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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 40

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-16



Jeremiah 39:1-18; Jeremiah 40:1-16; Jeremiah 41:1-18; Jeremiah 52:1-34

"Then arose Ishmael ben Nethaniah, and the ten men that were with him, and smote with the sword and slew

Gedaliah ben Ahikam ben Shaphan, whom the king of Babylon had made king over the land." Jeremiah 41:2

WE now pass to the concluding period of Jeremiah’s ministry. His last interview with Zedekiah was speedily followed by the capture of Jerusalem. With that catastrophe the curtain falls upon another act in the tragedy of the prophet’s life. Most of the chief dramatis personae make their final exit; only Jeremiah and Baruch remain. King and princes, priests and prophets, pass to death or captivity, and new characters appear to play their part for a while upon the vacant stage.

We would gladly know how Jeremiah fared on that night when the city was stormed, and Zedekiah and his army stole out in a vain attempt to escape beyond Jordan. Our book preserves two brief but inconsistent narratives of his fortunes.

One is contained in Jeremiah 39:11-14. Nebuchadnezzar, we must remember, was not present in person with the besieging army. His headquarters were at Riblah, far away in the north. He had, however, given special instructions concerning Jeremiah to Nebuzaradan, the general commanding the forces before Jerusalem: "Take him, and look well to him, and do him no harm; but do with him even as he shall say unto thee."

Accordingly Nebuzaradan and all the king of Babylon’s princes sent and took Jeremiah out of the court of the guard, and committed him to Gedaliah ben Ahikam ben Shaphan, to take him to his house. And Jeremiah dwelt among the people.

This account is not only inconsistent with that given in the next chapter, but it also represents Nebuzaradan as present when the city was taken, whereas, later on, {Jeremiah 52:6-12} we are told that he did not come upon the scene till a month later. For these and similar reasons, this version of the story is generally considered the less trustworthy. It apparently grew up at a time when the other characters and interests of the period had been thrown into the shade by the reverent recollection of Jeremiah and his ministry. It seemed natural to suppose that Nebuchadnezzar was equally preoccupied with the fortunes of the great prophet who had consistently preached obedience to his authority. The section records the intense reverence which the Jews of the Captivity felt for Jeremiah. We are more likely, however, to get a true idea of what happened by following the narrative in chapter 40.

According to this account, Jeremiah was not at once singled out for any exceptionally favourable treatment. When Zedekiah and the soldiers had left the city, there can have been no question of further resistance. The history does not mention any massacre by the conquerors, but we may probably accept Lamentations 2:20-21, as a description of the sack of Jerusalem:-

"Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord?

The youth and the old man lie on the ground in the streets;

My virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword:

Thou hast slain them in the day of Thine anger;

Thou hast slaughtered, and not pitied."

Yet the silence of Kings and Jeremiah as to all this, combined with their express statements as to captives, indicates that the Chaldean generals did not order a massacre, but rather sought to take prisoners. The soldiers would not be restrained from a certain slaughter in the heat of their first breaking into the city; but prisoners had a market value, and were provided for by the practice of deportation which Babylon had inherited from Nineveh. Accordingly the soldiers’ lust for blood was satiated or bridled before they reached Jeremiah’s prison. The court of the guard probably formed part of the precincts of the palace, and the Chaldean commanders would at once secure its occupants for Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah was taken with other captives and put in chains. If the dates in Jeremiah 52:6; Jeremiah 52:12, be correct, he must have remained a prisoner till the arrival of Nebuzaradan, a month later on. He was then a witness of the burning of the city and the destruction of the fortifications, and was carrried with the other captives to Ramah. Here the Chaldean general found leisure to inquire into the deserts of individual prisoners and to decide how they should be treated. He would be aided in this task by the Jewish refugees from whose ridicule Zedekiah had shrunk, and they would at once inform him of the distinguished sanctity of the prophet and of the conspicuous services he had rendered to the Chaldean cause.

Nebuzaradan at once acted upon their representations. He ordered Jeremiah’s chains to be removed, gave him full liberty to go where he pleased, and assured him of the favour and protection of the Chaldean government:-

"If it seem good unto thee to come with me into Babylon, come, and I will look well unto thee; but if it seem ill unto thee to come with me into Babylon, forbear: behold, all the land is before thee; go whithersoever it seemeth to thee good and right."

These words are, however, preceded by two remarkable verses. For the nonce, the prophet’s mantle seems to have fallen upon the Chaldean soldier. He speaks to his auditor just as Jeremiah himself had been wont to address his erring fellow countrymen:-

"Thy God Jehovah pronounced this evil upon this place: and Jehovah hath brought it, and done according as He spake; because ye have sinned against Jehovah, and have not obeyed His voice, therefore this thing is come unto you."

