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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 3

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) The parable of the guilty wife who is condemned in spite of all her denials is carried out to its logical results.

They say.—Better, So to speak, as introducing a new application of the figure. The direct reference is to Deuteronomy 24:4, which forbade the return to the past husband as an abomination, a law which the recent discovery of the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22:10-11) had probably brought into prominence. But there is also an obvious allusion to the like imagery in Hosea. There the prophet had done, literally or in parable, what the law had forbidden (Hosea 2:16; Hosea 3:3), and so had held out the possibility of return and the hope of pardon. Jeremiah has to play a sterner part. and to make the apostate adulteress at least feel that she had sinned too deeply to have any claims to forgiveness. It might seem as if Jehovah could not now return to the love of His espousals, and make her what she once had been.

Yet return again to me, saith the Lord.—The words sound in the English like a gracious invitation, and—in spite of the authority of many interpreters who take it as an indignant exclamation, and return to me! an invitation given in irony, and so equivalent to rejection, as though that return were out of the question—it must, I think, be so taken. The prophet has, as we have seen, the history of Hosea in his mind, where there had been such a call to return (Hosea 2:19; Hosea 3:3), and actually refers to it and repeats it in Jeremiah 3:7; Jeremiah 3:12; Jeremiah 3:14. It surely implies a want of insight into the character of Jeremiah to suppose that he ever came before men as proclaiming an irrevocable condemnation, excluding the possibility of repentance.

Verse 2

(2) Lift up thine eyes.—The consciousness of guilt was, however, the only foundation of repentance, and the prophet’s work, therefore, in very tenderness, is to paint that guilt in the darkest colours possible. Still keeping to the parable of the faithless wife, he bids Israel, as such, to look to the “high places” that have witnessed her adulteries with those other lords for whom she had forsaken Jehovah. Like the harlots of the east, she had sat by the wayside, as Tamar had done (Genesis 38:14; comp. also Proverbs 7:12; Ezekiel 16:31), not so much courted by her paramours as courting them.

As the Arabian in the wilderness.—The Arabian is chosen as the representative of the lawless predatory tribes of the desert. As they, like the modern Bedouins, lay in ambush, waiting eagerly for their victims, so had the harlot Israel laid wait for her lovers, and so the land had been polluted.

Verse 3

(3) Therefore the showers . . .—Outward calamities were looked upon as chastisements for these sins. There had apparently been a severe drought in the reign of Josiah (Jeremiah 9:12; Jeremiah 25:1-6). There had been no showers in spring, no “latter rain” in autumn. So like calamities are described in Amos 4:7; Haggai 1:11; Joel 1:18-20. The influence of the newly-discovered book of Deuteronomy (2 Chronicles 34:14; 2 Kings 22:8) had doubtless given a fresh emphasis to this view of natural disasters.

Verse 4

(4) Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me . . .?—Better, Hast thou not from this time cried unto me . . .? The prophet paints with a stern irony the parade of the surface repentance of Josiah’s reign. There had been a pathetic appeal to God as the forgiving husband of the faithless wife, but not the less had the wife returned to her wickedness.

Guide.—The same word as in Proverbs 2:17; the “chief friend,” as applied to the husband.

Verse 5

(5) Will he reserve his anger for ever . . .?—The questions were such as might well be asked in the first burst of sorrowing though superficial repentance. The implied answer was in the negative, “No, He will not keep His anger to the end.” Yet, so far, facts were against that yearning hope. It will be noted that the word “anger” is not in the Hebrew. It is, however, rightly inserted, after the precedent of Nahum 1:2; Psalms 103:9. The words seem, indeed, almost a quotation from the latter, and Jeremiah 3:4-5 may probably be looked on as cited from the penitential litanies in which the people had joined, and which were too soon followed by a return to the old evils (Jeremiah 2:1-13).

Thou hast spoken and done evil things as thou couldest.i.e., resolutely and obstinately. That pathetic appeal to the mercy and love of Jehovah was followed by no amendment, but by a return to evil. Here the first prophecy, as reproduced from memory, ends, and the next verse begins a separate discourse.

Verse 6

(6) The Lord said also unto me . . .—The main point of the second prophecy (we might almost call it sermon), delivered, like the former, under Josiah, is the comparison of the guilt of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The latter had been looking on the former with contemptuous scorn. She is now taught—the same imagery being continued that had begun in the first discourse—that her guilt is by far the greater of the two.

Backsliding Israel.—The epithet strikes the keynote of all that follows, and is, as it were, the text of the sermon. The force of the Hebrew is stronger than that of the English, and implies actual “apostasy,” being, indeed, a substantive rather than an adjective. Apostasy is, as it were, personified in Israel; she is the renegade sister.

She is gone up.—Better, she goes, i.e., is going continually.

Verse 7

(7) And I said . . .—The call to Israel to return had been slighted, and Judah, the traitress or faithless, “one with falsehood,” had not taken warning from the sin or its punishment.

Turn thou unto me.—The verb may be either the second or third person, I said, thou shalt return; or, I said, she will return, as expressing a hope rather than a direct return. The latter seems, on the whole, the preferable rendering.

Verse 8

(8) And I saw, when for all the causes.—Better, perhaps (following a conjectural emendation, which gives a much better sense), And she saw that for all the causes. The technical fulness of the words suggests the thought that they were actually the customary formula with which every writing of divorcement began, recapitulating the offences which were alleged by the husband against the wife. The actual repudiation consisted, of course, in the bitter exile and loss of national life, which Hosea (Hosea 2:1-13) had predicted under a like figure. Judah had witnessed the sin and the punishment, and yet was following in the same path.

Verse 9

(9) The lightness of her whoredom.—Lightness in the ethical sense of “levity.” Apostasy was treated once more as if it had been a light thing (1 Kings 16:31). The word is, however, very variously interpreted, and the meaning of “voice,” or “cry,” in the sense in which the “cry” of Sodom and Gomorrah was great (Genesis 18:20), seems more satisfactory. On “stones” and “stocks,” see Note on Jeremiah 2:27.

Verse 10

(10) And yet for all this . . .—Judah was so far worse than Israel that there had been a simulated repentance, as in the reformations under Hezekiah and Josiah, but it was not with the whole heart and soul, but “feignedly,” or, more literally, with a lie.

Verse 11

(11) Hath justified herself.—Literally, hath justified her soul, has put in a better plea in her defence. The renegade was better than the traitress. Even open rebellion was better than hypocrisy, as the publicans and sinners in the Gospel story were better than the Pharisees (Matthew 21:31).

Verse 12

(12) Toward the north.—The prophet utters his message as towards the far land of Assyria and the cities of the Medes to which the ten tribes of Israel had been carried away captive (2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 17:23). He had a word of glad tidings for the far-off exiles.

Return, thou backsliding Israel.—It is hard to reproduce the pathetic assonance of the original, “Shubah, mashubah,”turn back, thou that hast turned away; return, thou renegade.

I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you.—Literally, my face; the face so awful in its wrath.

I will not keep anger for ever.—With perhaps a latent reference to the hope held out in Hosea 3:5, and to the words which Judah had uttered in her hypocrisy (Jeremiah 3:5), but which were truer of Israel.

Verse 13

(13) Only acknowledge . . .—This was the one sufficient, indispensable condition of pardon—the confession that kept nothing back, and made no vain excuses.

Hast scattered thy ways.—The phrase is a strong one, thou hast left traces of thy way everywhere, i.e., hast gone this way and that in search of new and alien forms of worship. The “green tree” as before (Jeremiah 2:20) was the familiar scene of the hateful worship.

Verse 14

(14) Turn, O backsliding children.—In his desire to individualise his call to repentance, the prophet drops his parable, or rather combines the sign and the thing signified, with the same assonance as before—turn back, ye children who have turned away.

I am married unto you.—The tender pity of Jehovah leads Him to offer pardon even to the adulterous wife. Jeremiah had learned, in all their fulness, the lessons of Hosea 1-3.

One of a city, and two of a family.—The latter word is the wider in its range of the two—a clan, or tribe, that might embrace many cities. The limitation to the “one” and the “two” is after the manner of Isaiah’s reference (Isaiah 1:9) to the “remnant” that should be saved, and reminds of the “ten righteous men” who might have saved the cities of the plain (Genesis 18:32).

Verse 15

(15) Pastors.—As in Jeremiah 2:8, of kings and rulers, not of priests. Compare Jeremiah 23:1-5. The phrase “according to mine heart” brings David to our thoughts (1 Samuel 13:14). There should be a return to the true pattern of the ideal ruler. In the “knowledge and understanding” we have an echo from Isaiah 11:1-4.

Verse 16

(16) In those days.—No time had been named, but the phrase had become familiar for the far-off better time of the true king of the Messianic kingdom.

They shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the Lord.—Noteworthy both for its exceeding boldness and as containing the germ, or more than the germ, of the great thought of the New Covenant developed in Jeremiah 31:31. The ark, the very centre of the worship of Israel, the symbol and, it might seem, more than the symbol, of the Divine presence, that, too, should pass away, as the brasen serpent had become Nehushtan (2 Kings 18:4), and take its place as belonging only to the past. Foremost among the prophets was Jeremiah to perceive and proclaim that

“God fulfils Himself in many ways.”

The legend of 2MMalachi 2:4-5, that Jeremiah had hidden the tabernacle and the ark in a cave that they might be restored in the latter days, presents a singular contrast to the higher thoughts of the prophet.

Neither shall it come to mind.—Literally, come upon the heart, which throughout the Old Testament implies the intellect rather than the affections.

Neither shall they visit it.—Better, shall they miss it, as men miss what they value. The words probably refer to the feelings with which the ark had been restored to its place by Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:3) after its displacement by Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:7).

Neither shall that be done any more.—Better, neither shall it [the ark] be made any more. It shall be left to decay and perish, and none shall care to reconstruct it. The words had, of course, a fulfilment in the ritual of the second Temple, where there was no ark in the Holy of Holies, and that loss was probably what Jeremiah foresaw most clearly, and for which he sought to prepare his people, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 8:13) did to prepare those of his time for the more entire destruction of the Temple and its worship. But even within this horizon the thought was bold in itself and pregnant with yet greater truths.

Verse 17

(17) They shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord.—Up to Jeremiah’s time that title, “the throne of God,” though the language of the Old Testament had referred it to the “heavens” (Psalms 11:4; Psalms 103:19), had probably been applied, in popular language, to the ark where the Lord “dwelt between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Kings 19:15). The prophet extends it to the whole city, in that future of which he was doubtless thinking. To him, as to Micah (Micah 4:1-2) and Isaiah (Isaiah 2:1-3), there came a vision of the holy city as the centre of the divine Kingdom. It was not given to him to see what even the Apostles were slow to understand, that there is no holy city upon earth, and that his hopes would only be fulfilled in the heavenly Jerusalem which is the Church or family of God.

The imagination.—Better, stubbornness, as in the margin.

Verse 18

(18) In those days . . .—As with Isaiah (Isaiah 11:13), so with Jeremiah, the hope, however distant, of national reformation was bound up with that of a restoration of national unity. The healing of the long-standing breach between Israel and Judah, coeval almost with the commencement of Israel as a people, was to be the glory of the Messiah’s kingdom.

Out of the land of the north.—The thoughts of the prophet turn chiefly to the land of the exile of the ten tribes; but his words imply that he foresees a like exile also in the north for Judah. In that far-off land the house of Judah shall walk to (rather than with) the house of Israel, seeking its alliance, asking for reconciliation, and both should once again dwell in the land of their inheritance.

Verse 19

(19) But I said.—Better, And I said. There is no contrast with what precedes. The speaker is, of course, Jehovah. The How shall I put thee! is an exclamation rather than a question, the utterance of a promise as with an intensity of affirmation. Special stress is laid on the pronoun “I.” The words have been rendered by some commentators, following the Targum, How shall I clothe thee with children?

A pleasant land.—Literally, as in the margin, a land of desire, i.e., desirable.

A goodly heritage of the hosts of nations.—More accurately, a heritage of the beauty of beauties (Hebrew for “chief beauty”) of the nations. The English version rests on the assumption that the word translated “beauties” is the same as that elsewhere rendered “Sabaoth,” or “hosts,” which it closely resembles.

And I said.—Not, as in the English, the answer to a question, but the continuance of the same thought. God will treat repentant Israel as His child: He will lead Israel to trust Him as a father. The days of apostasy (“turning away”) will then be over. The original Hebrew seems, to judge from the LXX. version, to have had the plural “ye shall call,” “ye shall not turn away,” the prophet passing from the collective unity to the individuals that composed it.

Verse 20

(20) Surely as a wife . . .—In the midst of the bright vision of the future there comes unbidden the thought of the dark present: the faithless wife is not yet restored to her true friend and husband. Her guilt must be again pressed home upon her, so as to lead her to repentance.

Verse 21

(21) A voice was heard.—Yes, the guilty wife was there, but she was also penitent. The “high places” which had been the scene of the guilt of the sons of Israel, where the cries of their orgiastic worship had been heard, now echoed with their weeping and supplication (or, more literally, the weeping of suppliant prayers), as they called to mind the hateful sins of the past.

Verse 22

(22) Return, ye backsliding children . . .—We lose, as before, the force of the Hebrew repetition of the same root, Turn, ye children that have turned, I will heal your turnings. As so often in Hebrew poetry, we have the answer to the invitation given in dramatic form, and hear the cry—we might almost call it the litany—of the suppliants, “Behold, we come unto thee.” They at last own Jehovah as their one true God.

Verse 23

(23) Truly in vain . . .—The italics show the difficulty of the verse, and represent an attempt to get over it. According to the senses given to the word translated “multitude” we get, in vain (literally, as a lie) from the hills is the revelry (as in Amos 5:23), or the wealth, or the multitude, of the mountains. The first gives the best meaning, and expresses the confession of the repentant Israelites that their wild ritual on the high places had brought them loss and not gain.

Verse 24

(24) Shame.—The Hebrew noun has the article, “the shame,” and is the word constantly used as the interchangeable synonym for Baal, as in Jerubbaal and Jerubbesheth (Judges 6:32; 2 Samuel 11:21), Mephibosheth and Merib-baal (2 Samuel 4:4; 1 Chronicles 8:34). The words point accordingly to the prodigal waste of victims, possibly of human life also, in the worship of Baal and that of Molech, which in the prophet’s mind was identified with it, and which had brought with it nothing but a lasting shame. This also forms part of the confession of the repentant people (comp. Jeremiah 11:13).

Verse 25

(25) We lie down.—Better, We will lie down—Our confusion shall cover us. The words are those of penitents accepting their punishment: “We chose the shameful thing, therefore let us bear our shame.”

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jeremiah 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/jeremiah-3.html. 1905.
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