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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 21

 

 

Verses 1-10

Subsection 7). Words Concerning Various Kings (Jeremiah 21:1 to Jeremiah 24:10).

This subsection proceeds in logical sequence although not chronologically, and will centre on three special themes, firstly on the fact that all hope for Judah in the short term has now gone, secondly that the promises of the false prophets suggesting that any of the current sons of David will be restored to the throne are invalid, and thirdly that while final blessing ‘in coming days’ will truly be at the hands of a son of David, it is meanwhile to be stressed that that ‘son of David’ will not be one of the current regime.

The subsection commences by making clear that prior to the future coming of the exalted son of David the doom of Jerusalem under the present sons of David is certain and will unquestionably happen (echoes of Isaiah). Neither Zedekiah nor any of his current relations (Jehoahaz who had been taken to Egypt and Jehoiachin who had been taken to Babylon) are therefore to be seen as the hope of Judah/Israel.

The whole subsection may be summarised as follows:

A Jerusalem and Judah are unquestionably doomed under Zedekiah (Jeremiah 21:1-10).

B Concerning the current sons of David. None of the current batch of ‘sons of David’ can be seen as presenting any hope for Israel. Uniquely over this period Judah had a plurality of kings. Initially Jehoahaz was hostage in Egypt with Jehoiakim reigning in Jerusalem, and this was followed by three ‘reigning’ kings, one held hostage in Egypt (Jehoahaz, although nothing is known of his fate), one reigning in Jerusalem as ‘regent’ (Zedekiah), and one who was still seen as king in Babylon, (Jehoiachin/Jeconiah/Coniah). But all of them are to be written off as presenting Judah with any hope (Jeremiah 21:11 to Jeremiah 22:30).

C In ‘the days that are coming’ YHWH will attend to the false rulers above and will intervene in the person of the coming Son of David, (the Righteous Shoot (Branch), ‘YHWH our righteousness’) who will rule righteously in YHWH’s Name (Jeremiah 23:1-8).

B Concerning the current prophets. They are promising peace and that no harm will come to Judah, but they are not speaking in the Name of YHWH. There is no current hope for Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 23:9-40).

A The removal of Jehoiachin from Jerusalem has left it in the hands of second rate leaders, which includes their king (regent) Zedekiah, with the result that Jerusalem and its people are without hope and will certainly be destroyed (Jeremiah 24:1-10).

It will be noted that the opening and closing passages form an inclusio based on the guaranteed fate of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. The inadequacy of the sons of David is paralleled by the inadequacy of the prophets (and priests). Central is the promise of the coming Son of David Who will introduce righteousness.

The question may well be asked, however, as to why Zedekiah is mentioned first rather than in the sequence in which the sons of David reigned, namely Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah. One clear answer to that question lies in the fact that Zedekiah was never sole ruler of Judah. When he died Jehoiachin was still in fact seen as king of Judah. Jeremiah is thus bringing out that Zedekiah was not even under consideration as the hope of Israel. He was a ‘bad fig’ (chapter 24). Furthermore to have placed Zedekiah after Jehoiachin would have been to ignore royal protocol and to suggest openly that Jehoiachin’s reign was over, something which would have caused great dissatisfaction in Judah.

There are in fact four reasons for putting the prophecy about Zedekiah first (quite apart from the coincidence of the name Pashhur):

1. It is intended to demonstrate that the final fulfilment of Jeremiah’s earlier prophecies will take place, regardless of the fact that the Son of David was coming, and was in order to explain why Jeremiah had had to undergo what he did as described in the previous chapter.

2. Had Zedekiah (‘YHWH is righteous’) been dealt with in chronological order, then he could have become confused in people’s minds with the coming of ‘the righteous branch’, ‘YHWH our righteousness’, as will be apparent subsequently. By dealing with him first any likelihood of confusion was avoided.

3. Strictly speaking it was Jehoiachin who was seen as the current reigning monarch, with Zedekiah merely acting as his regent in his absence. This was the position accepted both by the Babylonians, who still called Jehoiachin ‘King Yaukin of Yahuda’ on their ration lists, and in Judah where handles of vessels have been discovered coming from the final days of the city inscribed in the name of ‘Eliakim servant of Jehoiachin’ (and not ‘of Zedekiah’). This is further confirmed by the fact that Ezekiel dates his writings in terms of the exile of ‘King Jehoiachin’ (e.g. Ezekiel 1:2). Zedekiah was seemingly simply seen in Judah as an appointee of Nebuchdrezzar rather than as the appointee of the people. His legitimacy was therefore always in doubt. So it would have been seen as fitting that Jehoiachin be presented as still the main feasible option from among the current choices to be the ‘coming Son of David’, and therefore as rightly finalising the list of options. To have presented the situation otherwise would have been seen as insulting.

