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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Jeremiah 21

Verses 1-10

Zedekiah Appeals To Jeremiah As A Last Resort, Only To Learn That There Is No Hope Of Intervention By YHWH Whose Will Is Being Done (Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10 ).

As we have seen these verses form an inclusio along with Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10 in order to emphasise that this subsection concludes the Section of Jeremiah which contains his general prophecies with a guarantee of their fulfilment. Zedekiah is the last of the royal house of David (even if he was Nebuchadrezzar’s appointee) who will reign in the land until after the Exile is over. The events described occurred in the very last days of the siege of Jerusalem, with Nebuchadnezzar pressing at the gates, at a time when all could see that the promises of the false prophets had failed and that in Jerusalem only Jeremiah and his circle had prophesied truly. In their desperation the king and his people still clung on to the hope that YHWH would once more intervene and deliver Jerusalem as He had done in the days of Isaiah and Hezekiah, and it was to that end that Zedekiah called on Jeremiah. YHWH was seen as their last hope.

But Jeremiah had no hope to offer. The message that he returned to Zedekiah was that it was too late, and that YHWH’s purpose on Jerusalem must be fulfilled. The potter’s vessel (Jeremiah 19:1-24.19.10) would be smashed. YHWH would in fact be fighting on the side of Babylon, and Jerusalem must be destroyed. Those therefore who had any sense would surrender to the Babylonians before it was too late.

Jeremiah 21:1

‘The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH, when king Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur the son of Malchijah, and Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah, the priest, saying,’

This passage contains YHWH’s response when Zedekiah during the last throes of the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC sent his ministers to Jeremiah to intercede for them before YHWH. Pashhur the son of Malchijah was a different Pashhur from the one mentioned in Jeremiah 20:1 who was the son of Immer (and who would have been carried off to Babylon after the earlier siege of 597 BC). He was one of those who had called for Jeremiah to be imprisoned because of his prophecies (Jeremiah 38:1-24.38.4), and was probably the king’s chief minister. He was no friend of Jeremiah. He is not said to have been a priest, and both his own name and his father’s were apparently fairly common names. Zephaniah was a priest and appears to have been more neutral as appears from the fact that he read to Jeremiah the prophetic letter which was being circulated by Shemaiah the Nehelamite (Jeremiah 29:29), and was not included within YHWH’s condemnation of Shemaiah. He is nowhere mentioned as one of Jeremiah’s adversaries. He was the second priest after the High Priest (Jeremiah 52:24), probably holding the same position as that previously held by Pashhur the son of Immer, and he had previously been sent to Jeremiah when his intercession was being sought by Zedekiah at the time when the Egyptians had temporarily caused a raising of the siege (Jeremiah 37:3). He was later handed over to Nebuchadrezzar at Riblah along with the High Priest (2 Kings 25:18).

Jeremiah 21:2

“Enquire, I pray you, of YHWH for us, for Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon makes war against us. Perhaps YHWH will deal with us according to all his wondrous works, that he may go up from us.”

The sending by Zedekiah of his prime minister and the ‘second Priest’ is similar to the sending of an important deputation to Isaiah by Hezekiah in a comparable situation (2 Kings 19:2; Isaiah 37:2), something Zedekiah may well have had in mind. In that case it had resulted in a remarkable deliverance for Jerusalem, and Zedekiah clearly hoped for the same. But the difference lay in the fact that Hezekiah was held in greater regard by YHWH than Zedekiah, and had previously paid greater heed to His prophet, while the people as a whole were at that time not so steeped in idolatry and the Temple itself had recently been purified. Conditions were very different now. But in such a crisis where else could he turn?

Zedekiah’s request was that Jeremiah as the one whose prophecies had proved correct would ‘enquire’ on their behalf of YHWH, with the hope that YHWH ‘will deal with us according to all His wondrous works’ and would be the Saviour of Israel/Judah as in the past. The expression ‘that he (Nebuchadrezzar) may go up from us’ simply signifies ‘that he may raise the siege’.

This is the first mention by name of Nebuchadrezzar (of which Nebuchadnezzar was an acceptable variant, although it has been argued by some that it was a deliberate changing of the name by writers in order to signify ‘Nabu protects the mule’. Such alterations were quite common. Compare the changing of Eshbaal (man of Baal) to Ishbosheth (man of shame). The name is a transliteration of Nabu-kudurri-usur, which probably means something like, ‘Nabu has protected the succession rites’. He succeeded Nabopolassar who died not long after Nebuchadrezzar’s great victory over the Egyptians in c. 605 BC. It was following that that he had initially subjugated Jerusalem during the reign of Jehoiakim. When Jehoiakim later withheld tribute, encouraged by Egypt, Nebuchadrezzar had besieged Jerusalem which yielded to him in 597 BC when Jehoiakim was replaced on the throne by Jehoiachin. That was when Jehoiachin was carried off to Babylon, with Zedekiah being appointed to the throne by Nebuchadrezzar. But now Zedekiah had also rebelled, encouraged by Egypt but against the advice of Jeremiah, which was why Nebuchadrezzar was once more at the gates of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah 21:3

‘Then Jeremiah said to them, “Thus shall you say to Zedekiah,”

We are not told whether Jeremiah did ‘enquire of YHWH’, but we do learn that he had a very definite message for Zedekiah from YHWH, which he now sent through the illustrious messengers. It was a message of ‘no hope’, in accordance with what he had earlier made clear in his prophecies.

