For after I had turned away, I relented,
and after I was instructed, I slapped my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was confounded,
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.
–Jeremiah 31:19 ESV
The Bible often employs picturesque language to communicate its message. Such is the case in this verse from Jeremiah. God’s people found themselves in exile after repeatedly offending God. Yet God would not forget his people. Hope in a future restoration was promised.
The exile was the chastening and disciplining from the Lord. Finding themselves in a strange land and subjected to a godless leader, the people would turn back to the Lord. As they realized how foolish they had behaved toward God, they responded with what the New Testament calls a godly sorrow.
Jeremiah paints a picture when he indicated that part of the response was that they slapped their thigh. We don’t use that terminology today. If we ever do talk about slapping our thigh, we mean it to be that we are joyfully surprised by something. But what did Jeremiah mean by the phrase?
First, we get a sense of the meaning by considering the other statements made in the verse.
- I relented.
- I was ashamed.
- I was confounded.
- I bore the disgrace of my youth.
Those four statements all give the same sense. The slapping of the thigh was the physical response to the inner shame experienced by having been disciplined by the Lord for turning from him.
Second, we are aided by seeing how various translators have tried to express this idiom into the English language and culture. I like that the ESV has retained the Hebrew verbiage, but consider these expressions from other renderings of the verse.
- I beat my breast (New International Version).
- I kicked myself (New Living Translation).
- I slapped my forehead (International Standard Version).
- I hung my head (God’s Word Translation).
Do you see the picture? We should not gloss over our rebellious ways. We should be so stricken by our turning from the Lord, that our entire being is effected.
When I look back at my own journey, I cannot help but wonder how I could have been so stupid, so many times. How amazing is it that the Lord provides mercy and grace for such miserable travelers?
Similarly the apostle Paul found this same despair and hope true in his journey. We hear the echo of Jeremiah in his statement to the Romans,
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
–Romans 7:24-25 ESV