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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



We continue to find little interest in the guessing game connected with assigning dates to the various chapters of Jeremiah. In very few instances can it be affirmed that the exact date makes much difference. Jellie gave the date of the first paragraph here as the thirteenth year of Josiah, the next paragraph as the seventeenth year of Josiah, pointing out that some scholars favored the eighteenth year (E. Henderson), and some the year 620 B.C. (MH).(F1)

Salient teachings of the chapter proclaim the final divorce of Israel as God’s wife, and the impossibility of her return to her former status (Jeremiah 3:1-5); the refusal of Judah to learn her lesson despite the wretched example of Israel (Jeremiah 3:6-10); God’s continued pleading for both Israel and Judah to return unto their God in full repentance (Jeremiah 3:11-13); the promise of God to receive a remnant from both of the treacherous sister nations in the Messianic Age (Jeremiah 3:14-18); the healing to take place in the days of the New Covenant; a further admonition regarding the uselessness and hurtfulness of idolatry (Jeremiah 3:19-22); but Israel and Judah alike consent to lie down in their shame (Jeremiah 3:13-25).

Verses 1-5

“They say, if a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s wife, will he return unto her again? will not that land be greatly polluted? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith Jehovah. Lift up thine eyes to the bare heights, and see; where hast thou not been lain with? By the ways hast thou sat for them, as an Arabian in the wilderness; and thou hast polluted the land with thy whoredoms and with thy wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withholden, and there hath been no latter rain; yet thou hadst a harlot’s forehead, thou refusedst to be ashamed. Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My father, thou art the guide of my youth? Will he retain his anger forever? will he keep it to the end? Behold, thou hast spoken and hast done evil things, and hast had thy way.”

“They say, if a man put away his wife” Many scholars are quick to point out that this corresponds to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, with the implication that this information had only recently come to Jeremiah through the discovery of that Book of the Law in the temple. This is by all odds an improper deduction, “This does not necessarily presuppose the discovery of the Book of the Law in the temple in 622 B.C.”(F2)

The words, `they say,’ here clearly indicate that the knowledge revealed in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, at the time Jeremiah wrote, was already well known by the whole Jewish nation, that the impossibility of a divorced woman going back to her first husband after being married to someone else was a common proverb known to the whole Jewish world of that period. Why not? Deuteronomy was nothing new to Israel, having already been in their possession since the great Lawgiver had written it and left it for them, along with the whole law.

Of course, this little phrase is a death-blow to the theory of the late `discovery’ of Deuteronomy; and that accounts for all the confusion among so many scholars, as pointed out by Cheyne, of whom he said, “Various ingenious attempts have been made to explain this!”(F3) However, no amount of ingenuity can remove the obvious import of the words.

“Will he return unto her again” This type of question in Hebrew always requires a negative answer, therefore affirming that God will not return to the divorced Israel; but the final clause of the verse represents the Lord as inviting the reprobate apostate wife to return? This can be nothing on earth except a mistranslation.

“Yet return again to me, saith Jehovah” The marginal reading in the American Standard Version has, “And thinkest thou to return unto me?” This alternative has been adopted in the Revised Standard Version, “And would you return to me, says the Lord?”(F4) This is obviously to be preferred above the American Standard Version. Some scholars have appealed to the analogy of Hosea and Gomer in this passage, even affirming that Hosea’s example in taking Gomer back, “Indicated that God would do even this.”(F5) We are astounded that so many scholars believe this but seem totally unaware that Hosea made it perfectly clear that he was NOT taking Gomer back as his wife, but as a slave!

“And Hosea said unto her: Thou shalt abide for me many days; thou shalt not play the harlot, and thou shalt not be any man’s wife: so will I also be toward thee!”(Hosea 3:3).

Yes, there is a triple betrothal mentioned later in Hosea; but it was for Jezreel, not Israel, to the New Israel, not to the old reprobate whore! (See the full development of this in Vol. 2 of my series on the Minor Prophets.)

The true meaning of the last phrase of Jeremiah 3:1, therefore is this: “After your wretched conduct, do you really suppose that you can return as the wife of God?”

“Lift up thine eyes unto the bare heights” These words explode the arrogant notion of Israel that she might again be God’s wife. Jeremiah here challenges her to look everywhere and find a single tree under which she has not committed whoredom by worshipping false gods and indulging in their sexual orgies. Israel has been like the Arabians in the wilderness, (1) either lying in wait to rob a caravan, or (2) sitting by the highway seducing travelers to adultery. That this was a device often followed by immoral women is proved by Tamar’s seduction of Judah (Genesis 38:14 ff).

