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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 5

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-31

; Jeremiah 5:1-31; Jeremiah 6:1-30



Jeremiah 4:3 - Jeremiah 6:30

IF we would understand what is written here and elsewhere in the pages of prophecy, two things would seem to be requisite. We must prepare ourselves with some knowledge of the circumstances of the time, and we must form some general conception of the ideas and aims of the inspired writer, both in themselves, and in their relation to passing events. Of the former, a partial and fragmentary knowledge may suffice, provided it be true so far as it goes; minuteness of detail is not necessary to general accuracy. Of the latter, a very full and complete conception may be gathered from a careful study of the prophetic discourses.

The chapters before us were obviously composed in the presence of a grave national danger; and what that danger was is not left uncertain, as the discourse proceeds. An invasion of the country appeared to be imminent; the rumour of approaching war had already made itself heard in the capital; and all classes were terror stricken at the tidings.

As usual in such times of peril, the country people were already abandoning the unwalled towns and villages, to seek refuge in the strong places of the land, and, above all, in Jerusalem, which was at once the capital and the principal fortress of the kingdom. The evil news had spread far and near; the trumpet signal of alarm was heard everywhere; the cry was, "Assemble yourselves, and let us go into the fenced cities!" {Jeremiah 4:5}

The ground of this universal terror is thus declared: "The lion is gone up from his thicket, and the destroyer of nations is on his way, is gone forth from his place; to make thy land a desolation, that thy cities be laid waste, without inhabitant" (Jeremiah 4:7). "A hot blast over the bare hills in the wilderness, on the road to the daughter of my people, not for winnowing, nor for cleansing; a full blast from those hills cometh at My beck" (Jeremiah 4:11). "Lo, like clouds he cometh up, and, like the whirlwind, his chariots; swifter than vultures are his horses. Woe unto us! We are verily destroyed" (Jeremiah 4:13). "Besiegers" {lit. "watchmen," Isaiah 1:8} "are coming from the remotest land, and they utter their cry against the cities of Judah. Like keepers of a field become they against her on every side" (Jeremiah 4:16-17). At the same time, the invasion is still only a matter of report; the blow has not yet fallen upon the trembling people. "Behold, I am about to bring upon you a nation from afar, O house of Israel, saith Iahvah; an inexhaustible nation it is, a nation of old time it is, a nation whose tongue thou knowest not, nor understandest (lit. ‘hearest’) what it speaketh. Its quiver is like an opened grave; they all are heroes. And it will eat up thine harvest and thy bread, which thy sons and thy daughters should eat; it will eat up thy flock and thine herd; it will eat up thy vine and thy fig tree; it will shatter thine embattled cities, wherein thou art trusting, with the sword." {Jeremiah 5:15-17} "Thus hath Iahvah said: Lo, a people cometh from a northern land, and a great nation is awaking from the uttermost parts of earth. Bow and lance they hold; savage it is, and pitiless; the sound of them is like the sea, when it roareth; and on horses they ride; he is arrayed as a man for battle, against thee, O daughter of Zion. We have heard the report of him; our hands droop; anguish hath taken hold of us, throes, like hers that travaileth". {Jeremiah 6:22 sq.} With the graphic force of a keen observer, who is also a poet, the priest of Anathoth has thus depicted for all time the collapse of terror which befell his contemporaries, on the rumoured approach of the Scythians in the reign of Josiah. And his lyric fervour carries him beyond this; it enables him to see with the utmost distinctness the havoc wrought by these hordes of savages; the surprise of cities, the looting of houses, the flight of citizens to the woods and the hills at the approach of the enemy; the desertion of the country towns, the devastation of fields and vineyards, confusion and desolation everywhere, as though primeval chaos had returned; and he tells it all with the passion and intensity of one who is relating an actual personal experience. "In my vitals, my vitals, I quake, in the walls of my heart! My heart is murmuring to me; I cannot hold my peace; for my soul is listening to the trumpet blast, the alarm of war! Ruin on ruin is cried, for all the land is ravaged; suddenly are my tents ravaged, my pavilions in a moment! How long must I see the standards, must I listen to the trumpet blast?" {Jeremiah 4:19-21} "I look at the earth, and lo, ‘tis chaos: at the heavens, and their light is no more. I look at the mountains, and lo, they rock, and all the hills sway to and fro. I look, and lo, man is no more, and the birds of the air are gone. I look, and 1o, the fruitful soil is wilderness, and all the cities of it are overthrown". {Jeremiah 4:23-26} "At the noise of horseman and archer all the city is in flight! They are gone into the thickets, and up the rocks they have clomb: all the city is deserted" (Jeremiah 4:29). His eye follows the course of devastation until it reaches Jerusalem: Jerusalem, the proud, luxurious capital, now isolated on her hills, bereft of all her daughter cities, abandoned, even betrayed, by her foreign allies. "And thou, that art doomed to destruction, what canst thou do? Though thou clothe thee in scarlet, though thou deck thee with decking of gold, though thou broaden thine eyes with henna, in vain dost thou make thyself fair; the lovers have scorned thee, thy life are they seeking." The "lovers"-the false foreigners-have turned against her in the time of her need; and the strange gods, with whom she dallied in the days of prosperity, can bring her no help. And now, while she witnesses, but cannot avert the slaughter of her children, her shrieks ring in the prophet’s ear: "A cry, as of one in travail, do I hear; pangs as of her that beareth her firstborn; the cry of the daughter of Zion, that panteth, that. spreadeth out her hands: Woe’s me! my soul swooneth for the slayers!" (Jeremiah 4:30-31)

