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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Jeremiah 23

 

 

Verse 1

XXIII.

(1) Woe be unto the pastors . . .—The message that follows in Jeremiah 23:1-8 comes as a natural sequel to that of Jeremiah 22. The unfaithful shepherds who had been there denounced are contrasted with those, more faithful to their trust, whom Jehovah will raise up. As before, in Jeremiah 2:8 and elsewhere, we have to remember that the “pastors” are (like the “shepherds of the people” in Greek poets) the civil rulers, not the prophets or the priests, of Israel. The parallelism with the prophecy of Ezekiel 34, delivered about the same time in the land of exile, is suggestive either of direct communication between the two writers, or of traditional lines of thought common to the two priest-prophets.

The sheep of my pasture.—The words assert the claims of Jehovah to be the true Shepherd of His people. (Comp. Psalms 79:13; Psalms 100:3.)


Verse 2

(2) Ye have scattered my flock.—The charge was true literally as well as spiritually. The dispersion of the people in Egypt, Assyria, and Chaldæa was the result of the neglect, the tyranny, the feebleness of their rulers. They had been led, not as the Eastern shepherd leads (John 10:4-5), but “driven”—not to the fold, but “away” into far lands.

Have not visited.—i.e., cared for and regarded. They were negligent, but God was not, and He therefore would “visit” them by reproof and chastisement.


Verse 3

(3) To their folds.—Better, habitations, or pastures. There was hope, as in Isaiah 1:9; Isaiah 6:13, for the “remnant” of the people, though the sentence on their rulers, as such, was final and irreversible.


Verse 4

(4) I will set up shepherds . . .—The words imply, in one sense, a return to the theocracy, the breaking off the hereditary succession of the house of David, and the giving of power to those who, like Ezra and Nehemiah, and, later on in history, the Maccabees, were called to rule because they had the capacity for ruling well. The plural is noticeable, as in Jeremiah 3:15, as not limiting the prophecy to the Christ who is yet the “chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). In the verb for “set up” there is an allusive reference to the names of Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, into both of which it entered. Jehovah would “raise up” shepherds, but not such as they had proved themselves to be.

Neither shall they be lacking.—i.e., the flock would be so cared for that not one sheep should be lost. Care extending even to every individual member was the true ideal of the Shepherd’s work (John 10:3; John 17:12), and therefore of the ruler’s.


Verse 5

(5) Behold, the days come.—The words point to an undefined, far-off future, following on the provisional order implied in Jeremiah 23:4, when the kingdom should once more rest in one of the house of David.

A righteous Branch.—The idea is the same, though the word is different (here Zemach, and there Netzer), as in Isaiah 11:1. In both cases, however, the word means a “sprout” or “scion,” springing up from the root even after the tree had been cut down (Isaiah 6:13), and not a branch growing from the trunk. It is probably in reference to this prophecy that we find the name of “the Branch” (Zemach) so prominent in Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12. Here, it is obvious, the prophet speaks of the one great Shepherd.

A King shall reign.—Better, he shall reign as King, the Branch or Sprout being the subject of the sentence. As with all the Messianic prophecies of this class, the thoughts of the prophet dwell on the acts and attributes of a sovereignty exercised personally on earth. Such a sovereignty, “all power in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), was indeed given to the Christ, but not after the fashion that men expected.


Verse 5-6

The Lord our Righteousness

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute judgement and justice in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord is our righteousness.—Jeremiah 23:5-6.

When this prophecy was uttered, Judah was ten years from her fall. The good Josiah was in his grave—slain by the archers of Pharaoh-Necho of Egypt. Jehoahaz, his son, after three months reign as successor, had been deposed. Jehoiakim, his brother, after acting as sovereign for eleven years, was a captive in Babylon. Jehoiachin, after three months of inglorious rule, was, like his father, carried off into exile. And now Zedekiah, his fathers brother, occupied the throne. Still things in Judah went from bad to worse. Judah was on the down grade. “There was no remedy,” “no healing more.” Like a boat that has crossed the death-line on Niagara, Judah was in the rapids and hurrying to the brink of the fatal precipice. Its sun was going down in blood and darkness. Its day of grace was expiring. The thunder-clouds and lightning shafts of judgment were drawing near. No power on earth could save it.

In these circumstances Jeremiah sums up his verdict upon the kings and rulers of his day in general, under the figure of shepherds who have destroyed and scattered the sheep entrusted to them. The troubles which befell Judah, and led ultimately to its ruin, are traced by Jeremiah to the short-sightedness and studied neglect of those who were its responsible guides. “Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord. And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply. And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking, saith the Lord.” The unrighteous rulers will be deposed: wise and just ones, in the happier future which Jeremiah now begins to contemplate, will take their place. There follows the passage from which the text is taken: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute judgement and justice in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord is our righteousness.”

The prophet sees—

An Ideal King—a Righteous Branch, having this title, “The Lord is our righteousness.”

National deliverance, when the fruits of righteousness shall be reaped in security and peace. “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely.”

I

Righteousness Enthroned

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch.”

1. The same words are repeated further on. “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will perform that good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel, and concerning the house of Judah. In those days, and at that time, will I cause a Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute judgement and righteousness in the land.” Of course, the prophet was well acquainted with the prediction of his distinguished predecessor, Isaiah: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” At a later period, the name by which these two prophets had described that illustrious Person who should arise in the line of Davids descendants to sit upon Davids throne became recognized as one of the appropriate titles of the Prince-Messiah. Zechariah twice speaks of Him as “the Branch.” “Behold, I will bring forth my servant, the Branch”; “Behold the man whose name is the Branch.” The attribute of righteousness is also assigned to Him by Isaiah. “With righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.” “Righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.”

2. Not only was the Branch to arise, but He was to sit on the throne of David, endued with power from on high. Jerusalem had seen many branches of the royal tree cut off and wither; this should be exalted and clothed with power; He was to reign and prosper. His spiritual kingdom should know no end, should be subject to no reverse. The strength of Judah should not be cut off again as of late, when Josiah fell at the battle of Megiddo, a righteous prince slain by the uncircumcised; but He should prosper, He should reign, not merely for His own good, as selfish rulers are wont to do, but for the good of His people. And who should they be? Not only the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, but the people of the whole earth; for all kingdoms, and nations, and languages should bow down before Him, and serve the Lord their Redeemer. He should “execute judgement and justice in the land.” He should not give cause to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, saying, Behold the people of Israel, the chosen people; they all follow after iniquity, and their princes pervert justice. For “He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”

3. The Branch was to have the significant designation “The Lord is our righteousness.” In what sense are we to understand this name? The name which is applied to the ideal king in chap. 23 is applied to the ideal city in chap. 33; both alike are to be called by the same significant title, “Jehovah is our righteousness.” There is something strange, to our ears, in a name thus formed; but it is in analogy with Hebrew usage. It was the custom of the ancient Israelites to form proper names compounded with one or other of the sacred names more freely than we should do. Thus they gave their children such names as “Jehovah (or God) heareth,” or “remembereth,” or “judgeth,” or “Jehovah is a help,” or “is opulence,” or again, “Jehovah is perfect,” or “exalted,” or “great.” And we find places named similarly. Thus we read of an altar called “Jehovah is my banner,” and of another called “Jehovah is peace.” Names thus formed were felt, no doubt, to be words of good omen; or they were intended to mark what either was, or was hoped to be, a reality. The prophets, by an extension of this usage, not infrequently employ the name as the mark of a character, to be given to a person or place because the idea which it expressed was really inherent in him or it. Thus Isaiah, speaking of the ideal Zion of the future, says: “Afterward thou shalt be called The city of righteousness, the faithful city”—called so, namely, because the qualities of righteousness and faithfulness, so sadly lacking in the existing city, will be conspicuous in it. And Ezekiel, speaking of the restored Zion, says, in the last verse of his Book: “And the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there”; he imagines, that is, a symbolical title, summing up in a brief and forcible manner the characteristic state or condition of the city.

The case is similar in Jeremiah. The city bears a name indicating the character of its inhabitants: God is the source and ground of their righteousness. Jerusalem is to become the home and abode of righteousness, through the gracious operation of her God. Here a similar name is given to the ideal king, or Messiah. He is the pledge and symbol to Israel that their righteousness was to have its source in God. Just as Isaiah, when Judah was sorely tried by external foes, had given his ideal king the symbolical name of “God is with us,” as a guarantee that Divine help would be assured to them; so Jeremiah, at a time when the character of the people had largely deteriorated, gives him the symbolical name of “The Lord is our righteousness,” significant of the fact that the nations righteousness can be assured only by God. The ideal ruler whom Jeremiah foresees will govern his nation with wisdom and success; and under his gracious administration the Divinely imparted character of righteousness will be realized by the nation.

The “name” is a brief and pointed censure upon a king whose character was the opposite of that described in these verses, yet who bore a name of almost identical meaning—Zedekiah, “Jehovah is my righteousness.” The name of the last reigning Prince of the House of David had been a standing condemnation of his unworthy life, but the King of the New Israel, Jehovahs true Messiah, would realize in His administration all that such a name promised. Sovereigns delight to accumulate sonorous epithets in their official designations—Highness, High and Mighty, Majesty, Serene, Gracious. The glaring contrast between character and titles often serves only to advertise the worthlessness of those who are labelled with such epithets—the Majesty of James I., the Graciousness of Richard III. Yet these titles point to a standard of true royalty, whether the sovereign be an individual or a class or the people; they describe that Divine Sovereignty which will be realized in the Kingdom of God.1 [Note: W. H. Bennett, The Book of Jeremiah, 325.]

4. Jeremiahs prophecy is a foreshadowing of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. It is true that we are not distinctly told how this righteousness is to enter individual and national life, but we are assured that Gods righteousness is the ground and source and guarantee of our righteousness. We are left in doubt as to whether Jeremiah so far anticipated the teaching of the New Testament as to view this righteousness as conferred through the agency of the same ideal ruler, whose name is designed as the symbol of the fact. The terms in which he speaks, however, do not suggest that he conceived him as the author of justification, in the theological sense of the term; they imply rather that he pictured him as ensuring, by his wise and just administration, the conditions under which righteousness of life might be maintained effectually among the people.

For us the question is, What are the conditions under which righteousness may become ours?

(1) A passion for righteousness is rooted in human nature.—It is God who has put the desire for righteousness in our hearts, and with all our carelessness we cannot drive it out. We cannot help reverencing all that is good when once we see it; even the fact that we are so ready to find fault with one another is the witness to the fact that we have an ideal of righteousness in our hearts. We may put it on one side as far as we can, but we shall find that it comes back, and that as youth and its pleasures pass away, and mature age and its ambitions, we shall realize more and more that righteousness is the one thing that matters. Sorrow may leave its mark upon us, or disillusionment may sour us, but there will remain one thing of which we are perfectly sure—that come what may, right is right and wrong is wrong, and nothing can turn the one into the other. We may be in just as much doubt as ever we were whether this or that is the right thing to do in this or that particular case, but we shall be quite sure that there is a right thing and a wrong thing, if only we had eyes to see.

O these words “ought” and “ought not,” “right” and “wrong”—how often men, how often we ourselves, would fain have banished them from the dictionary! Thank God they are not man-made words, and therefore cannot be man-changed. They shine aloft like stars. They are written—as David indicates in that glorious twin song of nature and human nature—they are written with the same ink that catalogues the stars: they are His sign-manual who hung these nightly seals. Rightly seeing one of them, seeing how the moral world lay behind the material:

Thou dost protect the stars from wrong,

And the most ancient heavens by Thee are fresh and strong.

