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the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 17

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-27



Jeremiah 14:1-22; Jeremiah 15:1-21 (17?)

VARIOUS opinions have been expressed about the division of these chapters. They have been cut up into short sections, supposed to be more or less independent of each other; and they have been regarded as constituting a well-organised whole, at least so far as the eighteenth verse of chapter 17. The truth may lie between these extremes. Chapters 14, 15 certainly hang together; for in them the prophet represents himself as twice interceding with Iahvah on behalf of the people, and twice receiving a refusal of his petition, {Jeremiah 14:1-22; Jeremiah 15:1-4} the latter reply being sterner and more decisive than the first. The occasion was a long period of drought, involving much privation for man and beast. The connection between the parts of this first portion of the discourse is clear enough. The prophet prays for his people, and God answers that He has rejected them, and that intercession is futile. Thereupon, Jeremiah throws the blame of the national sins upon the false prophets; and the answer is that both the people and their false guides will perish. The prophet then soliloquises upon his own hard fate as a herald of evil tidings, and receives directions for his own personal guidance in this crisis of affairs. {Jeremiah 15:10-21; Jeremiah 16:1-9} There is a pause, but no real break, at the end of chapter 15. The next chapter resumes the subject of directions personally affecting the prophet himself; and the discourse is then continuous so far as Jeremiah 17:18, although, naturally enough, it is broken here and there by pauses of considerable duration, marking transitions of thought, and progress in the argument. The heading of the entire piece is marked in the original by a peculiar inversion of terms, which meets us again, Jeremiah 46:1; Jeremiah 47:1; Jeremiah 49:34, but which, in spite of this recurrence, wears a rather suspicious look. We might render it thus: "What fell as a word of Iahvah to Jeremiah, on account of the droughts" (the plural is intensive, or it signifies the long continuance of the trouble-as if one rainless period followed upon another). Whether or not the singular order of the words be authentic, the recurrence at Jeremiah 17:8 of the remarkable term for "drought" (Hebrews baccoreth of which baccaroth here is plur.) favours the view that that chapter is an integral portion of the present discourse. The exordium {Jeremiah 14:1-9} is a poetical sketch of the miseries of man and beast, closing with a beautiful prayer. It has been said that this is not "a word of Iahvah to Jeremiah," but rather the reverse. If we stick to the letter, this no doubt is the case; but, as we have seen in former discourses, the phrase "Iahvah’s word" meant in prophetic use very much more than a direct message from God, or a prediction uttered at the Divine instigation. Here, as elsewhere, the prophet evidently regards the course of his own religious reflection as guided by Him who "fashioneth the hearts of men," and "knoweth their thoughts long before"; and if the question had suggested itself, he would certainly have referred his own poetic powers-the tenderness of his pity, the vividness of his apprehension, the force of his passion, -to the inspiration of the Lord who had called and consecrated him from the birth, to speak in His Name.

There lies at the heart of many of us a feeling, which has lurked there, more or less without our cognisance, ever since the childish days when the Old Testament was read at the mother’s knee, and explained and understood in a manner proportioned to the faculties of childhood. When we hear the phrase "The Lord spake," we instinctively think, if we think at all, of an actual voice knocking sensibly at the door of the outward ear. It was not so; nor did the sacred writer mean it so. A knowledge of Hebrew idiom-the modes of expression usual and possible in that ancient speech-assures us that this Statement, so startlingly direct in its unadorned simplicity, was the accepted mode of conveying a meaning which we, in our more complex and artificial idioms, would convey by the use of a multitude of words, in terms far more abstract, in language destitute of all that colour of life and reality which stamps the idiom of the Bible. It is as though the Divine lay farther off from us moderns; as though the marvellous progress of all that new knowledge of the measureless magnitude of the world, of the power and complexity of its machinery, of the surpassing subtlety and the matchless perfection of its laws and processes, had become an impassable barrier, at least an impenetrable veil, between our minds and God. We have lost the sense of His nearness, of His immediacy, so to speak; because we have gained, and are ever intensifying, a sense of the nearness of the world with which He environs us. Hence, when we speak of Him, we naturally cast about either for poetical phrases and figures, which must always be more or less vague and undefined, or for highly abstract expressions, which may suggest scientific exactness, but are, in truth, scholastic formulae, dry as the dust of the desert, untouched by the breath of life; and even if they affirm a Person, destitute of all those living characters by which we instinctively and without effort recognise Personality. We make only a conventional use of the language of the sacred writers, of the prophets and prophetic historians, of the psalmists, and the legalists, of the Old Testament; the language which is the native expression of a peculiar intensity of religious faith, realising the Unseen as the Actual and, in truth, the only Real.

"Judah mourneth and the gates thereof languish,

They are clad in black down to the ground;

And the cry of Jerusalem hath gone up.

And their nobles have sent their lesser folk for water;

They have been to the pits, and found no water:

Their vessels have come back empty;

Ashamed and confounded, they have covered their heads."

"Because the ground is chapt, for there hath not been rain in the land,

The ploughmen are ashamed, they have covered their heads.

For even the hind in the field hath yeaned and forsaken her fawn,

For there is no grass.

And the wild asses stand on the bare fells

They snuff the wind like jackals

Their eyes fall, for there is no pasturage."

"If our sins have answered against us,

Iahweh, act for Thine own Name sake;

For our relapses are many:

Against Thee have we trespassed."

"Hope of Israel, that savest him in time of trouble,

Wherefore wilt Thou be as a stranger in the land,

And as a traveller that leaveth the road but for the night?

Wherefore wilt Thou be as a man o’erpowered with sleep,

As a warrior that cannot rescue?"

"Sith Thou art in our midst, O Iahvah,

And Thy Name upon us hath been called;

Cast us not down!"

How beautiful both plaint and prayer! The simple description of the effects of the drought is as lifelike and impressive as a good picture. The whole country is stricken; the city gates, the place of common resort, where the citizens meet for business and for conversation, are gloomy with knots of mourners robed in black from head to foot, or, as the Hebrew may also imply, sitting on the ground, in the garb and posture of desolation. {Lamentations 2:10; Lamentations 3:28} The magnates of Jerusalem send out their retainers to find water; and we see them returning with empty vessels, their heads muffled in their cloaks, in sign of grief at the failure of their errand. {1 Kings 18:5-6} The parched ground everywhere gapes with fissures; the yeomen go about with covered heads in deepest dejection. The distress is universal, and affects not man only, but the brute creation. Even the gentle hind, that proverb of maternal tenderness, is driven by sorest need to forsake the fruit of her hard travail; her starved dugs are dry, and she flies from her helpless offspring. The wild asses of the desert, fleet, beautiful, and keen-eyed creatures, scan the withered landscape from the naked cliffs, and snuff the wind, like jackals scenting prey; but neither sight nor smell suggests relief. There is no moisture in the air, no glimpse of pasture in the wide sultry land.

The prayer is a humble confession of sin, an unreserved admission that the woes of man evince the righteousness of God. Unlike certain modern poets, who bewail the sorrows of the world as the mere infliction of a harsh and arbitrary and inevitable Destiny, Jeremiah makes no doubt that human sufferings are due to the working of Divine justice. "Our sins have answered against our pleas at Thy judgment seat; our relapses are many; against Thee have we trespassed," against Thee, the sovereign Disposer of events, the Source of all that happens and all that is. If this be so, what plea is left? None, but that appeal to the Name of Iahvah, with which the prayer begins and ends. "Act for Thine own Name sake." "Thy Name upon us hath been called." Act for Thine own honour, that is, for the honour of Mercy, Compassion, Truth, Goodness; which Thou hast revealed Thyself to be, and which are parts of Thy glorious Name. {Exodus 34:6} Pity the wretched, and pardon the guilty: for so will Thy glory increase amongst men; so will man learn that the relentings of love are diviner affections than the ruthlessness of wrath and the cravings of vengeance.

There is also a touching appeal to the past. The very name by which Israel was sometimes designated as "the people of Iahvah," just as Moab was known by the name of its god as "the people of Chemosh," {Numbers 21:29} is alleged as proof that the nation has an interest in the compassion of Him whose name it bears; and it is implied that, since the world knows Israel as Iahvah’s people, it will not be for Iahvah’s honour that this people should be suffered to perish in their sins. Israel had thus, from the outset of its history, been associated and identified with Iahvah; however ill the true nature of the tie has been understood, however unworthily the relation has been conceived by the popular mind, however little the obligations involved in the call of their fathers have been recognised and appreciated. God must be true, though man be false. There is no weakness, no caprice, no vacillation in God. In bygone "times of trouble" the "Hope of Israel" had saved Israel over and over again; it was a truth admitted by all-even by the prophet’s enemies. Surely then He will save His people once again, and vindicate His Name of Saviour. Surely He who has dwelt in their midst so many changeful centuries, will not now behold their trouble with the lukewarm feeling of an alien dwelling amongst them for a time, but unconnected with them by ties of blood and kin and common country; or with the indifference of the traveller who is but coldly affected by the calamities of a place where he has only lodged one night. Surely the entire past shows that it would be utterly inconsistent for Iahvah to appear now as a man so buried in sleep that He cannot be roused to save His friends from imminent destruction. {cf. 1 Kings 18:27, St. Mark 4:38} He who had borne Israel and carried him as a tender nursling all the days of old (Isaiah 63:9) could hardly without changing His own unchangeable Name, His character and purposes, cast down His people and forsake them at last.

Such is the drift of the prophet’s first prayer. To this apparently unanswerable argument his religious meditation upon the present distress has brought him. But presently the thought returns with added force, with a sense of utmost certitude, with a conviction that it is Iahvah’s Word, that the people have wrought out their own affliction, that misery is the hire of sin.

"Thus hath Iahvah said of this people:

Even so have they loved to wander,

Their feet they have not refrained;

And as for Iahvah, He accepteth them not";

"He now remembereth their guilt,

And visiteth their trespasses.

And Iahvah said unto me,

Intercede thou not for this people for good!

If they fast, I will not hearken unto their cry;

And if they offer whole offering and oblation,

I will not accept their persons;

But by the sword, the famine, and the plague, will I consume them."

"And I said, Ah, Lord Iahvah!

Behold the prophets say to them,

Ye shall not see sword,

And famine shall not befall you

For peace and permanence will I give you in this place."

"And Iahvah said unto me:

Falsehood it is that the prophets prophesy in My Name.

I sent them not, and I charged them not, and I spake not unto them.

A vision of falsehood and jugglery and nothingness, and the guile of their own heart,

They, for their part, prophesy you."

"Therefore thus said Iahvah:

Concerning the prophets who prophesy in My Name, albeit I sent them not,

And of themselves say

Sword and famine there shall not be in this land;

By the sword and by the famine shall those prophets be fordone.

And the people to whom they prophesy shall lie thrown out in the streets of Jerusalem,

Because of the famine and the sword,

With none to bury them,"-

"Themselves, their wives, and their sons and their daughters:

And I will pour upon them their own evil.

And thou shalt say unto them this word:

Let mine eyes run down with tears, night and day,

And let them not tire;

For with mighty breach is broken

The virgin daughter of my people-

With a very grievous blow.

If I go forth into the field,

Then behold! the slain of the sword;

And if I enter the city,

Then behold! the pinings of famine:

For both prophet and priest go trafficking about the land,

And understand not."

It has been supposed that this whole section is misplaced, and that it would properly follow the close of chapter 13. The supposition is due to a misapprehension of the force of the pregnant particle which introduces the reply of Iahvah to the prophet’s intercession. "Even so have they loved to wander"; even so, as is naturally implied by the severity of the punishment of which thou complainest. The dearth is prolonged; the distress is widespread and grievous. So prolonged, so grievous, so universal, has been their rebellion against Me. The penalty corresponds to the offence. It is really "their own evil" that is being poured out upon their guilty heads (Jeremiah 14:16; cf. Jeremiah 4:18). Iahvah cannot accept them in their sin; the long drought is a token that their guilt is before His mind, unrepented, unatoned. Neither the supplications of another, nor their own fasts and sacrifices, avail to avert the visitation. So long as the disposition of the heart remains unaltered; so long as man hates, not his darling sins, but the penalties they entail, it is idle to seek to propitiate Heaven by such means as these. And not only so. The droughts are but a foretaste of worse evils to come; "by the sword, the famine, and the plague will I consume them." The condition is understood, If they repent and amend not. This is implied by the prophet’s seeking to palliate the national guilt, as he proceeds to do, by the suggestion that the people are more sinned against than sinning, deluded as they are by false prophets; as also by the renewal of his intercession (Jeremiah 14:19). Had he been aware in his inmost heart that an irreversible sentence had gone forth against his people, would he have been likely to think either excuses or intercessions availing? Indeed, however absolute the threats of the prophetic preachers may sound, they must, as a rule, be qualified by this limitation, which, whether expressed or not, is inseparable from the object of their discourses, which was the moral amendment of those who heard them.

