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(1-3) The first three verses contain the title prefixed to the collection of prophecies by some later editor. This title would seem, from its unusual fulness, to have received one or more additions—Jeremiah 1:1 giving the general title, Jeremiah 1:2 the commencement of Jeremiah’s prophetic work, Jeremiah 1:3 the period of his chief activity and its conclusion. Strictly speaking, indeed, we see from the book itself that his work continued after the beginning of the captivity.
The words of Jeremiah.—The more usual title of prophetic books is “the word of the Lord by the prophet,” but the title of Amos (Amos 1:1) is in the same form as this. The Hebrew for “words” has a somewhat wider connotation than the English, and is translated “acts” in 1 Kings 11:41; 2 Chronicles 33:18.
Hilkiah.—Possibly the high priest of that name (2 Kings 22:4; 2 Kings 23:4). See Introduction.
Anathoth.—In the tribe of Benjamin, one of the cities assigned to the priests, apparently to the house of Ithamar, to which Abiathar belonged (1 Kings 2:26; Joshua 21:18; 1 Chronicles 6:60).
That were in Anathoth.—There is no verb in the Hebrew, and the description belongs to Jeremiah individually, not to the priests.
(2) In the thirteenth year of his reign.—If we take the data of 2 Kings 22:0, Josiah was at that time in his twentieth or twenty-first year, having grown up under the training of Hilkiah. His active work of reformation began five years later. The images of Baal and Asherah (the groves) were thrown down, and the high places desecrated. The near coincidence of the commencement of Jeremiah’s work as prophet with that of the king must not be forgotten. As Josiah reigned for thirty-one years, we have to place eighteen years of the prophet’s ministry as under his rule.
(3) It came also . . .—The short reigns of Jehoahaz (three months) and Jehoiachin or Jeconiah (three months also) are passed over, and mention made of the more conspicuous reigns of Jehoiakim (eleven years) and Zedekiah (also eleven). Assuming Jeremiah to have been about twenty when the prophetic call came to him, he was sixty or sixty-one at the time of the captivity.
(4) The word of the Lord came unto me.—The words imply obviously a revelation, the introduction of a new element into the human consciousness. In many cases such a revelation implied also the spiritual tension of an ecstatic or trance-like state, a dream, or an open vision. It almost presupposed a previous training, outward or inward, a mind vexed by hot thoughts and mourning over the sins of the people. Here there is no mention of dream or vision, and we must assume, therefore, a distinct consciousness that the voice which he heard in his inmost soul was from Jehovah. For the thought of pre-natal calling, see Isaiah 49:1.
(5) I knew thee.—With the force which the word often has in Hebrew, as implying. not foreknowledge only, but choice and approval (Psalms 1:6; Psalms 37:18, Amos 3:2).
I sanctified thee.—i.e., consecrated thee, set thee apart as hallowed for this special use.
Ordained.—Better, I have appointed, without the conjunction, this verb referring to the manifestation in time of the eternal purpose.
Unto the nations.—i.e., to the outlying Gentile nations. This was the distinguishing characteristic of Jeremiah’s work. Other prophets were sent to Israel and Judah, with occasional parentheses of prophecies that affected the Gentiles. The horizon of Jeremiah was to extend more widely. In part his work was to make them drink of the cup of the Lord’s fury (Jeremiah 25:15-17); but in part also he was a witness to them of a brighter future (Jeremiah 48:47; Jeremiah 49:39). It is as though he had drunk in the Spirit of Isaiah, and thought of the true prophet as one who was to be a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6).
In this way, seemingly abrupt, yet probably following on a long process of divine education, was the youthful Jeremiah taught that he was to act a part specially appointed for him in the drama of his nation’s history. He could not see a chance in the guidance that had led him thus far. The call that now came to him so clearly was not the echo of his own thoughts. All his life from infancy had been as that of one consecrated to a special work. Could he stop there? Must he not, like St. Paul, think of the divine purpose as prior to the very germ of his existence? (Galatians 1:15.)
(6) Ah, Lord God!—Better, Alas, O Lord Jehovah! as answering to the Hebrew Adonai Jehovah.
I cannot speak.—In the same sense as the “I am not eloquent” of Moses (Exodus 4:10), literally, “a man of words,” i.e., have no gifts of utterance.
I am a child.—Later Jewish writers fix the age of fourteen as that up to which the term rendered “child” might be used. With Jeremiah it was probably more indefinite, and in the intense consciousness of his own weakness he would naturally use a word below the actual standard of his age; and there is accordingly nothing against assuming any age within the third hebdomad of life. In Genesis 34:19 it is used of a young man old enough for marriage. The words are memorable as striking a note common to the lives of many prophets; common, also, we may add, to most men as they feel themselves called to any great work. So Moses draws back: “I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10). So Isaiah cries, “Woe is me! for . . . I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5); and Peter, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Something of the same shrinking is implied in St. Paul’s command to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12). In tracing the whole course of Jeremiah’s work, we must never forget the divine constraint by which he entered on them. A necessity was laid upon him, as afterwards on St. Paul (1 Corinthians 9:16).
(7) The Lord said unto me.—The misgiving, which was not reluctance, is met by words of encouragement. God gave the work; He would also give the power.
(8) Be not afraid.—The words imply, as in those spoken to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:6), to St. Peter (Luke 5:10), and St. Paul (Acts 18:9), the fear that sprang from the sense of personal weakness and unfitness to cope with the dangers to which his work exposed him. The “faces” of his adversaries would be a source of terror to him. The consciousness that Jehovah was with him was to raise him from that timidity.
(9) The Lord put forth his hand . . .—The symbolic act seems to imply something like a waking vision, like that of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:6), and the act itself reminds us of the “live coal” laid upon the prophet’s mouth, as there recorded. The “hand of the Lord,” as in Ezekiel 3:14; Ezekiel 8:1., and elsewhere, was the received symbol of the special influence of the Spirit of the Lord; and here, as in the case of Isaiah, the act implied the gift of new powers of thought and utterance. The words which a prophet speaks, like those which were to be spoken by the Apostles of Christ (Matthew 10:20), are not his own words, but those put into his heart by the Spirit of the Father. So “the finger of God” in Luke 11:20 answers to “the Spirit of God” in Matthew 12:28.
(10) I have this day set thee . . .—With the gift, and therefore the consciousness, of a new power, there comes what would at first have been too much for the mortal vessel of the truth to bear—a prospective view of the greatness of the work before him. He is at once set (literally, made the “deputy,” or representative, of God, as in Judges 9:28 and 2 Chronicles 24:11, the “officer,” or in Jeremiah 20:1, “chief governor”) over the nations, i.e., as before, the nations external to Israel, and the “kingdoms” including it. The work at first seems one simply of destruction—to root out and ruin (so we may represent the alliterative assonance of the Hebrew), to destroy and rend asunder. But beyond that there is the hope of a work of construction. He is to “build up” the fallen ruins of Israel, to “plant” in the land that had been made desolate. The whole sequel of the book is a comment on these words. It passes through terror and darkness to the glory and the blessing of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31).
(11) The word of the Lord . . .—As before, we have the element of ecstasy and vision, symbols not selected by the prophet, and yet, we may believe, adapted to his previous training, and to the bent and, as it were, genius of his character.
The poetry of the symbols is of exquisite beauty. In contrast to the words of terror, in harmony with the words of hope, he sees the almond-bough, with its bright pink blossoms and its pale green leaves, the token of an early spring rising out of the dreariness of winter. The name of the almond-tree (here the poetical, not the common, name) made the symbol yet more expressive. It was the watcher, the tree that “hastens to awake” (shâkêd) out of its wintry sleep, and thus expresses the divine haste which would not without cause delay the fulfilment of its gracious promise, but would, as it were, make it bud and blossom, and bear fruit.
(12) I will hasten.—The Hebrew, by using a participle formed from the same root (shôkêd), presents a play upon the name of the “almond,” as the watcher, which it is impossible to reproduce; literally, I, too, am watching over my word to perform it.
(13) A seething pot; and the face thereof is toward the north.—More correctly, from the north. The next symbol was one that set forth the darker side of the prophet’s work: a large cauldron (probably of metal) placed (as in Ezekiel’s vision, Ezekiel 24:3-11) on a great pile of burning wood, boiling and steaming, with its face turned from the north, and so on the point of emptying out its scalding contents towards the south. This was as strong a contrast as possible to the vernal beauty of the almond-bough, and told too plainly the terrors which were to be expected from the regions that lay to the north of the land of Israel, Assyria and Chaldæa. The flood of water at the boiling point went beyond the “waters of the great river” of Israel’s symbolism (Isaiah 8:7).
(14) Out of the north an evil.—Literally, the evil, long foretold, as in Micah 3:12, and elsewhere, and long expected.
(15) I will call.—Literally, I am calling. The evil is not merely future, but is actually begun.
All the families of the kingdoms of the north.—In the Hebrew the words are in apposition, all the families, even the kingdoms of the north. The words point chiefly to the Chaldæans and other inhabitants of Babylonia, but may probably include also the Scythians, who about this time spread like a deluge over Asia Minor and Syria, and penetrated as far as Ascalou (Herod. i. 105).
They shall set every one his throne.—i.e., shall usurp the administration of justice, and set up their thrones of judgment in the space near the gates in which kings usually sat to hear complaints and decide causes (2 Samuel 15:2; Psalms 127:5). In Jeremiah 39:3 we have a literal fulfilment of the prediction.
Against all the walls.—As the previous words speak of a formal usurpation of power, so do these of invasion and attack, the storming of the lesser cities of Judah, while Jerusalem became the centre of the foreign government.
(16) I will utter my judgments against them.—Here, again, we get a literal correspondence in the words of Jeremiah 39:5, “he gave [or uttered] judgment upon him,” of Nebuchadnezzar’s sentence on Zedekiah. And yet the invaders in their sentence are to be but the ministers of a higher judgment than their own. In the words “my judgments” He recognises their work.
Who have forsaken.—The remainder of the verse gives, as it were, the formal enumeration of the crimes for which Judah was condemned: (1) Apostacy from the true God; (2) the transfer of adoration to other Gods, such as Baal, Ashtaroth, and the Queen of Heaven; sins against the First Commandment; (3) the worship of graven images; a sin against the Second. The sins were of long standing, but the words point specially to the proportions they had assumed in the reign of Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:1-7).
(17) Gird up thy loins.—Be as the messenger who prepares to be swift on his errand, and to go whithersoever he is sent (1 Kings 18:46; 2 Kings 4:29; 2 Kings 9:1). The vivid image of intense activity re-appears in the New Testament (Luke 12:35; 1 Peter 1:13), and has become proverbial in the speech of Christendom.
Be not dismayed.—The repeated calls to courage appear to indicate—like St. Paul’s exhortations to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Timothy 6:13; 2 Timothy 2:3)—a constitutional timidity. We must remember, as some excuse for this, that the reign of Manasseh had shown that the work of the prophet might easily lead to the fate of the martyr (2 Kings 21:16). Even Ezekiel, among the remnant of exiles on the banks of Chebar, needed a like encouragement (Ezekiel 2:6).
Lest I confound thee.—The Hebrew emphasises the command by repeating the same words: Be not dismayed, lest I dismay thee.
(18) I have made thee . . . a defenced city . . .—Images of strength are heaped one upon another. The prophet is represented as attacked by kings, princes, priests, and people, as the cities of Judah are by the invading armies. But the issue is different. They fall: he will hold out. The iron pillar is that which, rising in the centre of an Eastern house or temple (as, e.g., in Judges 16:25; 1 Kings 7:21), supports the flat roof, and enables it to be used as a terrace or platform on which men may meet. The “brasen walls” probably refer to the practice of fastening plates of copper over the brick or stonework of a fortification.
(19) I am with thee.—That thought was in itself enough. The presence, and therefore the protection, of the All-wise and the Almighty was the one condition of safety. Even in its lower sense, “Immanuel,” God with us (Isaiah 7:14), was the watchword of every true combatant in God’s great army.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jeremiah 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28