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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 17

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



From Jeremiah 17:15 it is clear that this chapter was written prior to the Babylonian conquest. “Attempts have been made to date the chapter, but they are generally unsatisfactory, because of the lack of chronological data.”(F1)

No pattern of any kind appears in the chapter; and it seems to be a collection of various important declarations of this great prophet. Kuist noted that, “It contains a variety of examples of prophetic preaching, namely, an indictment of Judah’s guilt (Jeremiah 17:1-4), a psalm (Jeremiah 17:5-8), two proverbs (Jeremiah 17:9-10 and Jeremiah 17:11), an invocation (Jeremiah 17:12-13), a prayer (Jeremiah 17:14-18), and a sabbath proclamation (Jeremiah 17:19-27).”(F2)

The prayer (Jeremiah 17:14-18) is also identified by many writers as “Jeremiah’s Third Personal Lament.” This distinction is not noted in the chapter headings of the KJV; but, aside from that, the following chapter divisions are noted: (1) Judah’s destruction due to sin (Jeremiah 17:1-4), (2) trusting in men is cursed (Jeremiah 17:5-8), (3) the deceitful heart unable to deceive God (Jeremiah 17:9-11), (4) the salvation of God (Jeremiah 17:12-13), (5) Jeremiah’s third personal lament (Jeremiah 17:14-18), (6) regarding sabbath observance (Jeremiah 17:19-23), (7) continued violation of God’s law ends in terminal punishment (Jeremiah 17:24-27).

Verses 1-4

“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the tablet of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars; whilst their children remember their altars and their Asherim by the green trees upon the high hills. O my mountain in the field, I will give thy substance and all thy treasures for a spoil, and the high places, because of sin throughout all thy borders. And thou, even of thyself, shalt discontinue from thy heritage that I gave thee; and I will cause them to serve thine enemies in the land which thou knowest not: for ye have kindled a fire in my anger which shall burn forever.”

There are imperfections in the Hebrew text here which have made it difficult for scholars to determine the exact translation; but the broad thrust of the passage is clear enough.

“Pen of iron… point of a diamond” There are two things stressed here, (1) the permanence of the record of sin, and (2) the hardness of the heart of the people, the implication being that only a diamond-pointed stylus would be able to inscribe anything on the hearts of the Israelites!

“What is thus engraved upon the heart, though covered and closed for a time, can never be erased, but will be produced in evidence when the books are opened.”(F3)

“Your altars… their altars” There is uncertainty regarding which altars are meant by the first of these expressions. Some prefer to view them as the same as the pagan altars mentioned next; but Keil and Cheyne both pointed out that there were two altars in the temple and construed the first reference as pertaining to the true altars.

The broad meaning of the whole passage is clear enough. Back in Jeremiah 16:10, the people demanded to know, “What is our iniquity, and what is our sin?” God answered their query there; but he did so again here. He indicted them with a charge of their heartless apostasy and proved it, pointing out that they had no excuse, and that, “They could plead no extenuating circumstances of their crime that could either arrest the judgment or result in the mitigation of the deserved punishment.”(F4)

“Their children remember… their Asherim” “These were wooden pillars, or monuments, set up in honor of Ashteroth, or Astarte.”(F5) Not much is known of these objects; but it is believed that many of them, at least, were phallic symbols. This writer saw more than a hundred of these in all sizes up to eight or ten feet tall in Japan in 1952. Such devices were used in the cultic worship of the fertility gods and goddesses of ancient Canaan, a pagan practice to which the Jews proved to be quite vulnerable.

It should be remembered that the sacred text here is damaged and that some questions remain about exact translations. As Thompson said, “It seems clear that we have here a reference to the prevalence of Canaanite worship with its altars, sacred poles, and other paraphernalia of the cult, a clear rejection of the sole sovereignty of God.”(F6)

Jeremiah 17:2-3 are difficult and can be rendered metrically (that is, as poetry) only by forcing.”(F7) This is a good place to observe that much of the “poetry” in some renditions of Old Testament books is obtained in the same manner. Also, there is the dictum of some of the critics that Jeremiah could not have written both prose and poetry, resulting in their denial of one or the other as authentic Jeremiahic prophecies. To be sure, there is no sense at all in such a dictum. The application of such a foolish rule would deny that Sir Walter Scott wrote The Lay of the Last Minstrel, or The Lady of the Lake, since he was also the author of Rob Roy, and The Talisman, being also the greatest prose writer of a thousand years!