“The showers have been withholden… no latter rain” God’s punishment of the Once Chosen People by the withholding of rain and other blessings had not led them to repentance, but rather to a bold and presumptuous arrogance. The “latter rains” were the ones in the spring, without which it was not possible to have an abundant harvest.

“Wilt thou not from this time cry, My father... Behold thou hast spoken and hast done evil things!” Yes, yes, Israel continued to claim Jehovah as their national God, and they always called upon him when in trouble, but their conduct made it impossible for God to help them. The last lines in this paragraph were rendered thus by Feinberg:

“This is how you talk,
but you do all the evil you can.”(F6)

Matthew Henry considered the meaning of these last two verses to be:

“Thou hast spoken and done evil things as thou couldst, and wouldst have spoken and done worse if thou hadst known how; thy will was to do it, but thou hadst not the opportunity!(F7) “The essential message of these first five verses is simply this: `Judah, after it has turned away to other gods will not be received again by Jehovah (as his espoused wife), especially in view of all her chastisements and her adherence to evil ways.’“(F8)

At this early period in Jeremiah’s ministry, he evidently entertained high hope that Judah would indeed repent and that the looming punishment of their captivity might yet be averted. However, the shocking development of Judah’s guilt being even greater than Israel’s occurred to Jeremiah as raising another problem. If indeed Judah (more guilty than Israel) was to be spared, “Then the privilege of forgiveness and restoration must be offered to the Northern Kingdom also, because Judah’s sins were worse than theirs.”(F9) This great privilege of forgiveness and restoration to all men would be realized under the gracious and benevolent terms of the New Covenant, prophesied a moment later in this chapter.

Nothing even resembling the repentance and return of Judah to their true God, however, came to pass. Surely God yearned for such repentance; but it never happened; and as Cook pointed out, “The words of this paragraph are not the language of consolation to the conscience-stricken, but they are the vehement expostulation with hardened sinners. They prove the truth of the interpretation put upon the last clause of the 1 st verse.”(F10)

And what was that interpretation? Here it is:

“`Yet return again unto me’ should be rendered, `and thinkest thou to return unto me?’ The whole argument is not of mercy, but is proof that after her repeated adulteries, Israel could not again take her place as a wife. To think of returning to God with the marriage-law unrepealed was folly.”(F11)

A vital point so often misunderstood by expositors is the difference between God’s covenant with Racial Israel, which was terminated irrevocably in the total apostasy of the Once Chosen People and the New Covenant without any racial requirements whatever. The promises a few verses later pertain to that New Covenant, and not to the old Racial Covenant that endowed the race of Israel with the status of being Jehovah’s espoused wife. That status was terminated irrevocably and finally by the events of the apostasy of both Israel and Judah. And yet, no racial descendant of Abraham who ever lived was in any manner excluded from the mercies and blessings of God. It only means that his access to those blessings would be upon the same terms applicable to everyone who ever lived on earth. “Whosoever will may come”!

As Harrison observed, “Even though from the analogy here the nation (that is racial Israel) could not take her place again as God’s wife because of her repeated adulteries, she could still be forgiven if she was truly repentant.”(F12) That forgiveness, however, would not be under the old Sinaitic covenant, but under the terms and conditions of the New Covenant.

Verses 6-10

“Moreover Jehovah said unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot. And I said after she had done all these things, She will return unto me; but she returned not: and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. And I saw, when, for this very cause that backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a bill of divorcement, yet treacherous Judah her sister feared not; but she also went and played the harlot. And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that the land was polluted, and she committed adultery with stones and with stocks. And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah hath not returned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly.”

We have already noted the nature of the harlotry and whoredom of God’s people, and there is no need to elaborate it here. Notice the fourfold reiteration of the appellation `treacherous’ as applied to Judah in Jeremiah 3:7-8; Jeremiah 3:10-11.

The aggravated nature of Judah’s sin is seen in this: “Israel had openly broken the political and religious connection with Jehovah; but Judah nominally retained both; but her heart was toward the false gods.”(F13) The idea here is that, “Judah did not profit by the experience of the Northern Kingdom and is therefore more guilty.”(F14)

“The lightness of her whoredom” This is a reference to the casual, carefree attitude of Judah with regard to their shameful conduct.

“But feignedly” It seems to us that this could not apply to anything else besides the reforms sponsored and executed by the good king Josiah. The reason why those reforms had little or no effect upon the ultimate fate of Judah is found in these two words right here. They publicly went along with all the reforms; but, at heart, they still adored and worshipped their beloved fertility gods of the Baalim.