Even the strong walls of Jerusalem are no sure defence; there is no safety but in flight. "Remove your goods, ye sons of Benjamin, from within Jerusalem! And in Tekoah" (as if Blaston or Blowick or Trumpington) "blow a trumpet blast and upon Bethhakkerem raise a signal (or ‘beacon’)! for evil hath looked forth from the north, and mighty ruin". {Jeremiah 6:1-2} The two towns mark the route of the fugitives, making for the wilderness of the south; and the trumpet call, and the beacon light, muster the scattered companies at these rallying points or halting places. "The beautiful and the pampered one will I destroy-the daughter of Sion." (Perhaps: "The beautiful and the pampered woman art thou like, O daughter of Sion!" 3d fem. sing. in i.) "To her come the shepherds and their flocks; they pitch the tents upon her round about; they graze each at his own side" (i.e., on the ground nearest him). The figure changes, with lyric abruptness, from the fair woman, enervated by luxury (Jeremiah 6:2) to the fair pasture land, on which the nomad shepherds encamp, whose flocks soon eat the herbage down, and leave the soil stripped bare (Jeremiah 6:3); and then, again, to an army beleaguering the fated city, whose cries of mutual cheer, and of impatience at all delay, the poet-prophet hears and rehearses. "Hallow ye war against her! Arise ye, let us go up" (to the assault) "at noontide! Unhappy we! the day hath turned; the shadows of eventide begin to lengthen! Arise ye, and let us go up in the night, to destroy her palaces!" (Jeremiah 6:4-5).

As a fine example of poetical expression, the discourse obviously has its own intrinsic value. The author’s power to sketch with a few bold strokes the magical effect of a disquieting rumour; the vivid force with which he realises the possibilities of ravage and ruin which are wrapped up in those vague, uncertain tidings; the pathos and passion of his lament over his stricken country, stricken as yet to his perception only; the tenderness of feeling; the subtle sweetness of language; the variety of metaphor; the light of imagination illuminating the whole with its indefinable charm; all these characteristics indicate the presence and power of a master singer. But with Jeremiah, as with his predecessors, the poetic expression of feeling is far from being an end in itself. He writes with a purpose to which all the endowments of his gifted nature are freely and resolutely subordinated. He values his powers as a poet and orator solely as instruments which conduce to an efficient utterance of the will of Iahvah. He is hardly conscious of these gifts as such. He exists to. "declare in the house of Jacob and to publish in Judah" the word of the Lord.

It is in this capacity that he now comes forward, and addresses his terrified countrymen, in terms not calculated to allay their fears with soothing suggestions of comfort and reassurance, but rather deliberately chosen with a view to heightening those fears, and deepening them to a sense of approaching judgment. For, after all, it is not the rumoured coming of the Scythian hordes that impels him to break silence. It is his consuming sense of the moral degeneracy, the spiritual degradation of his countrymen, which flames forth into burning utterance. "Whom shall I address and adjure, that they may hear? Lo, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken; lo, the word of Iahvah hath become to them a reproach; they delight not therein. And of the fury of Iahvah I am full; I am weary of holding it in." Then the other voice in his heart answers: "Pour thou it forth upon the child in the street, and upon the company of young men together!". {Jeremiah 6:10-11} It is the righteous indignation of an offended God that wells up from his heart, and overflows at his lips, and cries woe, irremediable woe, upon the land he loves better than his own life.

