The prophecies of Jeremiah are arranged, it must be remembered, in an order which is not chronological, and that which we have now reached belongs to a later date than many that follow. Comparing the notes of time in the writings of the prophet with those in the history, we get the following as the probable sequence of events. In the early years of Jehoiakim the prophet’s preaching so provoked the priests and nobles that they sought his life (Jeremiah 26:15). Then came the burning of the roll (Jeremiah 36:23), which Jeremiah had not ventured to read in person. This was in the fourth year of that king’s reign (Jeremiah 36:1). During the seven years that followed we hear little or nothing of the prophet’s work. Then came the short three months’ reign of Jehoiachin, and he re-appears on the scene with the prophecy in this chapter. The date is fixed by the reference, in Jeremiah 13:18, to the queen (i.e., as the Hebrew word implies, the queen-mother) Nehushta (2 Kings 24:8), who seems to have exercised sovereign power in conjunction with her son. During this interval, probably towards its close, we must place the journey to the Euphrates now recorded. There are absolutely no grounds whatever for looking upon it as a vision or a parable, any more than there are for so looking on the symbolic use of the “potter’s earthen bottle” (Jeremiah 19:1) or the “bonds and yokes” (Jeremiah 27:2), or on Isaiah’s walking “naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 20:2). It may be added that the special command given by Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah’s favour (Jeremiah 39:11) implies some previous knowledge which may reasonably be connected with this visit.
(1) A linen girdle.—The point of comparison is given in Jeremiah 13:11. Of all garments worn by man the girdle was that most identified with the man’s activity, nearest to his person. The “linen girdle” was part of Jeremiah’s priestly dress (Exodus 28:40; Leviticus 16:4), and this also was significant in the interpretation of the symbolic act. Israel, represented as the girdle of Jehovah, had been chosen for consecrated uses. The word “get” implies the act of purchasing, and this too was not without its symbolic significance.
Put it not in water.—The work of the priest as a rule necessarily involved frequent washings both of flesh and garments. The command in this case was therefore exceptional. The unwashed girdle was to represent the guilt of the people unpurified by any real contact with the “clean water” of repentance (Ezekiel 36:25). In the “filthy garments” of Joshua, in Zechariah 3:3, we have a like symbolism. This seems a much more natural interpretation than that which starts from the idea that water would spoil the girdle, and sees in the command the symbol of God’s care for His people.
(3) The second time.—No dates are given, but the implied interval must have been long enough for the girdle to become foul, while the prophet apparently waited for an explanation of the strange command.
(4) Go to Euphrates.—The Hebrew word Phrath is the same as that which, everywhere else in the O.T., is rendered by the Greek name for the river, Euphrates. It has been suggested (1) that the word means “river” generally, or “rushing water,” applied by way of pre-eminence to the “great river” and therefore that it may have been used here in its general sense; and (2) that it may stand here for Ephratah, or Bethlehem, as the scene of Jeremiah’s symbolic actions, the place being chosen on account of its suggestive likeness to Euphrates. These conjectures, however, have no other basis than the assumed improbability of a double journey of two hundred and fifty miles, and this, as has been shown, can hardly be weighed as a serious element in the question. In Jeremiah 51 there can be no doubt that the writer means Euphrates. It may be noted, too, as a coincidence confirming this view, that Jeremiah appears as personally known to Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah 39:11. Those who make Ephratah the scene of what is here recorded, point to the caves and clefts in the rocky region between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea as agreeing with the description. On the other hand, the form Prath is nowhere found as substituted for the familiar Ephratah.
A hole of the rock.—Better, cleft. In the lower part of its course the Euphrates flows through an alluvial plain, and the words point therefore to some part of its upper course above Pylæ, where its course is through a valley more or less rocky.
(6) After many days.—Here again the interval is undefined, but it must have been long enough (we may conjecture, perhaps, seventy days) to be an adequate symbol of the seventy years’ exile which the act of placing the girdle by Euphrates represented. So in Hosea 3:3 we have “many days” for the undefined duration of the exile of the Ten Tribes.
(7) The girdle was marred.—The symbolism is explained in Jeremiah 13:9. The girdle stained, decayed, worthless, was a parable of the state of Judah after the exile, stripped of all its outward greatness, losing the place which it had once occupied among the nations of the earth.
(9) The pride of Judah.—As the girdle was the part of the dress on which most ornamental work was commonly lavished, so that it was a common gift among princes and men of wealth (1 Samuel 18:4; 2 Samuel 18:11), it was the natural symbol of the outward glory of a kingdom. As Jeremiah was a priest, we may, perhaps, think of the embroidered girdle “for glory and for beauty “of the priestly dress (Exodus 28:40; Ezekiel 44:17).
(10) Imagination.—Better, as before, stubbornness.