“O my mountain in the field” “This is a reference to Jerusalem; and `the field’ signifies the surrounding country.”(F8)

“Thy substance and all thy treasures for a spoil” Again on Jeremiah 17:3-4 the scholars warn of an impaired text; but it is a mistake to make too much of it. “Despite specific problems, the overall idea is that sinfulness would cost Judah their wealth, their homeland, and their freedom.”(F9)

“Thou shalt discontinue from the heritage that I gave thee” Barnes tells us that the verb `discontinue’ as used here, “Is the term for letting the land rest (Exodus 23:11), and of releasing creditors (Deuteronomy 15:2) in the sabbatical year.”(F10) The same author noted that:

As Judah had not kept those sabbatical years which God commanded, during her captivity, she would be forced to leave off tillage of the ground until the land had had its rest.

“Thou, even of thyself, shall discontinue” “The meaning of the expression `even of thyself’ may mean `through thyself,’ that is, `through your own fault.’ “(F11)

Verses 5-8


“Thus saith Jehovah, Cursed is the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from Jehovah. For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land and not inhabited. Blessed is the man that trusteth in Jehovah, and whose trust Jehovah is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreadeth out its roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat cometh, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.”

“Cursed is the man that trusteth in man” Although the beautiful contrast given here between the fate of the wicked man and the righteous man, is applicable in all generations; nevertheless, it appears that the scholars are correct who see in this warning a special message for Judah in the days of Jehoiachim, who, when threatened with the Chaldean invasion, were tempted to look to the king of Egypt for protection, instead of trusting God.(F12)

“Like the heath” The Anchor Bible renders this, “like a desert scrub”; and some renditions favor, “like a juniper”; “the true rendition of the word is “like a destitute man.”(F13) The translators who change the meaning are influenced by the parallelism with v. 8, where the word “tree” is used.

Of course, the whole passage closely resembles Psalms 1.

Verses 9-11

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it? I, Jehovah, search the mind, I try the heart, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. As the partridge that sitteth on eggs which she hath not laid, so is he that getteth riches and not by right; in the midst of his days they shall leave him, and at his end he shall be a fool.”

The question that surfaces here is, if the one who serves God fares so much better in this life than the unrighteous person, why do men then trust the arm of flesh? Barnes attempted an answer to this, saying, “Because man’s deceitful heart is incapable of seeing things in a straight-forward manner; it is full of shrewd guile.”(F14)

Our heart’s a soil that breeds
The sweetest flowers or vilest weeds,
Flowers lovely as the morning light,
Or weeds as deadly as the aconite.(F15)

The mention here in Jeremiah 17:11 of a partridge setting upon eggs she did not lay derived from, “A popular belief of antiquity, which Jeremiah used to illustrate the truth that riches unlawfully acquired are a precarious possession.”(F16) Translators usually render this as a statement that the eggs would not hatch; but John Bright in the Anchor Bible rendered it “Like a partridge hatching eggs that it laid not.”(F17)

The personal experience of this writer and his brother Robert verifies the truth that hatching “strange eggs” can be a terrible mistake for the hatcher!. Robert had a pet hen, named Bob White; we found a hawk’s nest and put two of the eggs under Bob White when the hen was setting, and one of the hawk eggs hatched. Our father wanted to kill it, but we insisted on keeping it. Then, one day when we came home from church the young hawk was sitting on the gate post with Bob White’s feathers scattered all around! He had eaten his own mother!

The old proverb about the partridge’s hatching eggs that she had not laid is not supposed to be true to natural history; but that did not prevent Jeremiah’s use of it as an illustration. There is no necessity to charge Jeremiah with believing the saying. Besides that, since the species of bird is not clearly identifiable, there might have been some bird, unknown to us now, of which the old saying was altogether true.

In fact, there was a Dr. Blayney, who thought that the bird here was not a partridge at all; and he translated the passage: “As the kore that hatcheth what it does not lay, So is he that getteth riches, and not according to right.”(F18)

Verses 12-13


“A glorious throne, set on high from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary. O Jehovah, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be put to shame. They that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken Jehovah, the fountain of living waters.”

“A glorious throne” These verses are an expression of Jeremiah’s trustful faith in Jehovah and of his confidence that God’s justice will be vindicated by the overthrow of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. This mention of `the glorious throne’ “Apostrophizes the Jewish temple as the seat of God’s glory in Zion;” but in this context it is equivalent to God who is enthroned in glory.”(F19)

“They that depart… shall be written in the earth” “Unlike those graven in the rock forever (Job 19:24), the names written in the earth shall quickly disappear.”(F20) This interpretation was given earlier by Payne Smith; but John Bright, quoting Dahood’s work in 1959, suggests that, “Based upon Ugaritic evidence, `earth’ indicates the underworld, with the meaning that, `those written in the earth are those listed for death.’ “(F21)

Several have quoted Origen’s remark that, “All men are written somewhere, the saints in heaven, but sinners on earth.” All men should so live that they may hope, at the last day, to find their names inscribed in “The Book of Life” (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 21:27, etc.).

