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Jeremiah 1:0 - chapters 1 to 10.
A (Very) Brief History Of The Time Of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah began his ministry prior to the discovery of the Law Book in the Temple in the reign of the godly king Josiah, and he continued his ministry throughout the remainder of Josiah’s life, until that life was sadly cut short when Josiah sought to prevent the Egyptian forces under Pharaoh Necho from going to the aid of a dying Assyria in 609 BC. During that period Judah had enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity with their enemies being too preoccupied elsewhere to trouble them, and with fervent religious reform taking place at the centre in Jerusalem, a reform which, however, as Jeremiah knew, had not reached the hearts of the people, for they still hankered after the old Canaanite syncretism of YHWH with Baal. Conformity was thus outward, not inward, and the old hill top sanctuaries did not remain unused, even though that use had to be in secret.
Assyria indeed, which had for a hundred years and more been the dominating force in the area, was by this time fighting a rearguard action for its very life against the combined forces of Babylonia and the Medes (Nineveh had fallen in 612 BC), and was on its last legs. Indeed Josiah’s intervention may well have been the final nail in their coffin, delaying the Egyptian forces long enough to prevent them aiding Assyria in time, thus ensuring Assyria’s final defeat. (Egypt had seen the threat that would follow that defeat). But, in spite of Josiah’s reforms, religiously speaking things had not been going well in the heartland of Judah, for idolatry and disobedience to the covenant had become too well engrained among the people to be easily removed and was still flourishing, so that Jeremiah had constantly to be engaged in seeking to bring the people back to a response to the Law and to the true worship of YHWH (chapters 1-20), warning them of invaders who would be coming from the north (either the Scythians or the Babylonians, or both) if they did not. He respected Josiah greatly and mourned his death (2 Chronicles 35:25).
The fall of Assyria left a power vacuum in which a resurgent Egypt sought to establish its control over Palestine, Syria and beyond, establishing a base at Carchemish, and becoming initially determinant of who would rule Judah, removing Jehoahaz and replacing him with his brother Jehoiakim. After the freedom enjoyed under Josiah this was a bitter blow for Judah, and, along with the fact of Josiah’s untimely death, appeared to many to indicate that what Josiah had sought to achieve had failed.
But Egypt was not to be triumphant for long. They had not reckoned with the power of Babylon and its allies, and four years after the death of Josiah they were decisively beaten by the Babylonian army at Carchemish, and then at Hamath. As a result the Pharaoh retired behind his own borders licking his wounds. Meanwhile Babylon took over the jurisdiction of Judah, and Jehoiakim had to submit to Nebuchadnezzar. The first part of Jeremiah’s work covers this whole period, initially of Josiah’s successful reign, tainted by the stubbornness of the people, and then of the reign of Jehoiakim who took Judah back to the old evil ways of syncretism and Baal worship.
Jeremiah continued to prophesy during the reign of Zedekiah, and even afterwards, and he thus ministered during the period described in 2 Kings 21-25 and 2 Chronicles 33-36. Contemporary with him were the prophets Zephaniah and Habakkuk before the Exile, and Ezekiel and Daniel subsequently.
The First Judean Exile To Babylon Including Daniel (c.605 BC).
As a result of Josiah’s intervention and death the Egyptians on their return journey took control of Judah, and Jehoahaz, who had reigned for a mere three months, was carried off to Egypt, being replaced by the weak Jehoiakim, who in spite of the heavy tribute required by Egypt, squandered money needlessly on a new palace complex, built by forced labour, for which he was castigated by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:13-19). He was no doubt trying to prove how grand he was, as weak men will. At the same time the religious reforms, such as they were, were falling by the wayside, and even the Temple itself was being affected (Jeremiah 7:16-18; Jeremiah 11:9-13; etc., compare Ezekiel 8:0). Judah had become disillusioned with YHWH, partly as a result of the death of Josiah, with the result that the prophets who did speak up against the decline were harassed, or even put to death (Jeremiah 26:23).
As we have seen, for a while it appeared that Judah would continue to be tributaries of a resurgent Egypt. But in a decisive battle in 605 BC at Carchemish, followed by another at Hamath, the Egyptians were badly mauled by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, with the result that Babylon took control of Judah and Jerusalem, and on the surrender of the latter without resistance, deported the first load of exiles to Babylon, including Daniel and his three friends. Judah was now firmly in Babylonian hands.
Judah’s Folly In The Face Of Jeremiah’s Warnings.
It is perhaps understandable, however, that the leaders of Judah were not too happy about paying tribute to Babylon. They had after all hoped that the defeat of Assyria would cause their problems from the north to cease, and they had no real awareness of the might of the Babylonians. Furthermore, in spite of Judean backsliding with regard to the covenant (chapter 26), the belief had grown that the Temple of YHWH was inviolate and that YHWH would never allow it to be destroyed, a belief fostered by its earlier deliverance under Hezekiah (a belief flatly rejected by Jeremiah - Jeremiah 7:9; Jeremiah 26:6). Had it not after all survived when the other great religious centres in Israel and Syria had collapsed and been destroyed? They felt that in worshipping YHWH alongside Baal, they had got the balance right. Thus, in spite of the sacking of Ashkelon (which shook Judah deeply - Jeremiah 47:5-7), and with the encouragement of false prophets, and the political influence of an Egypt which had by then stopped the advance of the Babylonians before they reached the borders of Egypt, inflicting heavy losses on them in a ‘drawn’ battle, and causing Nebuchadnezzar to withdraw to Babylon, Jehoiakim finally withheld tribute, very much against the advice of Jeremiah (chapter Jeremiah 25:9-11; Jeremiah 27:8; Jeremiah 27:11). Jeremiah was consequently looked on as a traitor. Humanly speaking we can understand Jehoiakim’s decision. It must have appeared to everyone as though Egypt had demonstrated their equality with, if not their superiority over, Babylon. Babylon would surely be more careful in future.
Jeremiah Puts His Prophecies On Record.