My brother, when next the tempter says “Transgress,” “Do the forbidden,” “Touch the accursed,” “Handle the pitch-stained thing,” wilt thou not say, “Dost thou bid me pluck the planets from their courses, cover the spangled heavens with sackcloth? Bid me as soon pull the strong firmament down. How can I do this great, because abnormal, thing?”1 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 22.]

(2) The attainment of righteousness is beyond mans best efforts.—Of course men have often fancied they could work out a righteousness for themselves. The Pharisees and the Jews generally imagined they could do so by ceremonial observances; and men commonly suppose it can be done by what are called good works, virtues, philanthropies, religious forms, penitential inflictions and such-like performances. But all these might exist without personal holiness. And since holiness means keeping Gods law without defect, without transgression, without interruption, without a fleck or stain of moral defilement, nothing can be clearer than that no man has ever done or can do so.

A righteousness which begins and ends with me, and my efforts to make myself good, and to do so by living up to my own standard, can never really satisfy my best aspirations. The stream cannot rise above its own source; with all my trying I cannot rise above my own standard for myself, and that standard is marred by my sins, is limited by the fact that after all it is only part of me. It is just that that I want to get away from. I want to be lifted above myself. In my best moments (and they, after all, are the moments that we must try to live by) I yearn, not only to be free from the limitations of my own lower nature and the web of bad habits that I have woven about myself, but to be lifted to a higher level altogether. Yes, I easily forget; the world and the flesh and the devil are very near and very insistent, but I hunger and thirst after a righteousness which shall not be my own: I long to be righteous “even as he is righteous.”

“I have vowed above a thousand times,” said Staupitz, Luthers friend, “that I would become better, but I have never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow, for I have now learned from experience that I am not able to perform it.” Even Bernard Shaw has pointed out with much penetration that “it is possible for a man to pass the moral catechism, Have you obeyed the Commandments? have you kept the law? and at the end to live a worse life than the sinner who must answer Nay! all through the questions”; while W. R. Greg, content with low ideals, can only hope “that men may attain the measure of the stature of—William and Robert Chambers.”1 [Note: T. Whitelaw, Jehovah-Jesus, 96.]

In Mr. Zangwills masterly studies of the children of the Ghetto in olden days he describes with wonderful pathos and power the feelings of a Jewish boy when it was first brought home to him that beyond the walls of the Ghetto was a glorious world he was not allowed to enter, or, if he did, he must wear a badge of shame; on no condition whatever would he ever be permitted to share in its rich and brilliant life; he was born of an accursed race. Victor Hugo does much the same in his delineation of the life of that curious criminal underworld of mediæval Paris called the kingdom of Argot. The poor wretches who belonged to that kingdom were all outlaws, mostly thieves and vagabonds. It was tolerated by the officers of justice so long as its members kept within bounds. It had its own laws, administered by the outcasts themselves; and a certain standard of honour and good conduct was enforced, too. But once included in that community, whether by birth or by evil fortune, no one could ever get out of it; no amount of well-doing therein was of any use as a pass to citizenship in the kingdom of France. And so with the soul of man. Here on earth it is bound to an order of things which has its own constantly changing distinctions between good and evil, noble and ignoble, worthy and unworthy; but sometimes a vision is vouchsafed to it of a state of perfect freedom which knows none of these, nor needs to know them, but which it cannot enter; no earthly excellence is sufficient to open a pathway there.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]

(3) Christ is “made unto us righteousness.”—He who has put the yearning into our hearts has not left it unsatisfied. Because nothing less than that would do, He has given us His Son. Christ is our righteousness not merely as a teacher of what is righteous, not merely as a guide to the discovery of righteousness, but as the Procurer, the Author, the Source of that righteousness which we need. By Him the price of our redemption has been fully paid, and on the ground of what He has done, God, the Judge of all, stands ready to confer pardon and legal acquittal on all who come to Him through His Son. The righteousness, therefore, in which we are to be accepted of God is not a righteousness which we have to bring to Him, but a righteousness we have to receive from Him. It is already in His hands, and from Him alone can we obtain it. The Lord is our righteousness.

Sometimes we hear the criticism passed upon the gospel that it is unethical, that it disregards human merit as a means of access to eternal blessedness. “Salvation by magic” someone has called it. There is a semblance of truth in the charge. But why should not God be able to endue us with His own righteousness, share with us His own perfection, without any other qualification on our part than that of the faith that accepts the gift? If we have to wait for that consummation until our human standards of moral worth have risen high enough to qualify us for it, we shall not gain heaven in a million years; nor, indeed, shall we gain it at all, for there is something in the righteousness Divine which bears no ratio to any earthly good.

A girl of twelve lay dying, and her mother said, “Are you afraid, my darling, to go and meet God?” “Oh no,” she replied, “I am not afraid; I look to the justice of God to take me to heaven.” The mother thought her child must be wandering, so she said, “My darling, you mean His pity, His love.” “No, mother,” she said, “I mean His justice; He must take me to heaven, because Christ is my righteousness, and I claim Him as my own; I am as He is now in Gods sight, and God would never reject His own child.”1 [Note: H. W. Webb-Peploe, The Titles of Jehovah, 168.]

Here where the loves of others close

The vision of my heart begins.

The wisdom that within us grows

Is absolution for our sins.


We took forbidden fruit and ate

Far in the garden of His mind.

The ancient prophecies of hate

We proved untrue, for He was kind.


He does not love the bended knees,

The soul made wormlike in His sight,

Within whose heaven are hierarchies

And solar kings and lords of light.


Who come before Him with the pride

The Children of the King should bear,

They will not be by Him denied,

His light will make their darkness fair.


To be afar from Him is death

Yet all things find their fount in Him:

And nearing to the sunrise breath

Shine jewelled like the seraphim.2 [Note: “A. E.,” Collected Poems, 247.]