Verses 14-18


“Heal me, O Jehovah, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise. Behold, they say unto me, Where is the word of Jehovah? let it come now. As for me, I have not hastened from being a shepherd after thee; neither have I desired the woeful days; thou knowest: that which came out of my lips was before thy face. Be not a terror unto me; thou art my refuge in the day of evil. Let them be put to shame that persecute me, but let not me be put to shame; let them be dismayed, but let not me be dismayed; bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction.”

Scholars have been unable to date this lament;(F22) but, as we have frequently noted, the exact date of various chapters in this prophecy, or in any other, is of little or no importance. The only clue to a date in the whole passage is in Jeremiah 17:15, where, the people taunted Jeremiah because none of his prophecies had come to pass. This means that the passage had to be written before the Babylonian invasion, the capture of Jerusalem, or the captivity.

“The sense of the paragraph seems to be that Jeremiah was not going to abandon his prophetic ministry simply because he had been disbelieved and persecuted. Instead, he prayed for grace to withstand opposition until the truth would be manifested, at which time all would see that it was God’s Word, and not his own, that he had been faithfully proclaiming.”(F23)

“I have not hastened from being a shepherd after thee” This was merely Jeremiah’s way of saying, “I have not abandoned the mission you have given me.”(F24)

“Destroy them with double destruction” This expression is often found in scripture, as in Jeremiah 16:18, above, and in Revelation 18:6; but the idiom never means “more than the sinner deserves.” On the other hand, as Cheyne noted, “It means amply sufficient.”(F25)

Verses 19-23


“Thus saith Jehovah unto me: Go, and stand in the gate of the children of the people, whereby the kings of Judah come in, and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem; and say unto them, Hear ye the word of Jehovah, ye kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that come in these gates: Thus saith Jehovah, Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem: neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work: but hallow ye the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers. But they hearkened not, neither inclined their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear, and might not receive instruction.”

Despite the prominence of the sabbath regulation here, one gets the impression that the Fourth Commandment of the Decalogue stands here as a synecdoche for the whole Mosaic Law.

There has been a great deal of quibbling about which gate was meant by “the gate of the children of the people”; but the passage clearly shows that no particular gate is meant. Jeremiah was to stand and preach wherever the people were.

“Gate of the children of the people… in all the gates of Jerusalem… these gates… in the gates of Jerusalem” No gate was to be exempt from Jeremiah’s preaching, not even the gate used by the kings of Judah.

Some commentators deny this passage to Jeremiah on their false assumption that sabbath observance was a feature of the post-exilic times; but for those interested in such groundless denials, Green has provided some answers. He also noted that the appearance of the Sabbath Day in this context “is a sign of the Mosaic Covenant.”(F26)

Throughout Jeremiah the conditional nature of prophecies of doom is continually stressed, a fact that will receive special attention in the next chapter, where all prophecies, whether of blessing or condemnation, are revealed as absolutely conditional. Thompson’s comment here is, “Jeremiah made it clear that the people of Judah held their destiny in their own hands.”(F27)

The particular violation of the sabbath regulations which might have precipitated this choice of that commandment to stand by metonymy for the whole Law of Moses was suggested by Feinberg as follows:

“The people who lived in the fields surrounding Jerusalem and worked the fields during the week selected the Sabbath as the day to bring their produce into the city, and the people of the city brought stores of goods and materials out of their houses to exchange for the produce, contrary to the express commandment of God through Moses.(F28)

Verses 24-27


“And it shall come to pass, if ye diligently hearken unto me, saith Jehovah, to bring in no burden through the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but to hallow the sabbath day, to do no work therein; then shall there enter in by the gates of this city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their princes, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall remain forever. And they shall come from the cities of Judah, and from the places round about Jerusalem, and from the land of Benjamin, and from the lowland, and from the hill-country, and from the South, bringing burnt-offerings, and sacrifices, and meal-offerings, and frankincense, and bringing sacrifices of thanksgiving, unto the house of Jehovah. But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden and enter in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.”

Critics, ever eager to discover something that they can classify as `an error’ find fault with Jeremiah 17:25, where it is declared that, “Kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David” should enter the gates of Jerusalem, “This is factually in error, since only the king occupied the throne.”(F29) As far as we are concerned, this is surely a gratuitous error! The singular noun “throne” already prevented ordinary people from misunderstanding the passage, anyway! If the prophet had intended the passage to mean the princes were on thrones also, he would have represented them as entering with the kings “on thrones (plural).”

What an amazing promise is included here! If, only IF, Judah had heeded the Word of God and had turned to him with their whole hearts in full obedience, God would, even at that late date, have turned aside all dangers and established Jerusalem forever! Such repentance and return Judah stubbornly refused to do.

Instead, due to the people’s continued rejection of their true God, and their persistency in idolatry, God would punish and destroy Israel. As Adam Clarke stated it:

Their sin lay at their own door. How fully were they warned; and how basely did they reject the counsel of God against themselves!(F30)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Jeremiah 17". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/jeremiah-17.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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