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D. Incidents surrounding the fall of Jerusalem chs. 34-45
The Book of Consolation contained messages of future hope for Judah (chs. 30-33). Now Jeremiah returned to document her present judgment. Chapters 34-45 continue the theme of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem from chapters 2-29.
All the events and messages contained in these chapters date near the fall of Jerusalem, which happened in 586 B.C. As mentioned previously, the Book of Jeremiah follows a generally chronological arrangement, but within various sections of the book the material is not always completely chronological. Jeremiah is unique among the prophetical books in that it records the fulfillment of its own prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Exile.
1. Incidents before the fall of Jerusalem chs. 34-36
The events recorded in these chapters took place during the siege of Jerusalem, which lasted from about 589 to 586 B.C. During this period, there was a break in the siege. The Babylonians heard that Pharaoh Hophra (589-570 B.C.) was leading an army into Palestine from Egypt, probably in 588 B.C. (cf. Jeremiah 37:6-11; Jeremiah 44:30). The Babylonian army went to meet the Egyptian army, but the Egyptians returned home without joining battle. During this interlude, Jerusalem enjoyed a respite from its siege. The material in this section of the book is again biographical.
The following message came to Jeremiah when Nebuchadnezzar and his large army were besieging Jerusalem (cf. Jeremiah 21:1-10). Zedekiah’s rebellion against Babylon in 589 B.C. had prompted the siege (2 Kings 24:18 to 2 Kings 25:1; Ezekiel 17:11-21). This incident antedates the events recorded in chapters 32-33, however, because Jeremiah was not yet imprisoned. The vassal nations under Nebuchadnezzar’s suzerainty were bound to supply troops to assist him in his wars against his enemies, which they had done (cf. 2 Kings 24:2). [Note: See M. Weinfeld, "The Loyalty Oath in the Ancient Near East," Ugarit-Forschungen 8 (1976):380.]
"This verse underscores that the Nebuchadrezzar who now invades Judah is the same Nebuchadrezzar to whom the LORD, the creator, had granted authority over ’all nations,’ and even the wild animals, for a time (Jeremiah 27:6-7)." [Note: Scalise, p. 180.]
The announcement of Zedekiah’s fate 34:1-7
"The Book of Consolation has ended, and Jeremiah 34:1 confronts its readers with the full force of the invading imperial army. The destruction of Jerusalem and the remainder of Judah seems inevitable (Jeremiah 34:3) because the LORD has made Nebuchadrezzar ruler over all the nations and because burning with fire is a fitting consequence for their deeds. . . .
"This unit serves to direct the readers’ attention to the issue of obedience to the LORD’s word as it is explored in Jeremiah 34:8-22 and chaps. 35-36." [Note: Ibid., p. 181.]
The prophet was to go to King Zedekiah and tell him that Israel’s God was going to deliver Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, who would burn it (cf. Jeremiah 21:4-7; 2 Kings 25:6-9). His rebellion against Babylon’s authority would not succeed.
Zedekiah would not escape, but instead would be captured, and would stand before Nebuchadnezzar face to face (cf. Jeremiah 39:5-7). He would also go to Babylon as a prisoner of war. All this came to pass (cf. Jeremiah 39:4-7; Jeremiah 52:7-11).
Zedekiah would not die by the sword, however, but in peace. Since Zedekiah died in prison in Babylon, some commentators believed Jeremiah’s prophecy of his peaceful death was conditioned on his surrendering to the Babylonians. Probably the promise was not conditional and contrasted a death in battle with a death not in battle, which would have been peaceful by comparison.
The people of Judah would lament Zedekiah’s death by burning spices, a traditional way of expressing grief (cf. Jeremiah 22:18; 2 Chronicles 16:14; 2 Chronicles 21:19). Yahweh promised this to the king. The Babylonians evidently permitted the Judeans in exile to mourn the death of their king in this way.
Jeremiah delivered this message to Zedekiah when Nebuchadnezzar was besieging the last two remaining fortified cities of Judah (besides Jerusalem), namely, Lachish and Azekah, both important Judean towns in the Shephelah. The Shephelah was the foothills between the coastal plain to the west and the hill country to the east. Lachish stood about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, and Azekah stood about 11 miles north of Lachish and about 18 miles west southwest of Jerusalem. Lachish was larger than Jerusalem, [Note: Harrison, Jeremiah and . . ., p. 146.] and it fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.