It was during this period that a rejected Jeremiah, with the assistance of Baruch his ‘secretary’ (whose name has been found on a seal as ‘belonging to Berek-yahu, son of Neri-yahu (Neriah), the scribe’), first gathered his prophecies into a book-roll (Jeremiah 36:2-4), but on these being read to the people by Baruch (Jeremiah 36:5-10) they were seized and cut up by Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36:23), who thereby showed his contempt for them. As a result Jeremiah and Baruch had to go into hiding (Jeremiah 36:26). Nothing daunted Jeremiah then wrote down a longer version (Jeremiah 36:28 ff), and meanwhile his efforts to turn the nation to YHWH in the face of persecution were unceasing (sections of chapters 21-49, see e.g. 25-26, 35-36, 45).
The Second Judean Exile, Including The New King Jehoiachin (c. 597 BC).
Inevitably the powerful Babylonians, having recuperated, once again arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, determined to take revenge on Jehoiakim, and Jehoiakim apparently gave himself up, along with some of the Temple treasure, probably thereby hoping to preserve his son’s life. Nebuchadnezzar’s intention was to carry him off in fetters to Babylon, but although this intention is stated it is never actually said to have been fulfilled (2 Chronicles 36:6 ff.; Daniel 1:1-2). Jeremiah may in fact be seen as suggesting otherwise (Jeremiah 22:19). Meanwhile his eighteen year old son Jehoiachin had become king in a city under siege and only reigned for three months, during which time frantic negotiations would have been taking place with the Babylonians. When he did surrender to them he was carried off to Babylon, along with the influential queen mother and further exiles, and even more Temple treasure. He was replaced, at the instigation of Nebuchadnezzar, by Zedekiah, his uncle. (This had no doubt all been part of the agreement reached).
The Third And Final Judean Exile And The Destruction Of The Temple (587 BC).
The reign of Zedekiah was one of continual intrigue, and in the face of it Jeremiah made himself unpopular by constantly warning of the folly of rebelling against the Babylonians (Jeremiah 27:12-22), only to be seen once again as a traitor and to be harshly dealt with. No one would listen to him as negotiations continued with Egypt, and inevitably, when Zedekiah withheld tribute the Babylonians once again surrounded Jerusalem. After a failed attempt by Egypt to intervene Jerusalem was taken and Zedekiah, his sons having been slain before his eyes, was blinded and carried off to Babylon, along with what was left of the paraphernalia of the Temple. Jerusalem itself was sacked. All that Jeremiah had prophesied had come true (these prophecies are intermingled in chapters 21-49, see e.g. Jeremiah 21:1 to Jeremiah 22:30; Jeremiah 23-24, Jeremiah 23:28-34, Jeremiah 23:37-39).
Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Gedaliah as governor of what remained of Judah, giving Jeremiah (whom he saw as loyal) the option of remaining in Judah or going with him to Babylon. Jeremiah chose to remain in Judah. (See chapters 40-42). But within a short period Gedaliah had been assassinated by ruthless opponents (Jeremiah 41:1-2), and the remnants of the people, fearful of repercussions from Nebuchadnezzar, and against the advice of Jeremiah (chapter 41-42), fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them (Jeremiah 43:8-13; Jeremiah 44:0), rejecting YHWH’s offer of the restoration of the covenant. There Jeremiah prophesied the conquest of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 43:8 ff.). He probably died in Egypt. There are two traditions concerning what did happen to him, but neither of them can be seen as reliable. The first was that that he was stoned to death by the people at Tahpanhes in Egypt (so Tertullian, Jerome, and Epiphanius), and the second, in accordance with an alternative Jewish tradition, was that he was finally carried off with Baruch to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar at the time of the conquest of Egypt, in the 27th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. We have no way of knowing whether either have any truth in them.
The Message Of The Book For Our Day.
At first sight it might appear that much of Jeremiah’s prophecy has little to do with us. It appears to be directed at a rebellious Judah which was about to suffer awful consequences as a result of their sins, and we may even begin to find the emphasis as almost tedious and unnecessary. Why preserve writings which were so repetitive and emphasised a judgment long past?
The first reason is because they proved true. Jeremiah’s writings were preserved because in the end they provided an explanation of what had happened to Judah. He had proved to be right after all. Thus his promises of hope also became a basis for the future.
The second reason is because they reveal to us the nature of God. They bring out His holiness and the awe in which He should be held. It is true that God is merciful. But only to those who put their trust in Him and walk with Him. For all others He will one day be their judge.
Thus there is also a third reason why we should recognise the book as important and that is because we are in a similar position today. We may not have hanging over us the threat of Babylonian supremacy, but we do certainly have hanging over us the threat of God’s judgment in one way or another. Whether this will come (somewhat ironically) in the form of an Islamic revival or in the form of the effects of climate change or even finally in the form of the second coming of Christ, it is a certainty for the future. And we therefore also need to listen to the warnings of Jeremiah in order to be ready for what is coming on us. It is the same attitude of mind which brought judgment on Judah that is widespread in society today. Our idols may take a different form, but they have equally replaced God as the objects of our worship, and the immorality and unacceptability of many of our lives is clearly reflected in his prophecies. Every chapter should therefore come home to us as a warning to be ready for what is coming, for come it surely will.
(The idea that there will be a second chance after His second coming is based on false exegesis of Scripture and is not to be relied on. The truth is that His coming will call time on any opportunity to repent. Then men and women who have not responded to Him will face only a judgment which will be far worse than anything that came on Judah).
A General Overview Of The Book.
The prophecies of Jeremiah are not presented in strict chronological order, even though those which came in the time of Josiah do appear to come in the first part of the book. The first twenty chapters contain prophecies given partly in the time of Josiah and partly in the time of Jehoiakim, for the message to the people under both kings was very much the same (even though the kings themselves were very different), ‘turn from your idols, and begin to walk in accordance with the covenant, or disaster will come on you’. These chapters may well have made up a good part of the book of prophecies put together by Jeremiah, which was cut up by Jehoiakim, and re-written and expanded by Jeremiah through Barak his amanuensis and assistant (Jeremiah 36:4 ff). There is no good reason for doubting that all the prophecies which are in the book are genuinely his prophecies. As will be apparent he prophesied over a long period of time, and faced severe difficulties because his message was unpopular, and it is because of those difficulties, emphasised in chapters 26-45, that we know more about him than any other prophet after Moses.
Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is in ‘Hebrew verse’ (as with the Sermon on the Mount and with most of the prophets), but we must beware of just seeing it as poetry. The purpose of Hebrew verse was in order to aid memory, and provide emphasis by means of repetition. It did not detract from the seriousness or validity of what was said. It was spoken very directly to the heart.
As will be apparent in the commentary Jeremiah was familiar both with the Law of Moses and the early historical books, which reflect that Law. As a popular presentation of the Law, Deuteronomy, with its emphatic emphasis on blessing and cursing, appears to have been especially influential. But it would be a mistake to ignore the influence of the remainder of the Law of Moses, and especially of Leviticus 26:0 with its parallel warnings similar to those of Deuteronomy 28:0. Jeremiah was familiar with the whole Law.
With the above in mind the book can be divided into three main Sections, which are found inserted between an introduction and a conclusion:
1. INTRODUCTION. Introductory opening chapter, which describes Jeremiah’s call by YHWH (Chapter 1).
2. SECTION 1. A number of general prophecies against Judah in the days of Josiah and Jehoiakim, including, in the final chapters, words spoken to Zedekiah (chapters 2-25).
3. SECTION 2. Biographical details from the life of the prophet and details of how he coped with his maltreatment, leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath in the rejection of the offer of a new covenant (chapters 26-45).
4. SECTION 3. Prophecies against foreign nations (chapters 46-51).
5. CONCLUSION. Concluding appendix (chapter 52).
Having Given His Glowing Promises YHWH Now Describes The Present Situation Of Israel Which Is In Stark Contrast To The Glowing Picture That He Has Painted (Jeremiah 3:20 to Jeremiah 4:2 ).
The beautiful vision just revealed of YHWH’s intentions for His people is in deliberate and stark contrast to the reality. For far from turning to Him in repentance Israel are seen as set in their evil ways. They are like a wife who has treacherously deserted her husband, and in their perverted way are weeping and praying on the bare heights to gods who will not profit, because they have forgotten YHWH their God. This may refer to the exiles, or to the remnants who had remained in the land, or to both.
Nevertheless unfailingly He still offers them the opportunity of repentance. They are, however depicted as seeing themselves as beyond repentance, superficially recognising that YHWH is indeed the only Saviour, but being filled with deep shame because their penchant for idolatry (‘the shameful thing’) has resulted in the loss of everything that they had previously possessed, with the result that they feel that they can only lie down in shame and allow their confusion to cover them because of the depths of their sin against YHWH. They feel totally lost and without hope.
But YHWH then promises that if only they will truly come to Him in true repentance, putting away their idols, they can be delivered from their helpless state and become established in YHWH in truth and righteousness and a blessing to the nations. God’s mercy is still being offered to smitten Israel. There is in this a wonderful picture of the continuing graciousness of God towards those who have rejected Him, and to those who backslide. And it includes us, for had it not been for His continuing mercy in the face of our sin, where would we have been?
“Surely as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel,” says YHWH.
Israel’s true state is made clear. They have dealt treacherously with God like a wife who has treacherously deserted her husband (which was why they were now in exile). Note therefore that it is not only Judah who are treacherous. It was just that Judah were more treacherous both in their hypocritical double standards and in their ignoring what had happened to Israel.
“A voice is heard on the bare heights, the weeping and the supplications of the children of Israel, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten YHWH their God.”
In a vivid picture the truth about them is made clear. On the bare heights (compare Jeremiah 3:2) where they had always gone to meet with their idolatrous gods they are still weeping before them and making supplication to them, and this was clear evidence that they had perverted their way and had forgotten YHWH. They were totally taken up with their idols. Or the idea may be that the remnants of Israel still in the land were weeping there in desperation for their stricken land. Not all of Israel had been taken into exile. A remnant still struggled on in the land.
Some see their weeping as directed at YHWH, but that would hardly have been on the bare heights where the false sanctuaries were, and had they so wept they would have been received back and forgiven.
“Return (shubu), you backsliding (shubebim) children, I will heal your backslidings (shubethecem).”
So YHWH calls on Israel (this chapter is all about Northern Israel, being held up as an example to Judah) as His backsliding (turning away) children to return back so that He may ‘heal their backslidings (turnings away)’, by forgiving them and restoring them to the true path, and then restoring to them all that they have lost. The term backsliding (turning) includes the thoughts of falling away, turning away from Him, going far from Him and stubborn resistance to YHWH’s call. To bring out the force of the Hebrew we might translate as, ‘Turn back you turning away people, and I will heal your turnings away’.
-23 “Behold, we are come to you, for you are YHWH our God. Truly in vain is (the help that is looked for) from the hills, the tumult on the mountains. Truly in YHWH our God is the salvation of Israel.”
Israel are then portrayed as ostentatiously and hypocritically acknowledging their folly and coming to Him. In doing so they profess to recognise that YHWH is their true God, and that all their attempts to look for help from the hills and to persuade the gods to act by all their tumultuous rituals and activities had been in vain. They profess to recognise that in truth YHWH alone is their God and is the only One Who can bring about the salvation of Israel. But it was not from the heart. They were simply oscillating in their despair between YHWH and their idols, assuring first one and then the other of their loyalty. (This is paralleled by the way that nations seek God at a time of national crisis with all kinds of expressions of submission, and then subsequently once again forget Him).
The introduction of ‘the help that is looked for’, which is not in the Hebrew, is in order to give the idea behind the literal ‘truly as a lie from the hills is the tumult on the mountains’. This is on the basis of the fact that as they have turned for help to YHWH, it was a recognition that what was from the hills had failed. The omission of words leaving the reader/hearer to fill them in is a feature of ancient Hebrew.