Jeremiah 21:4

“Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war which are in your hands, with which you fight against the king of Babylon, and against the Chaldeans who besiege you outside the walls, and I will gather them into the midst of this city.”

YHWH’s sad message was that not only would He not help them but that, rather than making them strong in the use of their weapons (see Psalms 18:34), He would in fact turn their own weapons against them, or at least render them useless, so that they would not be successful in the defence of the city (there is perhaps a hint here of conflicts within the city as arguments arose as to whether they should surrender or not). It is made clear that at this stage Nebuchadrezzar and his Chaldean (Babylonian) army were actually outside the walls, besieging the city and seeking to break them down.

Alternately if we connect ‘outside the walls’ with ‘with which you fight against the Babylonians’, as many insist is necessary, the idea is that those who were manning the outer defences outside the huge walls would have to retreat back into the city within the safety of the walls along with their weapons.

Jeremiah 21:5

“And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation.”

Indeed YHWH declared that He Himself would be fighting against Jerusalem with all His power and might, ‘with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm’ (compare for this description Jeremiah 27:5; Jeremiah 32:21; Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 26:8; Psalms 136:12). For His ‘anger (root - heavy breathing) and wrath (root - heat) and great indignation (root - bitterness)’ were levelled at Jerusalem. The three words are very expressive,

Jeremiah 21:6

“And I will smite the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. They will die of a great pestilence.”

Initially His anger would be revealed by ‘a great pestilence’ within the city, striking at the defenders and smiting both man and beast. In a besieged city, short of water and food, and weakened by starvation (compare Jeremiah 19:9 and see the vivid picture in 2 Kings 6:25-12.6.30), disease was a common problem, and to lose their beasts who provided milk was a catastrophe. But here it was to be exacerbated.

Jeremiah 21:7

“And afterward, says YHWH, I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah, and his servants, and the people, even such as are left in this city from the pestilence, from the sword, and from the famine, into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those who seek their life, and he will smite them with the edge of the sword. He will not spare them, nor have pity, nor have mercy.”

And then once starvation and pestilence had done their worst it would all prove in vain, for the end would come. Those who remained after the pestilence, and the famine, and the sword would be delivered into ‘the hands of Nebuchadrezzar, and of their enemies, and of those who sought their lives’. There would be great slaughter, and he would not ‘spare them or have pity or show mercy’ because they had not surrendered. Note the threefold repetitions emphasising the completeness of the devastation.

Jeremiah 21:8

“And you shall say to this people, Thus says YHWH, Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.”

These words are a deliberate ironic parallel with Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 30:15; Deuteronomy 30:19, ‘behold I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil’, but it will be noted that there is no mention of ‘good’. Here it was literally a stark choice between living and dying. He was not offering a life of well-being, but simply the stark possibility of survival for those who would surrender to the Chaldeans before it was too late. For them there would then be a life of poverty or exile. But at least they would be alive (Jeremiah 39:9; Jeremiah 52:15 tell us that some took the opportunity to ‘fall away’).

We must not underestimate Jeremiah’s courage in saying all this. While he was simply bringing out the hopelessness of the situation because of what YHWH had said, he could have been seen as actually recommending desertion in the face of the enemy, and hardening himself against offering hope.

Jeremiah 21:9

“He who remains in this city will die by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence, but he who goes out, and passes over to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he will live, and his life will be to him for a prey.”

For the truth was that he had no hope to offer. The time for hope was past. As with Pharaoh in Egypt in the time of Moses they had hardened their hearts too often. Thus the only hope of anyone for survival would lie in deserting the city and going over to the besieging Chaldeans. Only those who did this would live, seizing their lives as though they had hunted them down with great difficulty and taken them as a prey (this phrase is typically Jeremaic, see Jeremiah 38:2; Jeremiah 39:18; Jeremiah 45:5). All the remainder would die by the sword, and by famine, and by pestilence. If there were dissensions in the city it could be that the alternative had actually been on offer that those who wished to do so could surrender to the Babylonians, for the less people left in the city the more food and water for those who remained. The Babylonians on the other hand would offer less severe terms to deserters both because they would see them as ‘friendly’ and because it would mean less defenders in the city and could cause a lack of morale there.

Jeremiah 21:10

“For I have set my face on this city for evil, and not for good, the word of YHWH, it will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire.”

YHWH then finalises His message of doom by emphasising that He has set His face against the city for evil and not for good. This was the prophetic and certain ‘word of YHWH’. It would thus be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, who would burn it with fire. Burning with fire was a regular end for cities which had constantly rebelled, and which did not surrender immediately. It was literally fulfilled (Jeremiah 52:13).

