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Bible Commentaries

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

- Jeremiah

by Albert Barnes

Introduction to Jeremiah

1. Jeremiah was by birth a priest, and dwelt at Anathoth, a village in the tribe of Benjamin, about three miles north of Jerusalem. The name is not found until the time of David, when, however, it seems to have become common (see 1Ch 12:4, 1 Chronicles 12:10, 1 Chronicles 12:13), and most probably it signifies that Yahweh shall exalt.

It is a subject of dispute whether or not Hilkiah, the father of Jeremiah, was the high priest of that name, who found the Book of the Law in the Temple 2 Kings 22:8. It is at least possible that he was. The more than ordinary respect felt for the prophet by Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, and other reasons support the supposition that Jeremiah was a man of high birth.

His call to the prophetic office came in the 13th year of Josiah. It was a time when danger was once again gathering around the little kingdom of Judah, and to Jeremiah was assigned a more directly political position than to any other of “the goodly fellowship of the prophets;” as both the symbols shown to him and the very words of his institution prove. If we glance back at the previous history, we find that the destruction of Sennacherib’s army in the 14th year of Hezekiah (693 b.c.), though it had not freed the land from predatory incursions, had nevertheless put an end to all serious designs on the part of the Assyrians to reduce it to the same condition as that to which Salmaneser had reduced Samaria. The danger of Judaea really rose from Egypt on the one hand and Babylon on the other. In Egypt Psammetichus put an end to the subdivision of the country, and made himself sole master in the 17th year of Assurbanipal (649 b.c.), being the 24th of Manasseh. Since he reigned for 54 years, he was - during the last 18 or 19 years of his life - contemporary with Josiah, but it was his successor Necho who killed Josiah at Megiddo. Meanwhile, as Egypt grew in strength, so Nineveh declined, partly from the effects of the Scythian invasion, but still more from the growing power of the Medes, and from Babylon having achieved its independence.

Two years after the battle of Megiddo, Nineveh fell before a combined attack of the Medes under Cyaxares and the Babylonians under Nabopalassar. But Nabopalassar does not seem to have been otherwise a warlike king, and Egypt remained the dominant power until the fourth year of Jehoiakim. In that year, 586 b.c., according to the cylinders, Nebuchadnezzar defeated Necho at Carchemish. Having peaceably succeeded his father, he returned to Judaea, and Jehoiakim became his vassal. After three years of servitude Jehoiakim rebeled 2 Kings 24:1, and died. Three months afterward, his son Jehoiachin, the queen-mother, and a large number of nobles and artificers, were carried captive to Babylon.

The growth of Egypt into a first-rate power under Psammetichus Jeremiah 2:18, Jeremiah 2:36, raised the question of a close alliance with him. The youthful Jeremiah gave his voice against it. Josiah recognized that voice as inspired, and obeyed. His obedience cost him his life at Megiddo; but four years later Necho was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish. On that day, the fate of the Jewish nation was decided, and the primary object of Jeremiah’s mission then ceased.

The ministry of Jeremiah really belonged to the last 18 years of Josiah’s reign. Judah’s probation was then going on, her salvation still possible; though each year Judah’s guilt became heavier, her condemnation became more certain. But to the eye of man, her punishment seemed more remote than ever. Jehoiakim was the willing vassal of Egypt, the supreme power. No wonder that, being an irreligious man, he scorned all of Jeremiah’s predictions of utter and early ruin. It is no wonder that he destroyed Jeremiah’s scroll, as merely the record of the outpourings of mere fanaticism. It was his last chance, his last offer of mercy: and as he threw the torn fragments of the scroll onto the fire, he symbolically threw there his royal house, his doomed city, the Temple, and all the people of the land. It was in this fourth year of Jehoiakim that Jeremiah boldly foretold the greatness of Nebuchadnezzars empire, and the wide limits over which it would extend. This prophecy Jeremiah 25:0 placed his life in danger, so that “the Lord hid” him and Baruch Jeremiah 36:26. When Jeremiah appears again, Nebuchadnezzar was advancing upon Jerusalem to execute the prophecy contained in Jeremiah 36:30-31. And with the death of Jehoiakim, the first period of Judah’s history was brought to a close. Though Jeremiah remained with Zedekiah, and tried to influence him for good, yet Jeremiah’s mission was over. Jeremiah himself testifies that the Jewish Church had gone with Jehoiachin to Babylon. Zedekiah and those who remained in Jerusalem were only the refuse of a fruit-basket from which everything good had been culled Jeremiah 24:1-10, and their destruction was only a matter of course. Jeremiah held no distinctive office toward them.

Such was the political state of things in the evil days in which Jeremiah was commissioned to make Yahweh’s last appeal to His covenant-people. However, to understand the prophet’s position fully, the moral change which had come over the Jews, and which was the real cause of the nation’s ruin, must be noted.