“But the shameful thing has devoured the labour of our fathers from our youth, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.”
But then they have to recognise the realities of the situation. They have lost everything. For ‘the shameful thing’ (their idolatrous behaviour) has devoured everything that their fathers had worked for and had produced from their youth. This may signify the centuries of wasted sacrifices, or that now they had lost their flocks and their herds, and many had lost their sons and their daughters, to the invader. And they were in exile among the nations. It had been a bitter price to pay (but brings out how seriously God treats sin, seeing it as no light matter).
“Let us lie down in our shame, and let our confusion cover us, for we have sinned against YHWH our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of YHWH our God.”
Thus they feel that they can only lie down in their shame and let their confusion cover them. For they recognise that they have sinned against YHWH their God, both them and their fathers, from their youth (just as they had worked from their youth (Jeremiah 3:24) to build up their herds and flocks while ignoring YHWH) and even to this day. And they had not obeyed YHWH their God. It is a true summary of Israel’s state. But their repentance was not deep enough to genuinely bring them back to Him.
“If you will return, O Israel,” says YHWH, “if you will return to me, and if you will put away your abominations out of my sight, then you will not be removed, and you will swear, ‘As YHWH lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, and the nations will bless themselves in him, and in him will they glory.”
But YHWH is ever ready to respond in mercy. He assures them that if they will genuinely turn to Him, and will put away their idols (their ‘abominations’) out of His sight, then once they have returned they will not again be removed. They will then be in a position to swear ‘as YHWH lives’ in truth and justice and righteousness. For having come to Him in repentance they will know Him and His living power, and will know that He is the living God, and will have become established in truth, justice and righteousness as a result of His inworking within them. And the consequence of this will be that the nations will bless themselves in YHWH, and will glory in Him. Israel’s turning to YHWH will result also in the nations coming to Him. This was always the final goal of the prophets. And it found its fulfilment when the remnant from among Israel truly repented and responded to Jesus Christ (Acts 2-12) and as a result proclaimed His truth among the nations.
Subsection 2). YHWH’s Solemn Warning To Judah In The Days Of Josiah (Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 6:30 ).
This section can be divided into four parts:
· Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 4:2. Israel is held up as an example to Judah, both of faithlessness and of hope for the future. For because of what they had done Israel were in exile, and were ashamed of their ways, but if only they would turn to Him in their exile they would be restored. For them there was hope. It was very different with ‘treacherous Judah’. They were without shame and without repentance.
· Jeremiah 4:3-31. YHWH warns Judah that if they will not repent invasion by a fierce adversary is threatening and will undoubtedly come because of their sins, something which calls to mind the vision of a world returned to its original unformed condition, and a nation in anguish.
· Jeremiah 5:1-31. YHWH presents the reasons why the invasion is necessary. It is because there are no righteous people in Jerusalem, and they are full of adultery (both spiritual and physical), and have grown fat and sleek, whilst they also appear to be unaware of Who He is, and their prophets and priests are untrustworthy.
· Jeremiah 6:1-30. YHWH stresses the imminence of the invasion which will be violent and complete, because He has rejected His people.
YHWH now gives a solemn warning to Judah based on what had happened to the northern tribes (‘the ten tribes’) as a result of their behaviour towards YHWH, thereby facing Judah up to the certainty of coming judgment if they do not amend their ways, a judgment that would come in the form of a ravaged land and exile for its people (Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 6:30). Included, however, within this warning, almost as an appetiser, is a brief glimpse of the everlasting kingdom, which was being offered to Israel, when YHWH will be seated on His throne, and all His people will look to Him as Father (Jeremiah 3:12-18). Like Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets before him Jeremiah balances his message of doom with promises of future blessing. Whatever Israel and Judah did, he knew that God’s purposes would not fail in the end.
In the words found in Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 6:30 we have now come to the only passage in chapters 1-20 which is specifically said to have been a revelation given, at least in part, during the days of a particular king, and in this case it is in the days of King Josiah. This is probably intended to underline the fact that Jeremiah’s early teaching, while giving an overall coverage, includes words spoken during that reign, and it is thus of prime importance as continually stressing that even during Josiah’s reign things were not well in Judah.
Judah Are Called To Repentance As Well As Israel For They Are Still In Their Land, And, If They Will Only Truly Turn To Him With Genuinely Changed Hearts, Can Still Look Forward To The Future In Hope. The Truth, However, Is That They Will Not Do So With The Result That Destruction Will Come Upon Them Also (Jeremiah 4:3-22 ).
YHWH now turns His attention to Judah. Their position was better than Israel’s because they were still in their land, and so He calls them to true repentance and a true change of heart, warning them that if they do not repent He will bring sudden and certain judgment upon them. And that judgment is then called for and portrayed in the most vivid terms (the boiling cauldron is open from the north - Jeremiah 1:13-14), stirring Jeremiah to upbraid Him for having given His people a wrong impression with His words of peace (this may have in mind the peace that false prophets had promised, seen as with YHWH’s permission, compare 1 Kings 22:23, or it may be because Jeremiah himself had been misled by the prophecy of peace in Jeremiah 3:14-19 and had failed to recognise its long term nature). But nothing can defer the judgment that is coming. It is already determined and the destroyer is on his way. And their world will return to being as empty as it was at the beginning, before God had shaped and formed it. The passage then ends with vivid metaphors of what will come.
A Call To Repent And Have Changed Hearts.