Verses 1-14

Subsection 7). Words Concerning Various Kings (Jeremiah 21:1 to Jeremiah 24:10 ).

This subsection proceeds in logical sequence although not chronologically, and will centre on three special themes, firstly on the fact that all hope for Judah in the short term has now gone, secondly that the promises of the false prophets suggesting that any of the current sons of David will be restored to the throne are invalid, and thirdly that while final blessing ‘in coming days’ will truly be at the hands of a son of David, it is meanwhile to be stressed that that ‘son of David’ will not be one of the current regime.

The subsection commences by making clear that prior to the future coming of the exalted son of David the doom of Jerusalem under the present sons of David is certain and will unquestionably happen (echoes of Isaiah). Neither Zedekiah nor any of his current relations (Jehoahaz who had been taken to Egypt and Jehoiachin who had been taken to Babylon) are therefore to be seen as the hope of Judah/Israel.

The whole subsection may be summarised as follows:

A Jerusalem and Judah are unquestionably doomed under Zedekiah (Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10).

B Concerning the current sons of David. None of the current batch of ‘sons of David’ can be seen as presenting any hope for Israel. Uniquely over this period Judah had a plurality of kings. Initially Jehoahaz was hostage in Egypt with Jehoiakim reigning in Jerusalem, and this was followed by three ‘reigning’ kings, one held hostage in Egypt (Jehoahaz, although nothing is known of his fate), one reigning in Jerusalem as ‘regent’ (Zedekiah), and one who was still seen as king in Babylon, (Jehoiachin/Jeconiah/Coniah). But all of them are to be written off as presenting Judah with any hope (Jeremiah 21:11 to Jeremiah 22:30).

C In ‘the days that are coming’ YHWH will attend to the false rulers above and will intervene in the person of the coming Son of David, (the Righteous Shoot (Branch), ‘YHWH our righteousness’) who will rule righteously in YHWH’s Name (Jeremiah 23:1-24.23.8).

B Concerning the current prophets. They are promising peace and that no harm will come to Judah, but they are not speaking in the Name of YHWH. There is no current hope for Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 23:9-24.23.40).

A The removal of Jehoiachin from Jerusalem has left it in the hands of second rate leaders, which includes their king (regent) Zedekiah, with the result that Jerusalem and its people are without hope and will certainly be destroyed (Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10).

It will be noted that the opening and closing passages form an inclusio based on the guaranteed fate of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. The inadequacy of the sons of David is paralleled by the inadequacy of the prophets (and priests). Central is the promise of the coming Son of David Who will introduce righteousness.

The question may well be asked, however, as to why Zedekiah is mentioned first rather than in the sequence in which the sons of David reigned, namely Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah. One clear answer to that question lies in the fact that Zedekiah was never sole ruler of Judah. When he died Jehoiachin was still in fact seen as king of Judah. Jeremiah is thus bringing out that Zedekiah was not even under consideration as the hope of Israel. He was a ‘bad fig’ (chapter 24). Furthermore to have placed Zedekiah after Jehoiachin would have been to ignore royal protocol and to suggest openly that Jehoiachin’s reign was over, something which would have caused great dissatisfaction in Judah.

There are in fact four reasons for putting the prophecy about Zedekiah first (quite apart from the coincidence of the name Pashhur):

1. It is intended to demonstrate that the final fulfilment of Jeremiah’s earlier prophecies will take place, regardless of the fact that the Son of David was coming, and was in order to explain why Jeremiah had had to undergo what he did as described in the previous chapter.

2. Had Zedekiah (‘YHWH is righteous’) been dealt with in chronological order, then he could have become confused in people’s minds with the coming of ‘the righteous branch’, ‘YHWH our righteousness’, as will be apparent subsequently. By dealing with him first any likelihood of confusion was avoided.

3. Strictly speaking it was Jehoiachin who was seen as the current reigning monarch, with Zedekiah merely acting as his regent in his absence. This was the position accepted both by the Babylonians, who still called Jehoiachin ‘King Yaukin of Yahuda’ on their ration lists, and in Judah where handles of vessels have been discovered coming from the final days of the city inscribed in the name of ‘Eliakim servant of Jehoiachin’ (and not ‘of Zedekiah’). This is further confirmed by the fact that Ezekiel dates his writings in terms of the exile of ‘King Jehoiachin’ (e.g. Ezekiel 1:2). Zedekiah was seemingly simply seen in Judah as an appointee of Nebuchdrezzar rather than as the appointee of the people. His legitimacy was therefore always in doubt. So it would have been seen as fitting that Jehoiachin be presented as still the main feasible option from among the current choices to be the ‘coming Son of David’, and therefore as rightly finalising the list of options. To have presented the situation otherwise would have been seen as insulting.