An important archaeological find, the Lachish Letters, 21 in all, contain calls for help from outpost commanders to the garrison commander at Lachish. These letters confirm the accuracy of the biblical references to the siege of Lachish. [Note: See Pritchard, ed., p. 324.]
The following message came to Jeremiah from the Lord after Zedekiah had taken an oath with all the Jerusalemites to free their fellow Israelite servants. Israelites sometimes entered into servanthood to pay off a debt they owed to the person who became their master. This seems to have been the most common cause of this condition in Israel.
Treachery against servants 34:8-22
This incident happened during the respite in the siege, as did those recorded in Jeremiah 32:1-15; Jeremiah 37-38; and Jeremiah 39:15-18 (cf. Jeremiah 34:21-22). The year was about 588 B.C.
The people of Jerusalem entered into a covenant to free their servants, and they at first followed through with their promise and liberated them. We do not know their precise motives. Perhaps the servants were needed to defend the city along with their masters, or they may have provided too many mouths for their masters to feed. Perhaps this represents repentance on the part of the masters who wanted to honor the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Exodus 21:2-6; Leviticus 25:10; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). If it was repentance, it was short-lived and shallow.
Shortly thereafter, the masters reneged on their promise, broke their covenant, and brought their servants back into subjection. It was a predictable response from people who had long ago and repeatedly demonstrated that they were covenant-breakers. Nebuchadnezzar’s withdrawal may have been the impetus for the peoples’ decision to break their promise to their servants. They may have thought that they were safe and that life would return to normal soon.
The Lord then sent Jeremiah to remind the people that He had made a covenant with their forefathers to set them at liberty from their bondage in Egypt (Exodus 19:4-6). They of all people should have shown mercy to others in bondage. The Passover commemorated their emancipation from Egyptian slavery.
Part of the Mosaic Covenant specified that the Israelites should liberate their servants, who had sold themselves to them, after six years of service (cf. Exodus 21:2-6; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). But the forefathers had disobeyed the Lord and disregarded His word.
Recently the people had made a covenant to release their indentured servants, and had started to follow through with it, but then they changed their minds and forced them back into servitude. The fact that they had made this covenant in the temple indicates that they made it with the Lord, not just with one another. Breaking it profaned the Lord’s name (reputation), because they had made the covenant in His name. This temple event was not a full-fledged covenant renewal ceremony, but only a pledge to emancipate their servants.
Because the people had not released their servants, the Lord was going to release them from His protection to experience the sword, disease, and starvation. They would become an awful example to the other kingdoms of the earth. Then there would be no distinction between Hebrew masters and servants; they would all be servants of Nebuchadnezzar.
The Lord would give all the people who had broken the covenant, regardless of their social position, into the hand of their enemy. They would die without the privilege of a burial; birds and beasts would consume their carcasses (cf. Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 19:7; Deuteronomy 28:26). They had used a typical covenant-making ritual. They had cut a young calf in two and the parties of the covenant passed between the halves (cf. Genesis 15:10; Genesis 15:17).
"The fate of the animal was a picture of the fate that would befall them if they broke the covenant. The rite has its parallel in the covenant ceremonies of the ancient Near East in which a beast was cut in pieces to serve as a symbol of the judgment that would befall the covenant-breaker." [Note: Thompson, p. 613. Cf. Genesis 15:12-21.]
This judgment would be the fate of the people (Jeremiah 34:20).
Yahweh would also give Zedekiah and his officials into the hand of the Babylonians, even though at the time of this message the Babylonian army had withdrawn from Jerusalem, temporarily.
The sovereign Lord was going to command the Babylonian army to go back to Jerusalem, to fight against it, to take it, and to burn it. He would also make the cities of Judah a desolation, without human inhabitants (cf. Jeremiah 10:22). This further breach of covenant was one more nail in the coffin of the Southern Kingdom.
"When Jeremiah redeems his cousin’s land (chap. 32) and when the Rechabites refuse to drink wine (chap. 35), they act out of loyalty to ancient obligations in spite of the threatening circumstances of the Babylonian attack. When Judah’s leading citizens take back their slaves, they not only violate covenants old and new; they deny the LORD’s word through Jeremiah that their land had been assigned to Nebuchadrezzar’s control, just as King Jehoiakim had denied it (chap. 36)." [Note: Scalise, p. 190.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Jeremiah 34". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
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