He begins with encouragement and persuasion, but his tone soon changes to denunciation and despair. {Jeremiah 4:3 sq.} "Thus hath Iahvah said to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem, Break you up the fallows, and sow not into thorns! Circumcise yourselves to Iahvah, and remove the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem! lest My fury come forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your doings." Clothed with the Spirit, as Semitic speech might express it, his whole soul enveloped in a garment of heavenly light-a magical garment whose virtues impart new force as well as new light-the prophet sees straight to the heart of things, and estimates with God-given certainty the real state of his people, and the moral worth of their seeming repentance. The first measures of Josiah’s reforming zeal have been inaugurated; at least within the limits of the capital, idolatry in its coarser and more repellent forms has been suppressed; there is a show of return to the God of Israel. But the popular heart is still wedded to the old sanctuaries, and the old sensuous rites of Canaan; and, worse than this, the priests and prophets, whose centre of influence was the one great sanctuary of the Book of the Law, the temple at Jerusalem, have simply taken advantage of the religious reformation for their own purposes of selfish aggrandisement. "From the youngest to the oldest of them, they all ply the trade of greed; and from prophet to priest, they all practise lying. And they have repaired the ruin of (the daughter) of my people in light fashion, saying, It is well, it is well! though it be not well". {Jeremiah 6:13-14} The doctrine of the one legitimate sanctuary, taught with disinterested earnestness by the disciples of Isaiah, and enforced by that logic of events which had demonstrated the feebleness of the local holy places before the Assyrian destroyers, had now come to be recognised as a convenient buttress of the private gains of the Jerusalem priesthood and the venal prophets who supported their authority. The strong current of national reform had been utilised for the driving of their private machinery; and the sole outcome of the self-denying efforts and sufferings of the past appeared to be the enrichment of these grasping and unscrupulous worldlings who sat, like an incubus, upon the heart of the national church. So long as money flowed steadily into their coffers, they were eager enough to reassure the doubting, and to dispel all misgivings by their deceitful oracle that all was well. So long as trading in things Divine, to the utter neglect of the higher obligations of the moral law, was simply appalling to the sensitive conscience of the true prophet of that degenerate age. "A strange and a startling thing it is, that is come to pass in the land. The prophets, they have prophesied in the Lie, and the priests, they tyrannise under their direction; and My people, they love it thus; and what will ye do for the issue thereof?". {Jeremiah 5:30-31} For such facts must have an issue; and the present moral and spiritual ruin of the nation points with certainty to impending ruin in the material and political sphere. The two things go together; you cannot have a decline of faith, a decay of true religion, and permanent outward prosperity; that issue is incompatible with the eternal laws which regulate the life and progress of humanity. One sits in the heavens, over all things from the beginning, to whom all stated worship is a hideous offence when accompanied by hypocrisy and impurity and fraud and violence in the ordinary relations of life. "What good to me is incense that cometh from Sheba, and the choice calamus from a far country? your burnt offerings" (holocausts) "are not acceptable, and your sacrifices are not sweet unto Me." Instead of purchasing safety, they will ensure perdition: "Therefore thus hath Iahvah said: Lo, I am about to lay for this people stumbling blocks, and they shall stumble upon them, fathers and sons together, a neighbour and his friend; and they shall perish." {Jeremiah 6:20 sq.}

In the early days of reform, indeed, Jeremiah himself appears to have shared in the sanguine views associated with a revival of suspended orthodoxy. The tidings of imminent danger were a surprise to him, as to the zealous worshippers who thronged the courts of the temple. So then, after all, "the burning anger of Iahvah was not turned away" by the outward tokens of penitence, by the lavish gifts of devotion; this unexpected and terrifying rumour was a call for the resumption of the garb of mourning and for the renewal of those public fasts which had marked the initial stages of reformation. {Jeremiah 4:8} The astonishment and the disappointment of the man assert themselves against the inspiration of the prophet, when, contemplating the helpless bewilderment of kings and princes, and the stupefaction of priests and prophets in face of the national calamities, he breaks out into remonstrances with God. "And I said, Alas, O Lord Iahvah! of a truth, Thou hast utterly beguiled this people and Jerusalem, saying, It shall be well with you; whereas the sword will reach to the life." The allusion is to the promises contained in the Book of the Law, the reading of which had so powerfully conduced to the movement for reform. That book had been the text of the prophet preachers, who were most active in that work; and the influence of its ideas and language upon Jeremiah himself is apparent in all his early discourses.

The prophet’s faith, however, was too deeply rooted to be more than momentarily shaken; and it soon told him that the evil tidings were evidence not of unfaithfulness or caprice in Iahvah, but of the hypocrisy and corruption of Israel. With this conviction upon him he implores the populace of the capital to substitute an inward and real for an outward and delusive purification. "Break up the fallows!" Do not dream that any adequate reformation can be superinduced upon the mere surface of life: "Sow not among thorns!" Do not for one moment believe that the word of God can take root and bear fruit in the hard soil of a heart that desires only to be secured in the possession of present enjoyments, in immunity for self indulgence, covetousness, and oppression of the poor. "Wash thine heart from wickedness, O Jerusalem! that thou mayst be saved. How long shall the schemings of thy folly lodge within thee? For hark! one declareth from Dan, and proclaimeth folly from the hills of Ephraim". {Jeremiah 4:14 sq.} The "folly" (‘awen) is the foolish hankering after the gods which are nothing in the world but a reflection of the diseased fancy of their worshippers; for it is always true that man makes his god in his own image, when he does make him, and does not receive the knowledge of him by revelation. It was a folly inveterate and, as it would seem, hereditary in Israel, going back to the times of the Judges, . and recalling the story of Micah the Ephraimite and the Danites who stole his images. That ancient sin still cried to heaven for vengeance; for the apostatising tendency, which it exemplified, was still active in the heart of Israel. The nation had "rebelled against" the Lord, for it was foolish and had never really known Him; the people were silly children, and lacked insight; skilled only in doing wrong, and ignorant of the way to do right. {Jeremiah 4:22} Like the things they worshipped, they had eyes, but saw not; they had ears, but heard not. Enslaved to the empty terrors of their own imaginations, they, who cowered before dumb idols, stood untrembling in the awful presence of Him whose laws restrained the ocean within due limits, and upon whose sovereign will the fall of the rain and increase of the field depended. {Jeremiah 5:21-24} The popular blindness to the claims of the true religion, to the inalienable rights of the God of Israel, involved a corresponding and ever-increasing blindness to the claims of universal morality, to the rights of man. Competent observers have often called attention to the remarkable influence exercised by the lower forms of heathenism in blunting the moral sense; and this influence was fully illustrated in the case of Jeremiah’s contemporaries. So complete, so universal was the national decline that it seemed impossible to find one good man within the bounds of the capital. Every aim in life found illustration in those gay, crowded streets, in the bazaars, in the palaces, in the places by the gate where law was administered, except the aim of just and righteous and merciful dealing with one’s neighbour. God was ignored or misconceived of, and therefore man was wronged and oppressed. Perjury, even in the Name of the God of Israel, whose eyes regard faithfulness and sincerity, and whose favour is not to be won by professions and presents; a self-hardening against both Divine chastisement and prophetic admonition; a fatal inclination to the seductions of Canaanite worship and the violations of the moral law, which that worship permitted and even encouraged as pleasing to the gods; these vices characterised the entire population of Jerusalem in that dark period. "Run ye to and fro in the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek ye in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if indeed there be one that doeth justice, that seeketh sincerity; that I may pardon her. And if they say, By the life of Iahvah! Even so they swear falsely. Iahvah, are not thine eyes toward sincerity? Thou smotest them, and they trembled not; Thou consumedst them, they refused to receive instruction; they made their faces harder than a rock, they refused to repent. And for me, I said" (me thought), "These are but poor folk; they behave foolishly, because they know not the way of Iahvah, the justice" (Jeremiah 5:1) "of their God: let me betake myself to the great, and speak with them; for they at least know the way of Iahvah, the justice of their God: but these with one consent had broken the yoke, had burst the bonds in sunder". {Jeremiah 5:1-5}

Then, as now, the debasement of the standard of life among the ruling classes was a far more threatening symptom of danger to the commonwealth than laxity of principle among the masses, who had never enjoyed the higher knowledge and more thorough training which wealth and rank, as a matter of course, confer. If the crew turn drunken and mutinous, the ship is in unquestionable peril; but if they who have the guidance of the vessel in their hands follow the vices of those whom they should command and control, wreck and ruin are assured.

The profligacy allowed by heathenism, against which the prophets cried in vain, is forcibly depicted in the words: "Why should I pardon thee? Thy sons have forsaken Me, and have sworn by them that are no gods: though I had bound them" (to Me) "by oath, they committed" (spiritual) "adultery, and into the house of the Fornicatress" (the idol’s temple, where the harlot priestess sat for hire) "they would flock. Stallions roaming at large were they; neighing each to his neighbour’s wife. Shall I not punish such offences, saith Iahvah; and shall not My soul avenge herself on such a nation as this?" The cynical contempt of justice, the fraud and violence of those who were in haste to become rich, are set forth in the following: "Among My people are found godless men; one watcheth, as birdcatchers lurk; they have set the trap, they catch men. Like a cage filled with birds, so are their houses filled with fraud: therefore they are become great, and have amassed wealth. They are become fat, they are sleek; also they pass {Isaiah 40:27} cases {Exodus 22:9; Exodus 24:14; cf. also 1 Samuel 10:2} of wickedness-neglect to judge heinous crimes; the cause they judge not, the cause of the fatherless, to make it succeed; and the right of the needy they vindicate not". {Jeremiah 5:26-28}

"She is the city doomed to be punished! she is all oppression within. As a spring poureth forth its waters, so she poureth forth her wickedness; violence and oppression resound in her; before Me continually is sickness and wounds". {Jeremiah 6:6-7} There would seem to be no hope for such a people and such a city. The prophet, indeed, cannot forget the claims of kindred, the thousand ties of blood and feeling that bind him to this perverse and sinful nation. Thrice, even in this dark forecast of destruction, he mitigates severity with the promise, "yet will I not make a full end." The door is still left open, on the chance that some at least may be won to penitence. But the chance was small. The difficulty was, and the prophet’s yearning tenderness towards his people could not blind him to the fact that all the lessons of God’s providence were lost upon this reprobate race: "They have belied the Lord, and said, it is not He; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword and famine." The prophets, they insisted, were wrong both in the significance which they attributed to occasional calamities, and in the disasters which they announced as imminent: "The prophets will become wind, and the Word of God is not in them; so will it turn out with them." It was, therefore, wholly futile to appeal to their better judgment against themselves: "Thus said Iahvah, Stop on the ways, and consider, and ask after the eternal paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and find rest for your soul: and they said, We will not walk therein. And I will set over you watchmen" (the prophets); "hearken ye to the call of the trumpet!" (the warning note of prophecy) "and they said We will not hearken." For such wilful hardness and impenitence, disdaining correction and despising reproof, God appeals to the heathen themselves, and to the dumb earth, to attest the justice of His sentence of destruction against this people: "Therefore, hear, O ye nations, and know, and testify what is among them! Hear, O earth! Lo, I am about to bring evil upon this people, the fruit of their own devisings; for unto My words they have not hearkened, and as for Mine instruction, they have rejected it." Their doom was inevitable, for it was the natural and necessary consequence of their own doings: "Thine own way and thine own deeds have brought about these evils for thee; this is thine own evil; verily, it is bitter, verily, it reacheth unto thine heart." The discourse ends with a despairing glance at the moral reprobation of Israel. "An assayer did I make thee among My people, a refiner," {reading mecaref, Malachi 3:2-3} "that thou mightest know and assay their kind" (lit. way). Jeremiah’s call had been to "sit as a refiner and purifier of silver" in the name of his God: in other words, to separate the good elements from the bad in Israel, and to gather around himself the nucleus of a people "prepared for Iahvah." But his work had been vain. In vain had the prophetic fire burnt within him; in vain had the vehemency of the spirit fanned the flame; the Divine word-that solvent of hearts-had been expended in vain; no good metal could come of an ore so utterly base. "They are all the worst" {1 Kings 20:43} "of rebels" (or, "deserters to the rebels"), "going about with slander; they are brass and iron; they all deal corruptly. The bellows blow; the lead" (used for fining the ore) "is consumed by the fire; in vain do they go on refining" (or, "does the refiner refine"); "and the wicked are not separated. Refuse silver are they called, for Iahvah hath refused them."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jeremiah-5.html.
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