4. The opening passage dealing with Zedekiah forms an inclusio with chapter Jeremiah 24:1-10, for both deal with the final demise of Judah and Jerusalem. The intervening passages then justify and explain this coming assured judgment, while at the same time centring on Judah/Israel’s final hope. Thus by this inclusio it is made clear that Jeremiah 21:11 to Jeremiah 23:40 are intended to be viewed against the background of the final catastrophe which must necessarily come before there could be any possibility of restoration.

So in the initial chapter of this subsection the justification for Jeremiah having had to endure such affliction as was described in the previous chapter will first be made clear, for it confirms that such arduous continuing prophecy was necessary in the face of what was to be the future. Furthermore it describes the final ‘smashing of the vessel’ as portrayed in chapter 19, demonstrating that that came to fulfilment, and confirms the certainty of final Babylonian victory as previously asserted to an earlier Pashhur in chapter 20. Thus there were good reasons for putting Jeremiah 21:1-10, which is so clearly out of order chronologically, immediately after chapters 19 & 20 connecting with what has gone before.

However, having initially emphasised the certainty of the doom that was coming on Zedekiah and Jerusalem the passage then goes back in time at Jeremiah 21:11 to YHWH’s open offer of repentance to the one of the house of David (Jeremiah 21:12) who sat on the throne of David (Jeremiah 22:2) if only he, as king of Judah, would turn round in his ways, execute justice and fulfil the covenant (Jeremiah 21:12; Jeremiah 22:3), although even then it was with grave doubts about Judah’s willingness to repent. It is reasonable to see in this an open offer to all the sons of David who came to the throne during Jeremiah’s ministry, and indeed may have been specifically presented to each one by Jeremiah on his accession. In Jeremiah 22:3 the same offer is repeated and accompanied by a promise of the certain triumph of the royal house (Jeremiah 22:4) if only they will respond, but it is again followed by a warning of the consequences if they would not.

Following that Jeremiah then sets out to demolish the false hopes offered to the people by the false prophets. He makes clear that Shallum (Jehoahaz), appointed by the people as Josiah’s heir-apparent as the son of David, will not be returning from Egypt where he had been taken by Pharaoh Necho (Jeremiah 22:10-12; compare 2 Kings 23:31-35), and castigates the one who had been appointed in his place (Jehoiakim), because he did not follow in the ways of his father (Jeremiah 22:15-16) and especially because he was crushing the people by his expansive building plans, with no intention of paying for the work that was done (Jeremiah 22:13-17). For him there would only be an ignominious death (Jeremiah 22:19). And finally he emphasises that they were not to look for the return of their reigning king Jehoiachin (Coniah, Jeconiah) from Babylon (Jeremiah 22:20-30; compare 2 Kings 24:8-17), who, as we have seen above, was still officially looked on as king both in Babylon (he is described as King Yaukin in Babylonian ration lists) and in Judah. Jeremiah is making clear that while it was true (as earlier prophets had underlined) that Israel’s future hopes did remain with the house of David, and that they would also one day celebrate their deliverance from the north country, it would nevertheless only be after they had first been exiled (Jeremiah 23:1-8), and it would not be by the false shepherds (rulers) who had wrecked the morals of Judah, and certainly not by someone from the house of Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) (Jeremiah 22:30). He then roundly turns on the prophets who were offering precisely those false hopes and completely disposes of them (Jeremiah 23:9-40). Following that in chapter 24 he confirms that Judah’s future hopes do not rest with Zedekiah and his ilk, for while it was true that one day the good figs (those who will repent among the exiles) would return to the land, and be built and planted, and God will again be their God, they will not include the bad figs who were running Judah in the days of Zedekiah, who as already described in Jeremiah 15:4 would be tossed about among all the kingdoms of the earth because of their evil, and who according to Jeremiah 21:1-10 would undoubtedly suffer great devastation and be exiled. Thus Jeremiah 21:1-10 and Jeremiah 24:1-10 form an inclusio for the subsection, a subsection which both demonstrates that there was no point in looking to the current sons of David, and emphasises that one day there would be a son of David who would fulfil all their hopes.

Up to this point most of Jeremiah’s prophecies have not been openly attached to specific situations (Jeremiah 3:6 being a partial exception), but it will be noted that from this point onwards in the narrative there is an undoubted change of approach. Whereas previously time references have been vague and almost non-existent, with the result that we cannot always be sure in whose reign they took place, Jeremiah now addresses his words to various kings, usually by name, and as we have seen the first example is Zedekiah who was the ‘king’ of Judah at the time when Jerusalem was taken for the second time and emptied of its inhabitants at the same time as the Temple was destroyed. This took place in 587 BC. By its very nature it could not have been a part of Jeremiah’s initial writing down of his earlier prophecies, for that was in the days of Jehoiakim, so that this part of chapters 2-25 must have been updated by him later. Furthermore from this point on Jeremiah will openly and constantly urge submission to the King of Babylon by name and title (although compare the first mention in Jeremiah 20:4). On the other hand it will be noted that the subsection has been opened by the same formula as that used previously (contrast the marked change in formula in chapters 26-29) and this would appear to suggest therefore that these chapters are intended as a kind of appendix to chapters 1-20, illustrating them historically and confirming their message and its fulfilment.

To summarise. The subsection opens with the familiar words, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH --’ (Jeremiah 21:1). It then goes on to deal with Jeremiah’s response to an appeal from King Zedekiah concerning Judah’s hopes for the future in which he warns that it is YHWH’s purpose that Judah be subject to Babylon and that Judah’s doom is sealed. Meanwhile he warns that there is no hope of the restoration of Shallum (Jehoahaz) the son of Josiah or of Jehoiachin (Coniah), the son of Jehoiakim who had been carried off to Babylon.

He castigates the false shepherds (rulers) of Judah who have brought Judah to this position, but promises that one day YHWH will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a king Who will reign and prosper, and execute righteousness and justice. He will be called ‘YHWH our righteousness’. He then castigates the prophets. For the present Judah’s sinful condition is seen as such that all that Judah can expect is everlasting reproach and shame. The subsection then closes with the parable of the good and bad figs, the good representing the righteous remnant in exile (part of the cream of the population exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 24:15-16) who were experiencing the ministry of Ezekiel) who will one day return, the bad the people who have been left in Judah to await sword, pestilence, famine and exile. Destitute of experienced leadership, and under a weak king-regent, they were unstable and too inexperienced to govern well, carrying Judah forward inexorably to its worst moment.


Verses 11-14

A General Plea To The House Of David Not To Be Presumptious But To Exercise Justice and Mercy If They Would Escape Judgment (Jeremiah 21:11-14).

Jeremiah now makes a general plea to ‘the house of David’ to cease being presumptious and to fulfil its responsibilities as the house of David with regards to justice and fair play, (an idea which will be continued in Jeremiah 22:1-4). Had it done so the present troubles could have been avoided. This new emphasis on ‘the house of David’ (Jeremiah 21:12) and ‘the throne of David’ (Jeremiah 22:2; Jeremiah 22:4; Jeremiah 22:29) demonstrates that he is seeking to establish the standard of righteous kingship which alone could have safeguarded the house of Josiah from its fate. It was because no representative of the house of David could be found who fitted his description that Shallum (Jehoahaz) would be left in Egypt and Jehoiachin (Coniah) would be left in Babylon, while Jehoiakim and Zedekiah were seen as totally unworthy. That was why in the end Jerusalem’s fate would come upon it. It would be because the house of David had failed in its responsibility. And, as we have seen earlier, this was because YHWH would fill them with drunkenness along with the priests, prophets and inhabitants of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 13:13). On the other hand had they responded to YHWH by obeying the covenant, especially as focused in restraining themselves from trade on the Sabbath Day, which might also have affected the numbers attending the Temple for idolatrous worship, the house of David would have gone forward in triumph and have been established for ever (Jeremiah 17:25). This emphasis on the house of David, and what was required of it, is preparing the way for the fact that one day a representative of the house of David called ‘the righteous Branch (or Shoot)’ would arise who would rule righteously and truly (Jeremiah 23:5). It is, however, stressed that the Righteous Branch (or Shoot) will not be a direct descendant of Jehoiachin. (Compare how Immanuel was not to be a direct descendant of Ahaz, being born of a virgin - Isaiah 7:14 - there also spoken to ‘the house of David’ - Isaiah 7:2; Isaiah 7:13). His coming will only occur ‘in coming days’ after the Exile.

Jeremiah 21:11

“And touching the house of the king of Judah, hear you the word of YHWH,”

Note that this word is spoken to the whole house of Josiah, ‘the house of the King of Judah’, and not to just one member of it. It is a word for all of them from YHWH.

Some see this as a continuation of the words spoken to Zedekiah, but the plea here would in that case come too late because the house of Zedekiah was doomed and his fate was sealed. Others see it for that reason as spoken to the house of Jehoiakim. But in seeing it as spoken to all the house of Josiah we include all, and have an explanation as to why no name is given. We should note in this regard that before being replaced each member had had their opportunity to consider their ways, however short, but sufficient to be seen as having ‘done evil in the eyes of YHWH’ (2 Kings 23:32; 2 Kings 23:37; 2 Kings 24:9; 2 Kings 24:19).

Jeremiah 21:12

“O house of David, thus says YHWH, Execute justice in the morning, and deliver him who is robbed out of the hand of the oppressor, lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn so that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.”

The general plea is to ‘the house of David’ and it was that they should fulfil the requirements of that house and faithfully execute justice, and deliver the oppressed, with the warning that if they failed to do so YHWH’s wrath would go forth like an unquenchable fire, because of the evil of their doings. Jehoiakim had palpably failed to do so, as had Zedekiah, whilst Jehoahaz (Shallum) and Jehoiachin (Coniah) had seemingly equally clearly demonstrated their intentions as soon as they had received the throne, thus also disqualifying themselves.

‘Execute judgment in the morning’ indicates the action of a king who is diligent in respect of justice, who rises early before the heat of the day in order to hear cases and listen to the pleas and complaints of his people before the heat of the day rendered it impossible. This was something that even David had grown lax in, which had resulted in Absalom taking advantage of it (2 Samuel 15:2-4). It was by doing this that Solomon had established his reputation for wisdom (1 Kings 3:28). It was the sign of a righteous king, and will be what the righteous Branch will do (Jeremiah 23:5). The deliverance of the oppressed and the ensuring of fair justice for all were parallel requirements. The implication is that had the house of David done this there would have been no problems from Babylon, for then they would have been powerful in their own right (Jeremiah 22:4). The following expression of YHWH’s severe anger (which was shortly to be fulfilled) demonstrates how crucial YHWH saw it to be.

Jeremiah 21:13

“Behold, I am against you, O inhabitress of the valley, and of the rock of the plain, the word of YHWH, you who say, ‘Who will come down against us? or who shall enter into our habitations?’ ”

The truth was that instead of Jerusalem having become a bastion of justice and fairplay it had, under the successors to Josiah, become the home of presumption and arrogance with the people having the sense that they could do what they liked without having to face the consequences. They were so certain of their inviolability that they dismissed the possibility that Jerusalem could be taken. Such a statement would have been somewhat shaken by the events of 597 BC when Jerusalem had had to surrender to Nebuchadrezzar, but once things continued reasonably smoothly they could soon have rationalised themselves into thinking that after all he had not ‘taken it’. They had simply re-negotiated their vassalship. Certainly, as we saw in Jeremiah 21:2, Zedekiah still hoped for inviolability.

The application of these words to Jerusalem rests on the use of the feminine ‘inhabitress’ signifying the daughter of Zion. The description depicts the twofold level of Jerusalem with the upper citadel being situated on the ‘rock of the plain’, the level part of the mountain on which it was built (compare the ‘rock of the field’ in Jeremiah 18:14 which referred to the higher part of Mount Lebanon), with the remainder of Jerusalem being built on the lower slopes in ‘the Valley’ (the part occupied by Judah and Benjamin when the upper citadel had been occupied by the Jebusites). And it was because of this highly defensible position, combined with a superstitious faith in YHWH, that they argued that no one could come down against them or enter their habitations.

Alternately it is suggested that the picture is of Jerusalem with its citadel on the rock rising above the surrounding ‘plain’, nevertheless being in a valley because it was surrounded by mountains higher than itself (Psalms 125:2 - which would be why the enemy ‘came down’ against them). This would explain the enemy ‘coming down’. But either way Jerusalem is indicated.

Jeremiah 21:14

“And I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, the word of YHWH, and I will kindle a fire in her forest, and it will devour all that is round about her.”

However their arguments would all have been very well if they had judged righteously, delivered the oppressed, and walked in obedience to the covenant. But the arguments did not stand up when they perpetrated injustice, themselves were the cause of oppression, and had forsaken the covenant. In other words the fruit of their doings had cancelled out their inviolability. Thus they could be sure that YHWH, rather than defending them, would punish them in accordance with their behaviour. And this was the sure and certain ‘word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH). For He would kindle a fire in her forest, and would devour all that was round about her, leaving her totally desolate.

The reference to forest may have been because at that stage (unlike later) Jerusalem was surrounded by forest so that its conflagration would have destroyed Jerusalem, or may indicate ‘the house of the forest of Lebanon’, the description of part of the king’s palace which was built of so many tall cedars that it was called by the name and contained his treasures (1 Kings 7:2; 1 Kings 10:17; 1 Kings 10:21), or may be seeing the great houses of Jerusalem as like a forest of trees (many would be constructed partly using oak or cedar). Some compare Jeremiah 22:6 where Jerusalem is (according to them) described as ‘the head of Lebanon’, that is, is as though covered with trees.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 21:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-21.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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