heed his message and return to God. They were just too set in their sinful ways.
Since God knew this about them, the bulk of the prophesying He had Jeremiah do involved pronouncing judgment. Even though there were times when God offered some hope to the people, He never lost sight of the fact that they weren’t going to make the necessary changes to avert the Babylonian invasion. For example, in Jeremiah 13:16, Jeremiah says to the people:
Give glory to the Lord your God before He causes darkness, and before your feet stumble on the dark mountains, and while you are looking for light, He turns it into the shadow of death and makes it dense darkness.
You see, the use of the word “before” could imply that there was still a chance for the conquering to be averted. At least that’s what the reader initially thinks. But later on in that same message, in verse 23 to be precise, Jeremiah trumps that chance by saying:
Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard change its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.
What we can take from this verse is that the person who shuns God can never truly “do good.” Oh, such a person might quit some bad habits, reform a bit, get involved in some charitable causes, or do some nice things, but he will never lead a life that is genuinely pleasing to God, the kind of life that can head off eventual judgment. That kind of change is only possible via a personal, saving relationship with God wherein God changes your very nature, that sinful, Adamic nature with which we are all born.
We’d all do well to remember the unpleasant truth this verse conveys. Once a person becomes accustomed to doing evil, that’s the path he will remain in unless he somehow turns to God and allows God to do a supernatural work in his life. Don’t be fooled by the person’s hollow words, seemingly sincere resolutions, or grandiose promises to change. Putting it bluntly, change is just not that simple. All the self-will, determination, and positive attitude in the world can’t produce it any more than an Ethiopian can change his skin color or a leopard its spots. Mark it down, the people of Judah didn’t change and God eventually allowed the Babylonians to march in and lower the boom. And Jeremiah, despite all his earnest preaching and love for his people, couldn’t alter that inevitable outcome. This isn’t a happy story to be sure, but it’s certainly a real-life one from which we can learn.