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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 20

 

 

Verses 1-6

Jeremiah’s Actions Produce A Violent Response From The Religious Authorities, Resulting In Jeremiah Prophesying What Would Happen To His Adversaries Because Of Their Behaviour (Jeremiah 20:1-6).

The response to Jeremiah’s words was instantaneous and violent. He was arrested by the Temple authorities, physically abused and put in ‘the stocks’, an instrument probably designed to cause extreme discomfiture. Then on the next day he was brought out of the stocks and stood before the authorities, no doubt in order to be called to account. But Jeremiah was not to be intimidated by this and boldly declared to his adversaries what YHWH intended to do to them

Jeremiah 20:1

‘Now Pashhur, the son of Immer the priest, who was chief officer (paqid nagid - superintendent nagid) in the house of YHWH, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things.’

This Pashhur must be distinguished from the one in Jeremiah 21:1. He was clearly of high authority in the Temple, and may have been the father of the Gedaliah spoken of in Jeremiah 38:1 (one of the ‘princes’ (sarim) who opposed Jeremiah). ‘Immer’ may have been the name of Pashhur’s father or it may have been that of his priestly family (1 Chronicles 24:14). The term ‘nagid’ was a typically Hebrew designation and had been used of the earliest kings of Israel (regularly translated ‘prince, ruler’), especially at their anointing or special ‘appointment’ (1 Samuel 9:16; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 1:35 with 39; 1 Samuel 13:14; 1 Samuel 25:30; 2 Samuel 6:21). It is used of the High Priest in 1 Chronicles 9:11; 2 Chronicles 31:13 as ‘nagid of the house of God’. Its use in the singular is, with only one exception, limited to Israelite dignitaries and its close connection either with anointing or official appointment seemingly indicated that the title was an expression of a special appointing and anointing by YHWH. (The only exception is when it was uniquely ‘borrowed’ by Ezekiel in sarcastically describing the King of Tyre as highly exalted and as an ‘anointed one’ (Jeremiah 28:2; Jeremiah 28:14) and thus as a pseudo-nagid. Its use in Daniel 9:25-26 was almost certainly of an Israelite anointed ‘prince’ for elsewhere he uses nagid of Israelite princes and sarim or melek of foreign rulers). It thus here indicates a leading priest in the Temple, possibly second only to the High Priest. He was probably responsible for maintaining order in the Temple which would explain why he became personally involved in Jeremiah’s case..

Jeremiah 20:2

‘Then Pashhur smote Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks which were in the upper gate of Benjamin, which was in the house of YHWH.’

This Pashhur publicly humiliated Jeremiah by ‘smiting’ him. The verb does not necessarily indicate a public beating, but may possibly include it. Indeed it may be argued that he examined Jeremiah (who was engaged in controversy with the other prophets) on the basis of Deuteronomy 25:1 and found him guilty and sentenced him to forty lashes. That would explain the mention of Jeremiah as ‘the prophet’. But however that may be it certainly does indicate at a minimum a deliberate act of violence with the intention of humiliation. It may simply have been a backhanded blow across the face intended to show the victim as in the wrong (compare what happened to Jesus at his appearance before Annas. The idea that it made Him appear to be in the wrong would explain why Jesus challenged it rather than turning the other cheek - John 18:22). Afterwards he was put in ‘the stocks’ (the same thing was done by Asa to another prophet - 2 Chronicles 16:10 where the same word is translated prioson-house). The word is a rare one and indicates some position of confinement which also probably involved physical restraint and distortion. The idea would be to subject him to considerable discomfiture. It could have been an instrument of retainment something similar to stocks or it could have been a cell providing limited space like those in the walls of a castle which were so small that the occupant was kept in a cramped position. It was seemingly continually maintained as a kind of religious punishment for it was to be found ‘in the house of YHWH’. The excuse for such treatment would be that it was for ‘bringing men to their senses’, (although usually doing the opposite). The genuine object, however, was to cow them into submission.

‘Jeremiah the Prophet’. This is the first use of the term ‘prophet’ of Jeremiah. It may have been used here in order to bring out the appalling nature of Pashhur’s behaviour (he was mistreating a prophet of YHWH!) It may possibly be a sneering appellative given by Pashhur signifying ‘or so he calls himself’. Or as mentioned above he may have been answering a charge of being a false or disruly prophet.

Jeremiah 20:3

‘And it came about on the next day, that Pashhur brought Jeremiah out of the stocks. Then Jeremiah said to him, “YHWH has not called your name Pashhur, but Magor-missabib.”

No doubt feeling that after a night in the stocks this ‘Jeremiah the Prophet’ would have learned his lesson Pashhur, on the following day, had him brought out from his miserable situation to be again arraigned before him. We are not told what occurred at the arraignment for what was considered as important was the use that Jeremiah made of it, for, no doubt to his horror and chagrin, Pashhur, who would have seen himself as the judge, discovered that it was as though he himself was on trial as Jeremiah pronounced judgment against him.

Jeremiah’s forthright opening words are significant. “YHWH has not called your name Pashhur, but Magor-missabib.” Jeremiah was pointing out to Pashhur that whatever his parents might have called him God had now officially called him “Magor-missabib (fear is round about).” This particular phrase meaning ‘fear is round about’ was seemingly a standard saying at the time, and is used by Jeremiah a number of times . In Jeremiah 6:25 it indicates general uncertainty among the populace. In Jeremiah 20:10 it indicates Jeremiah’s own position of apprehension in the face of persecution. In Jeremiah 46:5 it indicates the terror of the Judean forces in the face of a rampant Egyptian army. In Jeremiah 49:29 it refers to the Arabians fleeing in terror from Nebuchadnezzar. It is also found in Psalms 31:13. In the Psalm it is used by the Psalmist at a time when the authorities took counsel against him and were scheming to take away his life. It was thus very appropriate in this case. The idea is therefore that Pashhur and his behaviour will be the catalyst which will result in terror of all kinds for Judah.

But we should note something further about this phrase. The idea of YHWH/God ‘calling your (his) name --’ occurs elsewhere only at times of high significance. It was used of the naming of Adam and Eve as ‘Adam’, that is as the head of the human race (Genesis 5:2). It was used of the renaming of Jacob as ‘Israel’ (Genesis 35:10). And it was used in Jeremiah 11:16 of the renaming of Israel as Zayith-ra‘anan-yephe-peri-to’ar (an olive tree green, beautiful and with luscious fruit). Thus we may see this naming by YHWH of Pashhur as signifying an equally important turning point in Israel/Judah’s history, although this time a negative one. That YHWH should so officially name a leading Temple official as ‘fear is round about’ was the final indication that its end was near.

Jeremiah 20:4

“For thus says YHWH, Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself, and to all your friends, and they will fall by the sword of their enemies, and your eyes will behold it, and I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will carry them captive to Babylon, and will slay them with the sword.”

By bearing that name ‘Fear is round about’ from then on, a name given by YHWH and therefore undiscardable, Pashhur was being made ‘a terror to himself and to his friends’. From then on all who saw him would be reminded of the judgment of Jeremiah and of YHWH that was coming and would shiver in apprehension. It was a reminder that soon, within his own lifetime (and he was probably getting on) they would fall by the sword of their enemies, and Judah would be given into the hands of the King of Babylon who would carry them into exile or slay them with the sword. This is the first specific indicator in Jeremiah of who the invaders would be. It is almost certainly referring to the first full scale invasion of 597 BC in the last days of Jehoiakim when the first major deportation took place of the cream of the inhabitants.

Jeremiah 20:5

“Moreover I will give all the riches of this city, and all its gains, and all its precious things, yes, all the treasures of the kings of Judah will I give, into the hand of their enemies, and they will make them a prey, and take them, and carry them to Babylon.”

And with the people would also depart their wealth. All the riches of the city, and all its gains (mainly from trading), and all the precious things that it possessed, even all the treasures of the kings of Judah, would be given into the hands of the Babylonians who would take them ‘as a prey’ and as spoil. This had been destined from Hezekiah’s day and was only temporarily delayed by Josiah’s reforms (compare here Isaiah 39:6; 2 Kings 22:19-20). But if it was only the first major deportation that was in mind then some of the Temple treasures would be allowed to remain (for they were taken in 587 BC) and the descriptions must not be applied too strictly.

Jeremiah 20:6

“And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house will go into captivity, and you will come to Babylon, and there you will die, and there will you be buried, you, and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.”

What was more, Pashhur himself and all his household including his family and servants, would go into captivity and would be taken to Babylon (in chains) and would die there and be buried along with all his friends. So much for the prophecies of deliverance, and the expectancy of a quick return emphasised by the false prophets (who were of course only recognised by the majority as false once their prophecies had failed). Thus Pashhur had made himself the symbol of all the terrors coming on Judah.

The ‘you’ in ‘to whom you have prophesied falsely’ probably indicates ‘you in the Temple’, referring to the Temple prophets under the Temple’s aegis rather than to Pashhur himself, with Pashhur and the priesthood taking full responsibility because they gave the prophecies their full backing. On the other hand it may be that Pashhur also claimed prophetic gifts.


Verses 7-13

Jeremiah Is So Distraught That He Berates YHWH And Points Out How Tough He Is Finding Things, And Yet He Admits That He Has To Speak Out Whether He Likes It Or Not Because YHWH’s Word Is Like A Burning Fire Within Him, And He Finishes On A Note Of Praise Because He Is Aware That YHWH Is His Support (Jeremiah 20:7-13).

While up to this point Jeremiah had been sneered at and jeered at he had never had to suffer physical violence, having been seen as sacrosanct as a prophet of YHWH. This experience thus came to him as something of a shock (he did not realise that it was the harbinger of more to come), and makes him consider what is happening to him. In consequence he now grumbles at YHWH Whom he sees as having forced him into his present position, and points out that it is the very message of ‘violence and destruction’ that YHWH has given him that is bringing him into disrepute. Nevertheless he admits that he cannot help speaking out, even when he is thinking of not doing so, because YHWH’s word burns in him like a fire forcing him to do so.

But then in his wavering his thoughts turn on YHWH and he is encouraged as he recognises that he need not fear because YHWH is with him as One Who is mighty and terrible, One Who causes his foes to stumble so that they will be utterly put to shame, and he calls on Him avenge Himself on those who have mistreated His prophet so that he himself may see it, and ends up by praising YHWH for his deliverance from the hand of evildoers.

Jeremiah 20:7-8

‘O YHWH, you have persuaded me, and I was persuaded,

You are stronger than I, and have prevailed,

I have become a laughing-stock all the day,

Everyone mocks me.’

For as often as I have spoken, I have cried out complainingly,

I have protested, “Violence and destruction!”

Because the word of YHWH is made a reproach to me,

And a derision, all the day.”

In his distress at what he has just gone through Jeremiah chides YHWH with the fact that it is YHWH Who has put pressure on him to do the things that he has done. He points out that he had not wanted to do it, but that YHWH was stronger than he was and had prevailed. As a consequence he had become a laughingstock, and was being mocked, because whenever he had spoken it had been of ‘violence and destruction’, (whilst as far as his hearers could see, nothing like that was in sight, see Jeremiah 17:15). Thus it was the word of YHWH that he was proclaiming which had been the reason why he was being reproached and derided all the day. Note that the final two lines should be read as continuing the thought in line 3, with lines 4 & 5 as a kind of parenthesis.

We too can find that at times people will mock us for our insistence on the fact that God will one day judge us and that that judgment may be imminent. And when we do so, and feel that possibly we might be wise to desist, we should remember that, even though he was jeered at, Jeremiah’s words came true, and when they did how the people must have wished that they had listened.

The word translated ‘persuaded’ can also mean ‘seduced, deceived or entrapped into doing something’, thus it may be that he is claiming to some extent to have been misled, or even entrapped, into making himself a laughingstock. Compare its use in Exodus 22:16; Ezekiel 14:9; Judges 16:5; 1 Kings 22:20.

Jeremiah 20:9

‘And if I say, “I will not make mention of him,

Nor speak any more in his name,

Then there is in my heart as it were a burning fire,

Shut up in my bones,

And I am weary with forbearing,

And I am unable to do so.’

And yet Jeremiah admitted that he had not been able to help speaking up, because whenever he determined that he would not do so, and that he would no longer speak in YHWH’s Name, possibly because he had felt that it was hopeless, he had discovered that a fire was burning within him, shut up in his bones (a Hebraism for his inner self), so that not only did he grow tired of resisting it but in fact found himself completely unable not to speak (compare Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:16).

Our problem, of course, is mainly that we do not have such a fire within us, and we thus take advantage of the fact and simply refrain from speaking. But that is a sign that we have not come to know God or His word in the way that Jeremiah had. If we had we also would be unable to hold ourselves back from speaking.

Jeremiah 20:10

‘For I have heard the defaming of many,

Terror on every side?

“Denounce, and we will denounce him,”

Says every man of my peace,

Those who watch for my fall, say,

“Perhaps he will be persuaded (deceived, seduced),

And we will prevail against him,

And we will take our revenge on him.’

The first two lines are a quotation from Psalms 31:13 describing the behaviour of those who plotted against him and planned his death. He had been constantly aware of those who had defamed him and surrounded him with terror so that ‘terror was on every side’ for him as well (magor-missabib - ‘fear is round about’; compare Jeremiah 20:3). Even the men of his peace (courteous acquaintances, that is, those more moderate people who had always in the past greeted him with the words ‘peace be with you’) had in the end yielded to popular opinion and had agreed that if others denounced him they would do so as well. They had not felt able to stand out against the swell that was against him.

Meanwhile those who had been constantly on the watch for his fall (compare Psalms 35:15 ‘in my fall they rejoiced’; Jeremiah 38:17, ‘I am ready to fall’) said hopefully, ‘perhaps he will be ‘persuaded’ (entrapped and seduced) into saying something wrong’. (The belief was that a false prophet was so because he was deceived and seduced by YHWH into uttering false prophecies - 1 Kings 22:21-23). Their hope was that they could goad Jeremiah into saying something foolish by which he could be condemned with the result that they would be able to prevail against him and take their revenge on him. (When he later publicly supported Babylon they probably clapped their hands in evil delight).

Jeremiah 20:11

‘But YHWH is with me as a mighty one,

A terrible one,

Therefore my persecutors will stumble,

And they will not prevail,

They will be utterly put to shame,

Because they have not dealt wisely,

Even with an everlasting dishonour,

Which will never be forgotten.

As so often in prayer when the soul is facing seemingly insoluble problems, light suddenly breaks through and Jeremiah immediately feels encouraged as he contemplates YHWH. Why is he talking so foolishly when he knows that YHWH is with him (compare Jeremiah 1:19) and that YHWH is the Mighty and Terrible One? In the light of what He is his persecutors (the terrible ones of Jeremiah 15:21) no longer seem terrible. Rather it is they who will stumble and not prevail, for they will be utterly put to shame because they have not dealt wisely (by listening to the word of YHWH), a shame which will result in everlasting dishonour which will never be forgotten, it will be remembered by all future generations (compare Daniel 12:2 which takes the idea even further).

Jeremiah 20:12

‘But, O YHWH of hosts, who tries the righteous,

Who sees the heart and the mind,

Let me see your vengeance on them,

For to you have I revealed my cause.’

His rise from despondency continues as he cries to YHWH of Hosts, the One Who tries the righteous and sees men’s hearts and minds, to let him finally see His vengeance on them because he has revealed his case to Him.

Jeremiah 20:13

“Sing to YHWH,

Praise you YHWH,

For he has delivered the soul of the needy,

From the hand of evil-doers.’

And he finishes his prayer on a note of general praise, typical of the Psalms (compare for example Psalms 6:9-10; Psalms 7:17; Psalms 18:49-50; Psalms 22:22 ff; Psalms 57:9-11; Psalms 59:6-17; Psalms 66:20), as he calls on men to sing to YHWH and to praise Him, because he has delivered the soul of the needy (in this case himself) from the hands of evildoers.


Verses 14-18

Jeremiah Curses The Day Of His Birth (Jeremiah 20:14-18).

This passage closes off the section with a heart rending call by Jeremiah that the day of his birth be cursed, along with all who assisted in ensuring his survival, on the grounds that it would have been better for him to have been left in the womb than ever to have seen daylight. It is clear from what he says that even more shame must have been heaped on him to such an extent that it has become almost unbearable. It sums up how arduous he was finding his ministry to be. He has almost reached the end of his tether.

It is a reminder that those who serve God in dark times do not come off lightly. They simply have to persevere whatever happens. (compare Hebrews 11:36-38). This cry from the heart may have been part of his reflections during his painful night in the stocks, vividly remembered as he looked back on it, or he may have prayed it when in hiding from Jehoiakim after his book had been cut to pieces (Jeremiah 36:23), or he may even have written it when, having written down many of his prophecies up to this point, and seeing a grim future ahead, he felt the burden of them piercing his soul, especially if his body was still suffering the consequences of the time spent in the stocks. But whenever it occurred he has chosen it as providing a fitting conclusion to this first section of his book with all its ups and downs, in order to bring home that his ministry was not without agony. As he had stated, he would carry on prophesying because it was forced upon him, but let none think that he was enjoying it.

Jeremiah 20:14-18

‘Cursed be the day on which I was born,

Let the day on which my mother bore me not be blessed.

Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying,

“A male child is born to you”, making him very glad.’

And let that man be as the cities which YHWH overthrew,

And he did not relent,

And let him hear a cry in the morning, and shouting at noontime,

Because he did not slay me from the womb,

And so my mother would have been my grave,

And her womb always enlarged (great).

Why did I come forth from the womb to see labour and sorrow,

That my days should be consumed with shame?’

Familiar with the scenes which regularly took place on the birth of a newborn son, Jeremiah pictures his own birth in those terms and curses the very day. His mother would have been thrilled and would have blessed the day, as would her relatives, while the good news would have been speedily carried by a messenger to the waiting father, resulting in great gladness of heart. But Jeremiah calls for the day now to lose its blessedness, and for a curse to come upon it.

Indeed so bitter are his feelings about that day that he calls for the man who bore the news of his birth to be like Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities which YHWH overthrew (Genesis 19:29), something which YHWH, he points out, carried through without any thought of retraction. So Jeremiah says, let Him now show the same constancy in destroying the messenger who bore the news of his birth. The reference to the crying of lamentation in the morning, followed by the shouting at noontide as the invaders break in, indicates that he expects it to happen when his prophecies are fulfilled in the overthrow of the city (compare Jeremiah 6:4; Jeremiah 15:8; Jeremiah 18:22; Jeremiah 9:17-22). And the man was to experience this fate because he had failed to show mercy in preventing the birth of Jeremiah. Better far, he claims, would it have been if he had died in his mother’s womb, the only sign of his presence then being a distended stomach, rather than coming forth into life where it would involve such shame and trouble.

We must not take the curse as intended too seriously. Jeremiah was well aware that to curse his father and mother would have been a heinous offence and so he was looking for substitutes. But he would not really have expected anyone genuinely to accept the thought that God would punish a man for allowing a baby to be born normally (the opposite position being that He would have blessed him had he murdered the young Jeremiah). He is rather using the idea in order to express the depths of his grief.

With these words ends the series of more general undated prophecies of Jeremiah, and it is noteworthy that from this point onwards we hear no more complaints from him, in spite of all that he will later go through. Having come struggling through his own Gethsemane he becomes a man of steel.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 20:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-20.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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