Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 12th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
For 10¢ a day you can enjoy StudyLight.org ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 20

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-18



Jeremiah 20:1-18

THE prophet has now to endure something more than a scornful rejection of his message. "And Pashchur ben Immer the priest" (he was chief officer in the house of Iahvah) "heard Jeremiah prophesying these words. And Pashchur smote Jeremiah the prophet and put him in the stocks, which were in the upper gate of Benjamin in the house of Iahvah." Like the priest of Bethel, who abruptly put an end to the preaching of Amos in the royal sanctuary, Pashchur suddenly interferes, apparently before Jeremiah has finished his address to the people; and enraged at the tenour of his words, he causes him-"Jeremiah the prophet," as it is significantly added, to indicate the sacrilege of the act-to be beaten in the cruel Eastern manner on the soles of the feet, inflicting probably the full number of forty blows permitted by the Law (Deuteronomy), and then leaving him in his agony of mind and body, fast bound in "the stocks." For the remainder of that day and all night long the prophet sat there in the gate, at first exposed to the taunts and jeers of his adversaries and the rabble of their followers, and as the weary hours slowly crept on, becoming painfully cramped in his limbs by the barbarous machine which held his hands and feet near together, and bent his body double. This cruel punishment seems to have been the customary mode of dealing with such as were accounted false prophets by the authorities. It was the treatment which Hanani endured in return for his warning to king Asa, {2 Chronicles 16:10} some three centuries earlier than Jeremiah’s time; and a few years later in our prophet’s history, an attempt was made to enforce it again in his case. {Jeremiah 29:26} Thus, like the holy apostles of our Lord, was Jeremiah "counted worthy to suffer shame" for the Name in which he spoke; {Acts 5:40-41} and like Paul and Silas at Philippi, after enduring "many stripes" his feet were "made fast in the stocks". {Acts 16:23-24} The message of Jeremiah was a message of judgment, that of the apostles was a message of forgiveness; and both met with the same response from a world whose heart was estranged from God. The heart that loves its own way is only at ease when it can forget God. Any reminder of His Presence, of His perpetual activity in mercy and judgment, is unwelcome, and makes its authors odious. From the outset, transgressors of the Divine law have sought to hide "among the trees of the garden"-in the engrossing pursuits and pleasures of life-from the Presence of God.

Pashchur’s object was not to destroy Jeremiah, but to break his spirit, and discredit him with the multitude, and so silence him forever. But in this expectation he was as signally disappointed as his successor was in the case of St. Peter. {Acts 5:24; Acts 5:29} Now as then, God’s messenger could not be turned from his conviction that "we ought to obey God rather than men." And as he sat alone in his intolerable anguish, brooding over his shameful wrongs, and despairing of redress, a Divine Word came in the stillness of night to this victim of human tyranny. For it came to pass on the morrow that Pashchur brought Jeremiah forth out of the stocks; and Jeremiah said unto him, Not Pashchur (as if "Glad and free")-but Magormissabib-("Fear on every side") "hath Jehovah called thy name!" Sharpened with misery, the seer’s eye pierces through the shows of life, and discerns the grim contrast of truth and appearance. Before him stands this great man, clothed with all the dignity of high office, and able to destroy him with a word; but Iahvah’s prophet does not quail before abused authority. He sees the sword suspended by a hair over the head of this haughty and supercilious official; and he realises the solemn irony of circumstance, which has connected a name suggestive of gladness and freedom with a man destined to become the thrall of perpetual terrors. "For thus hath Iahvah said: Lo, I am about to make thee a Fear to thyself and to all thy lovers; and they will fall by the sword of their foes, while thine eyes look on!" This "glad and free" persecutor, wantoning in the abuse of power, blindly fearless of the future, is not doomed to be slain out of hand; a heavier fate is in store for him, a fate prefigured and foreshadowed by his present sins. His proud confidence is to give place to a haunting sense of danger and insecurity; he is to see his followers perish one after another, and evermore to be expecting the same end for himself: while the freedom which he has enjoyed and abused so long, is to be exchanged for a lifelong captivity in a foreign land. "And all Judah will I give into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will transport them to Babylon, and smite them with the sword. And I will give all the store of this city" (the hoarded wealth of all sorts, which constitutes its strength and reserve force) "and all the gain thereof" (the produce of labour) "and all the value thereof" (things rare and precious of every kind, works of the carver’s and the goldsmith’s and the potter’s and the weaver’s art); "and all the treasures of the kings of Judah will I give into the hand of their foes, that they may spoil them and take them and bring them to Babylon."

"And for thyself, Pashchur, and all that dwell in thine house, ye shall depart among the captives; and to Babylon thou shalt come, and there thou shalt die, and there be buried, thyself and all thy lovers, to whom thou hast prophesied with untruth," or rather "by the Lie," i.e., "by the Baal." {Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 23:13; Jeremiah 12:16}

The play on the name of Pashchur is like that on Perath (chapter 13), and the change to Magormissabib is like the change of Tophet into "Valley of Slaughter" (chapter 19). Like Amos, {Amos 7:16} Jeremiah repeats his obnoxious prophecy, with a special application to his cruel persecutor, and with the added detail that all the wealth of Jerusalem will be carried as spoil to Babylon; a detail in which there may lie an oblique reference to the covetous worldliness and the interested opposition of such men as Pashchur. Riches and ease and popularity were the things for which he and those like him had bargained away their integrity, prophesying with conscious falsehood to the deluded people. His "lovers" are his partisans, who eagerly welcomed his presages of peace and prosperity, and doubtless actively opposed Jeremiah with ridicule and threats. The last detail is remarkable, for we do not otherwise know that Pashchur affected to prophesy. If it be not meant simply that Pashchur accepted and lent the weight of his official sanction to the false prophets, and especially those who uttered their divinations in the name of "the Baal," that is to say, either Molech, or the popular and delusive conception of the God of Israel, we see in this man one who combined a steady professional opposition to Jeremiah with power to enforce his hostility by legalised acts of violence. The conduct of Hananiah on a later occasion, {Jeremiah 28:10} clearly proves that, where the power was present, the will for such acts was not wanting in Jeremiah’s professional adversaries.

It is generally taken for granted that the name of "Pashchur" has been substituted for that of "Malchijah" in the list of the priestly families which returned with Zerubbabel from the Babylonian captivity {Ezra 2:38; Nehemiah 7:41; cf. 1 Chronicles 24:9} but it seems quite possible that "the sons of Pashchur" were a subdivision of the family of Immer, which had increased largely during the Exile. In that case, the list affords evidence of the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prediction to Pashchur. The prophet elsewhere mentions another Pashchur, who was also a priest, of the course or guild of Malchijah, {Jeremiah 21:1; Jeremiah 38:1} which was the designation of the fifth class of the priests, as "Immer" was that of the sixteenth. {1 Chronicles 24:9; 1 Chronicles 24:14} The prince Gedaliah, who was hostile to Jeremiah, was apparently a son of the present Pashchur. {Jeremiah 38:1}

It is not easy to determine the relation of the lyrical section which immediately follows the doom of Pashchur, to the preceding account (Jeremiah 20:7-8). If the seventh verse be in its original place, it would seem that the prophet’s word had failed of accomplishment, with the result of intensifying the unbelief and the ridicule which his teachings encountered. There is also something very strange in the sequence of the thirteenth and fourteenth verses (Jeremiah 20:13-14), where, as the text now stands, the prophet passes at once, in the most abrupt fashion imaginable, from a fervid ascription of praise, a heartfelt cry of thanksgiving for deliverance either actual or contemplated as such, to utterances of unrelieved despair. I do not think that this is in the manner of Jeremiah; nor do I see how the violent contrast of the two sections (Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Jeremiah 20:14-18) can fairly be accounted for, except by supposing either that we have here two unconnected fragments, placed in juxtaposition with each other because they belong to the same general period of the prophet’s ministry; or that the two passages have by some accident of transcription been transposed, which is by no means an uncommon occurrence in the MSS. of the Biblical writers. Assuming this latter as the more probable alternative, we see in the entire passage a powerful representation of the mental conflict into which Jeremiah was thrown by Pashchur’s highhanded violence and the seeming triumph of his enemies. Smarting with the sense of utter injustice, humiliated in his inmost soul by shameful indignities, crushed to the earth with the bitter consciousness of defeat and failure, the prophet, like Job, opens his mouth and curses his day.

