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CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES:—1. Chronology of the Chapter. Section I., Jeremiah 34:1-7, is in subject connected with chap. Jeremiah 32:1-5. These verses, however, seem slightly to antedate that chapter, for observe the words (Jeremiah 34:2), “Go and speak to Zedekiah,” implying that Jeremiah had not yet been imprisoned; whereas in Jeremiah 32:2, Jeremiah is “shut up in the court of the prison.” This section must date at the very beginning of the Chaldean invasion, and follows closely upon the records in chap. 21 (see notes in loc). Further observe, in Jeremiah 34:7, that Lachish and Azekah—strong cities of defence—were as yet not captured by the Chaldeans; and these (urges Dr. Payne Smith), lying in the plain towards Egypt, must be taken before the Chaldees could march upon Jerusalem, as otherwise an Egyptian army might collect under their cover and fall upon the Chaldeans. Zedekiah was, therefore, at this time in a position for making good terms with Nebuchadnezzar. Thus the date is early in the 9th year of Zedekiah’s reign—the date when the Chaldean army approached Jerusalem. Section II., Jeremiah 34:8–end, shows that the bond servants were released as the siege drew imminent; but when—in the summer of the same year—the Chaldeans were drawn aside temporally from the siege by the arrival of the Egyptian army to the rescue of the Jews (Jeremiah 34:21), their masters at once forced the liberated slaves back again into their service.
2. National Affairs.—See above on Chronology of chapter. Jeremiah had informed Zedekiah, through his messenger, of the approaching Chaldean siege (see on chap. 21); the siege is now begun, and Jeremiah goes to him in person and appeals to him to submit (Jeremiah 34:2-3). Before, however, the Chaldeans had taken the fortified cities of the plain (for they were still warring against them, Jeremiah 34:7), and hence at the very commencement of the siege of Jerusalem, the king “made a covenant with all the people” to liberate their servants, hoping to inspire these servants with patriotic attachment to defend the city against the Chaldean army. But, immediately the Egyptian army appeared, these servants were forced back again into bondage.
3. Contemporary History.—See on chap. 21 and 32; also compare chap. Jeremiah 37:5-10.
4. Geographical References.—Jeremiah 34:7. “Lachish and Azekah.” See 2 Chronicles 11:5-9. Both in the lowlands of Judah, to the south-west of Jerusalem. “Lachish” was a strong defensive town (Joshua 10:31-33), afterwards fortified and garrisoned by Rehoboam; it lay between Phœnecia and Egypt; reoccupied by the Jews after their captivity (Nehemiah 11:30); its exact site not known. “Azekah” (see 1 Samuel 17:1; and Joshua 10:10-11). Also situate in the plain towards Egypt from Jerusalem, but its present site is not known.
5. Manners and Customs.—Jeremiah 34:8-9. “Proclaim liberty unto man-servant and maid-servant.” According to Jewish laws a Hebrew bondservant, having served for six years, had to be set free on the seventh (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12). The last year of Zedekiah’s reign was the Sabbatical year (Vide supra, National Affairs). Jeremiah 34:5. “Burn odours for thee:” spices burned upon piles of faggots customary at royal funerals (2 Chronicles 16:14; 2 Chronicles 21:19).
Jeremiah 34:18. “Cut the calf in twain and passed between the parts.” It was customary, on entering into a covenant, for the contracting parties to slay and divide an animal, and pass between the parts, indicating their deserving and readiness to be so treated if they violated the contract (Genesis 15:10-17).
6. Literary Criticisms.—Jeremiah 34:1. “Kingdoms of the earth of His dominion.” No art. before אֶרֶץ and lit. “all the kingdoms of land the dominion of his hand,” i.e. land subject to his hand.
Jeremiah 34:5. “With the burnings of thy fathers.” Many MSS. have וּכְמִשְׂרְפוֹת, according to the burnings, not וּבְ, with.
Jeremiah 34:17. “Will make you to be removed,” &c.; “for a removing” (Margin), “for a horror” (Naegelsbach), “give you up to agitation” (Henderson). Vide note on chap. Jeremiah 29:18.
