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by Thomas Coke
THE BOOK OF THE PROPHET JEREMIAH.
THE prophet Jeremiah was of the sacerdotal race, being, as he records himself, one of the priests that dwelt at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, a city appropriated out of that tribe to the use of the priests the sons of Aaron (Joshua 21:18.), and situate, as we learn from Jerome, about three miles north of Jerusalem. Some have supposed his father to have been that Hilkiah the high priest, by whom the book of the law was found in the temple in the reign of Josiah; but for this there is no better ground than his having borne the same name, which was no uncommon one among the Jews: whereas, had he been in reality the high priest, he would doubtless have been mentioned by that distinguishing title, and not put upon a level with priests of an ordinary and inferior class. Jeremiah appears to have been very young when he was called to the exercise of the prophetical office; from which he modestly endeavoured to excuse himself by pleading his youth and incapacity; but being overruled by the divine authority, he set himself to discharge the duties of his function with unremitted diligence and fidelity during a period of at least forty-two years, reckoning from the thirteenth year of Josiah's reign. In the course of his ministry he met with great difficulties, and much opposition from his countrymen of all degrees; whose persecution and ill usage sometimes wrought so far upon his mind, as to draw from him expressions, in the bitterness of his soul, which many have thought hard to reconcile with his religious principles; but which, when duly weighed, may be found to demand our pity rather than severe censure. He was, in truth, a man of unblemished piety and conscientious integrity; a warm lover of his country, whose miseries he pathetically deplores; and so affectionately attached to his countrymen, notwithstanding their injurious treatment of him, that he chose rather to abide with them, and undergo all hardships in their company, than separately to enjoy a state of ease and plenty, which the favour of the king of Babylon would have secured to him. At length, after the destruction of Jerusalem, having followed the remnant of the Jews into Egypt, whither they had resolved to retire, though contrary to his advice, upon the murder of Gedaliah, whom the Chaldeans had left governor in Judaea, he there continued warmly to remonstrate against their idolatrous practices, foretelling the consequences which would inevitably follow. But his freedom and zeal are said to have cost him his life; for the Jews at Tahpanhes, as tradition goes, took such offence thereat, that they stoned him to death; which account of the manner of his exit, though not absolutely certain, is at least very likely to be true, considering the temper and disposition of the parties concerned. Their wickedness, however, did not long pass without its reward; for in a few years after they were miserably destroyed by the Babylonian armies, which invaded Egypt, according to the prophet's prediction. Ch. Jeremiah 44:27-28.
The following historical sketch of the times in which Jeremiah lived, is given with a view to throw light upon his prophesies in general, and may help to explain sundry circumstances and allusions that are found therein.
In the reign of Manasseh every species of impiety and moral corruption had been carried to the highest pitch under the encouragement of royal example: and so thoroughly tainted were the minds of men by this corrupt influence, as to baffle all the endeavours of the good Josiah to bring about a reformation. This pious prince, having in the eighteenth year of his reign accidentally met with the book of the law, was stricken with horror at the danger to which he found himself and his kingdom exposed by the violations of it. He therefore immediately set about removing all the abominations that were in the land, and engaged his subjects to join with him in a solemn covenant to be more dutifully observant of the divine commands for the time to come. But though the king's heart was right, and his zeal fervent and sincere, it was all hypocrisy and dissimulation on the part of the people; their hearts were incorrigibly turned the wrong way; and God, who saw clearly the real bent of their dispositions, was not to be diverted from his designs of vengeance. He began with depriving them, by a sudden stroke, of their excellent prince, under whose government they had enjoyed much happiness and tranquillity, of which they were altogether unworthy. He was slain in a battle with Pharaoh Necho king of Egypt, whom Josiah had gone out to oppose on his march against the Babylonian dominions, being himself in alliance with the king of Babylon; and his death, however fatal to his kingdom, was as to his own particular in some sense perhaps a merciful disposition of Providence, that his eyes might not see all the evil that was coming upon his land.—The first twelve chapters of this book seem to contain all the prophesies delivered in this reign.