1. Cursed be the day wherein I was born!

The day that my mother bare me,

Let it not be blest!

2. Cursed be the man who told the glad tidings to my father.

‘There is born to thee a male child’;

Who made him rejoice greatly.

3. And let that man become like the cities that Iahweh overthrew, without relenting,

And let him hear a cry in the morning,

And an alarm at the hour of noon!

4. For that he slew me not in the womb,

That my mother might have become my grave,

And her womb have been laden evermore!

5. "O why from the womb came I forth

To see labour and sorrow,

And my days foredone with shame?"

These five triplets afford a glimpse of the lively grief, the passionate despair, which agitated the prophet’s heart as the first effect of the shame and the torture to which he had been so wickedly and wantonly subjected. The elegy, of which they constitute the proem, or opening strophe, is not introduced by any formula ascribing it to Divine inspiration; it is simply written down as a faithful record of Jeremiah’s own feelings and reflections and self-communings, at this painful crisis in his career. The poet of the book of Job has apparently taken the hint supplied by these opening verses, and has elaborated the idea of cursing the day of birth through seven highly wrought and imaginative stanzas. The higher finish and somewhat artificial expansion of that passage leave little doubt that it was modelled upon the one before us. But the point to remember here is that both are lyrical effusions, expressed in language conditioned by Oriental rather than European standards of taste and usage. As the prophets were not inspired to express their thoughts and feelings in modern English dress, it is superfluous to inquire whether Jeremiah was morally, justified in using these poetic formulas of imprecation. To insist on applying the doctrine of verbal inspiration to such a passage is to evince an utter want of literary tact and insight, as well as adhesion to an exploded and pernicious relic of sectarian theology. The prophet’s curses are simply a highly effective form of poetical rhetoric, and are in perfect harmony with the immemorial modes of Oriental expression; and the underlying thought, so equivocally expressed, according to our ways of looking at things, is simply that his life has been a failure, and therefore it would have been better not to have been born. Who that is at all earnest for God’s truth, nay, for far lower objects of human interest and pursuit, has not in moments of despondency and discouragement been overwhelmed for a time by the like feeling? Can we blame Jeremiah for allowing us to see in this faithful transcript of his inner life how intensely human, how entirely natural the spiritual experience of the prophets really was? Besides, the revelation does not end with this initial outburst of instinctive astonishment, indignation, and despair. The poem is succeeded by a psalm in seven stanzas of regular poetical form-six quatrains rounded off with a final couplet-in which the prophet’s thought rises above the level of nature, and finds in an overruling Providence both the source and the justification of the enigma of his life.

1. Thou enticedst me, Iahvah, and I was enticed,

Thou urgedst me, and didst prevail!

I am become a derision all the day long.

Every one mocketh at me.

2. For as oft as I speak, I cry alarm,

Violence and havoc do I proclaim

For Iahvah’s word is become to me a reproach,

And a scoff all the day long.

3. And if I say, I will not mind it,

Nor speak any more in His Name;

Then it becometh in my heart like a burning fire prisoned in my bones.

And I weary of holding it in and am not able.

4. For I have heard the defaming of many, the terror on every side!

All the men of my friendship are watching for my fall;

‘Perchance he will be enticed, and we shall prevail over him,

And take our revenge of him.’

