Defining the Term
According to Brown, Driver & Briggs, the Hebrew term שׁוּב(shûb) is a verb that means “turn back, return.”In the Qal stem, shûb is the simple action of turning back from following something or someone such as God, a belief or a parent’s instruction. Additionally, Shûb can also denote causative action. For example, a person can turn back from something or someone for a various number of reasons such as turning back in fear, shame or even from a promise or a vow.Still, it is essential to note that the term can just simply mean turn around.
The phrases “come back” or “go back” are also proper translations of shûb.However, when the term is used in this manner, it usually correlates to being revived from sickness that leads to death or even the revival from death.In this sense, then, shûb is referring to a renewal of life. Lastly, unlike many Hebrew verbs that can change their meaning across the verbal stems, shûb maintains its meaning irrespective of the stem, thus its general meaning to “turn back, return” is reliable.
Old Testament Usage
With just over 1050 occurrences, shûb is the twelfth most frequently used verb in the Old Testament Scriptures.Most of its appearances are in: “Jeremiah (111 times) followed by Psalms (seventy-one times), Genesis (sixty-eight times), [and then] Ezekiel (sixty-two times).”Interestingly, with very few exceptions, shûb is restricted to the Qal and Hiphil stems within the Old testament writings.This means that in most of its occurrences, shûb will indicate either active voice/simple action (Qal) – or – active voice/causative action (Hiphil).
There are two major distinctions between the uses of shûb that determine how it is to be properly understood. The first use implies physical motion or movement.For example, in Genesis 22:5, Abraham states to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad [Isaac] will go over there; and we will worship and return [שׁוּבָה– shûvāh] to you” (New American Standard Bible). Within this context, Abraham and Isaac would physically return to the servants. Notably, this type of usage of shûb is how it is most commonly used in the Old Testament. Significantly, a few of those occurrences involve God as the subject, “At the appointed time I [God] will return to you [Sarah]” (Gen 18:14).However, within this literary context, shûb should imply movement rather than physical motion.
The second distinction occurs in the Qal stem and is theologically the most crucial because it involves passages that deal with “the covenant community’s return to God (in the sense of repentance), or turning away from evil (in the sense of renouncing and disowning sin), or turning away from God (in the sense of becoming apostate).”Unsurprisingly, the majority of these types of passages occur in the, “classical/literary prophets 113 times, with Jeremiah leading the way (forty-eight times).”Some clear examples of the covenantal usage of shûb are 1 Kings 8:33, Isaiah 31:6, Jeremiah 8:4, Hosea 6:1, and Amos 4:6.
Lastly, there are a number of passages in the Old Testament where shûb means “to return from exile.”Some of these passages are Ezra 2:1, Nehemiah 7:6, Zechariah 10:9 and Jeremiah 22:10. When used in this way, it is important to recognize that a return from exile and a return to the covenant are directly related. More specifically, “a return from exile was reclamation as much as a return from any form of sin. That God should permit either return is corroborative of his covenantal faithfulness.”
Interpreting the term in Jeremiah 15:19
In Jeremiah 15:19, שּׁוּבoccurs three times with all three uses having theological significance. It reads, “Therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘If you return [תָשׁוֻּב], then I will restore you – Before Me you will stand; And if you extract the precious from the worthless, You will become My spokesman. They for their part may turn [יָשֻׁ֫טוּ] to you, But as for you, you must not turn [תָשׁוֻּב] to them’” (NASB). Understood within its proper literary context, this passage is Yahweh’s response to Jeremiah’s lament and complaint to God regarding his special role as prophet, which Jeremiah expresses in the two preceding verses.
On his lament (vv. 17-18), Thompson writes that “Jeremiah’s special role separated him from the normal social relations enjoyed by others [and] he was isolated by the grim task that was his to perform.”Another scholar writes, “He was set apart from his fellows by the indwelling prophetic spirit, and cut off from popular activities because of his indignation over national sin.”In verse 19, Yahweh, in response to Jeremiah’s lament, calls upon Jeremiah to repent and return to Him. The irony within this first use of shûb is that it was Jeremiah who often called on his people to repent and return to God. Now, Yahweh is calling upon Jeremiah himself to repent.Here, shûb should be understood theologically as a renewed trust in God.