TOPICAL SURVEY OF CHAPTER 34
Zedekiah’s opportunity and its alternative issue.
The people’s perfidy and punishment.
Vers. Jeremiah 34:8-11.
Hypocritical repentance distinguished from true conversion.
Violation of the law of liberty.
Jeremiah 34:1-7. OPPORTUNITY AND ITS ISSUES
The statements in these verses, that Zedekiah should “die in peace” and be honoured with royal obsequies, seem at variance with history. Explanation—
I. Inevitable events. Jeremiah 34:2-3 are declared as irrevocable facts. Zedekiah was Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal, sworn to obedience and allegiance to the king of Babylon. Instead of fidelity to Babylon he had courted Egyptian succour, and conspired with petty neighbouring kings (Jeremiah 27:2-3) against Nebuchadnezzar. Incensed at this conspiracy, the king of Babylon was now besieging Jerusalem. Zedekiah must now face his royal master. From this there was no escape. And Jeremiah 34:3 specifies the inevitable incidents: 1. Capture; 2. Brought face to face with the conqueror; 3. Carried into Babylon.
II. Mitigating assurances. Jeremiah 34:4-5 offer an alleviating picture: 1. Life spared of a violent end; 2. Royal honours at death; 3. Reverent lamentations of his nation in exile.
III. Opportunity and its alternative issues. For so must we regard these verses. The “mitigating assurances” are not pledged absolutely but conditionally.
1. The final opportunity offered. “Go speak to Zedekiah” (Jeremiah 34:2-3). This message left him in no doubt as to the result of the Chaldean siege, although the Egyptians came to the succour of Jerusalem. This absolute message of what should befal the city and the king ought to have shown Zedekiah the wisdom of propitiating Nebuchadnezzar by his voluntary submission and surrender of the city.
2. Conditional ameliorations promised. For in this sense we must read Jeremiah 34:4-5. The condition on which these ameliorations are pledged is this: “Yet hear the word of the Lord, O Zedekiah;” it is an appeal to “heed” the message; and means, bow to God’s purposes, submit to the Babylonian yoke, for God so designs it shall be.
The ameliorations promised are these: Obey and submit, and thy life shall be spared, thou shalt die in peace at Jerusalem, and be buried with royal honours in the sepulchre of thy fathers; for, doubtless, Nebuchadnezzar would have preserved Zedekiah as his reigning vassal had he been still submissive to Babylon.
IV. The historic sequel. Zedekiah refused his opportunity, was taken face to face with Nebuchadnezzar; “his eyes beheld the eyes of the king of Babylon;” and then his sons and nobles were slain before him; following this harrowing spectacle, he himself was deprived of sight; he was dragged to Babylon in chains, and there cast into prison where he languished till his death (chap. Jeremiah 52:10-11). Comp. Homily on chap. Jeremiah 32:1-5.
Jeremiah 34:8-22. PERFIDY AND PUNISHMENT
Zedekiah summoned his people to a general release of the bond servants of Jerusalem. This act was according to—
I. Covenant obligations (Jeremiah 34:13-15). A Levitical law enacted that owners of slaves of Hebrew blood should set them free after six years’ service (Exodus 21:2). Later, this law was extended to females (Deuteronomy 15:12). Parents could sell their children into this limited slavery, which was no more than a modern apprenticeship (Exodus 21:7; Nehemiah 5:5), and the poor could so sell themselves. It was a contract of service, absolutely restricted in duration.
On no plea could owners of slaves refuse the liberty which was their divine right at the end of their period of service. And God had enacted that, at the close of the contracted term, masters should send their slaves away generously provided with necessaries and comforts (Deuteronomy 15:14). This contract arrangement made—
1. Servants faithful. 2. Masters considerate. 3. Class relationships mutually helpful and safe.
II. Prudential observance. The king, disobedient to God’s messages through Jeremiah, would not be likely now to act from any religious or conscientious motive in his covenant with the people to proclaim liberty (Jeremiah 34:8-9). His policy was to bind the freedmen to the defence of the besieged city.