“For thus says YHWH to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem, ‘Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.’ ”
YHWH now turns His attention to Judah and Jerusalem, and calls on their inhabitants to ‘break up their fallow ground and not to sow among thorns.’ These words were possibly inspired by YHWH’s words in Hosea, ‘Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy, break up your fallow ground’, and if so we can remember that their climax was, ‘then I will come and rain righteousness on you’ (Hosea 10:12), an idea never far away when YHWH calls men to repentance. ‘Fallow ground’ is ground suitable for sowing grain on but not yet ploughed, and it needed to be broken up so that it would receive the seeds, and also so that thorns could be removed from it. But this injunction was not intended as farming advice. The idea was clearly that they must remove the weeds and thorns from their lives and break up the hardness of their hearts so that the word of YHWH might be sown into receptive ground. This spiritual application rather than a literal one is emphasised by the next verse which speaks of spiritual circumcision. YHWH is calling for a deep shake up and softening in their hearts, minds and wills so that they will be receptive to Him. It may well be that Jesus had these words in mind when He preached by means of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-9).
“Circumcise yourselves to YHWH,
And take away the foreskins of your heart,
You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Lest my wrath go forth like fire,
And burn so that none can quench it,
Because of the evil of your doings.”
YHWH then tells them that they needed to ‘circumcise themselves to Him’ by removing ‘the foreskin of their hearts’. This may signify:
1. That they needed to establish His covenant in their hearts by cutting away the barrier which prevented its work within them, dealing with the stubbornness which was in their hearts ( compare Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6).
2. That they were to cut away the flap of sin and unbelief which prevented YHWH’s light from shining in their hearts (compareDeuteronomy 30:6; Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:29).
3. That they were to cut away the sin and corruption that was in their lives (Romans 2:29).
And He warns them that if they do not do so His wrath will go forth like fire, and burn so that none can quench it, as a judgment on them because of the evil of their doings, in other words, because of the wrongness of their daily behaviour. The idea behind unquenchable fire is both of its general and total destructiveness, and of the literal fires that would burn up their lands and cities during the invasion that was coming.
Warning Of The Coming Invasion.
“Declare you in Judah,
And publish in Jerusalem,
And say, “Blow you the ram’s horn in the land,”
Cry aloud and say, “Assemble yourselves,
And let us go into the fortified cities.
Set up a standard (or ‘signal’) towards Zion,
Flee for safety,
For I will bring evil from the north,
And a great destruction.”
Because He knows that they will not do what He has commanded He now sets the wheels of His judgment in motion. He calls on Jeremiah to warn the people in Judah and Jerusalem to blow the ram’s horn in their land, that is, the war horn which is the signal of approaching danger, and then to send out the call for the people to assemble themselves and seek shelter in the fortified cities. The idea behind this call was that the enemy were approaching so that anyone left out in the open could expect to be killed. That was the reason for having fortified cities, so that all could seek refuge in them when an enemy approached. Note the way that the staccato phrases, ‘Flee for safety’, ‘stay not’, increase the sense of urgency
The call was also to set up a standard (military flag) towards Zion, that is, towards Jerusalem, with the aim of fleeing there for safety behind their standards, or to light signal fires warning people to flee to the shelter of the walls of Jerusalem, the strongest city in the area. Nor were they to hesitate, for YHWH was bringing evil from the north in the shape of Babylonian or Scythian armies, or both (as a result of our sparsity of knowledge about those days opinion is divided), who would cause great destruction in their land.
“A lion is gone up from his thicket,
And a destroyer of nations,
He is on his way,
He is gone forth from his place,
To make your land desolate,
That your cities be laid waste, without inhabitant.”
This invader would be like a rampant lion who leaves his thicket in search of prey (compare Hosea 5:14; Joel 3:16; Amos 1:2; Amos 3:12), He would be a destroyer of nations, and what was more, in the intent of God he was already on his way (he had broken up is encampment). He has left his own place in order to desolate their land, and to lay waste their cities so that they would become uninhabited. The impending doom on Judah is being made very clear.
Nothing chilled the heart of the shepherd more than the lion that came out of its hiding place with its eyes fixed on the flock, or roaming round seeking what it may devour. But this lion was human, and his prey was Judah. He was ‘the destroyer of nations’.
A Call To Lamentation And Mourning.
“Gird you with sackcloth for this,
Lament and wail,
For the fierce anger of YHWH,
Is not turned back from us.”
In the face of this threat they are to put on sackcloth, a sign of deep mourning, and are to lament and wail like mourners at a funeral because YHWH’s fierce anger is still directed at them and has not been turned back from them.
“And it will come about at that day,
The word of YHWH,
“That the heart of the king will perish,
And the heart of the princes,
And the priests will be astonished,
And the prophets will wonder.”
And in that day (made certain by ‘the word of YHWH’) their leaders will perish, while their priests and prophets will be filled with wonder because events are not taking the course that they expected, and because of the awfulness of what they see coming on them. In other words their spiritual leaders, who were supposed to bring God’s will to the people, will instead have been proved to have taught them wrongly, and will have brought great destruction on them.
Jeremiah Upbraids YHWH For Seemingly Having Deceived His People.
“Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord YHWH! Surely you have greatly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, You will have peace, whereas the sword reaches unto the life.”
Jeremiah reacts in astonishment to YHWH’s words. One moment YHWH had appeared to be telling Israel that they would have peace (Jeremiah 3:15-19), which surely boded well for Judah. Now He had revealed that the lives of the people of Judah would be exposed to the sword. He was concerned lest YHWH had deceived the people with His seemingly contradictory message. But of course what he was overlooking was that YHWH had stressed that even Josiah’s piety had only obtained peace in his day (2 Kings 22:19-20), and that they could only have permanent peace once they truly repented, something which they patently had not done.
Alternately he may have had the false prophets in mind who proclaimed peace when there was no peace. All around him he saw prophets of YHWH proclaiming peace, with Temple backing. It must have at times been very puzzling. Then Jeremiah is seen as deploring the fact that YHWH has allowed these false prophets to deceive the people (false prophets in YHWH’s eyes, but many would have been seen as legitimate ‘prophets of YHWH’). In that case he is expressing the same puzzlement as we have as we look at the world and wonder why God ‘does not do something about the situation’, and why He allows seemingly sincere men to proclaim false ideas deceiving so many. Why, in other words, does He allow evil to have its way without interfering? We overlook the fact that God is working to a programme that we cannot even begin to understand because we do not know the end from the beginning, nor do we truly understand the complexities of the issues or the problems involved. Either way the words indicate the closeness of the relationship that Jeremiah had with God. He felt able to react towards Him as a friend. God has to be very real to you for you to grumble at Him like this. (Jeremiah’ attitude was very different from that of grumbling atheists. He was concerned for YHWH’s good Name).