Of the "false," that is, the common run of prophets, who were in league with the venal priesthood of the time, and no less worldly and self-seeking than their allies, we note that, as usual, they foretell what the people wishes to hear; "Peace (Prosperity), and Permanence," is the burden of their oracles. They knew that invectives against prevailing vices, and denunciations of national follies, and forecasts of approaching ruin, were unlikely means of winning popularity and a substantial harvest of offerings. At the same time, like other false teachers, they knew how to veil their errors under the mask of truth; or rather, they were themselves deluded by their own greed, and blinded by their covetousness to the plain teaching of events. They might base their doctrine of "Peace and Permanence in this place!" upon those utterances of the great Isaiah, which had been so signally verified in the lifetime of the seer himself; but their keen pursuit of selfish ends, their moral degradation, caused them to shut their eyes to everything else in his teachings, and, like his contemporaries, they "regarded not the work of Iahvah, nor the operation of His hand." Jeremiah accuses them of "lying visions"; visions, as he explains, which were the outcome of magical ceremonies, by aid of which, perhaps, they partially deluded themselves, before deluding others, but which were none the less, "things of naught," devoid of all substance, and mere fictions of a deceitful and self-deceiving mind (Jeremiah 14:14). He expressly declares that they have no mission: in other words, their action is not due to the overpowering sense of a higher call, but is inspired by purely ulterior considerations of worldly gain and policy. They prophesy to order; to the order of man, not of God. If they visit the country districts, it is with no spiritual end in view; priest and prophet alike make a trade of their sacred profession, and, immersed in their sordid pursuits, have no eye for truth, and no perception of the dangers hovering over their country. Their misconduct and misdirection of affairs are certain to bring destruction upon themselves and upon those whom they mislead. War and its attendant famine will devour them all.

But the day of grace being past, nothing is left for the prophet himself but to bewail the ruin of his people (Jeremiah 14:17). He will betake himself to weeping, since praying and preaching are vain. The words which announce this resolve may portray a sorrowful experience, or they may depict the future as though it were already present (Jeremiah 14:17-18). The latter interpretation would suit Jeremiah 14:17, but hardly the following verse, with its references to "going forth into the field," and "entering into the city." The way in which these specific actions are mentioned seems to imply some present or recent calamity; and there is apparently no reason why we may not suppose that the passage was written at the disastrous close of the reign of Josiah, in the troublous interval of three months, when Jehoahaz was nominal king in Jerusalem, but the Egyptian arms were probably ravaging the country, and striking terror into the hearts of the people. In such a time of confusion and bloodshed, tillage would be neglected, and famine would naturally follow; and these evils would be greatly aggravated by drought. The only other period which suits is the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim; but the former seems rather to be indicated by Jeremiah 15:6-9.

Heartbroken at the sight of the miseries of his country, the prophet once more approaches the eternal throne. His despairing mood is not so deep and dark as to drown his faith in God. He refuses to believe the utter rejection of Judah, the revocation of the covenant. (The measure is Pentameter).

"Hast Thou indeed cast off Judah?

Hath Thy soul revolted from Sion?

Why hast Thou smitten us past healing?

Waiting for peace, and no good came,

For a time of healing, and behold terror!"

"We know, Iahvah, our wickedness, our fathers’ guilt;

For we have trespassed toward Thee.

Scorn Thou not, for Thy Name sake

Disgrace not Thy glorious throne!

Remember, break not, Thy covenant with us!"

"Are there, in sooth, among the

Nothings of the nations senders of rain?

And is it the heavens that bestow the showers?

Is it not Thou, Iahvah our God?

And we wait for Thee,

For Thou it was that madest the world."

To all this the Divine answer is stern and decisive. "And Iahvah said unto me: If Moses and Samuel were to stand" (pleading) "before Me, My mind would not be towards this people: send them away from before Me" (dismiss them from My Presence), "that they may go forth!" After ages remembered Jeremiah as a mighty intercessor, and the brave Maccabeus could see him in his dream as a grey-haired man "exceeding glorious" and "of a wonderful and excellent majesty" who "prayed much for the people and for the holy city" (2 Maccabees 15:14). And the beauty of the prayers which lie like scattered pearls of faith and love among the prophet’s soliloquies is evident at a glance. But here Jeremiah himself is conscious that his prayers are unavailing; and that the office to which God has called him is rather that of pronouncing judgment than of interceding for mercy. Even a Moses or a Samuel, the mighty intercessors of the old heroic times, whose pleadings had been irresistible with God, would now plead in vain Exodus 17:11 sqq., Exodus 32:11 sqq.; Numbers 14:13 sqq. for Moses; 1 Samuel 7:9 sqq., 1 Samuel 12:16 sqq.; Psalms 99:6; Sirach 46:16 sqq. for Samuel. The day of grace has gone, and the day of doom is come. His sad function is to "send them away" or "let them go" from Iahvah’s Presence; to pronounce the decree of their banishment from the holy land where His temple is, and where they have been wont to "see His face." The main part of his commission was "to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to overthrow" (Jeremiah 1:10). "And if they say unto thee, Whither are we to go forth? Thou shalt say uno them, thus hath Iahvah said: They that belong to the Death" (i.e., the Plague; as the Black Death was spoken of in mediaeval Europe) "to death; and they that belong to the Sword, to the sword; and they that belong to the Famine, to famine: and they that belong to Captivity, to captivity!" The people were to "go forth" out of their own land, which was, as it were, the Presence chamber of Iahvah, just as they had at the outset of their history gone forth out of Egypt, to take possession of it. The words convey a sentence of exile, though they do not indicate the place of banishment. The menace of woe is as general in its terms as that lurid passage of the Book of the Law upon which it appears to be founded. {Deuteronomy 28:21-26} The time for the accomplishment of those terrible threatenings "is nigh, even at the doors."

On the other hand, Ezekiel’s "four sore judgments" {Ezekiel 14:21} were suggested by this passage of Jeremiah.

The prophet avoids naming the actual destination of the captive people, because captivity is only one element in their punishment. The horrors of war-sieges and slaughters and pestilence and famine-must come first. In what follows, the intensity of these horrors is realised in a single touch. The slain are left unburied, a prey to the birds and beasts. The elaborate care of the ancients in the provision of honourable resting places for the dead is a measure of the extremity, thus indicated. In accordance with the feeling of his age, the prophet ranks the dogs and vultures and hyenas that drag and disfigure and devour the corpses of the slain, as three "kinds" of evil equally appalling with the sword that slays. The same feeling led our Spenser to write:

"To spoil the dead of weed

Is sacrilege, and doth all sins exceed."

And the destruction of Moab is decreed by the earlier prophet Amos, "because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime," thus violating a law universally recognised as binding upon the conscience of nations. {Amos 2:1} Cf. also Genesis 23:1-20.

Thus death itself was not to be a sufficient expiation for the inveterate guilt of the nation. Judgment was to pursue them even after death. But the prophet’s vision does not penetrate beyond this present scene. With the visible world, so far as he is aware, the punishment terminated. He gives no hint here, nor elsewhere, of any further penalties awaiting individual sinners in the unseen world. The scope of his prophecy indeed is almost purely national, and limited to the present life. It is one of the recognized conditions of Old Testament religious thought.

And the ruin of the people is the retribution reserved for what Manasseh did in Jerusalem. To the prophet, as to the author of the book of Kings, who wrote doubtless under the influence of his words, the guilt contracted by Judah trader that wicked king was unpardonable But it would convey a false impression if we left the matter here: for the whole course of his after preaching-his exhortations and promises, as well as his threats-prove that Jeremiah did not suppose that the nation could not be saved by genuine repentance and permanent amendment. What he intends rather to affirm is that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon children who are partakers of their sins. It is the doctrine of St. Matthew 23:29 sqq.; a doctrine which is not merely a theological opinion, but a matter of historical observation.

"And I will set over them four kinds-It is an oracle of Iahvah-the sword to slay, and the dogs to hale, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and to destroy. And I will make them a sport for all the realms of earth; on account of Manasseh ben Hezekiah king of Judah, for what he did in Jerusalem."

Jerusalem!-the mention of that magical name touches another chord in the prophet’s soul; and the fierce tones of his oracle of doom change into a dirge-like strain of pity without hope.

"For who will have compassion on Thee, O Jerusalem? And who will yield thee comfort? And who will turn aside to ask of thy welfare? ‘Twas thou that rejectedst Me (it is Iahvah’s word); Backward wouldst thou wend: So I stretched forth My hand against thee and destroyed thee; I wearied of relenting. And I winnowed them with a fan in the gates of the land; I bereaved, I undid My people: Yet they returned not from their own ways. His widows outnumbered before Me the sand of seas: I brought them against the Mother of Warriors a harrier at high noon; I threw upon her suddenly anguish and horrors. She that had borne seven sons did pine away; She breathed out her soul. Her sun did set, while it yet was day; He blushed and paled. But their remnant will I give to the sword Before their foes: (It is Iahvah’s word)."

The fate of Jerusalem would strike the nations dumb with horror; it would not inspire pity, for man would recognise that it was absolutely just. Or perhaps the thought rather is, In proving false to Me, thou wert false to thine only friend: Me thou hast estranged by thy faithlessness; and from the envious rivals, who beset thee on every side, thou canst expect nothing but rejoicing at thy downfall. {Psalms 136:1-26; Lamentations 2:15-17; Obadiah 1:10 sqq.} The peculiar solitariness of Israel among the nations {Numbers 23:9} aggravated the anguish of her overthrow.

In what follows, the dreadful past appears as a prophecy of the yet more terrible future. The poet-seer’s pathetic monody moralises the lost battle of Megiddo-that fatal day when the sun of Judah set in what seemed the high day of her prosperity, and all the glory and the promise of good king Josiah vanished like a dream in sudden darkness. Men might think-doubtless Jeremiah thought, in the first moments of despair, when the news of that overwhelming disaster was brought to Jerusalem, with the corpse of the good king, the dead hope of the nation-that this crushing blow was proof that Iahvah had rejected His people, in the exercise of a sovereign caprice, and without reference to their own attitude towards Him. But, says or chants the prophet, in solemn rhythmic utterance,

"‘Twas thou that rejectedst Me;

Backward wouldst thou wend:

So I stretched forth My hand against thee, and wrought thee hurt;

I wearied of relenting."

The cup of national iniquity was full, and its baleful contents overflowed in a devastating flood. "In the gates of the land"-the point on the northwest frontier where the armies met-Iahvah doomed to fall from those who were to survive, as the winnowing fan separates the chaff from the wheat in the threshing floor. There He "bereaved" the nation of their dearest hope, "the breath of their nostrils, the Lord’s Anointed"; {Lamentations 4:20} there He multiplied their widows. And after the lost battle He brought the victor in hot haste against the "Mother" of the fallen warriors, the ill-fated city, Jerusalem, to wreak vengeance upon her for her ill-timed opposition. But, for all this bitter fruit of their evil doings, the people "turned not back from their own ways"; and therefore the strophe of lamentation closes with a threat of utter extermination: "Their remnant"-the poor survival of these fierce storms" Their remnant will I give to the sword before their foes."

If the thirteenth and fourteenth verses be not a mere interpolation in this chapter, {see Jeremiah 17:3-4} their proper place would seem to be here, as continuing and amplifying the sentence upon the residue of the people. The text is unquestionably corrupt, and must be amended by help of the other passage, where it is partially repeated. The twelfth verse may be read thus:

"Thy wealth and thy treasures will I make a prey,

For the sin of thine high places in all thy borders."

Then the fourteenth verse follows, naturally enough, with an announcement of the Exile:

"And I will enthral thee to thy foes

In a land thou knowest not:

For a fire is kindled in Mine anger,

That shall burn for evermore!"

The prophet has now fulfilled his function of judge by pronouncing upon his people the extreme penalty of the law. His strong perception of the national guilt and of the righteousness of God has left him no choice in the matter. But how little this duty of condemnation accorded with his own individual feeling as a man and a citizen is clear from the passionate outbreak of the succeeding strophe.

"Woe’s me, my mother," he exclaims, "that thou barest me,

A man of strife and a man of contention to all the country!

Neither lender nor borrower have I been;

Yet all of them do curse me."