Up to the time of Manasseh, though there had been bad as well as good kings, and though there had probably always been a certain amount of nature-worship and of unauthorized rites upon the hill-tops, yet the service of Yahweh had been the sole established and even dominant religion of the people. But upon Manasseh’s accession a new order of things began; and, in spite of his repentance, it continued throughout his long reign of 55 years. Not only was there the open establishment of idolatry, but a reign of terror commenced, during which not only the prophets, but all who were distinguished for religion and virtue, were cruelly murdered. The reign of Manasseh was important in another particular. During it the land was slowly recovering from its utterly exhausted state at the end of the Assyrian wars; and when Josiah came to the throne, there was both great prosperity among the people, and also a better state of feeling. Great and good men stood forward as leaders in defense of their national religion and covenant-God. And the nation itself had become as dissatisfied with Baal and Moloch as their forefathers had been with Yahweh. In his 18th year Josiah entered with all his heart into the work of restoring the national religion, and labored with a stern earnestness to remove every vestige of idol-worship from the land. This was half the work; the other half was entrusted to Jeremiah. The king could cleanse the land; the word of God alone, speaking to their consciences, could cleanse men’s hearts. Therefore, the office of Jeremiah was to show that a change of morals must accompany the public reformation effected by Josiah, or it would not be accepted.

It was in Josiah’s 13th year, when entire quiet prevailed in the political world, and Jeremiah was himself little more than 20 years of age, that his appointment took place, and two symbols were shown to him by which he learned the main reasons why the word of Yahweh was entrusted to his charge. By the first, the branch of an almond-tree, he was taught that judgment was awake in the land. Judah must decide at once whether she will serve Yahweh or Baalim, and her choice must be real. If she chooses Yahweh, she must prove that such is her choice by worshipping Him in purity and holiness. For, secondly, by the symbol of the seething caldron, he learned that a dreadful calamity was impending over his country.

There are in Jewish history two overwhelming catastrophes: The first being the destruction of the holy city and temple by Nebuchadnezzar. And the second was the destruction of the holy city and temple by Titus. The preaching of Jeremiah caused the first to be a new birth to the chosen people. The preaching of Christ caused the Christian Church to spring forth from the other. But if their preaching had been more generally listened to, Jerusalem might have been saved each time. It was because people passed on without heeding the warning that the nation thus fell twice Luke 19:42.

Jeremiah was not, however, one “dumb before the shearers, and that opened not his mouth” Isaiah 53:7. Of all the prophets there is not one who so frankly lays open to us his brooding melancholy nature. He discloses to us his innermost thoughts. We find him sensitive to a most painful degree, timid, shy, hopeless, desponding, constantly complaining, and dissatisfied with the course of events, with the office which had been thrust upon him, and with the manner of the Divine Providence. Jeremiah was not one whose sanguine temperament made him see the bright side of things, nor did he quickly find peace and happiness in doing his Master’s will. And yet we never find him rebuked, because he was doing his duty to the utmost extent of his powers. Timid in resolve he was unflinching in execution. As fearless when he had to face the whole world as he was dispirited and prone to complaining when alone with God. He is a noble example of the triumph of the moral over the physical nature. His whole strength lay in his determination to do what was right at whatever cost. He made everything yield to whatever his conscience told him he ought to do. Danger, opposition, mockery without; fear, despondency, disappointment within, availed nothing to shake his constant mind. The sense of duty prevailed over every other consideration; and in no saint were the words of Paul 2 Corinthians 12:9 better exemplified.

Many of the same characteristics may be seen in Jeremiah’s style of writing. He did not possess those gifts which make the orator.

He did not have any of that strength and vigor, nor of that warmth of imagination, which characterize Isaiah and Micah. His usual method is to set his main thought before the mind in a succession of images. They seldom grow out of one another, but simply form a succession of illustrations, each of which is full of poetry, but with this remarkable peculiarity, that Jeremiah never uses his picture as such, but mixes up with it words which are appropriate, not to the metaphor, but to the idea which he is illustrating (e. g., Jeremiah 1:15; Jeremiah 6:3-5). His simile is constantly dismissed almost before it has been fully presented to the mind in order that he may declare his meaning in plain and unvarnished prose. This fullness of illustration, often diffuse and inconsecutive, is exactly in harmony with Jeremiah’s subject. No lot could have been more dreary to a man of intense patriotism like Jeremiah than to see the ruin of his country steadily approaching, to mark each step of its advance, to have to point out its causes, and to know the sole remedy, but also to know that none would heed his words. Could he have only witnessed the return of the exiles, and have known that the restoration of the Jewish Church was, humanly speaking, His work, his despondency would have given way to joy. But no such comfort was vouchsafed him. He was required to give up all the innocent joys of life Jeremiah 15:17; to abandon the most cherished privilege of a Jew, and live unmarried Jeremiah 16:2; and to abstain even from the civilities and sympathies of society Jeremiah 16:5; only to be an object of universal abhorrence. This was Jeremiah’s calling; not to be a poet or orator, but to persuade people by the force of his moral character, and to conquer by suffering.

And his style is in keeping with the man. He spoke as he thought. Ever brooding over his message to his people it presented itself to his mind in many aspects, but was in substance ever the same. We have no change of subjects in his prophecy. He has only the single cry of Woe! All he can do is to adapt his unvarying tale to the existing state of things, and to present it under new images. He is a true poet, but the poet of sorrow. Though sorrow comes only occasionally, yet it comes to all, and then Jeremiah, the prophet of suffering, is full of instruction for us. Perhaps no book of Holy Scripture sets so plainly before people the great issues which depend upon right and wrong.

2. There can be little doubt that the Book of Jeremiah grew out of the scroll which Baruch wrote down at the prophet’s mouth in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, and which was completed and read before the king in his fifth year, in the ninth month Jeremiah 36:0. This scroll contained a record of “all that God had spoken unto Jeremiah against Israel and against Judah and against all the nations” during the 23 years which had elapsed since the prophet’s call Jeremiah 36:2. However, since Jeremiah 21:1-14 was written during the reign of Zedekiah, Jeremiah 19:1-15, along with (perhaps) Jeremiah 20:0 written as a sort of appendix, is the last chapter which can have formed part of that collection. Apparently, therefore, we have at most only fragments of Jehoiakim’s roll, the largest of which consists of Jer. 2–10. Probably also the prophecies against the Gentiles in Jer. 46–49 were contained in the scroll, but were placed in their present position in order to connect them with the prophecies against Babylon Jer. 50–51 written in Zedekiah’s fourth year. So, also excepting Jeremiah 13:0, we must include in the scroll the short prophecies which precede that of “the potter’s vessel” Jeremiah 19:1-15. From Jeremiah 20:0 all signs of any general arrangement vanish. Attempts indeed have been made to show that these later chapters are grouped together upon some sort of system, but they are far-fetched and unsatisfactory.

Therefore, the conclusion forced upon the mind is that Jeremiah had proposed to himself to gather into one volume all his prophecies, and that this is the reason why Jehoiakim’s scroll has not come down to us as a whole, but that he died in Egypt before he had been able to accomplish his design, and that, at his death, whoever had charge of his writings (probably Baruch) did not feel himself at liberty to attempt any arrangement of them. Jeremiah 52:0 was added to complete the history, and, since it contains a notice of events more than 20 years after Jeremiah’s death, it is probable, that, long before this time, his prophecies had become current in their present disorder. The superscription of the Book of Jeremiah confirms the foregoing statements in a remarkable manner, because it bears upon its surface plain marks of repeated alterations.

The text of the Septuagint Version offers very considerable differences from that of the Masorites, contained in our Hebrew Bibles. From first to last there are innumerable variations, which sometimes affect only single letters, syllables or words, but sometimes whole verses. On the other hand the omissions are unimportant, and we nowhere find in either text anything altogether independent of the other. There is however a remarkable dislocation of the whole series of the prophecies against the nations: and not only do they hold a different place generally, but are arranged on a different plan among themselves.

The earlier position of the Gentile prophecies in the Septuagint was probably more nearly that which they held in Jehoiakim’s roll.

It was in Egypt that Jeremiah died. It is then at least probable that this Egyptian copy dates from the time when Baruch was about to depart from the country, and was transcribed (of course in Hebrew) for the private use of such Jews as believed Jeremiah to be a true prophet. It would gradually obtain currency and be copied again and again, and would in time become the authoritative form of the Book of Jeremiah among the Egyptian exiles. Its critical authority negatively is little, because of the extreme haste with which the copy was necessarily made, and because the exigencies of time required all that was not absolutely indispensable to be omitted: affirmatively its authority is very great, for it assures us that all that is common to the two texts is as old as the time when they first separated from one another. Whenever Jeremiah 52:0 was added in Palestine it would not long remain unknown in Egypt. New colonists took with them copies of the fuller Hebrew text with the added appendix: but the shorter form was looked upon as that which had local authority. Patriotic Egyptian Jews doubtless held that it was the genuine text; and as such the Alexandrian translators gave it the preference, but they could have no objection to adding to their Version so useful an annex as the fifty-second chapter.

Even independently of the evidence of this Egyptian text the genuineness of nearly every part of the Book of Jeremiah is so generally acknowledged that an occasional footnote on some impugned passage is all that is necessary. The value of the double text rather lies in its shewing how quickly the writings of the prophets became generally current, and how impossible it was to interpolate them or introduce falsification on a large scale. The acknowledged genuineness of the Book of Jeremiah is also valuable in another respect, because no prophet so constantly quotes the words of his predecessors. He evidently knew the other Scriptures by heart, and perpetually reproduces them, but in his own way. He never quotes them briefly and succinctly, but developes them, so as to give them something of his own soft luxuriance; but his testimony to the existence of them in the same state as that in which we have them at present, is most clear. Most numerous are his quotations from the Pentateuch, and especially from the Book of Deuteronomy. It had been so lately found 2 Kings 22:8 that this is just what we should expect; his young mind must have been deeply penetrated by such a scene as that described in 2 Kings 23:1-3. And such quotations in a book of which the genuineness is acknowledged, are of the greatest possible value for the criticism of the writings from which they are taken.

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