YHWH Continues With His Words Of Judgment.
‘At that time will it be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the wilderness toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow, nor to cleanse, a full wind from these will come for me (i.e. ‘on my behalf’), now will I also utter judgments against them.”
YHWH continues with His words of judgment. The people will be informed of a harsh, burning wind (‘a clear wind’) coming towards them from the bare heights in the wilderness, not a wind which will be beneficial, that is, will winnow (blow away the chaff from the wheat at the threshingfloor) or cleanse, but a wind of judgment, fulfilling His words of judgments against them. The east wind coming in from the desert was renowned for its burning heat and almost unbearable effects. Note that the burning wind comes from the very same ‘bare heights’ where they had worshipped their idols (Jeremiah 3:2).
There is an ominous finality about these words. The day for chastisement is over, the day of winnowing and cleansing has gone, now only final judgment awaits.
‘Behold, he will come up as clouds, and his chariots will be as the whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! for we are ruined.’
Jeremiah picks up on YHWH’s words, recognising that they spell doom. ‘Behold,’ he says, ‘he will come as clouds, and his chariots as a whirlwind, and with his horses swifter than eagles.’ The ‘he’ may be referring to YHWH as the bringer of the judgments, or alternatively to the one who will command those forces on YHWH’s behalf. The clouds express the huge size of his forces, the whirlwind the speed and destructive capacity of his chariots, and the horses, descending like eagles, emphasise the rapidity with which it will all happen (compare here Deuteronomy 28:49 and 2 Samuel 1:23). But the final words reveal the effect of these ideas on Jeremiah, for he cries out, ‘woe to us for we are ruined!’ He recognises that there was no hope. We can compare here the similar cry of Isaiah, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone’, when faced up with the awful holiness of YHWH (Isaiah 6:5).
A Further Call To Repent And Be Saved.
‘O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long will your evil thoughts lodge within you?’
YHWH now renews His call to Jerusalem to repent. There could still be hope if only they would repent. And He calls on them to remove the iniquity from their hearts in order that they might be saved from the coming judgments, asking them how long they will allow their evil thoughts to lodge within them. Note that it was the fact that their evil thoughts did not just come to them, for all at times experience such evil thoughts, but also were allowed to lodge within them that lay at the root of the problem. Continuing sin is unforgivable sin.
For the idea of washing the heart as indicating turning from sin compare Isaiah 1:16, ‘wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.’ In other words it indicated turning to Him and obeying His covenant.
The Time Of The Invasion Approaches.
‘For a voice declares from Dan,
And publishes evil from the hills of Ephraim,’
Dan was on the far northern borders of what had been Israel. The hills of Ephraim bordered on Judah. And from these border posts came the voice of warning to Jerusalem to prepare itself, no doubt via swift horsemen. Note the increasing tension, first ‘declares’ and then ‘proclaims, publishes’. There is here, therefore, a pointer to judgment slowly approaching from the north, first affecting Dan, and then, as it advanced, reaching the hills of Ephraim. God’s judgment is seen as advancing on Jerusalem. It is almost there.
The word for ‘evil, affliction, emptiness’ is that same as that for ‘vanity, worship of what is vain’. Awen will come on them come because of their awen. The country will be made empty because of the emptiness of their worship. The prophets had altered the name of Bethel (house of God) to Beth-awen (house of emptiness and of what was vain) for the same reason
‘Make you mention to the nations,
Behold, publish against Jerusalem,
Watchers come from a far country,
And give out their voice against the cities of Judah.’
As we have already seen all nations were intended to enjoy the blessing of YHWH because of the testimony of the people of Israel/Judah (compare Jeremiah 3:17). Such nations are therefore here seen as very interested in anything that concerns Judah. But Judah has been revealed to be faithless, and therefore the nations will make their declaration against them, they are exhorted to (if we parallel with ‘give out their voice against the cities of Judah’) ‘publish against Jerusalem’. Instead of exalting her they are to hold her up to shame because she has failed to be obedient to YHWH. Alternately ‘publish against Jerusalem’ may parallel the first line ‘make you mention to the nations’, indicating a parallel action. And even those who come from a far country will give out their voices against the cities of Judah, declaring them worthy of the judgments that are coming on them. The ‘watchers’ here may be Babylonian scouts surveying ahead for the prospective invasion, or they may be spies who constantly reported back to Nebuchadnezzar what was happening in Palestine, or they may indicate the watching of the besiegers of the cities as they wait for the cities to fall (such watching was enough to chill the heart). Or the term may simply indicate those who watch as the nations were watching, waiting to see what would happen next, their coming from a far country indicating the deep interest of all nations concerning what is happening in Jerusalem. But whichever they are their verdict is against Judah.
“As keepers of a field are they against her round about,
Because she has been rebellious against me,” says YHWH.’
The ‘keepers of the field’ were the local watchmen who watched over the unfenced fields and vineyards, partly in order to prevent theft, and partly in order to keep an eye on the depredations of wild beasts. So these ‘watchers of Jerusalem’ were similarly watching Jerusalem, and have given a verdict against her, because they are witnesses to the fact that she has been rebellious against YHWH, because she bears no fruit. And this is ‘the word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH).
Alternately the ‘keepers of the field’ may be indicating the siege battalions that are to gather round Jerusalem, watching and waiting until her downfall becomes a reality.
The Reason For The Coming Judgment.
‘Your way and your doings,
Have procured these things to you,
This is your wickedness, for it is bitter,
For it reaches to your heart.’
And all this was true of Judah and Jerusalem because of their evil ways and doings. It was their evil ways and doings which had bought for her the attention of the nations, and even the nations were appalled at what they saw. For their ways and doings were epitomes of wickedness, a wickedness that was bitter and reached to their very heart.