Josiah being dead, his sons who succeeded him were not of a character to impede or delay the execution of God's judgments. It is said in general of them all, that they did that which was evil in the sight of Jehovah. The first that mounted the throne was Shallum, or Jehoahaz, the second son, by designation of the people. But his elevation was not of long continuance. Pharaoh Necho, having defeated the Babylonian forces, and taken Carchemish, on his return deposed Jehoahaz, after a reign of three mouths, and, putting him in chains, carried him to Egypt, whence he never returned.—in this short reign Jeremiah does not appear to have had any revelation.
Pharaoh Necho made use of his victory to reduce all Syria under his subjection; and having imposed a fine upon the kingdom of Judah of one hundred talents of silver and one talent of gold, he received the money from Jehoiakim, the eldest son of Josiah, whom he appointed king in his brother's stead. Jehoiakim was one of the worst and wickedest of all the kings of Judah; a man totally destitute of all regard for religion, and unjust, rapacious, cruel, and tyrannical in his government. In the beginning of his reign he put Urijah, a prophet of God, to death, for having prophesied, as was his duty to do, of the impending calamities of Judah and Jerusalem. And having either built for himself a new palace, or enlarged the old one which belonged to the kings of Judah, by a strain of authority not less mean than wicked, he withheld from the workmen the wages which they had earned in building it. In short, he set no bounds to his evil inclinations and passions; and his people, freed from the wholesome discipline which had restrained them in his father's time, were not behindhand with him in giving way to every sort of licentious extravagance. Three years he reigned without molestation or disturbance from abroad. But towards the latter end of his third year, Nebuchadnezzar, being associated in the government by his father Nabopollassar king of Babylon, was sent into Syria to recover the dismembered provinces of the Babylonish empire. In the fourth year of Jehoiakim he beat the Egyptian army at the river Euphrates, retook Carchemish, and, having subdued all the intermediate country, appeared before Jerusalem, of which he soon made himself master. Jehoiakim was at first loaded with chains, with an intention of sending him to Babylon. He was, however, released upon his submission, and again suffered to reign on taking an oath to be a true servant of the king of Babylon. But numbers of his people were sent captives to Babylon, together with several children of the blood royal, and of the first families of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar proposed to breed up in his own court, in order to employ them afterwards in the affairs of his empire. At the same time many of the sacred vessels were taken away, and deposited in the temple of Belus at Babylon; so that from this date the desolation of Judah may fairly be reckoned to have had its beginning.
After the king of Babylon's departure, Jehoiakim continued to pay him homage and tribute for three years. In the mean time both he and his people persisted in their evil courts, undismayed by the mischiefs which had already befallen them, and making light of the threatenings which God, by the ministry of his prophets, repeatedly denounced against them. At length Jehoiakim refused to pay any longer the tribute assigned him, and broke out into open revolt. To chastise him, the king of Babylon, not being at leisure to come in person, directed his vassals of the neighbouring provinces, the Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites, to join with the Chaldean troops which were on the frontiers, and to ravage the land of Judah. They did so for three years together, and carried off abundance of people from the open country, who were sent to Babylon. Jehoiakim, in some attempt, as it should seem, made by him to check these depredations, was himself slain without the gates of Jerusalem; and his dead body, having been dragged along the ground with the greatest ignominy, was suffered to remain without burial in the open fields.—The prophesies of this reign are continued on from the 13th to the 20th chapter inclusively, to which we must add the 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 26th, 35th, and 36th chapters, together with the 45th, 46th, 47th, and most probably the 48th, and as far as to ver. 34 of the 49th chapter.
Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, a youth of eighteen years old, succeeded his father in the throne, and followed his evil example, as far as the shortness of his reign would admit. From the beginning of it Jerusalem was closely blocked up by the Babylonian generals. At the end of three months Nebuchadnezzar joined his army in person, and upon his arrival Jeconiah surrendered himself and his city at discretion. He was transported directly to Babylon with his mother, his family, and friends, and with them all the inhabitants of the land of any note or account. The treasures also of the temple, and of the king's house, and all the golden vessels which Solomon had provided for the temple service, were at this time carried away.—We read of no prophesy which Jeremiah actually delivered in this king's reign; but the fate of Jeconiah, his being carried into captivity, and continuing an exile till the time of his death, was early foretold in his father's reign, as may be particularly seen in the 22nd chapter.