5. Yet Iahvah is with me as a dread warrior,

Therefore my pursuers shall stumble and not prevail;

They shall be greatly ashamed, for that they have not prospered,

With eternal dishonour that shall not be forgotten.

6. And Iahvah Sabaoth trieth the righteous,

Seeth the reins and the heart;

I shall see Thy revenge of them,

For unto Thee have I committed my quarrel.

7. "Sing ye to Iahvah, acclaim ye Iahvah!

For He hath snatched the poor man’s life out of the hand of evildoers."

The cause was of God. "Thou didst lure me, Iahvah, and I let myself be lured; Thou urgedst me and weft victorious." He had not rashly and presumptuously taken upon himself this office of prophet; he had been called, and had resisted the call, until his scruples and his pleadings were overcome, as was only natural, by a Will more powerful than his own. {Jeremiah 1:6} In speaking of the inward persuasions which determined the course of his life, he uses the very terms which are used by the author of Kings in connection with the spirit that misled the prophets of Ahab before the fatal expedition to Ramoth Gilead. "And he said, Thou shalt entice, and also be victorious". {1 Kings 22:22} Iahvah, therefore, has treated him as an enemy rather than a friend, for He has lured him to his own destruction. Half in irony, half in hitter complaint, the prophet declares that Iahvah has succeeded only too well in His malign purpose: "I am become a derision all the day long; Every one mocketh at me."

In the second stanza, the thought appears to be continued thus: "Thou overcamest me; for as often as I speak," I am a prophet of evil, "I cry alarm" (‘ez’ aq; cf. ze’ aqah, Jeremiah 20:16); I proclaim the imminence of invasion, the "violence and havoc" of a ruthless conqueror. "Thou overcamest me" also, in Thy purpose of making me a laughing stock to my adversaries: "for Iahvah’s word is become to me a reproach, and a scoff all the day long" (the relation between the two halves of the stanza is that of coordination; each gives the reason of the corresponding couplet in the first stanza). His continual threats of a judgment that was still delayed, brought upon him the merciless ridicule of his opponents.

Or the prophet may mean to complain that the monotony of his message, his ever-recurring denunciation of prevalent injustice, is made a reproach against him. "For as often as I speak I make an outcry" of indignation at foul wrongdoing; {Genesis 4:10; Genesis 18:21; Genesis 19:13} "wrong and robbery do I proclaim" {Habakkuk 1:2-3} -the oppression of the poor by the covetous and luxurious ruling classes. A third view is that Jeremiah complains of the frequent attacks upon himself: "For as often as I speak I have to exclaim; Of assault and violence do I cry"; but the first suggestion appears to suit best, as giving a reason for the ridicule which the prophet finds so intolerable. {cf. Jeremiah 17:15}

The third stanza carries this plea for justice a step further. Not only was the prophet’s overwhelming trouble due to his having yielded to the persuasions and promises of Iahvah; not only has he been rewarded with scorn and the scourge and the stocks for his compliance with a Divine call. He has been in a manner forced and driven into his intolerable position by the coercive power of Iahvah, which left him no choice but to utter the word that burnt like a fire within him. Sometimes his fears of perfidy and betrayal suggested the thought of succumbing to the insuperable obstacles which seemed to block his path; of giving up once for all a thankless and fruitless and dangerous enterprise: but then the inward flame burnt so fiercely that he could find no relief for his anguish but by giving it vent in words. {cf. Psalms 39:1-3}