II

Salvation Secured

“In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely.”

Jeremiah sought to comfort the Jews by telling them that the time of their sorrows and sufferings in captivity should pass away, and the days should come in which they should once more be safe from their enemies. Out of the royal house of David, now brought so low, so decayed, that it was but as a dry root in the ground there should spring a fresh Branch, even the Messiah. He should reign over the true Israel, His Church, and should protect, guard, and keep them from harm. He should gather His people together, and unite them once more; and so glorious and blessed would this deliverance be that, compared with it, the coming out of the bondage of Egypt would be as nothing.

1. Gods purpose for the earth was that it should be replenished and subdued and governed by a race which in that activity should themselves come to perfection. Human failure intervened, and a Divine interference was necessary by which in the midst of human history a new race was created, related to all the other races and part of the entire race, their responsibility being that of realizing the Divine intention, and the secret of their greatness being that all the people should be righteous; until, in process of time, failure having followed upon failure, we have the supreme Divine interference in the coming of the God-man, the new birth of man, and the creation of a new race, an elect race, a royal priesthood, a chosen nation, a people for Gods possession; and the great Christian apostle is seen devoting time and strength and toil and energy to every individual that every man may be presented perfect in Christ Jesus.

In national life the true prosperity of the nation depends upon the multitude of her people in order to the fulfilling and subduing of natural resources, and in order to the making of a people by such toil. There is nothing more important in national life than the multitude of the people; and in order to the peoples true strength industry is sacred. The Pauline principle may be stated by way of illustration: “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” This is no mere word of political significance, in the narrower sense of the word political. It is fundamental. It is fundamental to national prosperity. In order to the realization of the natural resources of the land, their subduing, their government, their proper use, their leading out to all fulfilment, the most important thing is the multitude of the people; and the toil that subdues is most important to the people. The scattering of a people is therefore a crime. Its restoration and increase mean stability and strength.

The final test of all legislation is the effect it produces upon the people that create the national strength. In proportion as a nation learns the value, as to its supreme welfare, of its sons and its daughters, its little children, in that proportion the nation is moving in the true line of progress, that of the Divine purpose and programme, which brings it into right relationship with the ultimate intention of God. In proportion as children are allowed to fade and wither and die in evil conditions, for the enrichment of a few, the blight of the curse of humanity and Deity rests upon the national life. In proportion as we realize that our wealth consists in our people we approximate to that Divine intention expressed in the words, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish and subdue and have dominion over the earth.” In that way, and in that way alone, we approximate to national strength.1 [Note: 1 G. Campbell Morgan.]

2. The greatness and prosperity of any people rest ultimately on character. “Thy people shall be all righteous” was Isaiahs great dream. The deep secret of their victories was that of the enthronement of Jehovah; and resulting from it the people were seen as all righteous, and consequently the nation was seen as an instrument of the Divine purpose, possessing the land, bringing forth its beauties, realizing them. Thus the nation realized itself, and became in the midst of the earth, the exhibition of the Divine purpose for all the world, the Divine intention for all humanity. It was the dream of a prophet in the midst of a decadent age. Actually the people were falling, soon were to be driven away, but here we have the holy and inspired vision of Gods purpose, and out of the midst of it we hear these words: “Thy people shall be all righteous.”

So far at the outset of his Parliamentary life, the opinions of Benjamin Disraeli, if we take Sybil for their exponent, were the opinions of the author of Past and Present. Carlyle thought of him as a fantastic ape. The interval between them was so vast that the comparison provokes a smile; and yet the Hebrew conjurer, though at a humble distance, and not without an eye open to his own advancement, was nearer to him all along than Carlyle imagined. Disraeli did not believe any more than he that the greatness of a nation depended on the abundance of its possessions. He did not believe in a progress which meant the abolition of the traditionary habits of the people, the destruction of village industries, and the accumulation of the population into enormous cities, where their character and their physical qualities would be changed and would probably degenerate. The only progress which he could acknowledge was moral progress, and he considered that all legislation which proposed any other object to itself would produce, in the end, the effects which the prophets of his own race had uniformly and truly foretold.1 [Note: J. A. Froude, The Earl of Beaconsfield, 92.]

Patriotism is doubtless a great and necessary virtue; it must always regulate much that we do, but it should not therefore narrow our aspirations. A nation, as well as an individual, has much to learn, and must learn it, as the individual learns, mainly by sympathetic intercourse with like-minded nations. On this gradual education of nations, more than anything else, the hope of the worlds future depends. Nations with like ideas of righteousness go forth on their separate ways, not that they may emphasize the differences which arise from differing experience, but that they may bring the results of their experience to a common stock. It is not enough that each nation should recognize and glorify the ideas on which its vigorous life is founded as it knows them. It must learn from the experience of other nations to understand them better and apply them more thoroughly. It is mans highest wisdom humbly to seek to understand Gods will in things great and small; in the concerns of a particular hearth and home; in the questions which concern his countrys welfare; and in those greater issues on which the future of the worlds progress depends. Our personal efforts, whatever they be, only avail if they are in accordance with Gods purpose. If we have done our best to discover this purpose, and with our whole heart to work for it, we cannot ultimately fail. This purpose floats before our eyes in the form of a vision, capable of realization here and now, of a time when all peoples shall be happy in the knowledge of the Lord as their God.2 [Note: Bishop Creighton, Counsels for Churchpeople, 37.]

3. The righteous nation serving a righteous king will enjoy security and peace. “Israel shall dwell safely.” Such shall be the confidence of the spiritual Israel that they shall dwell even thoughtlessly and carelessly, as the original word implies—not careless as to their manner of life; not thoughtless as to the nature of the Divine requirements and rightful claims of humanity; but careless, as being free from care, since God careth for His own; careless as knowing in whom they have believed, and persuaded that He is able to keep that which has been entrusted to Him. Happy people that thus dwell safely! “Israel dwelleth in safety: the fountain of Jacob [the progenitors of a great people] alone, in a land of corn and wine; yea, his heavens drop down dew. Happy art thou, O Israel: Who is like unto thee, a people saved by the Lord!”

4. True, the ideal state foreshadowed by Jeremiah has not yet been realized; the law of God is not yet written so indelibly upon the hearts of men that all can be said to act upon it instinctively, or that we can yet afford, as some strange sectaries have imagined that we could afford, to dispense with teachers and instructors, and other methods of reminding us what that law is. But it is upon a profound sense of the requirements of human nature that the prophets declaration is based; and it is one of the most far-reaching and comprehensive anticipations of the ultimate destiny of human history that are to be found in the Old Testament Scriptures. It sets vividly before us what should be the aim of our endeavours, and the goal of our aspiration. And so, every time that, in our public services, the Decalogue is recited, it is followed by the petition, expressed in the very words of the prophet, that the laws of which it is the sum may be “written in our hearts.”

The remotest fibre of human action, from the policy of empires to the most insignificant trifle over which we waste an idle hour or moment, either moves in harmony with the true law of our being, or is else at discord with it. A king or a parliament enacts a law, and we imagine we are creating some new regulation, to encounter unprecedented circumstances. The law itself which applied to these circumstances was enacted from eternity. It has its existence independent of us, and will enforce itself either to reward or punish, as the attitude which we assume towards it is wise or unwise. Our human laws are but the copies, more or less imperfect, of the eternal laws so far as we can read them, and either succeed and promote our welfare, or fail and bring confusion and disaster, according as the legislators insight has detected the true principle, or has been distorted by ignorance or selfishness.

And these laws are absolute, inflexible, irreversible, the steady friends of the wise and good, the eternal enemies of the blockhead and the knave. No Pope can dispense with a statute enrolled in the Chancery of Heaven, or popular vote repeal it. The discipline is a stern one, and many a wild endeavour men have made to obtain less hard conditions, or imagine them other than they are. They have conceived the rule of the Almighty to be like the rule of one of themselves. They have fancied that they could bribe or appease Him—tempt Him by penance or pious offering to suspend or turn aside His displeasure. They are asking that His own eternal nature shall become other than it is. One thing only they can do. They for themselves, by changing their own courses, can make the law which they have broken thenceforward their friend. Their dispositions and nature will revive and become healthy again when they are no longer in opposition to the will of their Maker.1 [Note: J. A. Froude, Short Studies, ii. 11.]

The world seems to be weary of the just, righteous, holy ways of God, and of that exactness in walking according to His institutions and commands which it will be one day known that He doth require. But the way to put a stop to this declension is not by accommodating the commands of God to the corrupt courses and ways of men. The truths of God and the holiness of His precepts must be pleaded and defended, though the world dislike them here and perish hereafter. His law must not be made to lackey after the wills of men, nor be dissolved by vain interpretations, because they complain they cannot, indeed because they will not, comply with it. Our Lord Jesus Christ came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them, and to supply men with spiritual strength to fulfil them also. It is evil to break the least commandment; but there is a great aggravation of that evil in them that shall teach men so to do.2 [Note: John Owen.]

Law, so far as it can be used to form and system, and is not written upon the heart,—as it is, in a Divine loyalty, upon the hearts of the great hierarchies who serve and wait about the throne of the Eternal Lawgiver,—this lower and formally expressible law has, I say, two objects. It is either for the definition and restraint of sin, or the guidance of simplicity; it either explains, forbids, and punishes wickedness, or it guides the movements and actions both of lifeless things and of the more simple and untaught among responsible agents. And so long, therefore, as sin and foolishness are in the world, so long it will be necessary for men to submit themselves painfully to this lower law, in proportion to their need of being corrected, and to the degree of childishness or simplicity by which they approach more nearly to the condition of the unthinking and inanimate things which are governed by law altogether; yet yielding in the manner of their submission to it, a singular lesson to the pride of man,—being obedient more perfectly in proportion to their greatness. But, so far as men become good and wise, and rise above the state of children, so far they become emancipated from this written law, and invested with the perfect freedom which consists in the fulness and joyfulness of compliance with a higher and unwritten law; a law so universal, so subtle, so glorious that nothing but the heart can keep it.

Now pride opposes itself to the observance of this Divine law in two opposite ways; either by brute resistance, which is the way of the rabble and its leaders, denying or defying law altogether; or by formal compliance, which is the way of the Pharisee, exalting himself while he pretends to obedience, and making void the infinite and spiritual commandment by the finite and lettered commandment. And it is easy to know which law we are obeying: for any law which we magnify and keep through pride, is always the law of the letter; but that which we love and keep through humility, is the law of the Spirit; and the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.1 [Note: Ruskin, Stones of Venice, vol. ii. chap. ii. § 87 (Works, xi. 116).]

The Lord our Righteousness

Literature

Alexander (W. L.), Sermons, 66.

Alford (H.), Quebec Chapel Sermons, ii. 215.

Brown (C. J.), The Word of Life, 154.

Buchanan (T. B.), in Sermons for the People, vii. 236.

Butler (G.), Sermons Preached in Cheltenham College Chapel, 389.

Collins (W.), Hours of Insight, 141.

Driver (S. R.), Sermons on the Old Testament, 204.

Henry (P.), Christ All in All, 71.

Hiley (R. W.), A Years Sermons, ii. 301.

How (W. W.), Plain Words, ii. 249.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Sundays after Trinity, ii. 430.

Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., v. 35.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, ii. 25; vi. 361.

Purves (P. C.), The Jehovah Titles of the Old Testament, 58.

Randall (R. W.), Life in the Catholic Church, 330.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vii., No. 395.

Webb-Peploe (H. W.), The Titles of Jehovah, 152.

Whitelaw (T.), Jehovah-Jesus, 87.

Church Pulpit Year Book, 1904, p. 280 (J. C. Ryle).

Churchmans Pulpit: Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity, xiii. 486 (H. Alford).

Clergymans Magazine, 3rd Ser., xii. 301 (W. Burrows).

Literary Churchman, xv. (1869) 482.


Verse 6

(6) Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely.—The true King shall reign over a re-united people. The Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom, as well as the two of the Southern, should find in Him deliverance and peace.

Whereby he shall be called.—Literally, whereby one shall call him, the indefinite, almost impersonal active having the force of the English passive.

The Lord our Righteousness.—It is significant that in Jeremiah 33:16 the same name is given to Jerusalem. There it is clearly not, in logical language, the predicate of the city, but that which she takes as her watchword, and blazons, as it were, on her banner; and we cannot consistently press more than that meaning here. So in Ezekiel 48:35 the new name of Jerusalem is “Jehovah-shammah” (= the Lord is there). So in Exodus 17:15 Moses calls the altar which he builds “Jehovah-nissi” (= the Lord is my banner). The interpretation which sees in the words (1) the identification of the Messianic King with Jehovah, the Eternal, and (2) the doctrine of imputed righteousness, must accordingly be regarded as one of the applications of the words rather than their direct meaning. That meaning would seem to be that the King, the righteous Branch, will look to Jehovah as giving and working righteousness. Some commentators, indeed, refer the pronoun “he” to Israel, and not to the righteous Branch. We cannot forget that, at the very time when Jeremiah uttered this prophecy, a king was on the throne whose name (Zedekiah = righteous is Jehovah) implied the same thought. His reign had been a miserable failure, and the prophet looks forward to a time when the ideal, which was then far off, should at last be realised. If with many critics we refer the prediction to the reign of Jehoiakim (see Note on Jeremiah 23:1), we might almost see in Mattaniah’s adoption of the new name a boast that he was about to fulfil it. The Christ, we may say, answered to the name, not as being Himself one with Jehovah, though He was that, but as doing the Father’s will, and so fulfilling all righteousness (comp. Matthew 3:15).


Verse 7

(7) The days come, saith the Lord.—See Notes on Jeremiah 16:14-15, of which the words are almost verbally a reproduction. There, however, stress is laid chiefly on the fact of the exile, here on that of the restoration. The LXX. version omits them here, but inserts them, where they are obviously out of place, at the end of the chapter. It was fitting that they should be repeated here, as connecting the hope that had before been general with the personal reign of the “Branch” of the house of David.


Verse 9

(9) Mine heart within me is broken . . .—The abrupt transition shows that we are entering on an entirely new section. In the Hebrew order and punctuation of the words this is shown still more clearly—Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me—the first words being the superscription and title of what follows. The four clauses describe the varied phenomena of horror and amazement, and then comes the cause of the horror—the contrast between the words of Jehovah and His holiness on the one side, and the wickedness of priests and prophets on the other. The whole section is the complement of that which denounced the wickedness of the pastors—i.e., of the civil rulers—in Jeremiah 23:1-4.


Verse 10

(10) The land is full of adulterers.—The context shows that the words must be taken literally, and not of the spiritual adultery of the worship of other Gods. The false prophets and their followers were personally profligates, like those of 2 Peter 2:14. (Comp. Jeremiah 5:7-8; Jeremiah 29:23.)

Because of swearing.—Better, because of the curse—i.e., that which comes from Jehovah on account of the wickedness of the people.

The land mourneth.—This, and the “drying up” of the “pleasant places” or “pastures,” refers apparently to the drought described in Jeremiah 12:4; Jeremiah 14:2, or to some similar visitation.

Their course.—Literally, their running—i.e., their way or mode of life.

Their force is not right.—Literally, their might or their valour: that in which they exulted was might, not right.


Verse 11

(11) In my house have I found their wickedness.—Prophet and priest are joined, as before (Jeremiah 5:31; Jeremiah 6:13; Jeremiah 8:10), as playing into each other’s hands. It seems probable, from Jeremiah 32:34, that the sins of Ahaz and Manasseh had been repeated under Jehoiakim, and that the worship of other gods had been carried on side by side with that of Jehovah. With this, almost as its natural accompaniment, there may have been sins of another kind—shameless greed or yet more shameless profligacy—like those of the sons of Eli (1 Samuel 2:22).


Verse 12

(12) Slippery ways . . . darkness . . . driven on.—The words and the thoughts flow in upon the prophet’s mind from Isaiah 8:22; Psalms 35:5-6.

The year of their visitation.—The prophet returns to his characteristic word for the time appointed by the Divine Judge for chastisement. (Comp. Jeremiah 8:12; Jeremiah 10:15; Jeremiah 11:23.)


Verse 13

(13) I have seen folly . . .—Literally, as in Job 6:6, that which is unsavoury—i.e., insipid, and so, ethically, foolish. The guilt of the prophets of Samaria cannot be passed over, but it is noticed, as in Jeremiah 3:6-10, only in order to compare it with the darker evils of those of Judah and Jerusalem.

They prophesied in Baal.—i.e., in the name and as if by the power of Baal. Comp. 1 Kings 18:19; 1 Kings 22:6-7.


Verse 14

(14) They commit adultery, and walk in lies . . .—The union of the claim to prophesy in the name of Jehovah with these flagrant breaches of His law was more hateful in the prophet’s eyes even than the open recognition of Baal. In the terrible language of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10), prophets and people had become like the dwellers in the cities of the plain. Here, also, the language of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 29:23; Deuteronomy 32:32) probably influenced that of the prophet.


Verse 15

(15) Wormwood . . . water of gall.—See Notes on Jeremiah 8:14; Jeremiah 9:15.