Albeit, “the people who entered into the covenant” (Jeremiah 34:10) may have responded under a sense of danger, for the enemy was near their gates; and may even have risen to something of patriotic enthusiasm; but the motive was not religious. There was no reverence for God in their act, neither magnanimity to their slaves.
1. Good acts may have bad motives. 2. A godless heart is not likely to prompt noble purposes.
III. Execrable perfidy. Scarcely had the slaves been set free than the Egyptian forces appeared against the Chaldean besiegers and drew Nebuchadnezzar for awhile off from the siege (Jeremiah 34:21). Elate with mad joy, the masters at once forced back their servants into renewed bondage, thus violating all faith and outraging every instinct of generosity (Jeremiah 34:10-11; Jeremiah 34:16).
1. To break faith with man is villanous in itself. 2. It engenders worst feelings in those who are wronged. 3. It invokes the dire displeasure of God; for “with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.”
IV. Parallel punishment (Jeremiah 34:17-22). Ye were “brought out of the house of bondmen” in Egypt; why destroy the bridge for others over which you passed yourselves?
1. God’s awful liberation of wrong-doers. “Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you” (Jeremiah 34:17): abandon you as your Guardian and Lord.
2. Sinners’ appalling doom. “I will make you to be removed” (Jeremiah 34:17); i.e., “to be a horror” (see Lit. Crit.)
Then follow definite declarations of misery: national disaster (Jeremiah 34:19-20); royal degradation and woe (Jeremiah 34:21); ruin on the land (Jeremiah 34:22). Having deceived their slaves with a vain hope of liberty, so they now deceived themselves, in thinking themselves saved from the Chaldeans because they had temporarily withdrawn. God will “liberate” them from all further connection with Him, to pass under the terrible bondage of other taskmasters. The breakers of covenants with God will be cut in pieces, as the calf between whose parts they passed. Doom swiftly came. “I will repay, saith the Lord!”
Jeremiah 34:8-11. HYPOCRITICAL REPENTANCE DISTINGUISHED FROM TRUE CONVERSION
i. The occasion may be the same in both; i.e., external distress (comp. e.g. Isaiah 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:32; Titus 2:12).
ii. The inward disposition entirely differs. In false penitence the mind and heart remain unchanged; in true conversion man turns inwardly with pain and sorrow from evil and to God.
iii. The duration is the test of its character. False penitence lasts as long as the outward need; true repentance is a permanent condition of the heart; and, notwithstanding single backslidings, advances to a more complete subjugation of the old self.—Naegelsbach.
Hypocrites, when they show repentance, do it—
i. Not from faith, but from fear of distress and danger, in which they are at the time.
ii. They do not cease all disobedience to God, but only make some ethical reforms, as here in observing the jubilee year, as if there were no other reforms to be made.
iii. They specially select such lines of conduct as are ostentatious; as will attract public attention and win regard; as in this act of manumission of the slaves, which would loose the rabble, make a great noise and show.
iv. Meanwhile there are none, or few thoughts of faith, love, fear of God, hope, and thanksgiving.
v. Such penitence does not last long, but as soon as the distress finds a hole the devotion goes with it.—Cramer.
“As Zedekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, on finding themselves besieged, set at liberty their Hebrew servants, and pretended they would observe the law of God; but afterwards, imagining they had nothing to fear, changed their minds, and made slaves of their brethren; thus sinners pretend to humble themselves, and seem disposed to repentance, while they are threatened and the danger is near; but as soon as their fears are over, they break their promises and return to their sins. Jeremiah’s reproaches and threatenings of the Jews for their impious and unjust proceedings show that a repentance and a reformation which is but of short duration, instead of pacifying God, only provokes Him the more; and that those who violate His covenant and their own promises shall not escape the punishment which their infidelity and hypocrisy deserve.”—Ostervald.
“Like the detested tribe
Of ancient Pharisees, beneath the mask
Of clamorous piety, what numbers veil
Contaminated, vicious hearts! How many
In the devoted temple of their God,
With hypocritic eye, from which the tear
Of penitential anguish seems to flow,
Pour forth their vows, and by affected zeal
Pre-eminent devotion boast; while vice
Within the guilty breast rankles unseen!”