Possibly Nebuzaradan did not include Jeremiah personally in the "ye" and "you"; and yet a prophet’s message is often turned upon himself in this fashion. Even in our day outsiders will not be at the trouble to distinguish between one Christian and another, and will often denounce a man for his supposed share in Church abuses he has strenuously combated.

We need not be surprised that a heathen noble can talk like a pious Jew. The Chaldeans were eminently religious, and their worship of Bel and Merodach may often have been as spiritual and sincere as the homage paid by most Jews to Jehovah. The Babylonian creed could recognise that a foreign state might have its own legitimate deity and would suffer for disloyalty to him. Assyrian and Chaldean kings were quite willing to accept the prophetic doctrine that Jehovah had commissioned them to punish this disobedient people. Still Jeremiah must have been a little taken aback when one of the cardinal points of his own teaching was expounded to him by so strange a preacher; but he was too prudent to raise any discussion on the matter, and too chivalrous to wish to establish his own rectitude at the expense of his brethren. Moreover he had to decide between the two alternatives offered him by Nebuzaradan. Should he go to Babylon or remain in Judah?

According to a suggestion of Gratz, accepted by Cheyne, Jeremiah 15:10-21 is a record of the inner struggle through which Jeremiah came to a decision on this matter. The section is not very clear, but it suggests that at one time it seemed Jehovah’s will that he should go to Babylon, and that it was only after much hesitation that he was convinced that God required him to remain in Judah. Powerful motives drew him in either direction. At Babylon he would reap the full advantage of Nebuchadnezzar’s favour, and would enjoy the order and culture of a great capital. He would meet with old friends and disciples, amongst the rest Ezekiel. He would find an important sphere for ministry amongst the large Jewish community in Chaldea, where the flower of the whole nation was now in exile. In Judah he would have to share the fortunes of a feeble and suffering remnant, and would be exposed to all the dangers and disorder consequent on the break up of the national government-brigandage on the part of native guerilla band’s and raids by the neighbouring tribes. These guerilla bands were the final effort of Jewish resistance, and would seek to punish as traitors those who accepted the dominion of Babylon.

On the other hand, Jeremiah’s surviving enemies, priests, prophets, and princes, had been taken en masse to Babylon. On his arrival he would find himself again plunged into the old controversies. Many, if not the majority, of his countrymen there would regard him as a traitor. The protege of Nebuchadnezzar was sure to be disliked and distrusted by his less fortunate brethren. And Jeremiah was not a born courtier like Josephus. In Judah, moreover, he would be amongst friends of his own way of thinking; the remnant left behind had been placed under the authority of his friend Gedaliah, the son of his former protector Ahikam, the grandson of his ancient ally Shaphan. He would be free from the anathemas of corrupt priests and the contradiction of false prophets. The advocacy of true religion amongst the exiles might safely be left to Ezekiel and his school.

But probably the motives that decided Jeremiah’s course of action were, firstly, that devoted attachment to the sacred soil which was a passion with every earnest Jew; and, secondly, the inspired conviction that Palestine was to be the scene of the future development of revealed religion. This conviction was coupled with the hope that the scattered refugees who were rapidly gathering at Mizpah under Gedaliah might lay the foundations of a new community, which should become the instrument of the divine purpose. Jeremiah was no deluded visionary, who would suppose that the destruction of Jerusalem had exhausted God’s judgments, and that the millennium would forthwith begin for the special and exclusive benefit of his surviving companions in Judah. Nevertheless, while there was an organised Jewish community left on native soil, it would be regarded as the heir of the national religious hopes and aspirations, and a prophet, with liberty of choice, would feel it his duty to remain.

Accordingly Jeremiah decided to join Gedaliah. Nebuzaradan gave him food and a present, and let him go.

Gedaliah’s headquarters were at Mizpah, a town not certainly identified, but lying somewhere to the northwest of Jerusalem, and playing an important part in the history of Samuel and Saul. Men would remember the ancient record which told how the first Hebrew king had been divinely appointed at Mizpah, and might regard the coincidence as a happy omen that Gedaliah would found a kingdom more prosperous and permanent than that which traced its origin to Saul.