Jeremiah 3:6 has the words, “Hast thou seen… backsliding Israel?” Cook tells us that in the Hebrew here, “The original is very strong: Hast thou seen Apostasy?”(F15) It is the same as if the Holy Spirit said that, “Israel is the very personification of the denial of God and rebellion against him.”

Verses 11-13

“And Jehovah said unto me, Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return thou backsliding Israel, saith Jehovah; I will not look in anger upon you; for I am merciful, saith Jehovah, I will not keep anger forever. Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against Jehovah thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to strangers under every green tree, and ye have not obeyed my voice, saith Jehovah.”

In spite of the tender words of this passage, let it be noted that true repentance and an acknowledgment of manifold transgressions were among the essential prerequisites of any return of Israel, or of any man, to a status of enjoyment of God’s favor.

God’s promise to look with tenderness and forgiveness upon any return of Israel or Judah, did not meet with any effective response upon Israel’s part. As Harrison put it, “There is no evidence that the suggestion was ever taken seriously.”(F16)

It is a fact, however, that no racial Jew was ever excluded from God’s favor, nor for that matter entitled to it, upon the sole basis of his racial descent through the patriarchs.

The mercy and forgiveness of God suggested in Jeremiah 3:12 is revealed in subsequent verses to have been contingent upon the inauguration of the New Covenant.

Verses 14-18

“Return, O backsliding children, saith Jehovah; for I am a husband unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you shepherds according to my heart, who shall feed you with knowledge and understanding. And it shall come to pass when ye are multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, saith Jehovah, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of Jehovah; neither shall it come to mind; neither shall they remember it; neither shall they miss it; neither shall it be made any more. At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of Jehovah; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it; to the name of Jehovah, to Jerusalem: neither shall they walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I gave for an inheritance unto your fathers.”

“One of a city, two of a family” Here surfaces again the doctrine of the “righteous remnant” of Israel as stressed throughout both Isaiah and Jeremiah. “Out of God’s purifying judgment upon his apostate people shall come a few refined souls. They will be gathered and shall constitute the New Israel, blessed of God (Romans 11:5).(F17)

“They shall say no more, The ark of the covenant” “This shows that the old economy was to be dissolved. The old covenant, of which the ark was a central feature, was to give way to another - a preview of 31:31-35.”(F18) Concurring in this view are the remarks of Cheyne: “In the Messianic period… the ark would no longer be thought of.”(F19)

“In those days… at that time… in those days” All such expressions, including “in the last day,” “in the latter times,” etc., are indications that the times of the Messiah are intended. These, as Cook stated, “were a regular formula for the time of Christ’s coming when all the nation’s hopes would be fulfilled.”(F20)

“Jerusalem the throne of Jehovah” “Jehovah’s throne shall not be the ark, but Jerusalem, i.e., the Christian Church (Revelation 21:2; Galatians 4:26).”(F21) It might be readily admitted that neither Jeremiah nor the people who received his prophecy for the first time fully understood all that was involved in these promises; but even if they should have misunderstood, thinking that there would be some kind of a return to the literal land of Palestine, the message would nevertheless have been a very effective message for them.

“The Messianic reference in this chapter is the ruling one. The fulfillment of these promises is carried on during the lives of the apostles of Christ and is carried on throughout the whole history of the Church, and attains its completion in the final conversion of Israel.”(F22)

Keil’s expectation of the “final conversion of Israel,” projected to take place at the end of the current dispensation, and considered by some to be a salient feature of the so-called Millennium is a view held by many scholars; but it is one which this writer has never accepted. That such a thing indeed may be possible we cannot deny; but we do deny that the Bible declares any such thing as an event that God has promised will occur.

Whether or not any such thing as a wholesale conversion of racial Israel will ever take place is left as an open and undecided question in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, it must be remembered that Jonah was not placated by the conversion of Nineveh, but that the sacred narrative rings down the curtain upon him still angry, still pouting, still unwilling to appreciate what God did.

In the New Testament, in the parable of the prodigal, it will be remembered that the narrative closes with the father, still pleading, still waiting, still inviting the elder brother to share in the feast, but with the elder brother still angry, still refusing to come in. Of course, both Jonah and the elder brother constitute divine presentations of the way it is with racial Israel to this very day; and we have observed nothing whatever that adds any more favorable details to the picture.

Some commentators think they find the old land promise to Abraham in this chapter and speak confidently of the time when racial Israel shall again be in Palestine with the Lord reigning on a throne in Jerusalem. We are absolutely certain that nothing of this kind is in the chapter or anywhere else in the Word of God. Yes indeed, Jerusalem is the throne of God, now, in the sense that “The word of the Lord went forth from Jerusalem” on the day of Pentecost. “When Christ came, the kingdom was indeed established in Zion, but not in material terms (John 18:36; Acts 1:6, etc.).”(F23) “The Jerusalem which is above, which is free, is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). It appears to us that if one searches for a certainty, it would surely appear in the fact that the very city that crucified God’s only begotten Son should be the very last place on earth where God would establish his throne! On the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter revealed that the Old Testament promise of a Messianic successor to David’s throne was a promise of the Resurrection of Christ! (Acts 2:31).

“Judah... and Israel... shall come together… to the land that I gave for an inheritance” ( Such an event as the union of the divided kingdom of Israel could never occur until there was a genuine repentance and return to the fold of God by both peoples. There having never been the slightest indication that anything like that ever happened, “The projected union must point to the Messianic age of grace, when Jew and Gentile alike will do honor before the enthroned Lord in Zion.”(F24) That such a remark is indeed sound exegesis is proved by the words of the author of Hebrews regarding “where” Christians worship God:

“Ye are not come unto a mount that might be touched... but ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the New Covenant” (Hebrews 12:18-24).

In passages like this, it is clear enough that words like mount Zion and Jerusalem, in the days of the New Covenant, are to be understood spiritually. “Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, is that holy hill upon which Christ reigns.”(F25)

“Out of the land of the north” “This refers to the glorious days of Christianity and the ingathering of Jews from all the lands of their dispersion and the uniting of them with the Christian church.”(F26)

Robert Jamieson understood these verses to mean that, “The good land covenanted to Abraham is to be restored to his seed; but the question arises, How shall this be done?(F27) Many sincere people ask this same question; but the answer is simple enough. God has already fulfilled his holy promise to deliver Palestine to the posterity of Abraham; but when they became more evil than the pagan Canaanites they had replaced, God threw them out of Palestine for just reasons; and there is no record anywhere that God ever promised to establish an apostate and rebellious nation forever in Palestine, merely upon the basis that they had indeed once inherited it.

Subsequently to their loss of Palestine through their gross sins, there are many promises like the one in this chapter, in which God speaks of the “return” of his people and of his restoring them to “their land”; but all such promises have their fulfillment, not in the old racial Israel at all, which has never repented and is still God’s enemy; but in the “righteous remnant” along with the Gentiles who constitute the New Israel of God, and who are “spiritually returned” to Jerusalem, not the old one, but “the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Verses 19-21

“But I said How I will put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of the nations! and I said, Ye shall call me My Father, and shall not turn away from following me. Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have ye dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith Jehovah. A voice is heard upon the bare heights, the weeping and the supplications of the children of Israel; because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten Jehovah their God. Return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backsliding.”

The first clause of Jeremiah 3:19 should be read as a question, as in the AV. “The rendering of the KJV is to be preferred here.”(F28)

The mingling of two metaphors in this passage, namely, the returning people as “a wife” and as “sons” should not be confusing. “Sometimes scripture combines figures within a single text (Hosea 11:3-4).”(F29)

Verses 22-25

“Behold, we are come unto thee; for thou art Jehovah our God. Truly in vain is the help that is looked for from the hills, the tumult on the mountains; truly in our Jehovah our God is the salvation of Israel. But the shameful thing hath devoured the labor of our fathers from our youth, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters. Let us lie down in our shame, and let our confusion cover us; for we have sinned against Jehovah our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day; and we have not obeyed the voice of Jehovah our God.”

The significant thing in Jeremiah 3:23-24 is that idolatry is described as unprofitable in Jeremiah 3:23, and as ruinous in Jeremiah 3:24. It was not merely worthless but harmful.

“The shameful thing hath devoured” “This is a reference to Baal.”(F30) “Bosheth” is a word that means “shame”; and it became the pattern in Israel to change names that once ended in “Baal” by rendering that syllable “bosheth.” On this procedure Esh-Baal became Ish-bosheth! (See 2 Samuel 2:8).

The heartfelt confession of these last verses, evidently suggested by Jeremiah, but with no certainty that either one of God’s children, either Judah or Israel, ever made it stresses a number of the elements of sin: “The folly of it (Jeremiah 3:24), the hopelessness of it (Jeremiah 3:25 a), the ingratitude of it (Jeremiah 3:25 b), the ingrained nature of it (Jeremiah 3:25 c), and the disobedience of it (Jeremiah 3:25 d).”(F31)

The overwhelming sorrow, both of the great prophet, and of the apostate people suffering the consequences of their transgression is the emotion that surfaces here at the end of the chapter. In all the history of mankind, there is hardly any greater tragedy than that which befell the disobedient people of God.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Jeremiah 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/jeremiah-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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