4. The opening passage dealing with Zedekiah forms an inclusio with chapter Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10, for both deal with the final demise of Judah and Jerusalem. The intervening passages then justify and explain this coming assured judgment, while at the same time centring on Judah/Israel’s final hope. Thus by this inclusio it is made clear that Jeremiah 21:11 to Jeremiah 23:40 are intended to be viewed against the background of the final catastrophe which must necessarily come before there could be any possibility of restoration.

So in the initial chapter of this subsection the justification for Jeremiah having had to endure such affliction as was described in the previous chapter will first be made clear, for it confirms that such arduous continuing prophecy was necessary in the face of what was to be the future. Furthermore it describes the final ‘smashing of the vessel’ as portrayed in chapter 19, demonstrating that that came to fulfilment, and confirms the certainty of final Babylonian victory as previously asserted to an earlier Pashhur in chapter 20. Thus there were good reasons for putting Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10, which is so clearly out of order chronologically, immediately after chapters 19 & 20 connecting with what has gone before.

However, having initially emphasised the certainty of the doom that was coming on Zedekiah and Jerusalem the passage then goes back in time at Jeremiah 21:11 to YHWH’s open offer of repentance to the one of the house of David (Jeremiah 21:12) who sat on the throne of David (Jeremiah 22:2) if only he, as king of Judah, would turn round in his ways, execute justice and fulfil the covenant (Jeremiah 21:12; Jeremiah 22:3), although even then it was with grave doubts about Judah’s willingness to repent. It is reasonable to see in this an open offer to all the sons of David who came to the throne during Jeremiah’s ministry, and indeed may have been specifically presented to each one by Jeremiah on his accession. In Jeremiah 22:3 the same offer is repeated and accompanied by a promise of the certain triumph of the royal house (Jeremiah 22:4) if only they will respond, but it is again followed by a warning of the consequences if they would not.

Following that Jeremiah then sets out to demolish the false hopes offered to the people by the false prophets. He makes clear that Shallum (Jehoahaz), appointed by the people as Josiah’s heir-apparent as the son of David, will not be returning from Egypt where he had been taken by Pharaoh Necho (Jeremiah 22:10-24.22.12; compare 2 Kings 23:31-12.23.35), and castigates the one who had been appointed in his place (Jehoiakim), because he did not follow in the ways of his father (Jeremiah 22:15-24.22.16) and especially because he was crushing the people by his expansive building plans, with no intention of paying for the work that was done (Jeremiah 22:13-24.22.17). For him there would only be an ignominious death (Jeremiah 22:19). And finally he emphasises that they were not to look for the return of their reigning king Jehoiachin (Coniah, Jeconiah) from Babylon (Jeremiah 22:20-24.22.30; compare 2 Kings 24:8-12.24.17), who, as we have seen above, was still officially looked on as king both in Babylon (he is described as King Yaukin in Babylonian ration lists) and in Judah. Jeremiah is making clear that while it was true (as earlier prophets had underlined) that Israel’s future hopes did remain with the house of David, and that they would also one day celebrate their deliverance from the north country, it would nevertheless only be after they had first been exiled (Jeremiah 23:1-24.23.8), and it would not be by the false shepherds (rulers) who had wrecked the morals of Judah, and certainly not by someone from the house of Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) (Jeremiah 22:30). He then roundly turns on the prophets who were offering precisely those false hopes and completely disposes of them (Jeremiah 23:9-24.23.40). Following that in chapter 24 he confirms that Judah’s future hopes do not rest with Zedekiah and his ilk, for while it was true that one day the good figs (those who will repent among the exiles) would return to the land, and be built and planted, and God will again be their God, they will not include the bad figs who were running Judah in the days of Zedekiah, who as already described in Jeremiah 15:4 would be tossed about among all the kingdoms of the earth because of their evil, and who according to Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10 would undoubtedly suffer great devastation and be exiled. Thus Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10 and Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10 form an inclusio for the subsection, a subsection which both demonstrates that there was no point in looking to the current sons of David, and emphasises that one day there would be a son of David who would fulfil all their hopes.

Up to this point most of Jeremiah’s prophecies have not been openly attached to specific situations (Jeremiah 3:6 being a partial exception), but it will be noted that from this point onwards in the narrative there is an undoubted change of approach. Whereas previously time references have been vague and almost non-existent, with the result that we cannot always be sure in whose reign they took place, Jeremiah now addresses his words to various kings, usually by name, and as we have seen the first example is Zedekiah who was the ‘king’ of Judah at the time when Jerusalem was taken for the second time and emptied of its inhabitants at the same time as the Temple was destroyed. This took place in 587 BC. By its very nature it could not have been a part of Jeremiah’s initial writing down of his earlier prophecies, for that was in the days of Jehoiakim, so that this part of chapters 2-25 must have been updated by him later. Furthermore from this point on Jeremiah will openly and constantly urge submission to the King of Babylon by name and title (although compare the first mention in Jeremiah 20:4). On the other hand it will be noted that the subsection has been opened by the same formula as that used previously (contrast the marked change in formula in chapters 26-29) and this would appear to suggest therefore that these chapters are intended as a kind of appendix to chapters 1-20, illustrating them historically and confirming their message and its fulfilment.