The verse finely illustrates that vivid sense of a Divine constraint which distinguishes the true prophet from pretenders to the office. Jeremiah does not protest the purity of his motives; indirectly and unconsciously he expresses it with a simplicity and a strength which leave no room for suspicion. He has himself no doubt at all that what he speaks is "Iahvah’s word." The inward impulse is overpowering; he has striven in vain against its urgency; like Jacob at Peniel, he has wrestled with One stronger than himself. He is no vulgar fanatic or enthusiast, in whom rooted prejudices and irrational frenzies overbalance the judgment, making him incapable of estimating the hazards and the chances of his enterprise; he is as well aware of the perils that beset his path as the coolest and craftiest of his worldly adversaries. Thanks to his natural quickness of perception, his developed faculty of reflection, he is fully alive to the probable consequences of perpetually thwarting the popular will, of taking up a position of permanent resistance to the policy and the aims and the interests of the ruling classes. But while he has his mortal hopes and fears, his human capacity for anxiety and pain; while his heart bleeds at the sight of suffering, and aches for the woes that thickly crowd the field of his prophetic vision; his speech and his behaviour are dominated, upon the whole, by an altogether higher consciousness. His emotions may have their moments of mastery; at times they may overpower his fortitude, and lay him prostrate in an agony of lamentation and mourning and woe; at times they may even interpose clouds and darkness between the prophet and his vision of the Eternal; but these effects of mortality do not last: they shake but cannot loosen his grasp of spiritual realities; they cannot free him from the constraining influence of the Word of Iahvah. That word possesses, leads him captive, "triumphs over him," over all the natural resistance of flesh and blood; for he is "not as the many" (the false prophets) "who corrupt the Word of God; but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God, he speaks." {2 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 2:17}

And still, unless a man be thus impelled by the Spirit; unless he have counted the cost and is prepared to risk all for God; unless he be ready to face unpopularity and social contempt and persecution; unless he knows what it is to suffer for and with Jesus Christ; I doubt if he has any moral right to speak in that most holy Name. For if the all-mastering motive be absent, if the love of Christ constrain him not, how can his desires and his doings be such as the Unseen Judge will either approve or bless?

The fourth stanza explains why the prophet laboured, though vainly, to keep silence. It was because of the malicious reports of his utterances, which were carefully circulated by his watchful antagonists. They beset him on every side; like Pashchur, they were to him a "magor-missabib," an environing terror, {cf. Jeremiah 6:25} as they listened to his harangues, and eagerly invited each other to inform against him as a. traitor (The words "Inform ye, and let us inform against him!" or "Denounce ye, and let us denounce him!" may be an ancient gloss upon the term dibbah, " ill report," "calumny"; Genesis 37:2; Numbers 13:32; Job 17:5. For the construction, cf. Job 31:37. They spoil the symmetry of the line. That dibbah really means "defaming," or "slander," appears not only from the passages in which it occurs, but also from the Arabic dabub, " one who creeps about with slander," from dabba, " to move gently or slowly about." The Hebrews ragal, riggel, " to go about slandering," and rakil, " slander," are analogous).

And not only open enemies thus conspired for the prophet’s destruction. Even professed friends {for the phrase, cf. Jeremiah 38:22; Psalms 41:10} were treacherously watchful to catch him tripping. {cf. Jeremiah 9:2; Jeremiah 12:6} Those on whom he had a natural claim for sympathy and protection, bore a secret and determined grudge against him. His unpopularity was complete, and his position full of peril. We have in the thirty-first and several of the following psalms outpourings of feeling under circumstances very similar to those of Jeremiah on the present occasion, even if they were not actually written by him at the same crisis in his career, as certain striking coincidences of expression seem to suggest. {Jeremiah 20:10; cf. Psalms 31:13; Psalms 35:15; Psalms 38:17; Psalms 41:9; Jeremiah 20:13 with Psalms 35:9-10}

The prophet closes his psalm-like monologue with an act of faith. He remembers that he has a Champion who is mightier than a thousand enemies. Iahvah is with him, not with them; {cf. 2 Kings 6:16} their plots, therefore, are foredoomed to failure, and themselves to the vengeance of a righteous God. {Jeremiah 11:20} The last words are an exultant anticipation of deliverance.

We thus see that the whole piece, like a previous one, {Jeremiah 15:10-21} begins with cursing and ends with an assurance of blessing.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 20". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jeremiah-20.html.
Ads FreeProfile