After Yahweh exhorts Jeremiah to renew his trust in Him, the attention abruptly shifts over to the people where the two remaining uses of the term shûb are in reference to their covenantal return. Where it reads, “They for their part may turn [יָשֻׁ֫טוּ] to you,” God is reaffirming Jeremiah’s call as prophet and that the “people about whom he is so troubled are the ones who need to turn to him and to the word he speaks.”Of course, the word that Jeremiah speaks is the Word of God, which is seen in the declaration, “Thus says the Lord,” a phrase that occurs 157 times throughout the book of Jeremiah.When the people turn toward Jeremiah’s prophetic words they are, in essence, turning back to the Lord.
The final use of shûb in v. 19 reads, “But as for you, you must not turn [תָשׁוֻּב] to them.” The main thrust here is that although the people are dependent on Jeremiah to hear God’s word, Jeremiah has no need to heed anything the people say to him.In closing, the three uses of shûb within this passage are theological. Jeremiah must return to the Lord thus renewing his trust in Him, and the people must turn to the Lord through heeding to the words of the prophet.
This word study on the term shûb has shown that it is a rather simple term that means to turn back or return to someone or something. It has also been shown that shûb is a very diverse word that is used in many different applications throughout the Scriptures. However, and of greater importance, when linked to the God of the Scriptures it has deep theological significance, which was revealed in the passage of Jeremiah 15:19 where it is used three times – with each use exhorting the people to turn away from their transgressions and turn back to the Lord with a heart of repentance. That said, repentance is the main principle that is applicable to all people in all times.
Although Christians have had their sins cleansed by the blood of Jesus His Son, the Christian still must confess their sins to the Lord regularly (1 Jn. 1:7-10). This is because Christians are saved but have yet to experience the full measure of God’s great blessings of living in the new heaven and new earth. This means that Christians still have the propensity to sin and thus, Christians, much like those in the writings of the prophets, must turn away from their transgressions and turn toward the Lord with a heart of repentance. This is where the theological meaning of the Hebrew term shûb has great significance for Christians. However, the same is true for the non-Christian.
When a non-believer encounters the living God they also come face to face with their sin. Simply put, there is no getting around personal sin when confronting God (Lk. 5:8). In response, the non-believer must make the decision to either hide in their sin or to turn to the Lord and repent of their sin. The latter decision of turning toward God is the hope and prayer that all Christians should have for the non-Christian. It is no surprise, then, that the term shûb is threaded throughout the fabric of the Holy Scriptures. In closing, let us all turn away from all transgressions against our great God and turn toward the cross of His Son – Jesus the Christ.
. “7725 – שׁוּב– shûb,” Bible Hub, Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon entry, para #1, accessed December 10, 2018, http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7725.htm
. Ibid., para #3
. Ibid., para #5, 6.
. Ibid., para #7.
. Ibid., sections labeled in bold: Qal, Pulal, Hiphil, Hophal, Peal
. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, ©1980), 909.
. Harris, 909.
. Gary D. Pratico and Miles V. Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2007), 127.
. Harris, 909.
. Harris, 909.
. J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, ©1980), 397.
. R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah & Lamentations: An Introduction & Commentary(Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1973), 104.
. Thompson, 397.
. Ibid., 398.
. Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary(Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, ©2002), 242.
. “Thus says the Lord – Jeremiah, flex/phrase word search,” Accordance Bible Software, version XII, accessed December 17, 2018.
. Thompson, 398.
Fretheim, Terence E. Jeremiah: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, ©2002.
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Publisher, ©1980.
Harrison, R. K. Jeremiah & Lamentations: An Introduction & Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1973.
Pratico, Gary D., and Miles V. Van Pelt. Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar. 2nded. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2007.
Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, ©1980.
“Thus says the Lord – Jeremiah, flex/phrase word search.” Accordance Bible Software, version XII. Accessed December 17, 2018.
“7725 – שׁוּב– shûb.” Bible Hub. Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon entry. Accessed December 10, 2018. http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7725.htm