Shall even be as this girdle.—The same thought is reproduced in the imagery of the potter’s vessel in Jeremiah 18:4. On the other hand there is a partial reversal of the sentence in Jeremiah 24:5, where the “good figs” represent the exiles who learnt repentance from their sufferings, and the “bad” those who still remained at Jerusalem under Zedekiah.
Which is good for nothing.—Better, profitable for nothing, the Hebrew verse being the same as in Jeremiah 13:7.
(11) The whole house of Israel.—The acted parable takes in not only, as in Jeremiah 13:9, Judah, to whom the warning was specially addressed, but the other great division of the people. The sense of national unity is still strong in the prophet’s mind. Not Judah only, but the whole collective Israel had been as the girdle of Jehovah, consecrated to His service, designed to be, as the girdle was to man, a praise and glory (Deuteronomy 26:19).
(12) Every bottle shall be filled with wine.—Another parable follows on that of the girdle. The germ is found in the phrase “drunken, but not with wine” (Isaiah 29:9), and the thought rising out of that germ that the effect of the wrath of Jehovah is to cause an impotence and confusion like that of drunkenness (Psalms 60:3; Isaiah 51:17). The “bottle” in this case is not the “skin” commonly used for that purpose, but the earthen jar or flagon, the “potter’s vessel” of Isaiah 30:14, the “pitcher” of Lamentations 4:2. So taken we find an anticipation of the imagery of Jeremiah 19:1; Jeremiah 19:10; Jeremiah 25:15. The prophet is bidden to go and proclaim to the people a dark saying, which in its literal sense would seem to them the idlest of all truisms. They would not understand that the “wine” of which he spoke was the wrath of Jehovah, and therefore they would simply repeat his words half in astonishment, half in mockery, “Do we not know this? What need to hear it from a prophet’s lips?”
(13) The kings that sit upon David’s throne.—Literally, that sit for David (i.e., as his successors and representatives) on his throne. The plural is probably used in pointing to the four—Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah—who were all of them involved in the sufferings that fell on Judah.
With drunkenness.—The intoxication of the “strong drink”—here, probably, palm-wine—rather than that of the juice of the grape, involving more confusion and loss of power.
(14) One against another.—The rendering answers to the Hebrew idiom, but that idiom, as in the margin, a man against his brother, has a force which is lacking in the English, and forms a transition from the symbol to the reality. The words point to what we should call the “crash” of a falling kingdom, when all bonds that keep society together are broken.
(15) Be not proud.—With special reference to the besetting sin of Judah, as described in Jeremiah 13:9; perhaps also to the character of the symbols applied—the marred girdle and the broken jar—as being in themselves humiliating, and therefore a trial to their pride.
(16) Give glory to the Lord your God.—Probably in the same sense as in Joshua 7:19 and John 9:24, perhaps also in Malachi 2:2, “give glory by confessing the truth, even though that truth be a sin that involves punishment.” “Confess your guilt ere it be too late for pardon.” This fits in better with the context than the more general sense of “ascribing praise to God.”
Before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains.—Literally, the mountains of twilight, the word used being employed exclusively first of the coolness and then of the gathering gloom of evening twilight, and never of the dawn. (Compare its use in Job 3:9; Job 24:15; Proverbs 7:9.) The fact that the shadows are deepening is obviously one of the vivid touches of the figurative language used. The “gloaming” of the dusk is to pass on into the midnight darkness of the “shadow of death.” The same thought is found in Isaiah 59:10, and (probably with some reference to this very passage) in our Lord’s words, “If a man walk in the night he stumbleth” (John 11:10; John 12:35).
(17) My soul shall weep in secret places for your pride.—The words present no difficulty that requires explanation, but deserve to be noted in their exquisite tenderness as characteristic of the prophet’s temperament (comp. Lamentations 1:16), reminding us of the tears shed over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and of St. Paul’s “great heaviness and continual sorrow” (Romans 9:2). Nothing remained for one who found his labours fruitless but silent sorrow and intercession. The “secret places” find a parallel in our Lord’s withdrawal for prayer into a “solitary place” (Mark 1:35).
(18) The queen.—Not the usual word, the Hebrew feminine of king, but literally “the great lady” (“dominatrix” Vulg.), the title of a queen-mother (in this case, probably, of Nehushta, the mother of Jehoiachin, 2 Kings 24:8), sharing the throne during her son’s minority. The same word is used of Maachah, the mother of Asa (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Kings 10:13; 2 Chronicles 15:16), and meets us again in Jeremiah 29:2.
Your principalities.—Literally, as in the margin, your head-tires, i.e., the diadems which were signs of kingly state. The word is used nowhere else, and may have been coined by the prophet or taken from the court vocabulary of the time.
(19) The cities of the south.—The term thus rendered (the Negeb) is throughout the Old Testament used for a definite district, stretching from Mount Halak northward to a line south of Engedi and Hebron. The strategy of Nebuchadnezzar’s attack (as it had been of Sennacherib’s, 2 Kings 18:13) was to blockade the cities of this region, and then, when they were cut off from sending assistance, to attack Jerusalem.
Shall be shut up . . . shall be carried away.—Both verbs should be in the present tense, are shut up, is carried away.
(20) Lift up your eyes.—The Hebrew verb is feminine and singular, the possessive pronoun masculine and plural. Assuming the reading to be correct, the irregularity may have been intended to combine the ideal personification of Jerusalem, the daughter of Zion, as the natural protectress of the other cities, with the concrete multitude of her inhabitants. The “beautiful flock” of those cities had been committed to her care, and she is now called to give an account of her stewardship.
Them that come from the north.—These are, of course, as in Jeremiah 1:14 and elsewhere, the invading army of the Chaldeans, and probably also their Scythian allies.
(21) What wilt thou say?—The verse is difficult, and requires an entire retranslation. What wilt thou (the daughter of Zion) say? for He (Jehovah) shall set over thee as head those whom thou taughtest (=tried to teach) to be thy familiar friends. This was to be the end of the alliance in which Judah had trusted. She had courted the Chaldean nobles as her lover-guides and friends (the word is the same as in Jeremiah 3:4; Psalms 55:13; Proverbs 2:17; Proverbs 16:28). Another possible construction gives, shall set over thee those whom thou delightest to be thy friends as head over thee, i.e., those whose supremacy Judah had acknowledged in order that she might court their alliance. What could come then but that which was to the Hebrew the type of extremest anguish (Isaiah 13:8; Isaiah 21:3; Psalms 48:6), the travail-pangs which were followed by no joy that a man was born into the world (John 16:21)?
(22) Are thy skirts discovered.—The “skirts,” or flowing train, worn by women of rank, the removal of which was the sign of extremest degradation (Isaiah 20:4; Isaiah 47:2; Ezekiel 23:29; Hosea 2:3; Nahum 3:5).
Thy heels made bare.—Better, outraged, or disgraced, made to walk barefoot, like menial slaves; possibly, like the outcast harlot. Compare Isaiah’s walking “naked and barefoot” as the symbol of the coming degradation of his people (Isaiah 20:2-4).
(23) Can the Ethiopian . . .?—Literally, the Cushite. The meaning of the question is obvious. The evil of Judah was too deep-ingrained to be capable of spontaneous reformation. There remained nothing but the sharp discipline of the exile. The invasion of Tirhakah and Pharaoh-nechoh, the presence of Ethiopians among the servants of the royal household (Jeremiah 38:10), the intercourse with the upper valley of the Nile implied in Zephaniah 3:10 and Psalms 68:31; Psalms 87:4, had made the swarthy forms of Africa familiar objects. Possibly the use of leopard-skins by Ethiopian princes and warriors, as seen on Egyptian monuments and described by Herodotus (vii. 69), had associated the two thoughts together in the prophet’s mind. If the king’s household were present (as in Jeremiah 13:18), he may have pointed to such an one, Ebedmelech (Jeremiah 38:10), or another so arrayed, in illustration of his words.
(24) Stubble.—Our English word means the “stalks of the corn left in the field by the reaper” (Johnson). The Hebrew word is applied to the broken straw left on the threshing-floor after the oxen had been driven over the corn, which was liable to be carried away by the first gale (Isaiah 40:24; Isaiah 41:2).
The wind of the wilderness.—i.e., the simoom blowing from the Arabian desert (Jeremiah 4:11; Job 1:19).
(25) The portion of thy measures.—The meaning of the latter word is doubtful, but it is probably used, as in 1 Samuel 4:12; Leviticus 6:11; 2 Samuel 20:8; Ruth 3:15, for the “upper garment” or “lap” of the dress. In this sense the phrase is connected with those which speak of reward or punishment being given men “into their bosom” (Jeremiah 32:18; Psalms 79:12; Proverbs 21:14).
In falsehood.—Better, perhaps, in a lie, i.e., in the worship of false gods that were no gods.
(26) Therefore will I discover . . .—The threat is substantially the same as that in Jeremiah 13:22. The form is verbally identical with that of Nahum 3:5.
(27) Thine adulteries.—The words refer primarily to the spiritual adultery of the idolatries of Judah. The “neighings,” as in Jeremiah 2:24; Jeremiah 5:8, express the unbridled eagerness of animal passion transferred in this passage to the spiritual sin. The “abominations on the hills” are the orgiastic rites of the worship of the high places, which are further described as “in the field” to emphasise their publicity.
Wilt thou not be made clean?—Better, thou wilt not be cleansed; after how long yet? Sad as the last words are, they in some measure soften the idea of irretrievable finality, “Will the time ever come, and if so, when?” Like the cry addressed to God, “How long, O Lord . . .” (Revelation 6:10), it implies a hope, though only just short of despair.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jeremiah 13". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany