Then arose Ishmael.
1. If ever there was such a one, this Ishmael was of whom these verses tell. His atrocities remind us of the Indian Mutiny, its leader, and the well at Cawnpore (cf. Verse 9). Treachery, ingratitude, murder, massacre, greed, cowardice,--all are gathered in this detestable character (cf. Mr. Grove’s article “Ishmael,” Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible)
2. And such men are permitted to be. So clearly seen is this, that every drama has its villain; they are recognised as having definite place and function in this poor life of ours.
3. Can we explain this permission? Wherefore are such men created and preserved? It is s part of the great question of moral evil, for the full solution of which we must wait. But the existence of such men as this Ishmael is but one out of the many terrible facts in God’s providence, such as plague, famine, earthquake, &c.
In regard to such men, we can see some purposes that they subserve.
1. They make evident the hideous capacities of evil which are in our nature, and the need, therefore, for God’s restraining grace.
2. They are warnings to increased watchfulness on the part of those in whom the tendencies to like evil exist.
3. They are God’s scourges for men’s sin (cf. Attila, the Scourge of God).
4. They weld together the people they oppress in one common league against them, and thus out of scattered tribes a nation is formed.
5. They clear out much that is evil (cf. French Revolution; Napoleon). But, sometimes as here, we cannot see what good they do; and then we can only wait. (W. Clarkson, B. A.)
So he forbare, and slew them not among their, brethren.
Sin hindered by sin
Ishmael would have killed these men but for his greed of the wealth they had. It is satisfactory to think he never gained possession of it. Nevertheless, his greed made him guilty of one sin less. This story suggests that--
I. God has many ways of hindering sin. There is--
1. The best way of all. By granting a true repentance and His Holy Spirit, creating the clean heart and renewing the right spirit.
2. But there are other ways. By keeping the opportunity and the will apart. How much of our freedom from sin do we owe to this blessed providential severance! By fear of present evil consequence of our sin.
3. And sometimes, as here, by one sin getting in the way of another. Thus pride holds back not a few; not love of God, gratitude to Christ, love of holiness, hut pride. And covetousness checks the sinner in many sins he would be guilty of but for this. Anger, breaking up the alliances of transgressors; as when, in the days of Jehoshaphat, the Ammonites who were coming against him fell out one with the other (2 Chronicles 20:22). “When thieves fall out, honest men come by their rights.” (W. Clarkson, B. A.)
The vilest Roman emperors were those who least persecuted the Church--Tiberius, Commodus, &c. They were too absorbed in their own indulgences to trouble about the Christians.
II. But these other ways leave men as great sinners as before. The question is not as to your freedom from transgression so much, but--what kept you free? Only the first and best way is accepted of God.
III. Nevertheless, let us be thankful that sin is self-destructive in its very nature. It is a blessed anarchy, for it protects many who would otherwise suffer.
IV. But for ourselves let us seek that sin may be destroyed by Christ. (W. Clarkson, B. A.)
And dwelt in the habitation of Chimham.
Too near the edge
This is one of the reflections that come to us as we read of the place whither Johanan led his followers, and as we see the events that happened immediately after. This chapter is a record of disappointments. First the hopeful prospects of Gedaliah’s governorship, which seemed starting so fairly and happily for all, these are shattered and overthrown by the villainous conduct of Ishmael. Then it is a grievous disappointment that we do not hear of Ishmael’s death, only of his escape. That such a wretch should escape with his life seems a reflection upon that justice which generally follows on the track of wrong-doers such as he was, and metes out to them their due. Escape seems too lenient a dealing with them. And now here is another disappointment that Johanan, instead of seeking to follow in Gedaliah’s footsteps, should be for leading the people down into Egypt. “At the caravanserai of Chimham, in Bethlehem--the natural halting-place on the way to Egypt--Johanan held a council of war, and then, against the prophet’s advice, finally determined to abandon their homes, and to make for the refuge, to which the worldly Israelite always had recourse, across the Egyptian border.” It was a bad place to halt at; it was too near that beguiling land, the witchery of which not a few of them had long been feeling and would now feel more than ever. Whenever Israel went thither, it was always a “going down into Egypt.” This was, more true morally and spiritually than even geographically, to which the word down, of course, refers. And the present was no exception. Looking at them there at Chimham, we note--
I. The resemblance they offer. Are they not like all those who tamper with temptation? They know, as Israel knew, that they are in a forbidden path, and yet they do not keep clear of it. Like moths fluttering around the flame, so men will dally with sin. They know that to yield would be both most wrong and ruinous, and yet they go close to the border.
II. The reasons which governed them. The Jews came to Chimham because their will had already consented to go further--on and down into Egypt. For like reasons men come to such places. There has been already the secret yielding of the will. There was no need of the Jews being at Chimham. It was not the way back from Gibeon. It was a deliberate going into temptation. So those who act like them have, as they, already consented in heart. And the causes of that consent are akin. They falsely feared what the Chaldeans might do, though there was no ground for such fear; and they falsely hoped for good--freedom from war and want--which they never realised. And such persons will ever magnify both the difficulties of the right path and the looked-for pleasures and advantages of the wrong. Thus would they persuade themselves that the right is wrong and the wrong is right.
III. The resistance they seemed to make. The Jews did not yield all at once. They appeal to the prophet. They ask his prayers. They, make repeated and loud--much too loud: “Methinks he doth protest too much”--professions. They wait patiently the prophet’s message. And yet all the while (verse 20) they were dissembling in their hearts, “regarding iniquity” there (history of Balaam). They would have God on their side, not themselves on God’s side. All this is most melancholy matter of fact with those who, of their own accord, go too near the edge.
IV. The results that followed. Of course they went over the edge; such people always do. They showed the insincerity of their prayers by their anger when they were denied (Jeremiah 43:2, &c.). They escaped none of the evil they dreaded; they gained none of the good they expected. “So disastrous did this step appear to the next and to all subsequent generations of Israel, that the day of Gedaliah’s murder, which led to it, has been from that time forth and to this day observed as a national fast. It seemed to be the final revocation of the advantages of the Exodus. By this breach in their local continuity a chasm was made in the history, which for good or evil was never filled up.” Yes; they who will go so near temptation will go into it, and be borne down by it to their sore hurt and harm.
V. The remedy recommended. Jeremiah urged them to return to their own land and stay there (Jeremiah 42:8, &c.), promising them the blessing of God if they obeyed, and threatening His sore anger if they did not. This counsel ever wise. Get away from the border-land back into safety. Think of what will follow on your conduct--the blessing or the curse. “Stay not in all the plain, but escape for thy life.” As “the angels hastened Lot” so would we hasten all those who have foolishly and wrongly chosen to go too near temptation’s edge. (W. Clarkson, B. A.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jeremiah 41". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany