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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 17



Verses 1-4

The Depths Of Judah’s Sin And Its Consequences (Jeremiah 17:1-4).

The thought of what YHWH is going to do in the future brings Jeremiah back to the present to consider Judah’s current state and its consequences.

Jeremiah 17:1-2

“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron,

With the point of an adamant,

It is engraved on the tablet of their heart,

And on the horns of your altars,

Whilst their children remember their altars,

And their Asherim,

By the green trees,

On the high hills.”

The depths of Judah’s sin is vividly brought out by its being seen as deeply inscribed on the heart with an iron stylus which has the point of an adamant (or emery), an instrument which was used to inscribe in stone or metal. The ‘adamant’ or ‘emery’ was the hardest material then known in that area. (Diamonds are nowhere mentioned in Old Testament days, the first certain reference to them being by Manilius in 1st century AD). Thus their sin, especially the sin of idolatry, was seen as deeply inscribed. This was why it endured despite the efforts of reforming kings. It nullified the covenant in men’s hearts. Josiah could reform the Temple and desecrate the altars of Baal, but he could do nothing about the ancient natural sites known only to the locals. He could not remove them from the local memory, or eliminate the hold that they had on the hearts of the people.

And their sins were similarly inscribed on the horns of their altars (the upward protrusions on the four corners). Sacrifices for Baal were probably tied to them, and even the sacrificial blood smeared on them (as happened in the Temple with the offerings to YHWH). Every sacrifice that was offered, and every incense offering that was made, thus inscribed their sin more deeply. And its consequence was devastating, for it affected their children just as deeply. That is why their children also continued in their evil ways, ‘remembering’ their altars and their Asherim (either wooden poles or graven images representing Asherah) in the locally recognised sites under green trees or on the high hills. In this lay the problem for reformers. The ancient sites were mainly natural in formation, and while obvious altars could be broken up, the ancient sites were permanent natural sites and could not be removed, and the memory of them passed on in the local folklore, while Asherah poles were not always easily identifiable. Such shrines could be visited secretly at times of Yahwistic reform, and as soon as restrictions were lifted could blossom into open activity once more. Local superstition is often writ large on people’s hearts.

Some see ‘on the horns of your altars’ as referring to the bronze altar and the incense altar in the Temple, both of which would have the shed blood of sacrifices applied to their horns. The idea is then that this very act testifies against their hypocrisy and double-mindedness, emphasising their sin.

Jeremiah 17:3

O my mountain in the countryside,

I will give your substance and all your treasures for a spoil,

Your high places, because of sin,

Throughout all your borders.

But all this was taking place on ‘YHWH’s mountain’. This might indicate Jerusalem as YHWH’s mountain, but the mention of ‘borders’ suggests that it rather indicated the Central and Judean highlands, stretching from Mount Ephraim along to the Judean hills which initially represented the central bulk of Israel/Judah, and could be seen as including the Shephelah, the lower hills (see Exodus 15:17; Deuteronomy 3:25; Psalms 78:54; Ezekiel 20:40). A good deal of this had been under the control of Josiah at one stage, and Judah/Israel no doubt still saw it as ‘theirs’. If this is the case it was not only Jerusalem and the cities that were involved and were to be punished, but the whole countryside. And the result would be that the whole country would be despoiled, with all its substance and its treasures taken, whether from town or country, and the high places would be despoiled and would eventually be erased from the memories of their children when they were in the land of exile (which was one reason why exile was so necessary). After seventy years there would be no one left alive who remembered the ancient sanctuaries. This despoliation was the price of their seeking to the ancient sanctuaries and failing to hold to the covenant.

Jeremiah 17:4

“And you, even of yourself, will discontinue,

From your heritage that I gave you,

And I will cause you to serve your enemies,

In the land which you do not know,

For you have kindled a fire in my anger,

Which will burn for ever.

The people themselves would also be exiled. They would ‘discontinue from the land that they had inherited’, that YHWH had given them, and it would be their own doing and their own responsibility. The word rendered ‘discontinue’ indicated ceasing to use the land. And there in exile YHWH would cause them to serve their enemies in an unknown land. All this would be because they had kindled an unceasing, unquenchable fire in arousing the anger of YHWH. For many of them it would never cease, for as time passed they would cease to see themselves as Israelites, while even today this fire of God’s anger continues to burn, for what remains of cast out Israel (which is spoken of here) is still in unbelief.

The coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, would result in the formation of a new Israel, a new nation, founded on Him and on the believing remnant of Israel (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 21:43; John 15:1-6; Romans 11:17-28; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:9), an Israel which would incorporate Gentiles in large numbers. And the result of this was that what remained of unbelieving Israel were also ‘cast out’ and no longer counted as the Israel of the promises. They are not all Israel who were of Israel (Romans 9:6). As a whole therefore they remain under the permanent displeasure of YHWH. It is only by returning to Christ that they can once more become a part of the true Israel (Romans 11:17-28), the believing Israel (Jesus Christ’s ‘congregation’ - ekklesia - i.e. church) which does retain the promises as expanded in the New Testament.

Verses 5-11

The Cursings And The Blessings On Individuals (Jeremiah 17:5-11).

But not all of Judah will come under YHWH’s anger. Only those (the huge majority) who have turned from Him and forsaken Him and are under the curses described in Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28 ff. For them there will be barrenness and emptiness. But provision had to be made for those comparatively few who did truly respond to YHWH, and for them there is promised blessing and fruitfulness. They will flourish in the midst of the carnage, and this included a Jeremiah dragged to Egypt by refugees from Palestine. And whoever is to receive this blessing will be determined by the One Who searches the mind and tries the heart. (Which is why the wicked will end up with the partridge’s stolen eggs on their faces).

Thus in the midst of the outright condemnation of Judah and the declarations that YHWH would no more spare His erstwhile people, it was seen to be very necessary that a word be spoken explaining the position of those few who did remain true to him. And that is what we find here.

Jeremiah 17:5-6

“Thus says YHWH,

Cursed is the man who trusts in man,

And makes flesh his arm,

And whose heart departs from YHWH.”

“For he will be like the bare bush (or ‘destitute man’) in the desert,

And will not see when good comes,

But will inhabit the parched places in the wilderness,

A salt land and not inhabited.”

The nation as a whole having been cursed, the blessings and the cursings of the covenant are now applied to individuals revealing that in the end every man must be responsible for his own fate. Judah as whole is under the curse, as has already been made clear, and their situation, and the reason for it, is described here. But the following verses will then give the assurance that even in such a situation those who truly respond to YHWH will flourish. God never leaves Himself without a witness, and those who trust in Him will never be put to shame wherever they might find themselves (Daniel in Babylon, Ezekiel in Babylonia, Jeremiah in Egypt).

The man who is cursed is the one who, whoever he may be, trusts in man, and relies on human flesh because his heart has departed from YHWH. He is differentiated by the fact that he no longer genuinely looks to God but to human aid. His reliance is on alliances and on the ideas built up by his own political, religious and social environment, rather than on the ideas found in God’s covenant and God’s word. His trust is in man and in human resources. Such a man will be like a bare bush, or a destitute man (literally something or someone destitute), struggling to survive in the desert, and will see no good for it will pass him by. For him it will be as though he exists in the parched places in the wilderness, a place so salty that no one lives there (in mind is probably the salt lands around the Dead Sea). He is to be thirsty and without hope. That is to be his destiny.

(Interestingly in the future many of God’s true people will have to exist in precisely such places as they flee persecution (Hebrews 11:38), but that is not the point. The point is that for them the following verses will be true wherever they have to survive, whilst those who do not truly believe and respond to God will find themselves in such a desert in their innermost being even while they reside in king’s palaces).

Jeremiah 17:7-8

“Blessed is the man who trusts in YHWH,

And whose trust YHWH is.

For he will be as a tree planted by the waters,

Which spreads out its roots by the river,

And will not be afraid when heat comes,

But its leaf will be green,

And will not be careful in the year of drought,

Nor will cease from yielding fruit.”

In contrast is the man who is truly blessed (compare here Psalms 1:3). The man who is truly blessed, and will enjoy the blessing of God, is the man whose whole trust is in YHWH. YHWH means everything to him. He loves Him with heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). He will be like a tree planted by permanent waters, whose roots spread out to absorb the moisture from the ever-flowing river. Such a tree is not afraid of the heat (and even for the believing remnant the heat was coming), its leaf will continue to be green, and it will not be fearful of drought, nor will it cease from continually producing fruit. A similar idea is reflected in Psalms 1, and in the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. It was what John’s baptism illustrated. It is by their fruits that men will be known.

Thus it is clear from this that while political Jerusalem was so hidebound that there was no righteous person to be found there (Jeremiah 5:1), such righteous people could be found elsewhere in the land of Judah. Jeremiah was not alone.

Jeremiah 17:9

“The heart is deceitful above all things,

And it is exceedingly corrupt, who can know it?

But the vital question is, who will decide which among the people of Judah are the truly righteous? Who can discern who it is who truly trusts in YHWH? It is not a decision that can be made by Judah itself, nor by its priests and prophets. For all men in their hearts deceive themselves. When they face up to such issues their decisions are unreliable. This is because their hearts are so totally corrupt that they are no judges in the matter.

Indeed even at this time many in Judah would still loudly have proclaimed that they did trust in YHWH. It was true, they would have said, that they did participate in other religious activity, which was as it happened the ways of their fathers, and that they did follow other gods, but that did not mean that they had failed to maintain the Temple ritual and the priesthood, and to observe the feasts, even if somewhat watered down and ‘brought up to date’. They would thus have seen themselves as reasonably good Yahwists. But the truth was that they were deceiving themselves, because of the deceitfulness of their own hearts. For as far as YHWH was concerned only those who were wholly true to him were genuine Yahwists. And it was He alone Who knew men’s hearts and could test out their ways in order to get at the truth.

While these words do bring out well the sinfulness of man’s heart, and are true in that regard, the context requires that it is more than just a general statement about all men, for the context is distinguishing ‘the wicked’ from ‘the good’. Thus what it is bringing out is that man’s heart is so deceitful that he cannot be trusted to make a right judgment in that regard. We only have to think of the attitude of the more belligerent of the elders and Pharisees towards Jesus to recognise the truth of this fact.

Jeremiah 17:10

“I, YHWH, search the mind,

I try the heart,

Even to give every man according to his ways,

According to the fruit of his doings.”

For searching out men’s minds and trying their ways was exactly what He was about. It is YHWH, and YHWH alone, who can search the mind and try the heart so as to give to every man his deserts, and to reward him according to his fruitfulness. It is He alone Who ‘knows those who are His’ (2 Timothy 2:19), and can discern truth from false. And it was He alone Who would determine who was to be cursed and who was to be blessed.

Jeremiah 17:11

“As the partridge which sits on eggs,

Which she has not laid,

So is he who obtains riches,

And not by right,

In the midst of his days they will leave him,

And at his end he will be a fool.”

Thus those who were like partridges (or sand grouse) who sit on other birds’ eggs until they hatch, only to find themselves rejected by the fledglings, in other words who sought to make themselves prosperous and wealthy by unfair methods, will find in the midst of their days that their wealth will desert them and ‘reject’ them, and they will end up looking like a fool, and go to a fool’s end.

Direct appropriation of eggs by partridges or sand grouse has not been documented, but the idea of an unknown egg in a partridge nest may well have become folklore from observing cuckoo’s eggs laid in partridge nests, and what consequently followed when they hatched out. (Note that no explanation is given as to how the eggs got into the nest. It is only the general recognition that it happens and the consequence that is used as an illustration).

Verses 12-18

Jeremiah Establishes His Own Position And Calls For Vindication (Jeremiah 17:12-18).

Jeremiah exults in the glory of the significance of the Temple as YHWH’s throne, and as the one place where YHWH was to be truly worshipped, and declares that all who forsake Him will be put to shame, to which YHWH replies that all who forsake Him will perish (will be written in the earth), because they have deserted Him as the perennial spring of living water. This causes Jeremiah, aware of his own failings, to ask YHWH that he himself might be fully restored to total dedication.

He then explains how the people deride him by doubting his prophecies, but that he has neither sought to escape his responsibilities, nor tried to hurry the woeful prospective happening of events. And he asks that as YHWH knows him through and through and knows that he had spoken only what was pleasing to YHWH (it was spoken before His face) He will not cause him grief but will be his refuge in the day of trouble. In contrast he seeks that his enemies will indeed be caused grief, and will receive the punishment that is their due.

Jeremiah 17:12-13

‘A glorious throne, on high from the beginning,

Is the place of our sanctuary.

O YHWH, the hope of Israel,

All who forsake you will be put to shame.’

“Those who depart from me will be written in the earth,

Because they have forsaken YHWH, the fountain of living waters.”

In Jeremiah 3:17 it is Jerusalem which will be called the throne of YHWH, and this was an extension of the thought that the Ark in the Temple was His glorious throne (Jeremiah 14:21). This latter is what is in mind here. The ‘place of our sanctuary’ as spoken by Jeremiah can only signify the Temple, but ‘on high from the beginning’ emphasises that the glorious throne is to be seen as a ‘shadow’ of a greater reality. In the words of Solomon, ‘even the Heaven of Heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house which I have built’ (1 Kings 8:27). So the Ark represented His eternal throne beyond and above the Heavens (see 1 Kings 22:19; Psalms 2:4; Isaiah 66:1; Ezekiel 1:26; Daniel 7:9). And it was Judah’s privilege to house it. It was the guarantee of YHWH’s concern for Judah/Israel, and His watch over them. That was why He could be called ‘the hope of Israel’. But it was also a reminder of His invisible and constant presence with His people and a reminder that He therefore knew all that was going on. It was a reminder that His interest and concern could not be presumed on. And because He was present among them all who forsook Him, and who forsook true Temple worship and obedience to the covenant, could be sure that they would be put to shame (made ashamed).

Jeremiah’s analysis is confirmed by YHWH as He declares, “Those who depart from me will be written in the earth, because they have forsaken YHWH, the fountain of living waters.” Anything ‘written in the earth’ was intended to be transient and could quickly be erased. Thus the idea may be that those who forsook Him would be blotted out as easily as removing words written in the dust by a sweep of the hand. And that blotting out would be because they had deserted the permanent and enduring spring of living waters, YHWH Himself.

Alternately on the basis of usage at Ugarit (compare also its use in Isaiah 26:19) being written in the ‘erets’ may indicate being written in Sheol, the grave-world of the dead, with the idea that Sheol will be their final destination and for them there will be no resurrection (Isaiah 26:19). We can contrast it with Jesus’ assurance to His disciples that their names were written in Heaven (Luke 10:20).

Jeremiah 17:14

‘Heal me, O YHWH, and I will be healed,

Save me, and I will be saved, for you are my praise.’

Considering the glory of YHWH’s throne and the fate of those who forsook Him, has brought to Jeremiah’s own sin and rebellion (compare Jeremiah 15:19-21). He is only too aware of his own sinfulness. So he now calls on YHWH to heal him and deliver him because He and no other is the One Whom Jeremiah praises. (For the expression ‘you are my praise’ compare Deuteronomy 10:21; Psalms 71:6). Note the confirming ‘and I will be healed -- saved’, for he knows that if YHWH does this he really will be healed and delivered (compare Psalms 6:1-4; Psalms 30:2; Psalms 31:16; Isaiah 30:15; Isaiah 45:17). It is an expression of total dependence on and confidence in YHWH for his own daily restoration, just as we daily seek God’s forgiveness for our sins. It also probably includes the desire to be healed from the hurtful wounds of the people’s words, and to be saved from their persecution, but we cannot doubt that Jeremiah constantly recognised the need for YHWH to forgive, encourage and strengthen him, and save him from himself. (His heart too was naturally deceitful above all things and desperately wicked).

Jeremiah 17:15

‘Behold, they say to me, “Where is the word of YHWH?

Let it come now.”

He then in the context of this reminds YHWH of what the people are saying. They are deriding him because of the delay in what he has warned them about and they are jeeringly asking him where the fulfilment is of what he claims to be the word of YHWH. ‘Let it come now’, they sneer (implying ‘and then we will believe it’). In other words they are saying, ‘Demonstrate that what you are saying is true,’ and by it indicating that they did not believe it. We can almost see them adding, ‘for everything goes on as it always has’ (compare 2 Peter 3:4 spoken by those warned about Jesus’ second coming). As the test of whether a prophet was genuine was that what he prophesied came about this was quite a serious matter (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). All this may suggest that this was spoken prior to the first siege of Jerusalem and the death of Jehoiakim.

Jeremiah 17:16-17

‘As for me, I have not hurried from being a shepherd after you,

Nor have I desired the woeful day,

You know,

What came out of my lips was before your face.”

Do not be a terror to me,

You are my refuge in the day of evil.

But Jeremiah assures YHWH that he has made no attempt to run away from his calling. He has not been hastily trying to avoid following Him and being His shepherd to the people (‘being a shepherd after you’). Perhaps he has Jonah in mind, for Jonah had done just that. Nor, he assures Him, has he desired the woeful day to come. He was not looking forward to it, and he considered that it would have been presumptious for him to try to hasten the coming of judgment on his people just in order to vindicate himself.

He is, however, confident that YHWH knows this already. ‘You know,’ he says. He recognises that YHWH knows all things, and certainly knows him through and through. And he recognises also that his words which come from his lips are spoken in the presence of YHWH (‘before your face’). Thus he asks Him not to frighten him with warnings and threats, or put him in too much danger from the people, for he looks on Him as his refuge in the day of evil.

Jeremiah 17:18

“Let them be put to shame who persecute me,

But let me not be put to shame,

Let them be dismayed,

But let not me be dismayed,

Bring on them the day of evil,

And destroy them with double destruction.

But he does pray that those who persecute him might be put to shame, although naturally wishing to escape it himself. And he prays that they might be dismayed, although naturally desiring that he himself might not be dismayed. And he prays, ‘bring on them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction’ (i.e. giving full recompense). He wants God to finally fulfil His threats

Once again we may be shocked at his attitude as a man of God. But we must remember a number of things:

1. That YHWH had pointedly told him a number of times not to pray for them because their doom was certain. So he knew that there was no point in praying for God to have mercy on them, and that indeed it would be an act of disobedience and unbelief. Hope of deliverance was a thing of the past, and would not now happen. Their end was fixedly determined.

2. That in line with 1). he knew that their coming judgment was inevitable and irrevocable, so that he was merely asking YHWH to hurry up and do what he intended to do (waiting can be the most difficult thing of all).

3. That the delay in that inevitable judgment simply added to his own afflictions, for he was being persecuted and intimidated and never knew how they were going to treat him next, and he knew that the situation was getting worse and becoming more dangerous.

4. That he may well have begun to be concerned for some of his doubting followers, who may indeed have begun to doubt whether he really was a man of God after all. Judgment coming on Judah would vindicate him and settle their doubts. It would also encourage those whose faith was stronger, but who found the current conditions distressful. The general attitude of fear and concern, together with the political infighting and intrigues, and the speed at which emotions could be roused, could have been making life difficult for those whose full trust was in YHWH, and Jeremiah may have seen some of them going off in a direction that he did not like.

Thus his feeling may well have been , ‘let us get it over with so that I am no longer accused of being a false prophet, and so that those who believe in You might find peace and no longer be in danger of failing’.

Verses 19-27

The Call Goes Out For The True Observance Of The Sabbath Day (Jeremiah 17:19-27).

In Jeremiah 17:5-11 YHWH had promised cursing and blessing on individuals depending on whether they were obedient to His covenant, and this had included a warning about those who obtained riches unfairly. Now YHWH sets a standard test in order to see whether His people will obey Him or not, and whether they will count that obedience as more important than profit from trade. By it He is giving them the opportunity to face up to the covenant and clearly declare that they are His people, for the maintenance of the Sabbath, along with circumcision, were the two clear signs of those who were His.

It is quite clear from what is said that the seventh day Sabbath Law had been diluted with the result that they were using the Sabbath as a convenient market day, a practise which had been prevalent in Israel, but was something which Amos 8:5 had made clear was not allowed. So the call was that they should demonstrate their obedience by going back to fully observing of the Sabbath day by not engaging in buying and selling, and by maintaining a day of complete rest. No doubt the hope was that this would then be a trigger which would spur them on to a new consideration of the whole Law. It was a demand which would separate those who were ready to obey the covenant from those who were not.

The Sabbath day was undoubtedly of ancient origin, and it is mentioned in all the early sources, thus there are no reliable grounds for denying these words to Jeremiah. It was to be used by him as an acid test of obedience.

Note On The Sabbath Day. The Significance Of The Sabbath.

The seventh day Sabbath was unique to Israel in that it was observed every seventh day regardless of the day of the moon period the seventh day fell on, and was a day of total abstention from work of any kind. (Feeding and caring for animals was probably not seen as work, but as an act of compassion and necessity as with feeding the family). It was intended to be a day of delight (Isaiah 58:13-14) and the Israelites saw the ‘seventh day’ (although not as stated to be the sabbath) as ‘blessed’ (Genesis 2:3). It was a day on which evil should not be done lest it polluted the day (Isaiah 56:2-4). It was especially of delight to the lower orders, for Deuteronomy 5:14 especially emphasises the social benefit of the day in that it ensured that even the lowest menial had a day of rest. Thus all the emphasis in relation to the Sabbath in Israel is positive. It is, however, interesting to note that it is never designated as a day of worship, even though certain special sacrifices were offered on that day. The whole emphasis is on avoidance of work for all resulting in a period of relaxation and rest.

It has been suggested that the closest parallel to the Sabbath was the Babylonian sabattu or sabattum, but we should note:

1. That the seeming similarity of name is artificial as is evidenced by the fact that sabbath has two ‘b’s and one ‘t’, while sabattu has only one ‘b’ and two ‘t’s, something important etymologically. Thus they are not directly related words.

2. That the Sabbath in Israel was a day observed in a totally different way from the Babylonian sabattu. The Babylonian sabattu was a ‘day of appeasement of the mind’ (of a deity), and directly connected with the 15th day of the month (the full moon), and no other. But we know that work was regularly done on it (as witnessed by contract tablets) and it is never connected with a seven day period, nor indeed seen as something to be observed in a regular cycle.

It is true that the Babylonians did also observe certain days of ill-omen in certain moon periods of the year (although seemingly not every moon period) but these were never called sabattu. They involved only the king, priests and physicians, and were days of ill-omen, days on which these particular people must beware of arousing the anger of the gods. They were not designated as days of rest. In order to fulfil his obligation the king had to abstain from food prepared by fire, from putting on royal dress, from going out in his chariot and from speaking officially. This would appear to have been a sign of servitude to the gods. These days of ill-omen occurred on the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st and 28th days of each moon period and while superficially giving the impression of almost paralleling the seventh day sabbath did not in fact do so because they did not follow the continual seven day pattern. This is emphasised by the fact that a moon period was not twenty eight days long. Thus from the twenty eighth day of one moon period to the seventh day of the next was quite regularly longer than seven days. There is indeed nowhere a suggestion that a seven day pattern is important.

The Babylonians in fact appear to have divided time into five day periods, but even then it is clear from contract tablets that days designated as sabattum were not days of cessation from labour, whilst contracts from Mari show that work was sometimes performed over a series of several days without any interruption for a ‘seventh day’.

It is quite apparent from this that the Israelite Sabbath and the Babylonian sabattu (the nearest apparent parallel) bore little relationship to each other, while any resemblance with the days of ill-omen is superficial. The whole emphasis in the Israelite Sabbath is on continuity and regularity without it being related to specific days in a moon period or any other period. It is in fact the only known sacred day which was related to neither sun nor moon, and probably indicated that time was perfectly and separately controlled by God. Furthermore its initial introduction in Exodus 16 indicates no connection with the phases of the moon. Rather it was connected with the giving of the manna. The first ‘sabbath’ fell on the seventh day after the first giving of the manna. It was thus a day marking God’s double provision on the previous day and would later be connected with the seventh day of creation and with the need to give all people of whatever level one day of rest in seven.

End of note.

Jeremiah 17:19

“Thus said YHWH to me,

‘Go, and stand in the gate of the children of the people,

By which the kings of Judah come in, and by which they go out,

And in all the gates of Jerusalem,”

Commencing with ‘the gate of the children of the people’, which was also the gate by which the Kings of Judah came in, and by which they went out (a reminder that the Temple was no longer the king’s chapel), Jeremiah was to go and stand in all the gates of Jerusalem in order to proclaim the message that follows. The ‘gate of the children of the people’ was clearly seen as an important and well used gate, and was probably the east gate of the Temple facing the door of the sanctuary, being the gate most regularly used by the people, and by kings of Judah, and gaining in importance from the royal use. It may have been intended to distinguish it from the gates more often used by the priests and Levites, of whom there would have been many. The mention of both kings and people emphasises that Jeremiah’s message was to both kings and people. The fact that YHWH is calling for obedience to the covenant may suggest a date in the early days of Jehoiakim before Judah’s sin had reached the point of no return.

Jeremiah 17:20

“And say to them, ‘Hear you the word of YHWH,

You kings of Judah, and all Judah,

And all the inhabitants of Jerusalem,

Who enter in by these gates.”

The call was to ‘the kings’ of Judah, to all the people throughout Judah who had come to the feast, and to the people of Jerusalem themselves. The whole nation was thus involved. The plural ‘kings’ may have been intended to indicate the king and his princes, especially including the crown prince who may well have been co-ruler as was common in Judah. Or Jeremiah may have seen himself as speaking to all kings in the future about something that was foundational.

Jeremiah 17:21-23

“Thus says YHWH,

Take heed to yourselves,

And bear no burden on the sabbath day,

Nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem,

Nor carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day,

Nor do you any work,

But hallow you the sabbath day,

As I commanded your fathers.

But they did not listen, nor inclined their ear,

But made their neck stiff,

That they might not hear,

And might not receive instruction.

The call was for them to remedy what their fathers had failed to do, and to commence keeping the Sabbath day correctly. This is an indication that the Sabbath day was only being observed laxly if at all. The purpose of carrying a burden on the Sabbath day would have been in order to take goods for resale to the Temple market for sale, which would include goods brought in by those who entered Jerusalem for a similar purpose. We can compare here Nehemiah’s words in Nehemiah 13:15, ‘I saw in Judah some treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses with them, as also wine, grapes and figs, and all manner of burdens which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I testified in the day in which they sold victuals.’

Furthermore they were to abstain from all work, thereby treating the Sabbath day as ‘holy’ (sanctifying it), and acknowledging YHWH’s Lordship. This had previously been commanded to their fathers, but they had not listened or responded. Indeed they had deliberately stiffened their necks so at to avoid hearing or being instructed. It had been a total slight to YHWH. Now their offspring were being given a ‘second chance’.

Jeremiah 17:24

“And it will come about, if you diligently listen to me, the word of YHWH,

To bring in no burden through the gates of this city on the sabbath day,

But to hallow the sabbath day,

To do no work in it,

Then will there enter in by the gates of this city,

Kings and princes sitting on the throne of David,

Riding in chariots and on horses,

They, and their princes,

The men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,

And this city will remain for ever.”

And the promise was that if they would renew their obedience to YHWH and listen diligently to Him, (it was the guaranteed word of YHWH), something that they would demonstrate, firstly by not bringing trading goods through the gates of the city on the Sabbath day, and secondly by ‘hallowing’ it by not working on it, then their kingship and rulers would be established, sitting on the throne of David and riding in authority and splendour, with the result that they, and the men of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem, together with their city, would remain for ever. The Davidic rule would be permanently established. It was a remarkable call back to the covenant accompanied by remarkable promises. The implication was that even at that stage they were being offered independence and immunity for Jerusalem and its environs if only they would follow YHWH with all their hearts.

Jeremiah 17:26

“And they will come from the cities of Judah,

And from the places round about Jerusalem,

And from the land of Benjamin, and from the lowland (the Shephelah),

And from the hill-country, and from the South (the Negeb),

Bringing burnt-offerings, and sacrifices,

And meal-offerings, and frankincense,

And bringing praise,

To the house of YHWH.”

And not only so, but they would be free to worship in peace as they chose. The description of those who would come to worship indicates the size of the kingdom of Judah at this point. It included the cities of Judah to the south and west, the environs of Jerusalem, the land of Benjamin to the north, the Shephelah (lower hills) which would include Lachish and Libnah, the hill-country (which may have included the hill-country of Ephraim), and the far south, the Negeb, the pastureland with its oases and towns on their southern borders which would have included Beersheba.

And the people from all these areas would come bringing dedicatory burnt offerings, sin and peace offerings (sacrifices), meal offerings of grain, olive oil and frankincense, and praise and worship in psalms and prayers of thanksgiving, all to the house of YHWH. Judah would be a free and flourishing country under YHWH..

Jeremiah 17:27

“But if you will not listen to me,

To hallow the sabbath day,

And not to bear a burden and enter in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day,

Then will I kindle a fire in its gates,

And it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem,

And it will not be quenched.”

But if they would not listen to Him, and would not hallow the Sabbath by abstaining from work, and would not abstain from trade on the Sabbath, then Jerusalem would be handed over to their enemies. Its gates would be burned down, its palaces would be ‘devoured’ by fire, and the fire would not be quenched. None would escape.

The point was not that if they kept the Sabbath nothing else would matter, but that how they responded to the Sabbath would reveal what their lives and thoughts were like generally. It would demonstrate a genuine dedication to God and a concern for their fellow human beings, and indicate that they desired to do God’s will. It was the litmus test, similar to Jesus’ command to the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, and would mark them out as belonging to YHWH in a society which would resent it and demonstrate that He mattered more to them than profit and gain. One thing that all this does make clear is that YHWH gave Judah every opportunity to repent before He finally closed His offer and sealed their final judgment.


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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