“Hypocrisy, detest her as we may
(And no man’s hatred ever wronged her yet),
May claim this merit still: that she admits
The worth of that she mimics with such care,
And thus gives virture indirect applause.”
“No man’s condition is so base as his,
None more accursed than he; for man esteems
Him hateful ’cause he seems not what he is;
God hates him ’cause he is not what he seems.”
VIOLATION OF THE LAW OF LIBERTY
“Ye had done right in My sight, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbour; but ye turned and polluted My name” (Jeremiah 34:15-16).
Cicero, when commending humanity and kindness towards servants, urged, Let them not be treated as slaves, but as those who are hired (Off. i.)
These Jews, in neglecting the legal manumission of their servants, and holding them in unjust bondage, in vain complained of oppression by the Chaldeans or Assyrians; for they themselves were acting the tyrant’s part. But we recoil from enduring the sufferings we inflict. Here observe that God—
I. Recalls their history and experience (Jeremiah 34:13). Hence for—
1. Their own freedom from tyranny they were indebted to God’s gratuitous mercy and mighty power.
2. Their experience of such Divinely secured liberty should have led them to cherish the freedom of their dependants. It was God’s will that they whom He had redeemed should retain the blessings of freedom; and, that a memorial might exist amongst them, of both their own bondage and emancipation, He covenanted with them that servitude should be temporary.
II. Reproves the national neglect of His law.
1. They knew this Divine law, yet held back liberty from their bond servants (Jeremiah 34:14; Jeremiah 34:18). Note how our Lord condemns such disobedience (Luke 12:4).
2. Though they had at length set their bondmen free, it was not in voluntary recognition of God’s established law, but in obedience to an edict of Zedekiah. Observe the word in Jeremiah 34:10, “they obeyed”—reluctantly, but perforce. Where God’s word is clearly made known, there is no excuse for neglecting it (Isaiah 45:19). But its neglect is consequent upon our “hearkening not, nor inclining our ear” (Jeremiah 34:14).
III. Commends their present observance of the covenant. “Ye were now (lit., to-day) turned, and had done right” (Jeremiah 34:15).
1. Though reformation came tardily, yet God approved it when effected. “To-day,” after so long a time; yet ye “turned.”
2. Right deeds are pleasing to God, per se, apart from the motives of their doers. He approves fidelity and righteousness wherever He sees them, even though He who searcheth the heart sees there is no love of righteousness there. Jewels are precious things even though worn by the vulgar. But God commended their temporary repentance and reformation only to show how detestable was their falsity in doing insincerely what they did, and returning so quickly to iniquitous oppression.
IV. Denounces their base hypocrisy of heart. “Ye made a covenant before Me in the house” &c. (Jeremiah 34:15).
1. Their after conduct only exhibited their falsity in making the “covenant.” Their intentions went not with their vows made before God. All they did therefore, in His house, was a pretence; they acted a lie before God. They trifled with God!
2. To use the solemnities of religion insincerely is guiltiest profanation. “Ye polluted My name” (Jeremiah 34:16). It was evident that they were lost to all sanctity of feeling and shame for their baseness and wrong, that they could thus abuse an oath made before God, taking “God’s name” in vain, and defile God’s temple, by acting a lie within its solemn precincts.
1. Their promptitude in manumitting their slaves was generously commended by God; but by doing this in bad faith they treated God with mockery.
2. It is an intolerable profanation of God’s name when thus falsely appealed to; it is perjury allied to sacrilege.
3. Rebellion against God becomes even more base when a pretence is made of obedience and reform, as these men perfidiously acted in giving liberty to their slaves, and then forcing them into subjection so soon afterwards.
4. To this perjury and profanity was added inhumanity; for they “brought them into subjection” (Jeremiah 34:16), the word meaning to employ force. It was an act of unbridled tyranny. And “he shall have justice without mercy that showeth no mercy.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Jeremiah 34". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19