Jeremiah’s Anguish At The Situation.
‘My anguish, my anguish!
I am pained at my very heart,
My heart is disquieted in me,
I cannot hold my peace,
Because you have heard,
O my soul,
The sound of the ram’s horn,
The alarm of war.’
At what he has seen and at the sound of the ram’s horn declaring war on Judah and Jerusalem Jeremiah is cut to the heart. His tender heart can hardly bear what it means. He is filled with anguish, and pained right to his heart (literally ‘at the walls of my heart’). His heart is disquieted, and he cannot keep silent, because he knows exactly what the war horn is going to mean, destruction upon his people.
‘My anguish, my anguish.’ Literally, ‘my bowels (intestines), my bowels’ in the same way as we speak of being affected by distress in the pit of our stomachs.
‘ “Destruction upon destruction” is cried,
For the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed,
My curtains in a moment.
How long will I see the standard,
And hear the sound of the ram’s horn?’
The dire situation is vividly brought out here. The cry is, ‘destruction upon destruction’ (‘breaking up upon breaking up, crash upon crash’), because the whole land is laid waste. And the end will come suddenly. Their homes will be destroyed (‘tents’ being a metaphor for homes, as often, although many possibly still lived in tents), and their curtains (the curtains of their tents and those acting as dividers in their homes) will be torn down ‘in a moment’ as the invaders loot their houses and tents. And the final two lines indicate the sad cry that makes clear that the end is near. How much longer will their standard keep flying to hearten the defenders, how long will the sound of the ram’s horn organising the defence still be heard? For when the standard ceases flying, and the ram’s horn ceases sounding, it will be the indication that all is over.
It is worth comparing Jeremiah 4:19 line by line with Jeremiah 4:20-21, on the one hand the anguish of the prophet (‘my anguish, my anguish’), on the other the certainty of the destruction (‘destruction upon destruction’). Note also the repetition of ‘the sound of the ram’s horn’, first causing anguish and then indicating the end.
YHWH’s Charge Against His People.
‘For my people are foolish,
They do not know me,
They are mindless children,
And they have no understanding,
They are wise to do evil,
But to do good they have no knowledge.’
And we now have the full explanation of why all this has come upon them. It is because they have been foolish in not knowing YHWH (compare Psalms 14:1) and have instead preferred no-gods, they have been mindless because they are lacking in true understanding. It is because they have not understood and received the truth that they are subtle when it comes to doing evil, and yet totally lacking in a knowledge of what is good and of doing it. And with such people what could God do?
We are reminded here of the words of Job, ‘The fear of YHWH, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding’ (Job 28:28). Note the importance of the fact that true understanding results in departure from evil. That is the difference between true faith based on true understanding, which is the faith that saves, and an academic faith based only on intellectual understanding, which does not save (see John 2:23-25; James 2:19-20).
YHWH Warns Judah That If They Will Not Repent For Them Too Invasion By A Fierce Adversary Is Threatening And Will Undoubtedly Come Because Of Their Sins (Jeremiah 4:3-31 ).
If Judah will not respond to the example provided by Israel, and the glowing picture of hope for the future offered to them, they too will experience invasion and go through a similar experience. They are thus called on to repent accompanied with the warning of what will happen to them if they do not. They will suffer an invasion which will be so dreadful that it calls to mind the vision of a world returned to its original unformed condition. The picture thus drawn is then followed by that of a nation in anguish.
Jeremiah’s Vision Of The Aftermath Of The Invasion (Jeremiah 4:23-31 ).
In chilling tones Jeremiah now pictures the land after its destruction, as he, as it were, looks around and sees all the devastation wrought by it. It would be as though the whole of the heavens and earth were affected, the earth waste and void (tohu wa bohu) as it had been before God worked on it after the initial creation (Genesis 1:2), the heavens devoid of light. It would be as though God’s fashioning of the world after creation had never happened. The mountains and hills would be unstable, the land would be devoid of human life, and even the birds would sing there no more. There would just be empty silence. What had once been fruitful land would now be a desert, and all the cities would be ghost towns, crumbling, empty reminders of what had been. And all this ‘at the presence of YHWH and before His fierce anger’.
And it would be YHWH Who would have done it because of His antipathy to their sin. Nevertheless it was not really to be the end of all things, for it was not YHWH’s intention to make a full end. The indication is that one day the land would rise again. But before that happened the invasion must take place and there would be the blackness of deep mourning, experienced even by the earth and the heavens themselves. Before the advancing armies the people would flee, hiding in thickets and in the mountains and deserting their cities, and there would be no avoiding it. All attempts to tart themselves up and make themselves presentable once this had happened would fail. Their anguish would be like that of a woman bearing her first child who, gasping for breath, discovers that she has to endure unbelievable pain. And as they endured they would cry, ‘Woe is me now, for my soul faints before the murderers.’ They would be looking death in the eyes.
In order to gain the full impact, before commenting on the detail we present the poem as a whole:
‘I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste and void,
And the heavens, and they had no light.’
I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled,
And all the hills moved to and fro.
I beheld, and, lo, there was no man,
And all the birds of the heavens were fled.
I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness,
And all its cities thereof were ruins,
At the presence of YHWH,
And before his fierce anger.
‘I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste and void,
And the heavens, and they had no light.’
The picture is of creation in Genesis 1:2 before God had brought it into shape. There ‘waste and void’ (tohu wa bohu) had indicated total formlessness and emptiness, and it would be the same again. And just as then there had been no light, so it would be again. It is not, of course, to be taken literally, but as indicating how the land would have been emptied of all that gave it shape, remaining like an empty mass bathed in total darkness with no light at all penetrating through.
‘I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled,
And all the hills moved to and fro.’
The thought here is that even the mountains and hills, those permanent reminders of the solidity of the earth, would instead of being solid, be shaking and moving. An earthquake may be partly in mind, but the idea is more basic than that. It is an indication that the very foundations of creation would be being shaken.