A desperately bitter tone, evincing the anguish of a man wounded to the heart by the sense of fruitless endeavour and unjust hatred. He had done his utmost to save his country, and his reward was universal detestation. His innocence and integrity were requited with the odium of the pitiless creditor who enslaves his helpless victim, and appropriates his all; or the fraudulent borrower who repays a too ready confidence with ruin.

The next two verses answer this burst of grief and despair:

"Said Iahvah, Thine oppression shall be for good;

I will make the foe thy suppliant in time of evil and in time of distress.

Can one break iron,

Iron from the north, and brass?"

In other words, faith counsels patience, and assures the prophet that all things work together for good to them that love God. The wrongs and bitter treatment which he now endures will only enchance his triumph when the truth of his testimony is at last confirmed by events, and they who now scoff at his message come humbly to beseech his prayers. The closing lines refer, with grave irony, to that unflinching firmness, that inflexible resolution, which, as a messenger of God, he was called upon to maintain. He is reminded of what he had undertaken at the outset of his career, and of the Divine Word which made him "a pillar of iron and walls of brass against all the land". {Jeremiah 1:18} Is it possible that the pillar of iron can be broken, and the walls of brass beaten down by the present assault?

There is a pause, and then the prophet vehemently pleads his own cause with Iahvah. Smarting with the sense of personal wrong, he urges that his suffering is for the Lord’s own sake; that consciousness of the Divine calling has dominated his entire life, ever since his dedication to the prophetic office; and that the honour of Iahvah requires his vindication upon his heartless and hardened adversaries.

Thou knowest, Iahvah!

Remember me, and visit me, and avenge me on my persecutors.

Take me not away in thy long suffering;

Regard my bearing of reproach for Thee.

Thy words were found and I did eat them,

And it became to me a joy and mine heart’s gladness;

For I was called by Thy Name, O Iahvah, God of Sabaoth!

I sate not in the gathering of the mirthful, nor rejoiced;

Because of Thine hand I sate solitary,

For with indignation Thou didst fill me.

"Why hath my pain become perpetual,

And my stroke malignant, incurable?

Wilt Thou indeed become to me like a delusive stream,

Like waters which are not lasting?"

The pregnant expression, "Thou knowest, Iahvah!" does not refer specially to anything that has been already said; but rather lays the whole case before God in a single word. The Thou is emphatic; Thou, Who knowest all things, knowest my heinous wrongs: Thou knowest and seest it all, though the whole world beside be blind with passion and self-regard and sin. {Psalms 10:11-14} Thou knowest how pressing is my need; therefore "Take me not away in Thy long suffering": sacrifice not the life of Thy servant to the claims of forbearance with his enemies and Thine. The petition shows how great was the peril in which the prophet perceived himself to stand: he believes that if God delay to strike down his adversaries, that longsuffering will be fatal to his own life.

The strength of his case is that he is persecuted because he is faithful; he bears reproach for God. He has not abused his high calling for the sake of worldly advantage; he has not prostituted the name of prophet to the vile ends of pleasing the people, and satisfying personal covetousness. He has not feigned smooth prophecies, misleading his hearers with flattering falsehood; but he has considered the privilege of being called a prophet of Iahvah as in itself an all-sufficient reward; and when the Divine Word came to him, he has eagerly received, and fed his inmost soul upon that spiritual aliment, which was at once his sustenance and his deepest joy. Other joys, for the Lord’s sake, he has abjured. He has withdrawn himself even from harmless mirth, that in silence and solitude he might listen intently to the inward Voice, and reflect with indignant sorrow upon the revelation of his people’s corruption. "Because of Thine Hand"-under Thy influence; conscious of the impulse and operation of thy informing Spirit; -"I sate solitary; for with indignation Thou didst fill me." The man whose eye has caught a glimpse of eternal Truth, is apt to be dissatisfied with the shows of things; and the lighthearted merriment of the world rings hollow upon the ear that listens for the Voice of God. And the revelation of sin-the discovery of all that ghastly evil which lurks beneath the surface of smooth society-the appalling vision of the grim skeleton hiding its noisome decay behind the mask of smiles and gaiety; the perception of the hideous incongruity of revelling over a grave; has driven others, besides Jeremiah, to retire into themselves, and to avoid a world from whose evil they revolted, and whose foreseen destruction they deplored.

The whole passage is an assertion of the prophet’s integrity and consistency, with which, it is suggested, that the failure which has attended his efforts, and the serious peril in which he stands, are morally inconsistent, and paradoxical in view of the Divine disposal of events. Here, in fact, as elsewhere, Jeremiah has freely opened his heart, and allowed us to see the whole process of his spiritual conflict in the agony of his moments of doubt and despair. It is an argument of his own perfect sincerity; and, at the same time, it enables us to assimilate the lesson of his experience, and to profit by the heavenly guidance he received, far more effectually than if he had left us ignorant of the painful struggles at the cost of which that guidance was won.

The seeming injustice or indifference of Providence is a problem which recurs to thoughtful minds in all generations of men.

"O, goddes cruel, that governe

This world with byndyng of your word eterne

What governance is in youre prescience

That gilteles tormenteth innocence?

Alas! I see a serpent or a theif,

That many a trewe man hath doon mescheif,

Gon at his large, and wher him luste may turne;

But I moste be in prisoun."

That such apparent anomalies are but a passing trial, from which persistent faith will emerge victorious in the present life, is the general answer of the Old Testament to the doubts which they suggest. The only sufficient explanation was reserved, to be revealed by Him, who, in the fulness of time, "brought life and immortality to light."

The thought which restored the failing confidence and courage of Jeremiah was the reflection that such complaints were unworthy of one called to be a spokesman for the Highest; that the supposition of the possibility of the Fountain of Living Waters failing like a winter torrent, that runs dry in the summer heats, was an act of unfaithfulness that merited reproof; and that the true God could not fail to protect His messenger, and to secure the triumph of truth in the end.

To this Iahvah said thus:

If thou come again, I will make thee again to stand before Me;

And if thou utter that is precious rather than that is vile,

As My mouth shalt thou become:

They shall return unto thee,

But Thou shalt not return unto them.

"And I will make thee to this people an embattled wall of brass;

And they shall fight against thee, but not overcome thee,

For I will be with thee to help thee and to save thee;

It is Iahvah’s word.

And I will save thee out of the grasp of the wicked,

And will ransom thee out of the hand of the terrible."

In the former strophe, the inspired poet set forth the claims of the psychic man, and poured out his heart before God. Now he recognises a Word of God in the protest of his better feeling. He sees that where he remains true to himself, he will also stand near to his God. Hence springs the hope, which he cannot renounce, that God will protect His accepted servant in the execution of the Divine commands. Thus the discords are resolved; and the prophet’s spirit attains to peace, after struggling through the storm.

It was an outcome of earnest prayer, of an unreserved exposure of his inmost heart before God. What a marvel it is-that instinct of prayer. To think that a being whose visible life has its beginning and its end, a being who manifestly shares possession of this earth with the brute creation, and breathes the same air, and partakes of the same elements with them for the sustenance of his body; who is organised upon the same general plan as they, has the same principal members discharging the same essential functions in the economy of his bodily system; a being who is born and eats and drinks and sleeps and dies like all other animals; -that this being and this being only of all the multitudinous kinds of animated creatures, should have and exercise a faculty of looking off and above the visible which appears to be the sole realm of actual existence, and of holding communion with the Unseen! That, following what seems to be an original impulse of his nature, he should stand in greater awe of this Invisible than any power that is palpable to sense; should seek to win its favour, crave its help in times of pain and conflict and peril; should professedly live, not according to the bent of common nature and the appetites inseparable from his bodily structure, but according to the will and guidance of that Unseen Power! Surely there is here a consummate marvel. And the wonder of it does not diminish when it is remembered that this instinct of turning to an unseen Guide and Arbiter of events is not peculiar to any particular section of the human race. Wide and manifold as are the differences which characterise and divide the families of man, all races possess in common the apprehension of the Unseen and the instinct of prayer. The oldest records of humanity bear witness to its primitive activity, and whatever is known of human history combines with what is known of the character and workings of the human mind to teach us that as prayer has never been unknown, so it is never likely to become obsolete. May we not recognise in this great fact of human nature a sure index of a great corresponding truth? Can we avoid taking it as a clear token of the reality of revelation; as a kind of immediate and spontaneous evidence on the part of nature that there is and always has been in this lower world some positive knowledge of that which far transcends it, some real apprehension of the mystery that enfolds the universe? a knowledge and an apprehension which, however imperfect and fragmentary, however fitful and fluctuating, however blurred in outline and lost in infinite shadow, is yet incomparably more and better than none at all. Are we not, in short, morally driven upon the conviction that this powerful instinct of our nature is neither blind nor aimless; that its Object is a true, substantive Being; and that this Being has discovered, and yet discovers, some precious glimpses of Himself and His essential character to the spirit of mortal man? It must be so, unless we admit that the soul’s dearest desires are a mocking illusion, that her aspirations towards a truth and a goodness of superhuman perfection are moonshine and madness. It cannot be nothingness that avails to evoke the deepest and purest emotions of our nature; not mere vacuity and chaos, wearing the semblance of an azure heaven. It is not into a measureless waste of outer darkness that we reach forth trembling hands.

Surely the spirit of denial is the spirit that fell from heaven, and the best and highest of man’s thoughts aim at and affirm something positive, something that is, and the soul thirsts after God, the Living God.

We hear much in these days of our physical nature. The microscopic investigations of science leave nothing unexamined, nothing unexplored, so far as the visible organism is concerned. Rays from many distinct sources converge to throw an ever-increasing light upon the mysteries of our bodily constitution. In all this, science presents to the devout mind a valuable subsidiary revelation of the power and goodness of the Creator. But science cannot advance alone one step beyond the things of time and sense; her facts belong exclusively to the. material order of existence; her cognition is limited to the various modes and conditions of force that constitute the realm of sight and touch; she cannot climb above these to a higher plane of being. And small blame it is to science that she thus lacks the power of overstepping her natural boundaries. The evil begins when the men of science venture, in her much-abused name, to ignore and deny realities not amenable to scientific tests, and immeasurably transcending all merely physical standards and methods.

Neither the natural history nor the physiology of man, nor both together, are competent to give a complete account of his marvellous and many-sided being. Yet some thinkers appear to imagine that when a place has been assigned him in the animal kingdom, and his close relationship to forms below him in the scale of life has been demonstrated: when every tissue and structure has been analysed, and every organ described and its function ascertained; then the last word has been spoken, and the subject exhausted. Those unique and distinguishing faculties by which all this amazing work of observation, comparison, reasoning, has been accomplished, appear either to be left out of the account altogether, or to be handled with a meagre inadequacy of treatment that contrasts in the strongest manner with the fulness and the elaboration which mark the other discussion. And the more this physical aspect of our composite nature is emphasised; the more urgently it is insisted that, somehow or other, all that is in man and all that comes of man may be explained on the assumption that he is the natural climax of the animal creation, a kind of educated and glorified brute-that and nothing more; -the harder it becomes to give any rational account of those facts of his nature which are commonly recognised as spiritual, and among them of this instinct of prayer and its Object.

Under these discouraging circumstances, men are fatally prone to seek escape from their self-involved dilemma by a hardy denial of what their methods have failed to discover and their favourite theories to explain. The soul and God are treated as mere metaphysical expressions, or as popular designations of the unknown causes of phenomena; and prayer is declared to be an act of foolish superstition which persons of culture have long since outgrown. Sad and strange this result is; but it is also the natural outcome of an initial error, which is none the less real because unperceived. Men "seek the living among the dead"; they expect to find the soul by post mortem examination, or to see God by help of an improved telescope. They fail and are disappointed, though they have little right to be so, for "spiritual things are discerned spiritually," and not otherwise.

In speculating on the reason of this lamentable issue, we must not forget that there is such a thing as an unpurified intellect as well as a corrupt and unregenerate heart. Sin is not restricted to the affections of the lower nature; it has also invaded the realm of thought and reason. The very pursuit of knowledge, noble and elevating as it is commonly esteemed, is not without its dangers of self-delusion and sin. Wherever the love of self is paramount, wherever the object really sought is the delight, the satisfaction, the indulgence of self, no matter in which of the many departments of human life and action, there is sin. It is certain that the intellectual consciousness has its own peculiar pleasures, and those of the keenest and most transporting character; certain that the incessant pursuit of such pleasures may come to absorb the entire energies of a man, so that no room is left for the culture of humility or love or worship. Everything is sacrificed to what is called the pursuit of truth, but is in sober fact a passionate prosecution of private pleasure. It is not truth that is so highly valued; it is the keen excitement of the race, and not seldom the plaudits of the spectators when the goal is won. Such a career may be as thoroughly selfish and sinful and alienated from God as a career of common wickedness. And thus employed or enthralled, no intellectual gifts, however splendid, can bring a man to the discernment of spiritual truth. Not self-pleasing and foolish vanity and arrogant self-assertion, but a self-renouncing humility, an inward purity from idols of every kind, a reverence of truth as divine, are indispensable conditions of the perception of things spiritual.

The representation which is often given is a mere travesty. Believers in God do not want to alter His laws by their prayers-neither His laws physical, nor His laws moral and spiritual. It is their chief desire to be brought into submission or perfect obedience to the sum of His laws. They ask their Father in heaven to lead and teach them, to supply their wants in His own way, because He is their Father; because "It is He that made us, and His we are." Surely, a reasonable request, and grounded in reason.

To a plain man, seeking for arguments to justify prayer may well seem like seeking a justification of breathing or eating and drinking and sleeping, or any other natural function. Our Lord never does anything of the kind, because His teaching takes for granted the ultimate prevalence of common sense, in spite of all the subtleties and airspun perplexities in which a speculative mind delights to lose itself. So long as man has other wants than those which he can himself supply, prayer will be their natural expression.

If there be a spiritual as distinct from a material world, the difficulty to the ordinary mind is not to conceive of their contact but of their absolute isolation from each other. This is surely the inevitable result of our own individual experience, of the intimate though not indissoluble union of body and spirit in every living person.

How, it may be asked, can we really think of his Maker being cut off from man, or man from his Maker? God were not God, if He left man to himself. But not only are His wisdom, justice, and love manifested forth in the beneficent arrangements of the world in which we find ourselves; not only is He "kind to the unjust and the unthankful." In pain and loss lie quickens our sense of Himself. {cf. Jeremiah 14:19-22} Even in the first moments of angry surprise and revolt, that sense is quickened; we rebel, not against an inanimate world or an impersonal law, but against a Living and Personal Being, whom we acknowledge as the Arbiter of our destinies, and whose wisdom and love and power we affect for the time to question, but cannot really gainsay. The whole of our experience tends to this end-to the continual rousing of our spiritual consciousness. There is no interference, no isolated and capricious interposition or interruption of order within or without us. Within and without us, His Will is always energising, always manifesting forth His Being, encouraging our confidence, demanding our obedience and homage.

Thus prayer has its Divine as well as its human side; it is the Holy Spirit drawing the soul, as well as the soul drawing nigh unto God. The case is like the action and reaction of the magnet and the steel. And so prayer is not a foolish act of unauthorised presumption, not a rash effort to approach unapproachable and absolutely isolated Majesty. Whenever man truly prays, his Divine King has already extended the sceptre of His mercy, and bidden him speak.

Jeremiah 16:1-21; Jeremiah 17:1-27

After the renewal of the promise there is a natural pause, marked by the formula with which the present section opens. When the prophet had recovered his firmness, through the inspired and inspiring reflections which took possession of his soul after he had laid bare his inmost heart before God (Jeremiah 15:20-21), he was in a position to receive further guidance from above. What now lies before us is the direction, which came to him as certainly Divine, for the regulation of his own future behaviour as the chosen minister of Iahvah at this crisis in the history of his people. "And there fell a word of Iahvah unto me, saying: Thou shalt not take thee a wife: that thou get not sons and daughters in this place." Such a prohibition reveals, with the utmost possible clearness and emphasis, the gravity of the existing situation. It implies that the "peace and permanence," so glibly predicted by Jeremiah’s opponents, will never more be known by that sinful generation. "This place," the holy place which Iahvah had "chosen, to establish His name there," as the Book of the Law so often describes it; "this place," which had been inviolable to the fierce hosts of the Assyrian in the time of Isaiah, {Isaiah 37:33} was now no more a sure refuge, but doomed to utter and speedy destruction. To beget sons and daughters there was to prepare more victims for the tooth of famine, and the pangs of pestilence, and the devouring sword of a merciless conqueror. It was to fatten the soil with unburied carcases, and to spread a hideous banquet for birds and beasts of prey. Children and parents were doomed to perish together; and Iahvah’s witness was to keep himself unencumbered by the sweet cares of husband and father, that he might be wholly free for his solemn duties of menace and warning, and be ready for every emergency.

For thus hath Iahvah said:

Concerning the sons and concerning the daughters that are born in this place,

And concerning their mothers that bear them,

And concerning their fathers that beget them, in this land:

By deaths of agony shall they die;

"They shall not be mourned nor buried;

For dung on the face of the ground shall they serve;

And by the sword and by the famine shall they be for done:

And their carcase shall serve for food

To the fowls of the air and to the beasts of the earth." {Jeremiah 16:3-4}

The "deaths of agony" seem to indicate the pestilence, which always ensued upon the scarcity and vile quality of food, and the confinement of multitudes within the narrow bounds of a besieged city (see Josephus’ well known account of the last siege of Jerusalem).

The attitude of solitary watchfulness and strict separation, which the prophet thus perceived to be required by circumstances, was calculated to be a warning of the utmost significance, among a people who attached the highest importance to marriage and the permanence of the family.

It proclaimed more loudly than words could do, the prophet’s absolute conviction that offspring was no pledge of permanence; that universal death was hanging over a condemned nation. But not only this. It marks a point of progress in the prophet’s spiritual life. The crisis, through which we have seen him pass, has purged his mental vision. He no longer repines at his dark lot; no longer half envies the false prophets, who may win the popular love by pleasing oracles of peace and well-being; no longer complains of the Divine Will, which has laid such a burden upon him. He sees now that his part is to refuse even natural and innocent pleasures for the Lord’s sake; to foresee calamity and ruin; to denounce unceasingly the sin he sees around him; to sacrifice a tender and affectionate heart to a life of rigid asceticism; and he manfully accepts his part. He knows that he stands alone-the last fortress of truth in a world of falsehood; and that for truth it becomes a man to surrender his all.

That which follows tends to complete the prophet’s social isolation. He is to give no sign of sympathy in the common joys and sorrows of his kind.

For thus hath Iahvah said:

Enter thou not into the house of mourning,

Nor go to lament, nor comfort thou them:

For I have taken away My friendship from this people (‘Tis Iahvah’s utterance!)

The lovingkindness and the compassion;

And old and young shall die in this land,

They shall not be buried, and men shall not wail for them;

Nor shall a man cut himself, nor make himself bald, for them:

Neither shall men deal out bread to them in mourning,

To comfort a man over the dead;

Nor shall they give them to drink the cup of consolation,

Over a man’s father and over his mother.

"And the house of feasting thou shalt not enter,

To sit with them to eat and to drink.

For thus hath Iahvah Sabaoth, the God of Israel, said:

Lo, I am about to make to cease from this place,

Before your own eyes and in your own days,

Voice of mirth and voice of gladness,

The voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride."

Acting as prophet, that is, as one whose public actions were symbolical of a Divine intent, Jeremiah is henceforth to stand aloof, on occasions when natural feeling would suggest participation in the outward life of his friends and acquaintance. He is to quell the inward stirrings of affection and sympathy, and to abstain from playing his part in those demonstrative lamentations over the dead, which the immemorial custom and sentiment of his country regarded as obligatory; and this, in order to signify unmistakably that what thus appeared to be the state of his own feelings, was really the aspect under which God would shortly appear to a nation perishing in its guilt. "Enter not into the house of mourning for I have taken away My friendship from this people, the lovingkindness and the compassion." An estranged and alienated God would view the coming catastrophe with the cold indifference of exact justice. And the consequence of the Divine aversion would be a calamity so overwhelming that the dead would be left without those rites of burial which the feeling and conscience of all races of mankind have always been careful to perform. There should be no burial, much less ceremonial lamentation, and those more serious modes of evincing grief by disfigurement of the person, which, like tearing the hair and rending the garments, are natural tokens of the first distraction of bereavement. Not for wife or child, {me: Genesis 23:3} nor for father or mother should the funeral feast be held; for men’s hearts would grow hard at the daily spectacle of death, and at last there would be no survivors.

In like manner, the prophet is forbidden to enter as guest "the house of feasting." He is not to be seen at the marriage feast, -that occasion of highest rejoicing, the very type and example of innocent and holy mirth; to testify by his abstention that the day of judgment was swiftly approaching, which would desolate all homes, and silence for evermore all sounds of joy and gladness in the ruined city. And it is expressly added that the blow will fall "before your own eyes and in your own days"; showing that the hour of doom was very near, and would no more be delayed.

In all this, it is noticeable that the Divine answer appears to bear special reference to the peculiar terms of the prophet’s complaint. In depairing tones he had cried, {Jeremiah 15:10} "Woe’s me, my mother, that thou didst bear me!" and now he is himself warned not to take a wife and seek the blessing of children. The outward connection here may be: "Let it not be that thy children speak of thee, as thou hast spoken of thy mother!" But the inner link of thought may rather be this, that the prophet’s temporary unfaithfulness evinced in his outcry against God and his lament that ever he was born is punished by the denial to him of the joys of fatherhood-a penalty which would be severe to a loving, yearning nature like his, but which was doubtless necessary to the purification of his spirit from all worldly taint, and to the discipline of his natural impatience and tendency to repine under the hand of God. His punishment, like that of Moses, may appear disproportionate to his offence; but God’s dealings with man are not regulated by any mechanical calculation of less and more, but by His perfect knowledge of the needs of the case; and it is often in truest mercy that His hand strike hard. "As gold in the furnace doth He try them"; and the purest metal comes out of the hottest fire.

Further, it is not the least prominent, but the leading part of a man’s nature that most requires this heavenly discipline, if the best is to be made of it that can be made. The strongest element, that which is most characteristic of the person, that which constitutes his individuality, is the chosen field of Divine influence and operation; for here lies the greatest need. In Jeremiah this master element was an almost feminine tenderness; a warmly affectionate disposition, craving the love and sympathy of his fellows, and recoiling almost in agony from the spectacle of pain and suffering. And therefore it was that the Divine discipline was specially applied to this element in the prophet’s personality. In him, as in all other men, the good was mingled with evil, which, if not purged away, might spread until it spoiled his whole nature. It is not virtue to indulge our own bent, merely because it pleases us to do so; nor is the exercise of affection any great matter to an affectionate nature. The involved strain of selfishness must be separated, if any naturally good gift is to be elevated to moral worth, to become acceptable in the sight of God. And so it was precisely here, in his most susceptible point, that the sword of trial pierced the prophet through. He was saved from all hazard of becoming satisfied with the love of wife and children, and forgetting in that earthly satisfaction the love of his God. He was saved from absorption in the pleasures of friendly intercourse with neighbours, from passing his days in an agreeable round of social amenities; at a time when ruin was impending over his country, and well-nigh ready to fall. And the means which God chose for the accomplishment of this result were precisely those of which the prophet had complained; {Jeremiah 15:17} his social isolation, which though in part a matter of choice, was partly forced upon him by the irritation and ill will of his acquaintance. It is now declared that this trial is to continue. The Lord does not necessarily remove a trouble when entreated to do it. He manifests His love by giving strength to bear it, until the work of chastening be perfected.

An interruption is now supposed, such as may often have occurred in the course of Jeremiah’s public utterances. The audience demands to know why all this evil is ordained to fall upon them. "What is our guilt and what our trespass, that we have trespassed against Iahvah our God?" The answer is a twofold accusation. Their fathers were faithless to Iahvah, and they have outdone their fathers’ sin; and the penalty will be expulsion and a foreign servitude.

"Because your fathers forsook Me (It is Iahvah’s word!)

And went after other gods, and served them, and bowed down to them,

And Me they forsook, and My teaching they observed not:

And ye yourselves (or, as for you) have done worse than your fathers;

And lo, ye walk each after the stubbornness of his evil heart,

So as not to hearken unto Me.

Therefore will I hurl you from off this land,

On to the land that ye and your fathers knew not;

And ye may serve there other gods, day and night,

Since I will not grant you grace."

The damning sin laid to Israel’s charge is idolatry, with all the moral consequences involved in that prime transgression. That is to say, the offence consisted not barely in recognising and honouring the gods of the nations along with their own God, though that were fault enough, as an act of treason against the sole majesty of Heaven; but it was aggravated enormously by the moral declension and depravity which accompanied this apostasy. They and their fathers forsook Iahvah "and kept not His teaching"; a reference to the Book of the Law, considered not only as a collection of ritual and ceremonial precepts for the regulation of external religion, but as a guide of life and conduct. And there had been a progress in evil; the nation had gone from bad to worse with fearful rapidity: so that now it could be said of the existing generation that it paid no heed at all to the monitions which Iahvah uttered by the mouth of His prophet, but walked simply in stubborn self-will and the indulgence of every corrupt inclination. And here too, as in so many other cases, the sin is to be its own punishment. The Book of the Law had declared that revolt from Iahvah should be punished by enforced service of strange gods in a strange land; {Deuteronomy 4:28; Deuteronomy 28:36; Deuteronomy 28:64} and Jeremiah repeats this threat, with the addition of a tone of ironical concession: there, in your bitter banishment, you may have your wish to the full; you may serve the foreign gods, and that without intermission (implying that the service would be a slavery).

The whole theory of Divine punishment is implicit in these few words of the prophet. They who sin persistently against light and knowledge are at last given over to their own hearts’ lust, to do as they please, without the gracious check of God’s inward voice. And then there comes a strong delusion, so that they believe a lie, and take evil for good and good for evil, and hold themselves innocent before God, when their guilt has reached its climax; so that, like Jeremiah’s hearers, if their evil be denounced, they can ask in astonishment: "What is our iniquity? or what is our trespass?"

They are so ripe in sin that they retain no knowledge of it as sin, but hold it virtue.

"And they, so perfect is their misery,

Not once perceive their foul disfigurement,

But boast themselves more comely than before."

And not only do we find in this passage a striking instance of judicial blindness as the penalty of sin. We may see also in the penalty predicted for the Jews a plain analogy to the doctrine that the permanence of the sinful state in a life to come is the penalty of sin in the present life. "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still!" and know himself to be what he is.

The prophet’s dark horizon is here apparently lit up for a moment by a gleam of hope. The fourteenth and fifteenth verses (Jeremiah 16:14-15), however, with their beautiful promise of restoration, really belong to another oracle, whose prevailing tones are quite different from the present gloomy forecast of retribution. {Jeremiah 23:7 sqq.} Here they interrupt the sense, and make a cleavage in the connection of thought, which can only be bridged over artificially, by the suggestion that the import of the two verses is primarily not consolatory but minatory; that is to say, that they threaten Exile rather than promise Return; a mode of understanding the two verses which does manifest violence to the whole form of expression, and, above all, to their obvious force in the original passage from which they have been transferred hither. Probably some transcriber of the text wrote them in the margin of his copy, by way of palliating the otherwise unbroken gloom of this oracle of coming woe. Then, at some later time, another copyist, supposing the marginal note indicated an omission, incorporated the two verses in his transcription of the text, where they have remained ever since. {See on Jeremiah 23:7-8}

After plainly announcing in the language of Deuteronomy the expulsion of Judah from the land which they had desecrated by idolatry, the prophet develops the idea in his own poetic fashion; representing the punishment as universal, and insisting that it is a punishment, and not an unmerited misfortune.

"Lo, I am about to send many fishers (It is Iahvah’s word!)

And they shall fish them;

And afterwards will I send many hunters,

And they shall hunt them,

From off every mountain,

And from off every hill,

And out of the clefts of the rocks."

Like silly fish, crowding helplessly one over another into the net, when the fated moment arrives, Judah will fall an easy prey to the destroyer. And "afterwards," to ensure completeness, those who have survived this first disaster will be hunted like wild beasts, out of all the dens and caves in the mountains, the Adullams and Engedis, where they have found a refuge from the invader.

There is clearly reference to two distinct visitations of wrath, the latter more deadly than the former; else why the use of the emphatic note of time "afterwards"? If we understand by the "fishing" of the country the so-called first captivity, the carrying away of the boy-king Jehoiachin and his mother and his nobles and ten thousand principal citizens, by Nebuchadrezzar to Babylon; {2 Kings 24:10 sqq.} and by the "hunting" the final catastrophe in the time of Zedekiah; we get, as we shall see, a probable explanation of a difficult expression in the eighteenth verse, which cannot otherwise be satisfactorily accounted for. The next words (Jeremiah 16:17) refute an assumption, implied in the popular demand to know wherein the guilt of the nation consists, that Iahvah is not really cognisant of their acts of apostasy.

For Mine eyes are upon all their ways,

They are not hidden away from before My face

Nor is their guilt kept secret from before Mine eyes.

The verse is thus an indirect reply to the questions of Jeremiah 16:10; questions which in some mouths might indicate that unconsciousness of guilt which is the token of sin finished and perfected; in others, the presence of that unbelief which doubts whether God can, or at least whether He does regard human conduct. But "He that planted the ear, can He not hear? He that formed the eye, can He not see?". {Psalms 94:9} It is really an utterly irrational thought, that sight, and hearing, and the higher faculties of reflection and consciousness, had their origin in a blind and deaf a senseless and unconscious source such as inorganic matter, whether we consider it in the atom or in the enormous mass of an embryo system of stars.

The measure of the penalty is now assigned.

"And I will repay first the double of their guilt and their trespass

For that they profaned My land with the carcases of their loathly offerings,

And their abominations filled Mine heritage."

"I will repay first." The term "first," which has occasioned much perplexity to expositors, means "the first time," {Genesis 38:28; Daniel 11:29} and refers, if I am not mistaken, to the first great blow, the captivity of Jehoiachin, of which I spoke just now; an occasion which is designated again (Jeremiah 16:21), by the expression "this once" or rather "at this time." And when it is said "I will repay the double of their guilt and of their trespass," we are to understand that the Divine justice is not satisfied with half measures; the punishment of sin is proportioned to the offence, and the cup of self-entailed misery has to be drained to the dregs. Even penitence does not abolish the physical and temporal consequences of sin; in ourselves and in others whom we have influenced they continue-a terrible and ineffaceable record of the past. The ancient law required that the man who had wronged his neighbour by theft or fraud should restore double; {Exodus 22:4; Exodus 22:7; Exodus 22:9} and thus this expression would appear to denote that the impending chastisement would be in strict accordance with the recognised rule of law and justice, and that Judah must repay to the Lord in suffering the legal equivalent for her offence. In a like strain, towards the end of the Exile, the great prophet of the captivity comforts Jerusalem with the announcement that "her hard service is accomplished, her punishment is held sufficient; for she hath received of Iahvah’s hand twofold for all her trespasses". {Isaiah 40:2} The Divine severity is, in fact, truest mercy. Only thus does mankind learn to realise "the exceeding sinfulness of sin," only as Judah learned the heinousness of desecrating the Holy Land with "loathly offerings" to the vile Nature gods, and with the symbols in wood and stone of the cruel and obscene deities of Canaan; viz. by the fearful issue of transgression, the lesson of a calamitous experience, confirming the forecasts of its inspired prophets.

Iahvah my strength and my stronghold and my refuge in the day of distress!

Unto Thee the very heathen will come from the ends of the earth, and will say:

‘Mere fraud did oar fathers receive as their own,

Mere breath, and beings among whom is no helper.

Should man make him gods,

When such things are not gods?

"Therefore, behold I am about to let them know-

And this time will I let them know My hand and My might,

And they shall know that my name is Iahvah!"

In the opening words Jeremiah passionately recoils from the very mention of the hateful idols, the loathly creations, the lifeless "carcases," which his people have put in the place of the Living God. An overmastering access of faith lifts him off the low ground where these dead things lie in their helplessness, and bears him in spirit to Iahvah, the really and eternally existing, Who is his "strength and stronghold and refuge in the day of distress." From this height he takes an eagle glance into the dim future, and discerns-O marvel of victorious faith!-that the very heathen, who have never so much as known the Name of Iahvah. must one day be brought to acknowledge the impotence of their hereditary gods, and the sole deity of the Mighty One of Jacob. He enjoys a glimpse of Isaiah’s and Micah’s glorious vision of the latter days, when "the mountain of the Lord’s House shall be exalted as chief of mountains, and all nations shall flow unto it."

In the light of this revelation, the sin and folly of Israel in dishonouring the One only God, by associating Him with idols and their symbols, becomes glaringly visible. The very heathen (the term is emphatic by position), will at last grope their way out of the night of traditional ignorance, and will own the absurdity of manufactured gods. Israel, on the other hand, has for centuries sinned against knowledge and reason. They had "Moses and the prophets"; yet they hated warning and despised reproof. They resisted the Divine teachings, because they loved to walk in their own ways, after the imaginings of their own evil hearts. And so they soon fell into that strange blindness. which suffered them to see no sin in giving companions to Iahvah, and neglecting His severer worship for the sensuous rites of Canaan.

A rude awakening awaits them. Once more will Iahvah interpose to save them from their infatuation. "This time" they shall be taught to know the nothingness of idols, not by the voice of prophetic pleadings, not by the fervid teachings of the Book of the Law, but by the sword of the enemy, by the rapine and ruin, in which the resistless might of Iahvah will be manifested against His rebellious people. Then, when the warnings which they have ridiculed find fearful accomplishment, then will they know that the name of the One God is IAHVAH-He Who alone was and is and shall be for evermore. In the shock of overthrow, in the sorrows of captivity, they will realise the enormity of assimilating the Supreme Source of events, the Fountain of all being and power, to the miserable phantoms of a darkened and perverted imagination.

Jeremiah 17:1-18. Jeremiah, speaking for God, returns to the affirmation of Judah’s guiltiness. He has answered the popular question (Jeremiah 16:10), so far as it implied that it was no mortal sin to associate the worship of alien gods with the worship of Iahvah. He now proceeds to answer it with an indignant contradiction, so far as it suggested that Judah was no longer guilty of the grossest forms of idolatry.

Jeremiah 17:1-2. "The trespass of Judah," he affirms, "is written with pen of iron, with point of adamant; Graven upon the tablet of their heart, And upon the horns of their altars: Even as their sons remember their altars, And their sacred poles by the evergreen trees, Upon the high hills."

Jeremiah 17:3-4. O My mountain in the field! Thy wealth and all thy treasures will I give for a spoil, For the trespass of thine high places in all thy borders. And thou shalt drop thine hand from thy demesne which I gave thee; And I will enslave thee to thine enemies, In the land that thou knowest not; For a fire have ye kindled in Mine anger; It shall burn for evermore."

It is clear from the first strophe that the outward forms of idolatry were no longer openly practised in the country. Where otherwise would be the point of affirming that the national sin was "written with pen of iron, and point of adamant"-that it was "graven upon the tablet of the people’s heart?" Where would be the point of alluding to the children’s memory of the altars and sacred poles, which were the visible adjuncts of idolatry? Plainly it is implied that the hideous rites, which sometimes involved the sacrifice of children, are a thing of the past; yet not of the distant past, for the young of the present generation remember them; those terrible scenes are burnt in upon their memories, as a haunting recollection which can no more be effaced, than the guilt contracted by their parents as agents in those abhorrent rites can be done away. The indelible characters of sin are graven deeply upon their hearts; no need for a prophet to remind them of facts to which their own consciences, their own inward sense of outraged affections, and of nature sacrificed to a dark and bloody superstition, bears irrefragable witness. Rivers of water cannot cleanse the stain of innocent blood from their polluted altars. The crimes of the past are unatoned for, and beyond reach of atonement; they cry to heaven for vengeance, and the vengeance will surely fall. {Jeremiah 15:4}

Hitzig rather prosaically remarks that Josiah had destroyed the altars. But the stains of which the poet-seer speaks are not palpable to sense; he contemplates unseen realities.

"Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand?

No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red."

The second strophe declares the nature of the punishment. The tender, yearning, hopeless love of the cry with which Iahvah resigns His earthly seat to profanation and plunder and red-handed ruin, enhances the awful impression wrought by the slow, deliberate enunciation of the details of the sentence-the utter spoliation of temple and palaces; the accumulated hordes of generations-all that represented the wealth and culture and glory of the time-carried away forever; the enforced surrender of home and country; the harsh servitude to strangers in a far off land.

It is difficult to fix the date of this short lyrical outpouring, if it be assumed, with Hitzig, that it is an independent whole. He refers it to the year B.C. 602, after Jehoiakim had revolted from Babylon-"a proceeding which made a future captivity well nigh certain, and made it plain that the sin of Judah remained still to be punished." Moreover, the preceding year (B.C. 603) was what was known to the Law as a Year of Release or Remission (shenath shemittah); and the phrase "thou shalt drop thine hand," i.e., "loose thine hold of" the land, {Jeremiah 17:4} appears to allude to the peculiar usages of that year, in which the debtor was released from his obligations, and the corn lands and vineyards were allowed to lie fallow. The Year of Release was also called the Year of Rest; {shenath shabbathon, Leviticus 25:5} and both in the present passage of Jeremiah, and in the book of Leviticus, the time to be spent by the Jews in exile is regarded as a period of rest for the desolate land, which would then "make good her sabbaths". {Leviticus 26:34-35; Leviticus 26:43} The Chronicler indeed seems to refer to this very phrase of Jeremiah; at all events, nothing else is to be found in the extant works of the prophet with which his language corresponds. {2 Chronicles 36:21}

If the rendering of the second verse, which we find in both our English versions, and which I have adopted above, be correct, there arises an obvious objection to the date assigned by Hitzig; and the same objection lies against the view of Naegelsbach, who translates:

"As their children remember their altars,

And their images of Baal by (i.e., at the sight of) the green trees, by the high hills."

For in what sense could this have been written "not long before the fourth year of Jehoiakim," which is the date suggested by this commentator for the whole group of chapters, Jeremiah 14:1-22; Jeremiah 15:1-21; Jeremiah 16:1-21; Jeremiah 17:1-27; Jeremiah 18:1-23? The entire reign of Josiah had intervened between the atrocities of Manasseh and this period; and it is not easy to suppose that any sacrifice of children had occurred in the three months’ reign of Jehoahaz, or in the early years of Jehoiakim. Had it been so, Jeremiah, who denounces the latter king severely enough, would certainly have placed the horrible fact in the forefront of his invective; and instead of specifying Manasseh as the king whose offences Iahvah would not pardon, would have thus branded Jehoiakim, his own contemporary. This difficulty appears to be avoided by Hitzig, who explains the passage thus: "When they (the Jews) think of their children, they remember, and cannot but remember, the altars to whose horns the blood of their immolated children cleaves. In the same way, by a green tree on the hills, i.e., when they come upon any such, their Asherim are brought to mind, which were trees of that sort." And since it is perhaps possible to translate the Hebrew as this suggests, "When they remember their sons, their altars, and their sacred poles, by" (i.e., by means of) "the evergreen trees" (collective term) "upon the high hills," and this translation agrees well with the statement that the sin of Judah is "graven upon the tablet of their heart," his view deserves further consideration. The same objection, however, presses again, though with somewhat diminished force. For if the date of the section be 602, the eighth year of Jehoiakim, more than forty years must have elapsed between the time of Manasseh’s bloody rites and the utterance of this oracle. Would many who were parents then, and surrendered their children for sacrifice, be still living at the supposed date? And if not, where is the appropriateness of the words "When they remember their sons, their altars, and their Asherim?"

There seems no way out of the difficulty, but either to date the piece much earlier, assigning it, e.g., to the time of the prophet’s earnest preaching in connection with the reforming movement of Josiah, when the living generation would certainly remember the human sacrifices under Manasseh; or else to construe the passage in a very different sense, as follows. The first verse declares that the sin of Judah is graven upon the tablet of their heart, and upon the horns of their altars. The pronouns evidently show that it is the guilt of the nation, not of a particular generation, that is asserted. The subsequent words agree with this view. The expression, "Their sons" is to be understood in the same way as the expressions "their heart," "their altars." It is equivalent to the "sons of Judah" (bene Jehudah), and means simply the people of Judah, as now existing, the present generation. Now it does not appear that image worship and the cultus of the high places revived after their abolition by Josiah. Accordingly, the symbols of impure worship mentioned in this passage are not high places and images, but altars and Asherim, i.e., the wooden poles which were the emblems of the reproductive principle of Nature. What the passage therefore intends to say would seem to be this: "The guilt of the nation remains, so long as its children are mindful of their altars and Asherim erected beside the evergreen trees on the high hills"; i.e., so long as they remain attached to the modified idolatry of the day.

The general force of the words remains the same, whether they accuse the existing generation of serving sun pillars (macceboth) and sacred poles (asherim), or merely of hankering after the old, forbidden rites. For so long as the popular heart was wedded to the former superstitions, it could not be said that any external abolition of idolatry was a sufficient proof of national repentance. The longing to indulge in sin is sin; and sinful it is not to hate sin. The guilt of the nation remained, therefore, and would remain, until blotted out by the tears of a genuine repentance towards Iahvah.

But understood thus, the passage suits the time of Jehoiachin, as well as any other period.

"Why," asks Naegelsbach, "should not Moloch have been the terror of the Israelitish children, when there was such real and sad ground for it, as is wanting in other bugbears which terrify the children of the present day?" To this we may reply,

(1) Moloch is not mentioned at all, but simply altars and, asherim;

(2) would the word "remember" be appropriate in this case?

The beautiful strophes which follow (Jeremiah 17:5-13) are not obviously connected with the preceding text. They wear a look of self-completeness, which suggests that here and in many other places Jeremiah has left us, not whole discourses, written down substantially in the form in which they were delivered, but rather his more finished fragments; pieces which being more rhythmical in form, and more striking in thought, had imprinted themselves more deeply upon his memory.

Thus hath Iahvah said:

Cursed is the man that trusteth in human kind,

And maketh flesh his arm,

And whose heart swerveth from Iahvah!

And he shall become like a leafless tree in the desert,

And shall not see when good cometh;

And shall dwell in parched places in the steppe,

A salt land and uninhabited.

"Blessed is the man that trusteth in Iahvah,

And whose trust Iahvah becometh!

And he shall become like a tree planted by water,

That spreadeth its roots by a stream,

And is not afraid when heat cometh,

And its leaf is evergreen;

And in the year of drought it feareth not,

Nor leaveth off from making fruit."

The form of the thought expressed in these two octostichs, the curse and the blessing, may have been suggested by the curses and blessings of that Book of the Law of which Jeremiah had been so faithful an interpreter; {Deuteronomy 27:15-26; Deuteronomy 28:1-20} while both the thought and the form of the second stanza are imitated by the anonymous poet of the first psalm.

The mention of "the year of drought" in the penultimate line may be taken, perhaps, as a link of connection between this brief section and the whole of what precedes it so far as chapter 14, which is headed "Concerning the droughts." If, however, the group of chapters thus marked out really constitute a single discourse, as Naegelsbach assumes, one can only say that the style is episodical rather than continuous; that the prophet has often recorded detached thoughts, worked up to a certain degree of literary form, but hanging together as loosely as pearls on a string. Indeed, unless we suppose that he had kept full notes of his discourses and soliloquies, or that, like certain professional lecturers of our own day, he had been in the habit of indefinitely repeating to different audiences the same carefully elaborated compositions, it is difficult to understand how he would be able without the aid of a special miracle, to write down in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the numerous utterances of the previous three and twenty years. Neither of these suppositions appears probable. But if the prophet wrote from memory, so long after the original delivery of many of his utterances, the looseness of internal connection, which marks so much of his book, is readily understood.

The internal evidence of the fragment before us, so far as any such is traceable, appears to point to the same period as what precedes, the time immediately subsequent to the death of Jehoiakim. The curse pronounced upon trusting in man may be an allusion to that king’s confidence in the Egyptian alliance, which probably induced him to revolt from Nebuchadrezzar, and so precipitate the final catastrophe of his country. He owed his throne to the Pharaoh’s appointment, {2 Kings 23:34} and may perhaps have regarded this as an additional reason for defection from Babylon. But the chastisement of Egypt preceded that of Judah; and when the day came for the latter, the king of Egypt durst no longer go to the help of his too trustful allies. {2 Kings 24:7} Jehoiakim had died, but his son and successor was carried captive to Babylon. In the brief interval between those two events, the prophet may have penned these two stanzas, contrasting the issues of confidence in man and confidence in God. On the other hand, they may also be referred to some time not long before the fourth year of Jehoiakim, when that king, egged on by Egypt, was meditating rebellion against his suzerain; an act of which the fatal consequences might easily be foreseen by any thoughtful observer, who was not blinded by fanatical passion and prejudice, and which might itself be regarded as an index of the kindling of Divine wrath against the country.

"Deep is the heart above all things else:

And sore diseased it is: who can know it?

I, Iahvah, search the heart, I try the reins,

And that, to give to a man according to his own ways,

According to the fruit of his own doings."

"A partridge that gathereth young which are not hers,

Is he that maketh wealth not by right.

In the middle of his days it will leave him,

And in his end he shall prove a fool."

"A throne of glory, a high seat from of old,

Is the place of our sanctuary.

Hope of Israel, Iahvah!

All that leave Thee shall be ashamed;

Mine apostates shall be written in earth;

For they left the Well of Living Waters, even Iahvah."

"Heal Thou me, Iahvah, and I shall be healed,

Save Thou me, and I shall be saved,

For Thou art my praise."

"Lo, they say unto me,

Where is the Word of Iahvah?

Prithee, let it come!

Yet I, I hasted not from being a shepherd after Thee,

And woeful day I desired not-

Thou knowest;

The issue of my lips, before Thy face it fell."

"Become not a terror to me!

Thou art my refuge in the day of evil.

Let my pursuers be ashamed, and let not me be ashamed!

Let them be dismayed, and let not me be dismayed;

Let Thou come upon them a day of evil,

And doubly with breaking break Thou them!"

In the first of these stanzas, the word "heart" is the connecting link with the previous reflections. The curse and the blessing had there been pronounced not upon any outward and visible distinctions, but upon a certain inward bent and spirit. He is called accursed, whose confidence is placed in changeable, perishable man, and "whose heart swerveth from Iahvah." And he is blessed, who pins his faith to nothing visible; who looks for help and stay not to the seen, which is temporal, but to the Unseen, which is eternal.

The thought now occurs that this matter of inward trust, being a matter of the heart, and not merely of the outward bearing, is a hidden matter, a secret which baffles all ordinary judgment. Who shall take upon him to say whether this or that man, this or that prince confided or not confided in Iahvah? The human heart is a sea, whose depths are beyond human search; or it is a shifty Proteus, transforming itself from moment to moment under the pressure of changing circumstances, at the magic touch of impulse, under the spell of new perceptions and new phases of its world. And besides, its very life is tainted with a subtle disease, whose hereditary influence is ever interfering with the will and affections, ever tampering with the conscience and the judgment, and making difficult a clear perception, much more a wise decision. Nay, where so many motives press, so many plausible suggestions of good, so many palliations of evil, present themselves upon the eve of action; when the colours of good and evil mingle and gleam together in such rich profusion before the dazzled sight that the mind is bewildered by the confused medley of appearances, and wholly at a loss to discern and disentangle them one from another; is it wonderful, if in such a case the heart should take refuge in the comfortable illusion of self-deceit, and seek, with too great success, to persuade itself into contentment with something which it calls not positive evil but merely a less sublime good?

It is not for man, who cannot see the heart, to pronounce upon the degree of his fellow’s guilt. All sins, all crimes, are in this respect relative to the intensity of passion, the force of circumstances, the nature of surroundings, the comparative stress of temptation. Murder and adultery are absolute crimes in the eye of human law, and subject as such to fixed penalties; but the Unseen Judge takes cognisance of a thousand considerations, which, though they abolish not the exceeding sinfulness of these hideous results of a depraved nature, yet modify to a vast extent the degree of guilt evinced in particular cases by the same outward acts. In the sight of God a life socially correct may be stained with a deeper dye than that of profligacy or bloodshed; and nothing so glaringly shows the folly of inquiring what is the unpardonable sin as the reflection that any sin whatever may become such in an individual case.

Before God, human justice is often the liveliest injustice. And how many flagrant wrongs, how many monstrous acts of cruelty and oppression, how many wicked frauds and perjuries, how many of those vile deeds of seduction and corruption, which are, in truth, the murder of immortal souls; how many of those fearful sins, which make a sorrow-laden hell beneath the smiling surface of this pleasure-wooing world, are left unheeded, unavenged by any earthly tribunal! But all these things are noted in the eternal record of Him who searches the heart, and penetrates man’s inmost being, not from a motive of mere curiosity, but with fixed intent to award a righteous recompense for all choice and all conduct.

The calamities which marked the last years of Jehoiakim, and his ignominious end, were a signal instance of Divine retribution. Here that king’s lawless avarice is branded as not only wicked, but foolish. He is compared to the partridge, which gathers and hatches the eggs of other birds, only to be deserted at once by her stolen brood. "In the middle of his days, it shall leave him" (or "it may leave him," for in Hebrew one form has to do duty for both shades of meaning). The uncertainty of possession, the certainty of absolute surrender within a few short years, this is the point which demonstrates the unreason of making riches the chief end of one’s earthly activity. "Truly man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them." It is the point which is put with such terrible force in the parable of the Rich Fool. "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for thyself for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." "And the Lord said unto him, Thou fool! this night shall thy soul be required of thee."

The covetousness, oppression, and bloodthirstiness of Jehoiakim are condemned in a striking prophecy, {Jeremiah 22:13-19} which we shall have to consider hereafter. A vivid light is thrown upon the words, "In the middle of his days it shall leave him," by the fact recorded in Kings, {2 Kings 23:36} that he died in the thirty-sixth year of his age; when, that is, he had fulfilled but half of the threescore years and ten allotted to the ordinary life of man. We are reminded of that other psalm which declares that "bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days." {Psalms 55:23}

Apart indeed from all consideration of the future, and apart from all reference to that loyalty to the Unseen Ruler which is man’s inevitable duty, a life devoted to Mammon is essentially irrational. The man is mostly a "fool"-that is, one who fails to understand his own nature, one who has not attained to even a tolerable working hypothesis as to the needs of life, and the way to win a due share of happiness; -who has not discovered that

"riches have their proper stint

In the contented mind, not mint";

and that

"those who have the itch

Of craving more, are never rich";

and who has missed all apprehension of the grand secret that

"Wealth cannot make a life, but love."

From the vanity of earthly thrones, whether of Egypt or of Judah, thrones whose glory is transitory, and whose power to help and succour is so ill-assured, the prophet lifts his eyes to the one throne whose glory is everlasting, and whose power and permanence are an eternal refuge.

"Thou Throne of Glory,

High Seat from of old,

Place of our Sanctuary,

Hope of Israel, Iahvah!

All who leave Thee blush for shame:

Mine apostates are written in earth;

For they have forsaken the Well of Living Water, even Iahvah!"

It is his concluding reflection upon the unblest, unhonoured end of the apostate Jehoiakim. If Isaiah could speak of Shebna as a "throne of glory," i.e., the honoured support and mainstay of his family, there seems no reason why Lahvah might not be so addressed, as the supporting power and sovereign of the world.

The terms "Throne of Glory" "Place of our Sanctuary" seem to be used much as we use the expressions, "the Crown." "the Court," "the Throne," when we mean the actual ruler with whom these things are associated. And when the prophet declares "Mine apostates are written in earth," he asserts that oblivion is the portion of those of his people, high or low, who forsake Iahvah for another god. Their names are not written in the Book of Exodus 32:32; Psalms 69:28, but in the sand whence they are soon effaced. The prophets do not attempt to expose

"The sweet strange mystery

Of what beyond these things may lie."

They do not in express terms promise eternal life to the individual believer.

But how often do their words imply that comfortable doctrine! They who forsake Iahvah must perish, for there is neither permanence nor stay apart from IAHVAH, whose very Name denotes "He who Is," the sole Principle of Being and Fountain of Life. If they-nations and persons-who revolt from Him must die, the implication, the truth necessary to complete this affirmation, is that they who trust in Him, and make Him their arm, will live; for union with Him is eternal life.

In this Fountain of Living Water Jeremiah now seeks healing for himself. The malady that afflicts him is the apparent failure of his oracles. He suffers as a prophet whose word seems idle to the multitude. He is hurt with their scorn, and wounded to the heart with their scoffing. On all sides men press the mocking question, "Where is the word of Iahvah? Prithee, let it come to pass!" His threats of national overthrow had not been speedily realised; and men made a mock of the delays of Divine mercy. Conscious of his own integrity, and keenly sensitive to the ridicule of his triumphant adversaries, and scarcely able to endure longer his intolerable position, he pours out a prayer for healing and help. "Heal me," he cries, "and I shall be healed, Save me and I shall be saved" (really and truly saved, as the form of the Hebrew verb implies); "for Thou art my praise," my boast and nay glory, as the Book of the Law affirms. {Deuteronomy 10:21} I have not trusted in man, but in God; and if this my sole glory be taken away, if events prove me a false prophet, as my friends allege, applying the very test of the sacred Law, {Deuteronomy 18:21 sq.} then shall I be of all men most forsaken and forlorn. The bitterness of his woe is intensified by the consciousness that he has not thrust himself without call into the prophetic office, like the false prophets whose aim was to traffic in sacred things; {Jeremiah 14:14-15} for then the consciousness of guilt might have made the punishment more tolerable, and the facts would have justified the jeers of his persecutors. But the case was far otherwise. He had been most unwilling to assume the function of prophet; and it was only in obedience to the stress of repeated calls that he had yielded. "But as for me," he protests, "I hasted not from being a shepherd to follow Thee." It would seem, if this be the correct, as it certainly is the simplest rendering of his words, that, at the time when he first became aware of his true vocation, the young prophet was engaged in tending the flocks that grazed in the priestly pasture grounds of Anathoth. In that case, we are reminded of David, who was summoned from the sheepfold to camp and court, and of Amos, the prophet herdsman of Tekoa. But the Hebrew term translated "from being a shepherd" is probably a disguise of some other original expression; and it would involve no very violent change to read "I made no haste to follow after Thee fully" or "entirely" {Deuteronomy 1:36} a reading which is partially supported by the oldest version. Or it may have been better, as involving a mere change in the punctuation, to amend the text thus: "But as for me, I made no haste, in following Thee," more literally, "in accompanying Thee". {Judges 14:20} This, however, is a point of textual criticism, which leaves the general sense the same in any case.

When the prophet adds: "and the ill day I desired not," some think that he means the day when he surrendered to the Divine calling, and accepted his mission. But it seems to suit the context better, if we understand by the "ill day" the day of wrath whose coming was the burden of his preaching; the day referred to in the taunts of his enemies, when they asked, "Where is the word of Iahvah?" adding with biting sarcasm: "Prithee, let it come to pass." They sneered at Jeremiah as one who seized every occasion to predict evil, as one who longed to witness the ruin of his country. The utter injustice of the charge, in view of the frequent cries of anguish which interrupt his melancholy forecasts, is no proof that it was not made. In all ages, God’s representatives have been called upon to endure false accusations. Hence the prophet appeals from man’s unrighteous judgment to God the Searcher of hearts. "Thou knowest; the utterance of my lips" {Deuteronomy 23:24} "before Thy face it fell": as if to say, No word of mine, spoken in Thy name, was a figment of my own fancy, uttered for my own purposes, without regard of Thee. I have always spoken as in Thy presence, or rather, in Thy presence. Thou, who hearest all, didst hear each utterance of mine; and therefore knowest that all I said was truthful and honest and in perfect accord with my commission.

If only we who, like Jeremiah, are called upon to speak for God, could always remember that every word we say is uttered in that Presence, what a sense of responsibility would lie upon us; with what labour and prayers should we not make our preparation! Too often alas! it is to be feared that our perception of the presence of man banishes all sense of any higher presence; and the anticipation of a fallible and frivolous criticism makes us forget for the time the judgment of God. And yet "by our words we shall be justified, and by our words we shall be condemned."

In continuing his prayer, Jeremiah adds the remarkable petition, "Become not Thou to me a cause of dismay!" He prays to be delivered from that overwhelming perplexity, which threatens to swallow him up, unless God should verify by events that which His own Spirit has prompted him to utter. He prays that Iahvah, his only "refuge in the day of evil," will not bemock him with vain expectations; will not falsify His own guidance; will not suffer His messenger to be "ashamed," disappointed and put to the blush by the failure of his predictions. And then once again, in the spirit of his time, he implores vengeance upon his unbelieving and cruel persecutors: "Let them be ashamed," disappointed in their expectation of immunity, "let them be dismayed," crushed in spirit and utterly overcome by the fulfilment of his dark presages of evil. "Let Thou come upon them a day of evil, And doubly with breaking break Thou them!" This indeed asks no more than that what has been spoken before in the way of prophecy-"I will repay the double of their guilt and their trespass" {Jeremiah 16:18} -may be forthwith accomplished. And the provocation was, beyond all question, immense. The hatred that burned in the taunt "where is the word of Iahvah? Prithee, let it come to pass!" was doubtless of like kind with that which at a later stage of Jewish history expressed itself in the words "He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him!" "If He be the Son of God, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on Him!"

And how much fierce hostility that one term "my pursuers" may cover, it is easy to infer from the narratives of the prophet’s evil experience in chapters 20, 26, and 38. But allowing for all this, we can at best only affirm that the prophet’s imprecations on his foes are natural and human; we cannot pretend that they are evangelical and Christ-like. Besides, the latter would be a gratuitous anachronism, which no intelligent interpreter of Scripture is called upon to perpetrate. It is neither necessary to the proper vindication of the prophet’s writings as truly inspired of God, nor helpful to a right conception of the method of revelation.

Verses 19-27



Jeremiah 17:19-27

"THUS said Iahvah unto me: Go and stand in the gate of Benjamin, whereby the kings of Judah come in, and whereby they go out; and in all the gates of Jerusalem. And say unto them, Hear ye the word of Iahvah, O kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all inhabitants of Jerusalem, who come in by these gates!"

"Thus said Iahvah: Beware, on your lives, and bear ye not a burden on the Day of Rest, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem! Nor shall ye bring a burden forth out of your houses on the Day of Rest, nor shall ye do any work; but ye shall hallow the Day of Rest, as I commanded your fathers." (Albeit, they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but stiffened their neck against hearkening, and against receiving instruction.)

"And it shall come to pass, if ye will indeed hearken unto Me, saith Iahvah, not to bring a burden in by the gates of this city on the Day of Rest, but to hallow the Day of Rest, not to do therein any work; then there shall come in by the gates of this city kings (and princes) sitting upon the throne of David, riding on the chariots and on the horses, they and their princes, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! and this city shall be inhabited forever. And people shall come in from the cities of Judah and from the places round Jerusalem, and from the land of Benjamin, and from the lowlands, and from the hill country, and from the south, bringing in burnt offering and thank offering, and oblation and incense; and bringing a thanksgiving into the house of Iahvah."

"And if ye hearken not unto Me to hallow the Day of Rest, and not to bear a burden and come in by the gates of Jerusalem on the Day of Rest: I will kindle a fire in her gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and shall not be quenched."

The matter and manner of this brief oracle mark it off from those which precede it as an independent utterance, and a whole complete in itself. Its position may be accounted for by its probable date, which may be fixed a little after the previous chapters, in the three months’ reign of the ill-starred Jehoiachin; and by the writer’s or his editor’s desire to break the monotony of commination by an occasional gleam of hope and promise. At the same time, the introductory formula with which it opens is so similar to that of the following oracles (chapters 18, 19), as to suggest the idea of a connection in time between the members of the group. Further, there is an obvious connection of thought between chapters 18, 19. In the former, the house of Israel is represented as clay in the hand of the Divine Potter; in the latter, Judah is a potter’s vessel, destined to be broken in pieces. And if we assume the priority of the piece before us, a logical progress is observable, from the alternative here presented for the people’s choice, to their decision for the worst part, {Jeremiah 18:12 sqq.} and then to the corresponding decision on the part of Iahvah (19). Or, as Hitzig puts it otherwise, in the piece before us the scales are still in equipoise; in chapter 18, one goes down; Iahvah intends mischief (Jeremiah 18:11), and the people are invited to appease His anger. But the warning is fruitless; and therefore the prophet announces their destruction, depicting it in the darkest colours (chapter 19). The immediate consequence to Jeremiah himself is related in Jeremiah 20:1-6; and it is highly probable that the section, Jeremiah 21:11-14; Jeremiah 22:1-9, is the continuation of the oracle addressed to Pashchur: so that we have before us a whole group of prophecies belonging to the same eventful period of the prophet’s activity. {Jeremiah 17:20 agrees closely Jeremiah 22:2, and Jeremiah 17:25 with Jeremiah 22:4}

The circumstances of the present oracle are these. Jeremiah is inwardly bidden to station himself first in "the gate of the sons of the people"-a gate of Jerusalem which we cannot further determine, as it is not mentioned elsewhere under this designation, but which appears to have been a special resort of the masses of the population, because it was the one by which the kings were wont to enter and leave the city, and where they doubtless were accustomed to hear petitions and to administer justice; and afterwards, he is to take his stand in all the gates in turn, so as not to miss the chance of delivering his message to any of his countrymen. He is there to address the "kings of Judah" (Jeremiah 17:20); an expression which may denote the young king Jehoiachin and his mother, {Jeremiah 13:18} orthe king and the princes of the blood; the "House of David" of Jeremiah 21:12. The promise "kings shall come in by the gates of this city and this city shall be inhabited forever," and the threat "I will kindle a fire in her gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem," may be taken to imply a time when the public danger was generally recognised. The first part of the promise may be intended to meet an apprehension, such as might naturally be felt after the death of Jehoiakim that the incensed Chaldeans would come and take away the Jewish place and nation. In raising the boy Jehoiachin to the throne of his fathers, men may have sorrowfully foreboded that, as the event proved, he would never keep his crown till manhood, nor beget a race of future kings.

The matter of the charge to rulers and people is the due observance of the fourth commandment: "ye shall hallow the Day of Rest, as I commanded your fathers," {see Exodus 20:8} "Remember the Day of Rest, to hallow it"-which is probably the original form of the precept. Jeremiah, however, probably had in mind the form of the precept as it appears in Deuteronomy: "Observe the Day of Rest to hallow it, as Iahvah thy God commanded thee." {Deuteronomy 5:12} The Hebrew term for "hallow" means to separate a thing from common things, and devote it to God.

To hallow the Day of Rest, therefore, is to make a marked distinction between it and ordinary days, and to connect it in some way with religion. What is here commanded is to abstain from "bearing burdens," and doing any kind of work. {melakah, Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:9-10; Exodus 31:14-15; Genesis 39:11, "appointed task," "duty," "business"} The bearing of burdens into the gates and out of the houses clearly describes the ordinary commerce between town and country. The country folk are forbidden to bring their farm produce to the market in the city gates, and the townspeople to convey thither from their houses and shops the manufactured goods which they were accustomed to barter for these. Nehemiah’s memoirs furnish a good illustration of the general sense of the passage, {Nehemiah 13:15} relating how he suppressed this Sabbath traffic between town and country. Dr. Kuenen has observed that "Jeremiah is the first of the prophets who stands up for a stricter sanctification of the seventh day, treating it, however, merely as a day of rest. What was traditional appears to have been only abstinence from field work, and perhaps also from professional pursuits." In like manner, he had before stated that "tendencies to such an exaggeration of the Sabbath rest as would make it absolute, are found from the Chaldean period. Isaiah {Isaiah 1:13} regards the Sabbath purely as a sacrificial day." The last statement here is hardly a fair inference. In the passage referred to Isaiah is inveighing against the futile worship of his contemporaries; and he only mentions the Sabbath in this connection. And that "tradition" required more than "abstinence from field work" is evident from words of the prophet Amos, written at least a century and a half before the present oracle, and implying that very abstinence from trading which Jeremiah prescribes. Amos makes the grasping dealers of his time cry impatiently, "When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set out wheat for sale?"; {Amos 8:5} a clear proof that buying and selling were suspended on the Sabbath festival in the eighth century B.C.

It is hardly likely that, when law or custom compelled, covetous dealers to cease operations on the Sabbath, and buying and selling, the principal business of the time, were suspended, the artisans of town or country would be allowed by public opinion to ply their everyday tasks. Accordingly, when Jeremiah adds to his prohibition of Sabbath trading, a veto upon any kind of "work"-a term which includes this trafficking, but also covers the labour of handicraftsmen {cf. Exodus 35:35} -he is not really increasing the stringency of the traditional rule about Sabbath observance.

Further, it is difficult to understand how Dr. Kuenen could gather from this passage that Jeremiah treats the Sabbath "merely as a day of rest." This negative character of mere cessation from work, of enforced idleness, is far from being the sole feature of the Sabbath, either in Jeremiah’s view of it, or as other more ancient authorities represent it. The testimony of the passage before us proves, if proof were needed, that the Sabbath was a day of worship. This is implied both by the phrase "ye shall hallow the Day of Rest," that is, consecrate it to Iahvah, and by the promise that if the precept be observed faithfully, abundant offerings shall flow into the temple from all parts of the country, that is, as the context seems to require, for the due celebration of the Sabbath festival. There is an intentional contrast between the bringing of innumerable victims, and "bearing burdens" of flour and oil and incense on the Sabbath, for the joyful service of the temple, including the festal meal of the worshippers, and that other carriage of goods for merely secular objects. And as the wealth of the Jerusalem priesthood chiefly depended upon the abundance of the sacrifices, it may be supposed that Jeremiah thus gives them a hint that it is really their interest to encourage the observance of the law of the Sabbath. For if men were busy with their buying and selling, their making and mending, upon the seventh as on other days, they would have no more time or inclination for religious duties than the Sunday traders of our large towns have under the vastly changed conditions of the present day. Moreover, the teaching of our prophet in this matter takes for granted that of his predecessors, with whose writings he was thoroughly acquainted. If in this passage he does not expressly designate the Sabbath as a religious festival, it is because it seemed needless to state a thing so obvious, so generally recognised in theory, however loosely observed in practice. The elder prophets Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, associate Sabbath and new moon together as days of festal rejoicing, when men appeared before Iahvah, that is, repaired to the sanctuary for worship and sacrifice, {Hosea 2:11; Isaiah 1:11-14} and when all ordinary business was consequently suspended. {Amos 8:5}

It is clear, then, from this important passage of Jeremiah that in his time and by himself the Sabbath was still regarded under the double aspect of a religious feast and a day of cessation from labour, the latter being, as in the ancient world generally, a natural consequence of the former characteristic. Whether the abolition of the local sanctuaries in the eighteenth year of Josiah resulted in any practical modification of the conception of the Sabbath, so that, in the words of Professor Robertson Smith, "it became for most Israelites an institution of humanity divorced from ritual," is rendered doubtful by the following considerations. The period between the reform of Josiah and the fall of Jerusalem was very brief, including not more than about thirty-five years (621-586, according to Wellhausen). But that a reaction followed the disastrous end of the royal Reformer is both likely under the circumstances, and implied by the express assertions of the author of Kings, who declares of the succeeding monarchs that they "did evil in the sight of the Lord according to all that their fathers had done." As Wellhausen writes: "the battle of Megiddo had shown that in spite of the covenant with Jehovah the possibilities of non-success in war remained the same as before": so at least it would appear to the unspiritual mind of a populace, still hankering after the old forms of local worship, with their careless connivance at riot and disorder. It is not probable that a rapacious and bloody tyrant, like Jehoiakim, would evince more tenderness for the ritual laws than for the moral precepts of Deuteronomy. It is likely, then, that the worship at the local high places revived during this and the following reigns, just as it had revived after its temporary abolition by Hezekiah. {2 Kings 18:22} Moreover, it is with Judah, not ruined and depopulated Israel, that we have to deal; and even in Judah the people must by this time have been greatly reduced by war and its attendant evils, so that Jerusalem itself and its immediate neighbourhood probably comprised the main part of the population to which Jeremiah addressed his discourses during this period. The bulk of the little nation would, in fact, naturally concentrate upon Jerusalem, in the troublous times that followed the death of Josiah. If so, it is superfluous to assume that "most men could only visit the central altar at rare intervals" during these last decades of the national existence. The change of view belongs rather to the sixth than the seventh century, to Babylonia rather than to Judea.

The Sabbath observance prescribed by the old Law, and recommended by Jeremiah, was indeed a very different thing from the pedantic and burdensome obligation which it afterwards became in the hands of scribes and Pharisees. These, with their long catalogue of prohibited works, and their grotesque methods of evading the rigour of their own rules, had succeeded in making what was originally a joyous festival and day of rest for the weary, into an intolerable interlude of joyless restraint; when our Lord reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. {St. Mark 2:27} Treating the strict observance of the day as an end in itself, they forgot or ignored the fact that the oldest forms of the sacred Law agreed in justifying the institution by religious and humanitarian considerations. {Exodus 20:8; Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:12} The difference in the grounds assigned by the different legislations-Deuteronomy alleging neither the Divine Rest of Exodus 20:1-26, nor the sign of Exodus 31:13, but the enlightened and enduring motive "that thy bondman and thine handmaid may rest as well as thou," coupled with the feeling injunction, "Remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt" {Deuteronomy 5:14-15} -need not here be discussed; for in any case, the different motives thus suggested were enough to make it clear to those who had eyes to see, that the Sabbath was not anciently conceived as an arbitrary institution established purely for its own sake, and without reference to ulterior considerations of public benefit. The Book of the Covenant affirmed the principle of Sabbath rest in these unmistakable terms: "Six days thou mayst do thy works, and on the seventh day thou shalt leave off, that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thine handmaid"-the home-born slave-"and the alien may be refreshed," {Exodus 23:12} lit. recover breath, have respite. The humane care of the lawgiver for the dumb toilers and slaves requires no comment; and we have already noticed the same spirit of humanity in the later precept of the Book of the Law. {Deuteronomy 5:14-15} These older rules, it will be observed, are perfectly general in their scope, and forbid not particular actions, {Exodus 16:23; Exodus 35:3; Numbers 15:32} but the continuance of ordinary labour; prescribing a merciful intermission alike for the cattle employed in husbandry and as beasts of burden, and for all classes of dependents.

The origin of the Sabbath festival is lost in obscurity. When the unknown writer of Genesis 1:1-31 so beautifully connects it with the creation of the world, he betrays not only the belief of his contemporaries in its immemorial antiquity, but also a true perception of the utility of the institution, its perfect adaptation to the wants of humanity. He expresses his sense of the fact in the most emphatic way possible, by affirming the Divine origin of an institution whose value to man is divinely great; and by carrying back that origin to the very beginning, he implies that the Sabbath was made for mankind and not merely for Israel. To whom indeed could an ancient Jewish writer refer as the original source of this unique blessing of a Day of Rest and drawing near to God, if not to Iahvah, the fountain of all things good?

That Moses, the founder of the nation, gave Israel the Sabbath, is as likely as anything can be. Whether in doing so he simply sanctioned an ancient and salutary custom (investing it perhaps with new and better associations), dating from the tribal existence of the fathers in Chaldea, or ordered the matter so in purposeful contrast to the Egyptian week of ten days, cannot at present be determined. The Sabbath of Israel, both that of the prophets and that of the scribes, was an institution which distinguished the nation from all others in the period open to historical scrutiny; and with this knowledge we may rest content. That which made Israel what it was, and what it became to the world; the total of the good which this people realised, and left as a priceless heritage to mankind forever, was the outcome, not of what it had in common with heathen antiquity, but of what was peculiar to itself in ideas and institutions. We cannot be too strongly on our guard against assuming external, superficial, and often accidental resemblances, to be an index of inward and essential likeness and unity. Whatever approximations may be established by modern archeology between Israel and kindred peoples, it will still be true that those points of contact do not explain, though to the apprehension of individuals they may obscure, what is truly characteristic of Israel, and what alone gives that nation its imperishable significance in the history of the world. After all deductions made upon such grounds, nothing can abolish the force of the fact that Moses and the prophets do not belong to Moab, Ammon, or Edom; that the Old Testament, though written in the language of Canaan, is not a monument of Canaanite, but of Israelite faith; that the Christ did not spring out of Babylon or Egypt, and that Christianity is not explicable as the last development of Accadian magic or Egyptian animal worship.

To those who believe that the prophets enjoyed a higher and less fallible guidance than human fancy, reflection, experience; who recognise in the general aim and effect of their teaching, as contrasted with that of other teachers, the best proof that their minds were subject to an influence and a spirit transcending the common limits of humanity; the prominence given by Jeremiah to the law of the Sabbath will be sufficient evidence of the importance of that law to the welfare of his contemporaries, if not of all subsequent generations. If we have rightly assigned the piece to the reign of Jehoiachin, we may suppose that among the contrary currents which agitated the national life at that crisis, there were indications of repentance and remorse at the misdoings of the late reign. The present utterance of the prophet might then be regarded as a test of the degree and worth of the revulsion of popular feeling towards the God of the Fathers. The nation was trembling for its existence, and Jeremiah met its fears by pointing out the path of safety. Here was one special precept hitherto but little observed. Would they keep it now and henceforth, in token of a genuine obedience? Repentance in general terms is never difficult. The rub is conduct. Recognition of the Divine Law is easy, so long as life is not submitted to its control. The prophet thus proposes, in a single familiar instance, a plain test of sincerity, which is perhaps not less applicable in our own day than it was then.

The wording of the final threat suggests a thought of solemn consequence for ourselves. "I will kindle a fire in her gates, and it shall devour the castles of Jerusalem-and shall not be quenched!" The gates were the scene of Judah’s sinful breach of the Sabbath law, and in them her punishment is to begin. So in the after life of the lost those parts of the physical and mental organism which have been the principal seats of sin, the means and instruments of man’s misdoing, will also be the seat of keenest suffering, the source and abode of the most poignant misery. "The fire that never shall be quenched"-Jesus has spoken of that awful mystery, as well as Jeremiah. It is the ever-kindling, never-dying fire of hopeless and insatiable desire; it is the withering flame of hatred of self, when the castaway sees with open eyes what that self has become; it is the burning pain of a sleepless memory of the unalterable past; it is the piercing sense of a life flung recklessly to ruin; it is the scorching shame, the scathing self-contempt, the quenchless, raging thirst for deliverance from ourselves; it is the fearful consciousness of self-destruction, branded upon the soul forever and ever!

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 17". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jeremiah-17.html.
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