Nebuzaradan had left with the new governor "men, women, and children of them that were not carried away captive to Babylon." These were chiefly of the poorer sort, but not altogether, for among them were "royal princesses" and doubtless others belonging to the ruling classes. Apparently after these arrangements had been made the Chaldean forces were almost entirely withdrawn, and Gedaliah was left to cope with the many difficulties of the situation by his own unaided resources. For a time all went well. It seemed at first as if the scattered bands of Jewish soldiers still in the field would submit to the Chaldean government and acknowledge Gedaliah’s authority. Various captains with their bands came to him at Mizpah, amongst them Ishmael ben Nethaniah, Johanan ben Kareah and his brother Jonathan. Gedaliah swore to them that they should be pardoned and protected by the Chaldeans. He confirmed them in their possession of the towns and districts they had occupied after the departure of the enemy. They accepted his assurance, and their alliance with him seemed to guarantee the safety and prosperity of the settlement. Refugees from Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, and all the neighbouring countries flocked to Mizpah, and busied themselves in gathering in the produce of the oliveyards and vineyards which had been left ownerless when the nobles were slain or carried away captive. Many of the poorer Jews revelled in such unwonted plenty, and felt that even national ruin had its compensations.

Tradition has supplemented what the sacred record tells us of this period in Jeremiah’s history. We are told that "it is also found in the records that the prophet Jeremiah" commanded the exiles to take with them fire from the altar of the Temple, and further exhorted them to observe the law and to abstain from idolatry; and that "it was also contained in the same writing, that the prophet, being warned of God, commanded the tabernacle and the ark to go with him, as he went forth unto the mountain, where Moses climbed up, and saw the heritage of God. And when Jeremiah came thither, he found a hollow cave, wherein he laid the tabernacle and the ark and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. And some of those that followed him came to mark the way, but they could not find it: which when Jeremiah perceived he blamed them, saying, As for that place, it shall be unknown until the time that God gather His people again together and receive them to His mercy."

A less improbable tradition is that which narrates that Jeremiah composed the Book of Lamentations shortly after the capture of the city. This is first stated by the Septuagint; it has been adopted by the Vulgate and various Rabbinical authorities, and has received considerable support from Christian scholars. Moreover, as the traveller leaves Jerusalem by the Damascus Gate, he passes great stone quarries, where Jeremiah’s Grotto is still pointed out as the place where the prophet composed his elegy.

Without entering into the general question of the authorship of Lamentations, we may venture to doubt whether it can be referred to any period of Jeremiah’s life which is dealt with in our book: and even whether it accurately represents his feelings at any such period. During the first month that followed the capture of Jerusalem the Chaldean generals held the city and its inhabitants at the disposal of their king. His decision was uncertain; it was by no means a matter of course that he would destroy the city. Jerusalem had been spared by Pharaoh Necho after the defeat of Josiah, and by Nebuchadnezzar after the revolt of Jehoiakim. Jeremiah and the other Jews must have been in a state of extreme suspense as to their own fate and that of their city, very different from the attitude of Lamentations. This suspense was ended when Nebuzaradan arrived and proceeded to burn the city. Jeremiah witnessed the fulfilment of his own prophecies when Jerusalem was thus overtaken by the ruin he had so often predicted. As he stood there chained amongst the other captives, many of his neighbours must have felt towards him as we should feel towards an anarchist gloating over the spectacle of a successful dynamite explosion; and Jeremiah could not be ignorant of their sentiments. His own emotions would be sufficiently vivid, but they would not be so simple as those of the great elegy. Probably they were too poignant to be capable of articulate expression; and the occasion was not likely to be fertile in acrostics.

Doubtless when the venerable priest and prophet looked from Ramah or Mizpah towards the blackened ruins of the Temple and the Holy City, he was possessed by something of the spirit of Lamentations. But from the moment when he went to Mizpah he would be busily occupied in assisting Gedaliah in his gallant effort to gather the nucleus of a new Israel out of the flotsam and jetsam of the shipwreck of Judah. Busy with this work of practical beneficence, his unconquerable spirit already possessed with visions of a brighter future, Jeremiah could not lose himself in mere regrets for the past.

He was doomed to experience yet another disappointment. Gedaliah had only held his office for about two months, when he was warned by Johanan ben Kareah and the other captains that Ishmael ben Nethaniah had been sent by Baalis, king of the Ammonites, to assassinate him. Gedaliah refused to believe them. Johanan, perhaps surmising that the governor’s incredulity was assumed, came to him privately and proposed to anticipate Ishmael: "Let me go, I pray thee, and slay Ishmael ben Nethaniah, and no one shall know it: wherefore should he slay thee, that all the Jews which are gathered unto thee should be scattered, and the remnant of Judah perish? But Gedaliah ben Ahikam said unto Johanan ben Kareah, Thou shalt not do this thing: for thou speakest falsely of Ishmael."

Gedaliah’s misplaced confidence soon had fatal consequences. In the second month, about October, the Jews in the ordinary course of events would have celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, to return thanks for their plentiful ingathering of grapes, olives, and summer fruit. Possibly this occasion gave Ishmael a pretext for visiting Mizpah. He came thither with ten nobles who, like himself, were connected with the royal family and probably were among the princes who persecuted Jeremiah. This small and distinguished company could not be suspected of intending to use violence. Ishmael seemed to be reciprocating Gedaliah’s confidence by putting himself in the governor’s power. Gedaliah feasted his guests. Johanan and the other captains were not present; they had done what they could to save him, but they did not wait to share the fate which he was bringing on himself.

"Then arose Ishmael ben Nethaniah and his ten companions and smote Gedaliah ben Ahikamand all the Jewish and Chaldean soldiers that were with him at Mizpah."

Probably the eleven assassins were supported by a larger body of followers, who waited outside the city and made their way in amidst the confusion consequent on the murder; doubtless, too, they had friends amongst Gedaliah’s entourage. These accomplices had first lulled any suspicions that he might feel as to Ishmael, and had then helped to betray their master.

Not contented with the slaughter which he had already perpetrated, Ishmael took measures to prevent the news getting abroad, and lay in wait for any other adherents of Gedaliah who might come to visit him. He succeeded in entrapping a company of eighty men from Northern Israel: ten were allowed to purchase their lives by revealing hidden stores of wheat, barley, oil, and honey; the rest were slain and thrown into an ancient pit, "which King Asa had made for fear of Baasha king of Israel."

These men were pilgrims, who came with shaven chins and torn clothes, "and having cut themselves, bringing meal offerings and frankincense to the house of Jehovah." The pilgrims were doubtless on their way to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles: with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, all the joy of their festival would be changed to mourning and its songs to wailing. Possibly they were going to lament on the site of the ruined temple. But Mizpah itself had an ancient sanctuary. Hosea speaks of the priests, princes, and people of Israel as having been "a snare on Mizpah." Jeremiah may have sanctioned the use of this local temple, thinking that Jehovah would "set His name there" till Jerusalem was restored even as He had dwelt at Shiloh before He chose the City of David. But to whatever shrine these pilgrims were journeying, their errand should have made them sacrosanct to all Jews. Ishmael’s hypocrisy, treachery, and cruelty in this matter go far to justify Jeremiah’s bitterest invectives against the princes of Judah.

But after this bloody deed it was high time for Ishmael to be gone and betake himself back to his heathen patron, Baalis the Ammonite. These massacres could not long be kept a secret. And yet Ishmael seems to have made a final effort to suppress the evidence of his crimes. In his retreat he carried with him all the people left in Mizpah, "soldiers, women, children, and eunuchs," including the royal princesses, and apparently Jeremiah and Baruch. No doubt be hoped to make money out of his prisoners by selling them as slaves or holding them to ransom. He had not ventured to slay Jeremiah: the prophet had not been present at the banquet and had thus escaped the first fierce slaughter, and Ishmael shrank from killing in cold blood the man whose predictions, of ruin had been so exactly and awfully fulfilled by the recent destruction of Jerusalem.

When Johanan ben Kareah and the other captains heard how entirely Ishmael had justified their warning, they assembled their forces and started in pursuit. Ishmael’s band seems to have been comparatively small, and was moreover encumbered by the disproportionate number of captives with which they had burdened themselves. They were overtaken "by the great waters that are in Gibeon," only a very short distance from Mizpah.

However Ishmael’s original following of ten may have been reinforced, his band cannot have been very numerous and was manifestly inferior to Johanan’s forces. In face of an enemy of superior strength, Ishmael’s only chance of escape was to leave his prisoners to their own devices-he had not even time for another massacre. The captives at once turned round and made their way to their deliverer. Ishmael’s followers seem to have been scattered, taken captive, or slain, but he himself escaped with eight men-possibly eight of the original ten-and found refuge with the Ammonites.

Johanan and his companions with the recovered captives made no attempt to return to Mizpah. The Chaldeans would exact a severe penalty for the murder of their governor Gedaliah, and their own fellow countrymen: their vengeance was not likely to be scrupulously discriminating. The massacre would be regarded as an act of rebellion on the part of the Jewish community in Judah, and the community would be punished accordingly. Johanan and his whole company determined that when the day of retribution came the Chaldeans should find no one to punish. They set out for Egypt, the natural asylum of the enemies of Babylon. On the way they halted in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem at a caravanserai which bore the name of Chimham, {2 Samuel 19:31-40} the son of David’s generous friend Barzillai. So far the fugitives had acted on their first impulse of dismay; now they paused to take breath, to make a more deliberate survey of their situation, and to mature their plans for the future.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 40". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jeremiah-40.html.
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