Profaneness.—The root-meaning of the Hebrew word is that of “veiling,” hence that of simulated holiness, or, as in the margin, “hypocrisy;” but the associations of the word attached to it the further sense of the hypocrisy that desecrates, so that “profaneness” is, on the whole, the best rendering. The corresponding concrete noun is rendered in Isaiah 9:17 by “hypocrite;” in Psalms 35:16 by “hypocritical mocker;” above, in Jeremiah 23:11, by “profane.”


Verse 16

(16) They make you vain.—i.e., they befool, deceive you. As the next verse shows, they filled the people with vain hopes of peace. This was then, as always, the crucial test between the true prophet and the false. The one roused the conscience, caused pain and anger by his reproofs; the other soothed and quieted men with a false assurance (Jeremiah 6:14; Jeremiah 14:13). They invented a vision which did not come to them from the mouth of Jehovah. (Comp. Deuteronomy 13:1-5.)


Verse 17

(17) Imagination.—As before (Jeremiah 3:17 and elsewhere), stubbornness. The tendency of all that the false prophets uttered was to confirm the people in their sins, not to lead them to repentance. It is noticeable that the Hebrew verb for “hath said” is not the same as the received formula of the true prophets, “The Lord hath spoken.” The prophet seems to indicate in this way that those whom he condemns placed the Divine message on a level with a man’s every-day utterance. They were self-convicted by the very phrase they used.


Verse 18

(18) The counsel.—Better, perhaps, the council, the “assembly” of chosen friends with whom a man shares his secret plans. So in Jeremiah 6:11; Jeremiah 15:17; Psalms 89:7, “assembly.” Could any of the false prophets say that they had thus been called as into the privy council of Jehovah? (Comp. Amos 3:7; 1 Kings 22:19-23.)


Verse 19

(19) Behold, a whirlwind . . .—Better, Behold, the storm of Jehovah, wrath is gone forth, a whirling storm, upon the heads of the wicked shall it whirl down. The word translated “whirlwind” is properly more generic in its meaning (“tempest” in Isaiah 29:6). and gets its specific force here from the associated word rendered in the Authorised Version “grievous,” but rightly, as above, whirling.


Verse 20

(20) Shall not return . . .—i.e., shall not turn back from its purpose. Men should look back on it in the “latter days”—literally, the end of the days (Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:30; Deuteronomy 31:29), i.e., in the then distant future of the exile and the return—and should see that it had done its work both of chastisement and discipline. (Comp. Ezekiel 14:22-23.)


Verse 21

(21) Yet they ran.—The image is that of messengers who rush eagerly, as from the king’s council-chamber, on their self-appointed mission, without waiting for the command of the Master in whose name they profess to come. (Comp. the question, “Who will go for us?” in Isaiah 6:8.)


Verse 22

(22) If they had stood in my counsel.—Better, as before, council. The test of the true mission is seen in results. Are the people better or worse for the prophet’s work? What are the fruits of his teaching? (Comp. Matthew 7:20.) The question meets us, Is this always a test? Was Jeremiah’s own work successful in this sense? Must not the true teacher speak “whether they [men] will hear, or whether they will forbear?” (Ezekiel 2:5.) The answer is found (1) in the fact that true teaching seldom fails altogether of its work; (2) that where it seems to fail it satisfies the other test, and at least stirs and rouses men from lethargy, even if it stirs them to antagonism. It is never satisfied with speaking smooth things and acquiescing in the evil that surrounds it.


Verse 23

(23) Am I a God at hand . . .?—This and the two questions that follow are essentially the same in thought. The false prophets acted as if God were far away out of their sight (Psalms 10:11; Psalms 73:11; Psalms 94:7), not knowing or caring what men did, as if their affairs, as it has been epigrammatically said, came under a “colonial department.” The true prophet feels that He is equally near, equally God, in all places alike. Familiar as the word omnipresence is to us—so familiar as almost to have lost its power—the fact, when we realise it, is as awful now as it was when it presented itself to the souls of Patriarch, Psalmist, or Prophet. (Genesis 16:13; Psalms 32:6-7; Psalms 73:23-26; Psalms 139:7-12; Amos 9:2-4; Job 11:8-9.


Verse 25

(25) I have dreamed . . .—The words point to the form of the claim commonly made by the false prophets. Dreams took their place among the recognised channels of divine revelation (Genesis 40:8; Genesis 41:16; Joel 2:28; Daniel 7:1), but their frequent misuse by the false prophets brought them into discredit, and the teaching of Deuteronomy 13:1-5 accordingly brought the “dreamer of dreams” no less than the prophet to the test whether what he taught was in accordance with the law of Jehovah. The iteration of “I have dreamed” represents the affected solemnity with which the false prophets proclaimed their visions. Of the disparagement of dreams, consequent on this abuse, we have a striking example in Ecclesiastes 5:3, and later still in Sirach 34:1-7.


Verse 26

(26) How long shall this be . . .?—The Hebrew text gives a double interrogative: How long? Is it in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies, prophets of the deceit of their own hearts? Do they think to cause my people . . .? A conjectural alteration of the text gives “How long is the fire in the heart of the prophets . . .?” as if anticipating the thought of Jeremiah 23:29, and reproducing that of Jeremiah 20:9.


Verse 27

(27) As their fathers have forgotten . . .—The two evils of open idolatry and of false claims to prophecy stood, the prophet seems to say, on the same footing. The misuse of the name of Jehovah by the false prophets was as bad as the older worship of Baal and the prophesying in his name. (Comp. Jeremiah 23:13-14.)


Verse 28

(28) Let him tell a dream.—The point of the words lies in the contrast between the real and the counterfeit revelation. Let the dreamer tell his dream as such, let the prophet speak the word of Jehovah truly, and then it will be seen that the one is as the chaff and stubble, and the other as the wheat—one worthless, the other sustaining life. What have they in common? What has one to do with the other?


Verse 29

(29) Is not my word like as a fire? . . .—The prophet speaks out of the depths of his own experience. The true prophetic word burns in the heart of a man, and will not be restrained (Jeremiah 5:14; Jeremiah 20:9; Psalms 39:3), and when uttered it consumes the evil, and purifies the good. It will burn up the chaff of the utterances of the false prophets. (Comp. 1 Corinthians 3:12-13.) As the hammer breaks the rock, so it shatters the pride and stubbornness of man, is mighty to the pulling down of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4), and the heart of him who hears it as it should be heard is broken and contrite. What these words paint in the language of poetry, St. Paul describes without imagery in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. (Comp. also Hebrews 4:12.)


Verse 30

(30) That steal my words . . .—Another note of the counterfeit prophet is found in the want of any living personal originality. The oracles of the dreamers were patchworks of plagiarism, and they borrowed, not as men might do legitimately, and as Jeremiah himself did, from the words of the great teachers of the past, but from men of their own time, false and unreal as themselves. What we should call the “clique” of false prophets went on repeating each other’s phrases with a wearisome iteration. In “my words” we have, probably, the fact that, in part also, they decked out their teaching with the borrowed plumes of phrases from true prophets.


Verse 31

(31) That use their tongues, and say, He saith.—Literally, that take their tongues. There is no adequate evidence for the marginal rendering “that smooth their tongues.” The scornful phrase indicates the absence of a true inspiration. These false prophets plan their schemes, and take their tongue as an instrument for carrying them into effect. The formula which they used, “He saith,” was not the word for common speaking, but that which indicated that the speaker was delivering an oracle from God. (See Note on Jeremiah 23:17.) Elsewhere the word is only used of God, but the prophet, in his stern irony, uses it of the false prophets, they say oracularly. This is an oracle.


Verse 32

(32) False dreams.—The words may mean either actual dreams, which have nothing answering to them in the world of facts, or dreams which are not really such, but simply, as in Jeremiah 23:31, the form in which the deceiver seeks to work out his plans.

By their lightness.—The Hebrew word is the same in meaning as the “unstable as water” of Genesis 49:4, the “light persons” of Judges 9:4; Zephaniah 3:4, and points primarily to the gushing or spurting forth of water. Here it points to what we may call the “babbling” of the false prophets. We are almost reminded of the words in which an English poet describes a hollow and pretentious eloquence as poured out—

“In one weak, washy, everlasting flood.”

Therefore . . .—Better, simply, and they shall not profit.


Verse 33

(33) The burden of the Lord.—The English expresses the literal meaning of the word, “something lifted up, or borne.” It passed, however, as the English equivalent has done, through many shades of meaning, and became, in the language of the prophets, one of the received terms for a solemn, emphatic utterance. In 1 Chronicles 15:22; 1 Chronicles 15:27 it is applied to the chanted music of the Temple. Isaiah had brought it into use (see Note on Isaiah 13:1), and employs it twelve times as the title of special prophecies. Jeremiah never uses it of his own messages, probably, as this verse indicates, because it had become a favourite formula with the false prophets. This seems a more rational view than that which assumes that the false prophets applied the words in mockery to his utterances as being “burdens” in the ordinary sense of the word, oppressive and intolerable.

What burden?—The false prophets had come, not without a supercilious scorn, asking, with affected grandeur, what burden, what oracle Jeremiah had from Jehovah. He repeats their question with a deeper scorn, and tells them that for them the “burden” tells of exile and shame. A different division of the words of the prophet’s answer (which presents some exceptional grammatical difficulties) gives a rendering adopted by the LXX. and Vulgate, “Ye are the burden”—i.e., it is about you and for you.

I will even forsake you.—Better, I will cast you off, with a play upon the literal sense of the word “burden.” They have made themselves too grievous to be borne. Jehovah will disburden Himself of them.


Verse 34

(34) That shall say, The burden of the Lord.—The language thus put into the mouths of the false prophets is not that of derision, but of boastful assumption. It is for that the boaster will, in due time, be punished.


Verse 35

(35) Thus shall ye say . . .—The words are a protest against the high-sounding phrase, “This is the burden, the oracle of Jehovah.” This, with which the false prophets covered their teachings of lies, the prophet rejects, and he calls men back to the simpler terms, which were less open to abuse. The true prophet’s message was to be called an “answer” when men had come to him with questions—a “word of the Lord” when it was spoken to them without any previous inquiry.


Verse 36

(36) The burden of the Lord shall ye mention no more . . .—The misused term was no longer to be applied to the messages of Jehovah. If men continued to apply it to the words of their own heart, they would find it a “burden” in another sense (the prophet plays once more on the etymology of the word) too heavy to be borne. This would be the righteous punishment of the reckless levity with which they had treated the sacred Name which Jeremiah reproduces in all the amplitude of its grandeur. They had never realised the awfulness of speaking in the name “of the living God, the Lord of Sabaoth.”


Verse 37

(37) Thus shalt thou say to the prophet . . .—The verse repeats Jeremiah 23:35, with the one difference that men are to use this, the simpler form of language, when they come to the prophet, as well as when they are speaking one to another. The affectation of big words was equally out of place in either case. In modern phraseology, the whole passage is a protest against the hypocrisy which shows itself in cant—i.e., in the use of solemn words that have become hollow and unmeaning.


Verse 38

(38) But since ye say.—Better, if ye say.


Verse 39

(39) I, even I, will utterly forget you . . .—A very slight alteration in a single letter of the Hebrew verb gives a rendering which was followed by the LXX. and Vulgate, and is adopted by many modern commentators, and connects it with the root of the word translated “burden”—I will take you up as a burden, and cast you off. The words in italics, and cast you, in the latter clause have nothing corresponding to them in the Hebrew, but show that some at least of the translators felt that this was the true meaning of the words. This “everlasting reproach” was to be the outcome of these big swelling words of vanity in which they claimed prophetic inspiration.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jeremiah 23:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/jeremiah-23.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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