The last king of Judah was Zedekiah, the youngest son of Josiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar made king, and exacted from him a solemn oath of allegiance and fidelity. He was not, perhaps, quite so bad a man as his brother Jehoiakim; but his reign was a wicked one, and completed the misfortunes of his country. His subjects seem to have but little respected him, while they considered him in no other light than as the lieutenant or viceroy of the king of Babylon, whose sovereignty they detested, and were continually urging him to throw off the yoke. Nor had he been long in possession of the kingdom, before he received ambassadors from the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyrus, and Sidon, soliciting him to join in a confederacy against the Babylonish power. But he was wise enough at this time to hearken to the prophet Jeremiah's advice, and to reject their propositions; and for some years continued to send regularly his presents and ambassadors to Babylon in token of his obedience. But the iniquities of his people were now ripe for punishment; and their idolatries, as the prophet Ezekiel describes them, (ch. 8) were become so enormously profligate, that the stroke of vengeance could no longer be suspended. Zedekiah, therefore, was at last prevailed on by evil counsel, and the promise of assistance from Egypt, to break his oath, and renounce his allegiance; by which he drew upon himself the arms of the king of Babylon, who invaded Judah, took most of its cities, and invested Jerusalem. The Egyptians made a show of coming to his relief; and the Chaldean army, informed of their approach, broke off the siege, and advanced to meet them; having first sent off the captives which were in their camp. This produced a signal instance of the double-dealing of the Jews. For in the first moments of terror they had affected to return to God, and, in compliance with his law, had proclaimed the year of release to their Hebrew bond-servants, and let them go free. But on the retreat of the Chaldeans, when they believed the danger was over, and not likely to return, they repented of their good deed, and compelled those whom they had discharged to return to their former servitude. The Egyptians, however, durst not abide the encounter of the enemy, but faced about, and returned to their own land, leaving the people of Judah exposed to the implacable resentment of the king of Babylon. The siege was immediately renewed with vigour, and the city taken, according to the circumstantial account which is given of it in the 52nd chapter.—The prophesies which were delivered in the reign of Zedekiah are contained in the 21st and 24th Chapters, the 27th to the 34th, and the 37th to the 39th inclusively, together with the last six verses of ch. 49 and the 50th and 51st chapters concerning the fall of Babylon.
The subsequent transactions of the murder of Gedaliah, of the retreat of the Jews into Egypt, and of their ill behaviour there, are so particularly related ch. 40-44. that it were needless here to repeat them. But it may be of use to observe, that, in the second year after the taking of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre; and in the course of that siege, which lasted thirteen years, he sent part of his forces against the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Philistines, and other neighbouring nations, to desolate and lay waste the country, as the prophets of God had foretold. At the same time Nebuzar-adan, the Babylonish general, again entered the land of Judah, and carried off a few miserable gleanings of inhabitants that were found there. In the next year after the taking of Tyre, the king of Babylon invaded Egypt, which he plundered and ravaged from one end to the other; and on this occasion all the Jews, who had fled into that kingdom for refuge, were almost intirely cut off, or made prisoners. Such was the state of affairs in general, till, in the course of time, and precisely at the period which had been foretold, the Babylonian monarchy was itself overturned by the prevailing power of the Medes and Persians; and the Jewish nation once more returned to their own land.
It may be expected, that something should be said concerning the discriminating style and genius of this prophet's writing. But, instead of offering an opinion of my own, which in point of judgment may be questionable, the public in general will perhaps be better gratified, if I present them with the translation of a character already drawn by a very superior hand, to which I doubt not every reader of discernment will heartily subscribe. "Jeremiah," says this admirable critic, "is by no means wanting either in elegance or sublimity, although, generally speaking, inferior, to Isaiah in both. Jerome has objected to him a certain rusticity in his diction, of which I must confess I do not discover the smallest trace. His thoughts indeed are somewhat less elevated, and he is commonly more large and diffuse in his sentences; but the reason of this may be, that he is mostly taken up with the gentler passions of grief and pity, for the expression of which he has a peculiar talent. This is most evident in the Lamentations, where those passions altogether predominate; but it is often visible also in his prophesies, in the former part of the book more especially, which is principally poetical; the middle are for the most part historical; but the last part, consisting of six chapters, is entirely poetical; and contains several oracles distinctly marked, in which this prophet falls very little short of the lofty style of Isaiah. But of the whole book of Jeremiah it is hardly the one half which I look upon as poetical." Lowth on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, Praelect. 21:
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28