‘I beheld, and, lo, there was no man,
And all the birds of the heavens were fled.
The land is pictured as devoid of all life, as it had indeed been at the beginning before the birds were created and man had come on the scene. Now also the landscape would be deserted, harbouring neither man nor bird. There would be the unearthly stillness of total lifelessness.
‘I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness,
And all its cities were broken down (were empty ruins),’
What had once been a fruitful land which had delighted the eye of man, would now be an empty desert, devoid of cultivation. And what had once been proud cities filled with life, would have become empty ruins, their crumbling stones testifying both to what had been, and to what was now because of man’s sinfulness.
‘At the presence of YHWH, and before his fierce anger.’
And all this would be because the One Whom they had despised and forsaken would have come there and demonstrated His presence, and His antipathy against sin. Speaking of God’s ‘fierce anger’ is, of course anthropomorphic language. It is seeing God in man’s terms. What is really in mind is His antipathy against sin, the fact that He, as it were, recoils in horror before it because He knows it for what it really is, and will necessarily deal with it accordingly. It is only we who treat sin lightly. But when we do we would do well to consider the picture just described which brings out the consequences of sin and the reality of God’s hatred of it.
‘For thus says YHWH, “The whole land will be a desolation, yet will I not make a full end.”
Yet even in the midst of the picture of desolation YHWH offers hope. He promises that He will not make a full end. Out of the devastation and the ruins Israel would rise again, and, even though Jeremiah did not at the time know it, one day on that very ground would walk the Son of God Himself bringing salvation to all who trust in Him.
This promise that He would not make a full end will be repeated again in one way or another (e.g. Jeremiah 5:1; Jeremiah 5:18; Jeremiah 30:11; Jeremiah 46:28; compare Leviticus 26:44; Amos 9:8; Isaiah 6:13; Isaiah 10:21), and it firmly emphasises hope for the future once the severe chastisement is over in accordance with Leviticus 26:44-45; Deuteronomy 30:1-10. It is an assurance that while His judgment will be severe it will not be terminal.
“For this will the earth mourn,
And the heavens above be black,
Because I have spoken it,
I have purposed it,
And I have not repented,
Neither will I turn back from it.
But let them not therefore be in doubt of God’s intentions, or think that He would be slack concerning them. All that He had warned of would come about, so that even the earth and the heavens themselves would be steeped in mourning. The earth would mourn at what was to happen, and the heavens would be black, like the black worn by mourners, because YHWH had declared that it would happen, and because He had purposed it. Thus it was sure and certain. Nor would He change His mind or turn back from it. It is a reminder that the purposes of God, both good and bad, are sure, so that nothing will prevent their occurrence, and that while there are times when men wish it were otherwise, in the end it is for the good of His people.
The blackness of the heavens may have in mind its being covered with a shroud of clouds in the midst of a severe storm, compare 1 Kings 19:45, thus making the earth dark even while it was still day, but the main thought behind these words is of the deep mourning of the earth and the heavens at the awfulness of what was to happen.
‘Every city flees,
For the noise of the horsemen and bowmen,
They go into the thickets,
And clamber up on the rocks,
Every city is forsaken,
And not a man dwells in them.’
Jeremiah now takes over the commentary, declaring what will happen in more prosaic terms. At the sound of the approaching horsemen and bowmen the people in the cities will flee (such horsemen and bowmen were regularly depicted on inscriptions). They will seek to hide in the thickets, they will clamber desperately up the rocks seeking for hiding places (compare 1 Samuel 13:6, ‘the people hid themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in holds, and in pits’). Every city will be forsaken. Not a man will dwell in them. This will not be just an invasion by an invading army seeking tribute. It has in mind a full end for the time being because of Judah’s treachery (even though God will not finally allow it to be so).
‘And you, when you are made desolate,
What will you do?
Though you clothe yourself with scarlet,
Though you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
Though you enlarge your eyes with antimony,
In vain do you make yourself fair,
Your lovers despise you,
They seek your life.’
He then asks them to consider the true position. He pictures Judah and Jerusalem as seeking to make themselves acceptable to their ‘lovers’, those whom they had ‘courted’ among the nations. In the wreck of what has happened to them they are seen as seeking desperately to beautify themselves with gorgeous clothing (possibly to be seen as that of expensive prostitutes, but compare 2 Samuel 1:24), and covering themselves with their cosmetics and jewellery and make up, in a fervent attempt to make themselves ‘loved’, but it is an attempt which will fail because their lovers no longer want them, they only seek their lives. All their political manoeuvrings will have proved to have been in vain. All attempts to ingratiate themselves will have failed.
Even today the world will go to all kinds of desperate measures in order to make themselves acceptable, but in the end it is all a sham and in vain. They need to recognise that there is only one love that is worth seeking, and can be relied on, and that is the sure and certain love of God, and that there is only one way to come to Him, and that is with total openness of heart, trusting in the shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation.
The blackening or enlarging of the eyes with antimony has been a feature of many centuries and is still practised in the Middle East today.
‘For I have heard a voice as of a woman in labour,
The anguish as of her who brings forth her first child,
The voice of the daughter of Zion, who gasps for breath,
Who spreads her hands, saying, Woe is me now!
For my soul faints before the murderers.
Jeremiah closes this description of God’s judgment by picturing Jerusalem (the daughter of Zion) as being like a woman in labour who is producing her first child, with the knowledge that it will be murdered as soon as it is born. The emphasis is thus not on the gladness of the event, but on the suffering that she has to endure (only ever appreciated by women who have endured it), and her desperation in view of the situation lying ahead. She is seen as gasping for breath, and desperately stretching out her hands in a plea for help while crying ‘woe is me’, because in spite of all that she has had to endure she knows that it has all been in vain. And her soul is fainting within her because her murderers, and the murderers of her child, are approaching whilst she herself, though wracked with pain, spreads out her hands in despair but can do nothing about it. It is a picture of Jerusalem’s hopelessness and suffering in the face of what is to come.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany