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by John Calvin
TO THE BOOK OF
THE PROPHET JEREMIAH.
After having explained The Twelve Minor Prophets, we reached at length to the end of Daniel. I now undertake to explain The Book Of Jeremiah, provided life be spared and leisure be given me. But if through God’s grace time will be allowed, there will remain still one Prophet, that is, Ezekiel; which I hope will be undertaken by a more competent Interpreter.
As to Jeremiah, it must be first observed, that he commenced his office as a Prophet under Josiah, and in the thirteenth year of his reign, who was a sincere servant of God, and yet the state of things was then very confused: the Book of the Law was unknown; so that every one indulged his fancy in inventing many impious forms of worship. No doubt at a time when such liberty prevailed, there were many turbulent men laboring to pervert the worship of God and pure doctrine, and fabricating for themselves many absurd things. For if the priests taught rightly, they must have derived all their knowledge from the Law: and though it is probable, that the memory of it was not wholly lost, yet a few fragments only remained, so that they could not with certainty learn how the Church was to be regulated according to what had been received from above. For it is related in sacred history, that the Book was found in the eighteenth year of Josiah, (2 Chronicles 34:8;) so that Jeremiah had been then teaching for four, and even for five years.
Now this fact clearly proves how great is the carelessness and sloth of men in the great concerns of Religion. God had commanded Moses, that a copy of the Law should not only be kept reverently and carefully in the Temple, but also by the kings themselves, (Deuteronomy 17:18;) and there was also added a command, that the whole Law should be read to the people at their festivals. (Deuteronomy 31:11.) But when the kings departed from the true worship of God, no copy of the Law was preserved by them: and at length the whole Law became as it were extinct. No doubt this happened through the tyranny of King Manasse, who cruelly raged against the priests and against all the other servants of God. Wherever only a spark of religion appeared, he was intent on slaughter; so that blood, as sacred history testifies, flowed through all the streets of Jerusalem. (2 Kings 21:16.) It was then no wonder, if he took away from the Temple all the copies of the Law found there, in order to extinguish all memory of true doctrine. However, a book, which had been hid, was found, as we are told, by the priest Hilkiah.
The first thing then to be observed is the time when he began to teach: as religion was then so corrupted, and every one invented errors to suit his own humor, the office of Jeremiah must have been hard and arduous.
Secondly, the termination of his ministry must be noticed. He says, that from that time he pursued his office until the transmigration. He therefore continued in his course for forty years. We shall hereafter see what hard contests he had to undergo during his life. But had the people been teachable, he could not have performed what God had commanded him without great pain and even weariness: for we shall presently see what was the doctrine which he was commanded to proclaim. As then he was assiduous in his labor for forty years, we hence perceive with what a courageous spirit he was endued. If we further consider what storms had been raised, calculated to cast him down from his high station, and even wholly to drive him from the right way, more clearly still will shine forth the invincible firmness of his mind and his zeal; for he never desisted from executing the office committed to him.
We must further observe, that after the city was cut off, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were led captives into Babylon, Jeremiah still continued to discharge his office. He was indeed drawn into Egypt, as we learn from the end of his Book, especially from chapter 44 (Jeremiah 44:0); nay, he was taken there by force, while yet he pronounced a curse on all the Jews who sought hiding — places in Egypt. Though he was forced to go there, yet it much lessened his authority; for we know that ungodly men lay hold on any pretense for evil — speaking. There was here a specious pretense; “He cursed, “they said, “all who went to Egypt, and now where does he dwell himself? In Egypt with the other refugees.” No doubt the faith of the holy man was shaken by these banterings: ungodliness has been wanton in all ages. There, then, after the destruction of the city, Jeremiah was constrained to bend his course: and it may be, that he persevered in his work and labor beyond fifty years. It is said, that he was stoned to death, and not unlikely, for he inveighed with no less severity against the Jews who had fled into Egypt, than against the city while it was standing; and despair might have roused them into madness. It is hence probable that they slew the holy Prophet, and thought this lawful because he upbraided them with their miseries, while his object was to correct their perverseness, which was untamable; and this they did not consider.
I come now to The Contents of the Book. As Isaiah and the other Prophets spent their labor almost in vain, nothing remained for Jeremiah but briefly to announce this sentence, — “There is now no pardon, but it is the time of extreme vengeance, for they have too long abused God’s forbearance, who has borne with them, kindly and even sweetly exhorted them to repent, and testified that he would be exorable and propitious, provided they returned to the right way.” Since then God’s kindness had been despised by them, it became necessary for Jeremiah to fulminate against them as men lost and in a hopeless state of perverseness. The main thing then in his teaching was this:
“It is all over with the kingdom and the priesthood; for the Jews have so often and in such various ways, and for so long a time, provoked God’s wrath and rejected the pious warnings of his servants.”
Isaiah also in his time used threatenings; but we see that to mitigate what was terrible, some hope of pardon was added whenever he spoke with severity. But after the ten tribes had been carried into exile, and the kingdom had been visited with various calamities, while the Jews still continued impenitent, and even hardened themselves more and more under God’s scourges, it was necessary, as I have said, that he should deal more sharply with them. God had contended with them by Isaiah and the other prophets; by Jeremiah and also by Ezekiel, he proved them guilty, and denounced on them the sentence of condemnation. This difference between the teaching of Isaiah and that of our Prophet, ought to be noticed. (5) At the same time, that Jeremiah’s teaching might not be imperfect, it was God’s purpose that he should be also the herald of his grace and of the salvation promised in Christ. This exception, however, ought to be borne in mind, that he offered them no hope of mercy until they had suffered the punishment due to their sins.
We now then understand what Jeremiah mainly taught: but particulars will be better and more distinctly understood by readers by following the course of the text. And I do not now treat in general of what is to be found in the prophets; for this is what I have done elsewhere. I now then say only, that Jeremiah was sent by God to proclaim to the people their last calamity; and also to speak to them of their future redemption, and at the same time, ever to remind them of the interposition of seventy years in exile.
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19