To summarise. The subsection opens with the familiar words, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH --’ (Jeremiah 21:1). It then goes on to deal with Jeremiah’s response to an appeal from King Zedekiah concerning Judah’s hopes for the future in which he warns that it is YHWH’s purpose that Judah be subject to Babylon and that Judah’s doom is sealed. Meanwhile he warns that there is no hope of the restoration of Shallum (Jehoahaz) the son of Josiah or of Jehoiachin (Coniah), the son of Jehoiakim who had been carried off to Babylon.

He castigates the false shepherds (rulers) of Judah who have brought Judah to this position, but promises that one day YHWH will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a king Who will reign and prosper, and execute righteousness and justice. He will be called ‘YHWH our righteousness’. He then castigates the prophets. For the present Judah’s sinful condition is seen as such that all that Judah can expect is everlasting reproach and shame. The subsection then closes with the parable of the good and bad figs, the good representing the righteous remnant in exile (part of the cream of the population exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 24:15-12.24.16) who were experiencing the ministry of Ezekiel) who will one day return, the bad the people who have been left in Judah to await sword, pestilence, famine and exile. Destitute of experienced leadership, and under a weak king-regent, they were unstable and too inexperienced to govern well, carrying Judah forward inexorably to its worst moment.

Verses 1-14

Subsection 7). Words Concerning Various Kings (Jeremiah 21:1 to Jeremiah 24:10 ).

This subsection proceeds in logical sequence although not chronologically, and will centre on three special themes, firstly on the fact that all hope for Judah in the short term has now gone, secondly that the promises of the false prophets suggesting that any of the current sons of David will be restored to the throne are invalid, and thirdly that while final blessing ‘in coming days’ will truly be at the hands of a son of David, it is meanwhile to be stressed that that ‘son of David’ will not be one of the current regime.

The subsection commences by making clear that prior to the future coming of the exalted son of David the doom of Jerusalem under the present sons of David is certain and will unquestionably happen (echoes of Isaiah). Neither Zedekiah nor any of his current relations (Jehoahaz who had been taken to Egypt and Jehoiachin who had been taken to Babylon) are therefore to be seen as the hope of Judah/Israel.

The whole subsection may be summarised as follows:

A Jerusalem and Judah are unquestionably doomed under Zedekiah (Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10).

B Concerning the current sons of David. None of the current batch of ‘sons of David’ can be seen as presenting any hope for Israel. Uniquely over this period Judah had a plurality of kings. Initially Jehoahaz was hostage in Egypt with Jehoiakim reigning in Jerusalem, and this was followed by three ‘reigning’ kings, one held hostage in Egypt (Jehoahaz, although nothing is known of his fate), one reigning in Jerusalem as ‘regent’ (Zedekiah), and one who was still seen as king in Babylon, (Jehoiachin/Jeconiah/Coniah). But all of them are to be written off as presenting Judah with any hope (Jeremiah 21:11 to Jeremiah 22:30).

C In ‘the days that are coming’ YHWH will attend to the false rulers above and will intervene in the person of the coming Son of David, (the Righteous Shoot (Branch), ‘YHWH our righteousness’) who will rule righteously in YHWH’s Name (Jeremiah 23:1-24.23.8).

B Concerning the current prophets. They are promising peace and that no harm will come to Judah, but they are not speaking in the Name of YHWH. There is no current hope for Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 23:9-24.23.40).

A The removal of Jehoiachin from Jerusalem has left it in the hands of second rate leaders, which includes their king (regent) Zedekiah, with the result that Jerusalem and its people are without hope and will certainly be destroyed (Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10).

It will be noted that the opening and closing passages form an inclusio based on the guaranteed fate of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. The inadequacy of the sons of David is paralleled by the inadequacy of the prophets (and priests). Central is the promise of the coming Son of David Who will introduce righteousness.

The question may well be asked, however, as to why Zedekiah is mentioned first rather than in the sequence in which the sons of David reigned, namely Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah. One clear answer to that question lies in the fact that Zedekiah was never sole ruler of Judah. When he died Jehoiachin was still in fact seen as king of Judah. Jeremiah is thus bringing out that Zedekiah was not even under consideration as the hope of Israel. He was a ‘bad fig’ (chapter 24). Furthermore to have placed Zedekiah after Jehoiachin would have been to ignore royal protocol and to suggest openly that Jehoiachin’s reign was over, something which would have caused great dissatisfaction in Judah.

There are in fact four reasons for putting the prophecy about Zedekiah first (quite apart from the coincidence of the name Pashhur):

1. It is intended to demonstrate that the final fulfilment of Jeremiah’s earlier prophecies will take place, regardless of the fact that the Son of David was coming, and was in order to explain why Jeremiah had had to undergo what he did as described in the previous chapter.

2. Had Zedekiah (‘YHWH is righteous’) been dealt with in chronological order, then he could have become confused in people’s minds with the coming of ‘the righteous branch’, ‘YHWH our righteousness’, as will be apparent subsequently. By dealing with him first any likelihood of confusion was avoided.

3. Strictly speaking it was Jehoiachin who was seen as the current reigning monarch, with Zedekiah merely acting as his regent in his absence. This was the position accepted both by the Babylonians, who still called Jehoiachin ‘King Yaukin of Yahuda’ on their ration lists, and in Judah where handles of vessels have been discovered coming from the final days of the city inscribed in the name of ‘Eliakim servant of Jehoiachin’ (and not ‘of Zedekiah’). This is further confirmed by the fact that Ezekiel dates his writings in terms of the exile of ‘King Jehoiachin’ (e.g. Ezekiel 1:2). Zedekiah was seemingly simply seen in Judah as an appointee of Nebuchdrezzar rather than as the appointee of the people. His legitimacy was therefore always in doubt. So it would have been seen as fitting that Jehoiachin be presented as still the main feasible option from among the current choices to be the ‘coming Son of David’, and therefore as rightly finalising the list of options. To have presented the situation otherwise would have been seen as insulting.

4. The opening passage dealing with Zedekiah forms an inclusio with chapter Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10, for both deal with the final demise of Judah and Jerusalem. The intervening passages then justify and explain this coming assured judgment, while at the same time centring on Judah/Israel’s final hope. Thus by this inclusio it is made clear that Jeremiah 21:11 to Jeremiah 23:40 are intended to be viewed against the background of the final catastrophe which must necessarily come before there could be any possibility of restoration.

So in the initial chapter of this subsection the justification for Jeremiah having had to endure such affliction as was described in the previous chapter will first be made clear, for it confirms that such arduous continuing prophecy was necessary in the face of what was to be the future. Furthermore it describes the final ‘smashing of the vessel’ as portrayed in chapter 19, demonstrating that that came to fulfilment, and confirms the certainty of final Babylonian victory as previously asserted to an earlier Pashhur in chapter 20. Thus there were good reasons for putting Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10, which is so clearly out of order chronologically, immediately after chapters 19 & 20 connecting with what has gone before.

However, having initially emphasised the certainty of the doom that was coming on Zedekiah and Jerusalem the passage then goes back in time at Jeremiah 21:11 to YHWH’s open offer of repentance to the one of the house of David (Jeremiah 21:12) who sat on the throne of David (Jeremiah 22:2) if only he, as king of Judah, would turn round in his ways, execute justice and fulfil the covenant (Jeremiah 21:12; Jeremiah 22:3), although even then it was with grave doubts about Judah’s willingness to repent. It is reasonable to see in this an open offer to all the sons of David who came to the throne during Jeremiah’s ministry, and indeed may have been specifically presented to each one by Jeremiah on his accession. In Jeremiah 22:3 the same offer is repeated and accompanied by a promise of the certain triumph of the royal house (Jeremiah 22:4) if only they will respond, but it is again followed by a warning of the consequences if they would not.

Following that Jeremiah then sets out to demolish the false hopes offered to the people by the false prophets. He makes clear that Shallum (Jehoahaz), appointed by the people as Josiah’s heir-apparent as the son of David, will not be returning from Egypt where he had been taken by Pharaoh Necho (Jeremiah 22:10-24.22.12; compare 2 Kings 23:31-12.23.35), and castigates the one who had been appointed in his place (Jehoiakim), because he did not follow in the ways of his father (Jeremiah 22:15-24.22.16) and especially because he was crushing the people by his expansive building plans, with no intention of paying for the work that was done (Jeremiah 22:13-24.22.17). For him there would only be an ignominious death (Jeremiah 22:19). And finally he emphasises that they were not to look for the return of their reigning king Jehoiachin (Coniah, Jeconiah) from Babylon (Jeremiah 22:20-24.22.30; compare 2 Kings 24:8-12.24.17), who, as we have seen above, was still officially looked on as king both in Babylon (he is described as King Yaukin in Babylonian ration lists) and in Judah. Jeremiah is making clear that while it was true (as earlier prophets had underlined) that Israel’s future hopes did remain with the house of David, and that they would also one day celebrate their deliverance from the north country, it would nevertheless only be after they had first been exiled (Jeremiah 23:1-24.23.8), and it would not be by the false shepherds (rulers) who had wrecked the morals of Judah, and certainly not by someone from the house of Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) (Jeremiah 22:30). He then roundly turns on the prophets who were offering precisely those false hopes and completely disposes of them (Jeremiah 23:9-24.23.40). Following that in chapter 24 he confirms that Judah’s future hopes do not rest with Zedekiah and his ilk, for while it was true that one day the good figs (those who will repent among the exiles) would return to the land, and be built and planted, and God will again be their God, they will not include the bad figs who were running Judah in the days of Zedekiah, who as already described in Jeremiah 15:4 would be tossed about among all the kingdoms of the earth because of their evil, and who according to Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10 would undoubtedly suffer great devastation and be exiled. Thus Jeremiah 21:1-24.21.10 and Jeremiah 24:1-24.24.10 form an inclusio for the subsection, a subsection which both demonstrates that there was no point in looking to the current sons of David, and emphasises that one day there would be a son of David who would fulfil all their hopes.

Up to this point most of Jeremiah’s prophecies have not been openly attached to specific situations (Jeremiah 3:6 being a partial exception), but it will be noted that from this point onwards in the narrative there is an undoubted change of approach. Whereas previously time references have been vague and almost non-existent, with the result that we cannot always be sure in whose reign they took place, Jeremiah now addresses his words to various kings, usually by name, and as we have seen the first example is Zedekiah who was the ‘king’ of Judah at the time when Jerusalem was taken for the second time and emptied of its inhabitants at the same time as the Temple was destroyed. This took place in 587 BC. By its very nature it could not have been a part of Jeremiah’s initial writing down of his earlier prophecies, for that was in the days of Jehoiakim, so that this part of chapters 2-25 must have been updated by him later. Furthermore from this point on Jeremiah will openly and constantly urge submission to the King of Babylon by name and title (although compare the first mention in Jeremiah 20:4). On the other hand it will be noted that the subsection has been opened by the same formula as that used previously (contrast the marked change in formula in chapters 26-29) and this would appear to suggest therefore that these chapters are intended as a kind of appendix to chapters 1-20, illustrating them historically and confirming their message and its fulfilment.

To summarise. The subsection opens with the familiar words, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH --’ (Jeremiah 21:1). It then goes on to deal with Jeremiah’s response to an appeal from King Zedekiah concerning Judah’s hopes for the future in which he warns that it is YHWH’s purpose that Judah be subject to Babylon and that Judah’s doom is sealed. Meanwhile he warns that there is no hope of the restoration of Shallum (Jehoahaz) the son of Josiah or of Jehoiachin (Coniah), the son of Jehoiakim who had been carried off to Babylon.

He castigates the false shepherds (rulers) of Judah who have brought Judah to this position, but promises that one day YHWH will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a king Who will reign and prosper, and execute righteousness and justice. He will be called ‘YHWH our righteousness’. He then castigates the prophets. For the present Judah’s sinful condition is seen as such that all that Judah can expect is everlasting reproach and shame. The subsection then closes with the parable of the good and bad figs, the good representing the righteous remnant in exile (part of the cream of the population exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 24:15-12.24.16) who were experiencing the ministry of Ezekiel) who will one day return, the bad the people who have been left in Judah to await sword, pestilence, famine and exile. Destitute of experienced leadership, and under a weak king-regent, they were unstable and too inexperienced to govern well, carrying Judah forward inexorably to its worst moment.

Verses 11-14

A General Plea To The House Of David Not To Be Presumptious But To Exercise Justice and Mercy If They Would Escape Judgment (Jeremiah 21:11-24.21.14 ).

Jeremiah now makes a general plea to ‘the house of David’ to cease being presumptious and to fulfil its responsibilities as the house of David with regards to justice and fair play, (an idea which will be continued in Jeremiah 22:1-24.22.4). Had it done so the present troubles could have been avoided. This new emphasis on ‘the house of David’ (Jeremiah 21:12) and ‘the throne of David’ (Jeremiah 22:2; Jeremiah 22:4; Jeremiah 22:29) demonstrates that he is seeking to establish the standard of righteous kingship which alone could have safeguarded the house of Josiah from its fate. It was because no representative of the house of David could be found who fitted his description that Shallum (Jehoahaz) would be left in Egypt and Jehoiachin (Coniah) would be left in Babylon, while Jehoiakim and Zedekiah were seen as totally unworthy. That was why in the end Jerusalem’s fate would come upon it. It would be because the house of David had failed in its responsibility. And, as we have seen earlier, this was because YHWH would fill them with drunkenness along with the priests, prophets and inhabitants of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 13:13). On the other hand had they responded to YHWH by obeying the covenant, especially as focused in restraining themselves from trade on the Sabbath Day, which might also have affected the numbers attending the Temple for idolatrous worship, the house of David would have gone forward in triumph and have been established for ever (Jeremiah 17:25). This emphasis on the house of David, and what was required of it, is preparing the way for the fact that one day a representative of the house of David called ‘the righteous Branch (or Shoot)’ would arise who would rule righteously and truly (Jeremiah 23:5). It is, however, stressed that the Righteous Branch (or Shoot) will not be a direct descendant of Jehoiachin. (Compare how Immanuel was not to be a direct descendant of Ahaz, being born of a virgin - Isaiah 7:14 - there also spoken to ‘the house of David’ - Isaiah 7:2; Isaiah 7:13). His coming will only occur ‘in coming days’ after the Exile.

Jeremiah 21:11

“And touching the house of the king of Judah, hear you the word of YHWH,”

Note that this word is spoken to the whole house of Josiah, ‘the house of the King of Judah’, and not to just one member of it. It is a word for all of them from YHWH.

Some see this as a continuation of the words spoken to Zedekiah, but the plea here would in that case come too late because the house of Zedekiah was doomed and his fate was sealed. Others see it for that reason as spoken to the house of Jehoiakim. But in seeing it as spoken to all the house of Josiah we include all, and have an explanation as to why no name is given. We should note in this regard that before being replaced each member had had their opportunity to consider their ways, however short, but sufficient to be seen as having ‘done evil in the eyes of YHWH’ (2 Kings 23:32; 2Ki 23:37 ; 2 Kings 24:9; 2 Kings 24:19).

Jeremiah 21:12

“O house of David, thus says YHWH, Execute justice in the morning, and deliver him who is robbed out of the hand of the oppressor, lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn so that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.”

The general plea is to ‘the house of David’ and it was that they should fulfil the requirements of that house and faithfully execute justice, and deliver the oppressed, with the warning that if they failed to do so YHWH’s wrath would go forth like an unquenchable fire, because of the evil of their doings. Jehoiakim had palpably failed to do so, as had Zedekiah, whilst Jehoahaz (Shallum) and Jehoiachin (Coniah) had seemingly equally clearly demonstrated their intentions as soon as they had received the throne, thus also disqualifying themselves.

‘Execute judgment in the morning’ indicates the action of a king who is diligent in respect of justice, who rises early before the heat of the day in order to hear cases and listen to the pleas and complaints of his people before the heat of the day rendered it impossible. This was something that even David had grown lax in, which had resulted in Absalom taking advantage of it (2 Samuel 15:2-10.15.4). It was by doing this that Solomon had established his reputation for wisdom (1 Kings 3:28). It was the sign of a righteous king, and will be what the righteous Branch will do (Jeremiah 23:5). The deliverance of the oppressed and the ensuring of fair justice for all were parallel requirements. The implication is that had the house of David done this there would have been no problems from Babylon, for then they would have been powerful in their own right (Jeremiah 22:4). The following expression of YHWH’s severe anger (which was shortly to be fulfilled) demonstrates how crucial YHWH saw it to be.

Jeremiah 21:13

“Behold, I am against you, O inhabitress of the valley, and of the rock of the plain, the word of YHWH, you who say, ‘Who will come down against us? or who shall enter into our habitations?’ ”

The truth was that instead of Jerusalem having become a bastion of justice and fairplay it had, under the successors to Josiah, become the home of presumption and arrogance with the people having the sense that they could do what they liked without having to face the consequences. They were so certain of their inviolability that they dismissed the possibility that Jerusalem could be taken. Such a statement would have been somewhat shaken by the events of 597 BC when Jerusalem had had to surrender to Nebuchadrezzar, but once things continued reasonably smoothly they could soon have rationalised themselves into thinking that after all he had not ‘taken it’. They had simply re-negotiated their vassalship. Certainly, as we saw in Jeremiah 21:2, Zedekiah still hoped for inviolability.

The application of these words to Jerusalem rests on the use of the feminine ‘inhabitress’ signifying the daughter of Zion. The description depicts the twofold level of Jerusalem with the upper citadel being situated on the ‘rock of the plain’, the level part of the mountain on which it was built (compare the ‘rock of the field’ in Jeremiah 18:14 which referred to the higher part of Mount Lebanon), with the remainder of Jerusalem being built on the lower slopes in ‘the Valley’ (the part occupied by Judah and Benjamin when the upper citadel had been occupied by the Jebusites). And it was because of this highly defensible position, combined with a superstitious faith in YHWH, that they argued that no one could come down against them or enter their habitations.

Alternately it is suggested that the picture is of Jerusalem with its citadel on the rock rising above the surrounding ‘plain’, nevertheless being in a valley because it was surrounded by mountains higher than itself (Psalms 125:2 - which would be why the enemy ‘came down’ against them). This would explain the enemy ‘coming down’. But either way Jerusalem is indicated.

Jeremiah 21:14

“And I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, the word of YHWH, and I will kindle a fire in her forest, and it will devour all that is round about her.”

However their arguments would all have been very well if they had judged righteously, delivered the oppressed, and walked in obedience to the covenant. But the arguments did not stand up when they perpetrated injustice, themselves were the cause of oppression, and had forsaken the covenant. In other words the fruit of their doings had cancelled out their inviolability. Thus they could be sure that YHWH, rather than defending them, would punish them in accordance with their behaviour. And this was the sure and certain ‘word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH). For He would kindle a fire in her forest, and would devour all that was round about her, leaving her totally desolate.

The reference to forest may have been because at that stage (unlike later) Jerusalem was surrounded by forest so that its conflagration would have destroyed Jerusalem, or may indicate ‘the house of the forest of Lebanon’, the description of part of the king’s palace which was built of so many tall cedars that it was called by the name and contained his treasures (1 Kings 7:2; 1 Kings 10:17; 1 Kings 10:21), or may be seeing the great houses of Jerusalem as like a forest of trees (many would be constructed partly using oak or cedar). Some compare Jeremiah 22:6 where Jerusalem is (according to them) described as ‘the head of Lebanon’, that is, is as though covered with trees.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 21". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/jeremiah-21.html. 2013.