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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 3

 

 

Introduction

Jeremiah 1 - chapters 1 to 10.

A (Very) Brief History Of The Time Of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah began his ministry prior to the discovery of the Law Book in the Temple in the reign of the godly king Josiah, and he continued his ministry throughout the remainder of Josiah’s life, until that life was sadly cut short when Josiah sought to prevent the Egyptian forces under Pharaoh Necho from going to the aid of a dying Assyria in 609 BC. During that period Judah had enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity with their enemies being too preoccupied elsewhere to trouble them, and with fervent religious reform taking place at the centre in Jerusalem, a reform which, however, as Jeremiah knew, had not reached the hearts of the people, for they still hankered after the old Canaanite syncretism of YHWH with Baal. Conformity was thus outward, not inward, and the old hill top sanctuaries did not remain unused, even though that use had to be in secret.

Assyria indeed, which had for a hundred years and more been the dominating force in the area, was by this time fighting a rearguard action for its very life against the combined forces of Babylonia and the Medes (Nineveh had fallen in 612 BC), and was on its last legs. Indeed Josiah’s intervention may well have been the final nail in their coffin, delaying the Egyptian forces long enough to prevent them aiding Assyria in time, thus ensuring Assyria’s final defeat. (Egypt had seen the threat that would follow that defeat). But, in spite of Josiah’s reforms, religiously speaking things had not been going well in the heartland of Judah, for idolatry and disobedience to the covenant had become too well engrained among the people to be easily removed and was still flourishing, so that Jeremiah had constantly to be engaged in seeking to bring the people back to a response to the Law and to the true worship of YHWH (chapters 1-20), warning them of invaders who would be coming from the north (either the Scythians or the Babylonians, or both) if they did not. He respected Josiah greatly and mourned his death (2 Chronicles 35:25).

The fall of Assyria left a power vacuum in which a resurgent Egypt sought to establish its control over Palestine, Syria and beyond, establishing a base at Carchemish, and becoming initially determinant of who would rule Judah, removing Jehoahaz and replacing him with his brother Jehoiakim. After the freedom enjoyed under Josiah this was a bitter blow for Judah, and, along with the fact of Josiah’s untimely death, appeared to many to indicate that what Josiah had sought to achieve had failed.

But Egypt was not to be triumphant for long. They had not reckoned with the power of Babylon and its allies, and four years after the death of Josiah they were decisively beaten by the Babylonian army at Carchemish, and then at Hamath. As a result the Pharaoh retired behind his own borders licking his wounds. Meanwhile Babylon took over the jurisdiction of Judah, and Jehoiakim had to submit to Nebuchadnezzar. The first part of Jeremiah’s work covers this whole period, initially of Josiah’s successful reign, tainted by the stubbornness of the people, and then of the reign of Jehoiakim who took Judah back to the old evil ways of syncretism and Baal worship.

Jeremiah continued to prophesy during the reign of Zedekiah, and even afterwards, and he thus ministered during the period described in 2 Kings 21-25 and 2 Chronicles 33-36. Contemporary with him were the prophets Zephaniah and Habakkuk before the Exile, and Ezekiel and Daniel subsequently.

The First Judean Exile To Babylon Including Daniel (c.605 BC).

As a result of Josiah’s intervention and death the Egyptians on their return journey took control of Judah, and Jehoahaz, who had reigned for a mere three months, was carried off to Egypt, being replaced by the weak Jehoiakim, who in spite of the heavy tribute required by Egypt, squandered money needlessly on a new palace complex, built by forced labour, for which he was castigated by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:13-19). He was no doubt trying to prove how grand he was, as weak men will. At the same time the religious reforms, such as they were, were falling by the wayside, and even the Temple itself was being affected (Jeremiah 7:16-18; Jeremiah 11:9-13; etc., compare Ezekiel 8). Judah had become disillusioned with YHWH, partly as a result of the death of Josiah, with the result that the prophets who did speak up against the decline were harassed, or even put to death (Jeremiah 26:23).

As we have seen, for a while it appeared that Judah would continue to be tributaries of a resurgent Egypt. But in a decisive battle in 605 BC at Carchemish, followed by another at Hamath, the Egyptians were badly mauled by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, with the result that Babylon took control of Judah and Jerusalem, and on the surrender of the latter without resistance, deported the first load of exiles to Babylon, including Daniel and his three friends. Judah was now firmly in Babylonian hands.

Judah’s Folly In The Face Of Jeremiah’s Warnings.

It is perhaps understandable, however, that the leaders of Judah were not too happy about paying tribute to Babylon. They had after all hoped that the defeat of Assyria would cause their problems from the north to cease, and they had no real awareness of the might of the Babylonians. Furthermore, in spite of Judean backsliding with regard to the covenant (chapter 26), the belief had grown that the Temple of YHWH was inviolate and that YHWH would never allow it to be destroyed, a belief fostered by its earlier deliverance under Hezekiah (a belief flatly rejected by Jeremiah - Jeremiah 7:9; Jeremiah 26:6). Had it not after all survived when the other great religious centres in Israel and Syria had collapsed and been destroyed? They felt that in worshipping YHWH alongside Baal, they had got the balance right. Thus, in spite of the sacking of Ashkelon (which shook Judah deeply - Jeremiah 47:5-7), and with the encouragement of false prophets, and the political influence of an Egypt which had by then stopped the advance of the Babylonians before they reached the borders of Egypt, inflicting heavy losses on them in a ‘drawn’ battle, and causing Nebuchadnezzar to withdraw to Babylon, Jehoiakim finally withheld tribute, very much against the advice of Jeremiah (chapter Jeremiah 25:9-11; Jeremiah 27:8; Jeremiah 27:11). Jeremiah was consequently looked on as a traitor. Humanly speaking we can understand Jehoiakim’s decision. It must have appeared to everyone as though Egypt had demonstrated their equality with, if not their superiority over, Babylon. Babylon would surely be more careful in future.

Jeremiah Puts His Prophecies On Record.

It was during this period that a rejected Jeremiah, with the assistance of Baruch his ‘secretary’ (whose name has been found on a seal as ‘belonging to Berek-yahu, son of Neri-yahu (Neriah), the scribe’), first gathered his prophecies into a book-roll (Jeremiah 36:2-4), but on these being read to the people by Baruch (Jeremiah 36:5-10) they were seized and cut up by Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36:23), who thereby showed his contempt for them. As a result Jeremiah and Baruch had to go into hiding (Jeremiah 36:26). Nothing daunted Jeremiah then wrote down a longer version (Jeremiah 36:28 ff), and meanwhile his efforts to turn the nation to YHWH in the face of persecution were unceasing (sections of chapters 21-49, see e.g. 25-26, 35-36, 45).

The Second Judean Exile, Including The New King Jehoiachin (c. 597 BC).

Inevitably the powerful Babylonians, having recuperated, once again arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, determined to take revenge on Jehoiakim, and Jehoiakim apparently gave himself up, along with some of the Temple treasure, probably thereby hoping to preserve his son’s life. Nebuchadnezzar’s intention was to carry him off in fetters to Babylon, but although this intention is stated it is never actually said to have been fulfilled (2 Chronicles 36:6 ff.; Daniel 1:1-2). Jeremiah may in fact be seen as suggesting otherwise (Jeremiah 22:19). Meanwhile his eighteen year old son Jehoiachin had become king in a city under siege and only reigned for three months, during which time frantic negotiations would have been taking place with the Babylonians. When he did surrender to them he was carried off to Babylon, along with the influential queen mother and further exiles, and even more Temple treasure. He was replaced, at the instigation of Nebuchadnezzar, by Zedekiah, his uncle. (This had no doubt all been part of the agreement reached).

The Third And Final Judean Exile And The Destruction Of The Temple (587 BC).

The reign of Zedekiah was one of continual intrigue, and in the face of it Jeremiah made himself unpopular by constantly warning of the folly of rebelling against the Babylonians (Jeremiah 27:12-22), only to be seen once again as a traitor and to be harshly dealt with. No one would listen to him as negotiations continued with Egypt, and inevitably, when Zedekiah withheld tribute the Babylonians once again surrounded Jerusalem. After a failed attempt by Egypt to intervene Jerusalem was taken and Zedekiah, his sons having been slain before his eyes, was blinded and carried off to Babylon, along with what was left of the paraphernalia of the Temple. Jerusalem itself was sacked. All that Jeremiah had prophesied had come true (these prophecies are intermingled in chapters 21-49, see e.g. Jeremiah 21:1 to Jeremiah 22:30; Jeremiah 23-24, 28-34, 37-39).

The Aftermath.

Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Gedaliah as governor of what remained of Judah, giving Jeremiah (whom he saw as loyal) the option of remaining in Judah or going with him to Babylon. Jeremiah chose to remain in Judah. (See chapters 40-42). But within a short period Gedaliah had been assassinated by ruthless opponents (Jeremiah 41:1-2), and the remnants of the people, fearful of repercussions from Nebuchadnezzar, and against the advice of Jeremiah (chapter 41-42), fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them (Jeremiah 43:8-13; Jeremiah 44), rejecting YHWH’s offer of the restoration of the covenant. There Jeremiah prophesied the conquest of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 43:8 ff.). He probably died in Egypt. There are two traditions concerning what did happen to him, but neither of them can be seen as reliable. The first was that that he was stoned to death by the people at Tahpanhes in Egypt (so Tertullian, Jerome, and Epiphanius), and the second, in accordance with an alternative Jewish tradition, was that he was finally carried off with Baruch to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar at the time of the conquest of Egypt, in the 27th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. We have no way of knowing whether either have any truth in them.

The Message Of The Book For Our Day.

At first sight it might appear that much of Jeremiah’s prophecy has little to do with us. It appears to be directed at a rebellious Judah which was about to suffer awful consequences as a result of their sins, and we may even begin to find the emphasis as almost tedious and unnecessary. Why preserve writings which were so repetitive and emphasised a judgment long past?

The first reason is because they proved true. Jeremiah’s writings were preserved because in the end they provided an explanation of what had happened to Judah. He had proved to be right after all. Thus his promises of hope also became a basis for the future.

The second reason is because they reveal to us the nature of God. They bring out His holiness and the awe in which He should be held. It is true that God is merciful. But only to those who put their trust in Him and walk with Him. For all others He will one day be their judge.

Thus there is also a third reason why we should recognise the book as important and that is because we are in a similar position today. We may not have hanging over us the threat of Babylonian supremacy, but we do certainly have hanging over us the threat of God’s judgment in one way or another. Whether this will come (somewhat ironically) in the form of an Islamic revival or in the form of the effects of climate change or even finally in the form of the second coming of Christ, it is a certainty for the future. And we therefore also need to listen to the warnings of Jeremiah in order to be ready for what is coming on us. It is the same attitude of mind which brought judgment on Judah that is widespread in society today. Our idols may take a different form, but they have equally replaced God as the objects of our worship, and the immorality and unacceptability of many of our lives is clearly reflected in his prophecies. Every chapter should therefore come home to us as a warning to be ready for what is coming, for come it surely will.

(The idea that there will be a second chance after His second coming is based on false exegesis of Scripture and is not to be relied on. The truth is that His coming will call time on any opportunity to repent. Then men and women who have not responded to Him will face only a judgment which will be far worse than anything that came on Judah).

A General Overview Of The Book.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are not presented in strict chronological order, even though those which came in the time of Josiah do appear to come in the first part of the book. The first twenty chapters contain prophecies given partly in the time of Josiah and partly in the time of Jehoiakim, for the message to the people under both kings was very much the same (even though the kings themselves were very different), ‘turn from your idols, and begin to walk in accordance with the covenant, or disaster will come on you’. These chapters may well have made up a good part of the book of prophecies put together by Jeremiah, which was cut up by Jehoiakim, and re-written and expanded by Jeremiah through Barak his amanuensis and assistant (Jeremiah 36:4 ff). There is no good reason for doubting that all the prophecies which are in the book are genuinely his prophecies. As will be apparent he prophesied over a long period of time, and faced severe difficulties because his message was unpopular, and it is because of those difficulties, emphasised in chapters 26-45, that we know more about him than any other prophet after Moses.

Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is in ‘Hebrew verse’ (as with the Sermon on the Mount and with most of the prophets), but we must beware of just seeing it as poetry. The purpose of Hebrew verse was in order to aid memory, and provide emphasis by means of repetition. It did not detract from the seriousness or validity of what was said. It was spoken very directly to the heart.

As will be apparent in the commentary Jeremiah was familiar both with the Law of Moses and the early historical books, which reflect that Law. As a popular presentation of the Law, Deuteronomy, with its emphatic emphasis on blessing and cursing, appears to have been especially influential. But it would be a mistake to ignore the influence of the remainder of the Law of Moses, and especially of Leviticus 26 with its parallel warnings similar to those of Deuteronomy 28. Jeremiah was familiar with the whole Law.

With the above in mind the book can be divided into three main Sections, which are found inserted between an introduction and a conclusion:

1. INTRODUCTION. Introductory opening chapter, which describes Jeremiah’s call by YHWH (Chapter 1).

2. SECTION 1. A number of general prophecies against Judah in the days of Josiah and Jehoiakim, including, in the final chapters, words spoken to Zedekiah (chapters 2-25).

3. SECTION 2. Biographical details from the life of the prophet and details of how he coped with his maltreatment, leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath in the rejection of the offer of a new covenant (chapters 26-45).

4. SECTION 3. Prophecies against foreign nations (chapters 46-51).

5. CONCLUSION. Concluding appendix (chapter 52).


Verses 1-5

YHWH Lays Down His Final Terms (Jeremiah 3:1-5).

The latter rains have failed to come because they have been faithless to YHWH, something that is evident to anyone who will look to the bare hills or the wayside resting places. For there their flagrant misbehaviour is made apparent. But if they will only return to Him, calling Him Father and taking Him as the guide of their youth, He may well yet be ready to listen to them. Their answer is, however, seen in their unresponsive attitudes.

Jeremiah 3:1

“They say, ‘If a man put away his wife,

And she go from him, and become another man’s,

Will he return to her again?

Will not that land be greatly polluted?’

But you have played the harlot with many lovers,

Yet return again to me”, the word of YHWH.’

What ‘they said’ was strictly in accordance with the Law. See Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Once a man had put away his wife and she had belonged to another, he was not allowed to take her back again. And yet YHWH’s compassion was such that He was prepared, as it were, to set aside that Law and accept His people back from their lovers if only they would return to Him again. The door of mercy was still open, and this was to be seen as the dictate of YHWH (neum YHWH). It was not, of course, actually a breaking of the Law because no individual woman was involved, nor was an earthly marriage. Besides even on the facts Judah had not remarried. She had instead had many lovers. The real point is that God’s covenant love was so great that He was willing to receive Judah back if only she will truly return to Him with all her heart.

Jeremiah 3:2

“Lift up your eyes to the bare heights, and see,

Where have you not been lain with?

By the ways have you sat for them,

As an Arabian in the wilderness,

And you have polluted the land with your whoredoms,

And with your wickedness.”

He charges them to look at the bare heights where they have been carrying out their lewd activities, and point out any place which was free from the taint of their sexual misbehaviour. There was none. And He calls on them to consider the resting places by the way where they have awaited prostitutes, in the same way as an Arabian in the wilderness (who, because they lived in the wilderness had to wait for their favours in places where prostitutes might be found) would do. Thus had they polluted the land by their irresponsible sexual activities and by their wicked ways.

Alternately the reference to the Arabian in the wilderness may have in mind Arabians waiting in the wilderness for unsuspecting travellers to pass by whom they could rob. They wait for prostitutes like the Arabian waits for victims.

Jeremiah 3:3

“That is why the showers have been withheld,

And there has been no latter rain,

Yet you have a harlot’s forehead,

You refused to be ashamed.”

And it was because they had polluted the land that the showers had been withheld and that there had been no latter rain (the March/April rain on which the final harvest depended). Yet even when they had become aware of this they were so hardened in sin that they had refused to be ashamed. ‘You have a harlot’s forehead.’ Unlike other women who were discreet and pure, covering their heads from the eyes of men, harlots brazenly bared their foreheads so that the men whom they sought would know that they were available. It was a sign that they too, like Judah, were hardened in sin.

Jeremiah 3:4

“Will you not from this time cry to me,

‘My Father, you are the guide of my youth?’ ”

But YHWH, ever patient in His faithfulness and compassion, still wants His people to turn to Him, so He asks them whether they will not from this time call to Him, saying, ‘My Father, You are the guide of my youth’. He wants them to look back to earlier days in the wilderness when they had initially sought the truth of YHWH, before they had become so hardened. If they will once again respond to Him as their Father on a continuing basis, He will gladly take them up.

Jeremiah 3:5

“Will he retain his anger for ever?

Will he keep it to the end?

Behold, you have spoken and have done evil things,

And have had your way.”

Jeremiah then adds the final words. Will YHWH retain His anger for ever? Will He keep it to the end? The answer, if only they will truly repent and turn to Him as their Father, is ‘No’, but if they remain as they are it is ‘Yes’. For Jeremiah recognises that they are so steeped in sin that it is preventing their response. They have ‘spoken and done evil things’, and have ‘continually had their own way’. It will not be easy for them to relinquish those ways and respond to God as their Father. So like Jesus would after him Jeremiah calls on his countrymen to respond to God as their heavenly Father, but similarly to Jesus He makes clear to them that it will depend on a true and obedient response. They cannot call Him Father and not do what He says.


Verse 6

Israel Is Held Up As An Example To Judah, Both Of Faithlessness And Of Hope For The Future (Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 4:2).

Because of what they had done Israel were in exile, and were ashamed of their ways, but if only they would turn to Him in their exile they would be restored. For them there was hope. It was very different with ‘treacherous Judah’. They were without shame and without repentance.


Verses 6-11

YHWH Calls On Judah To Consider what Had Happened To Israel, Her Northern Neighbour, When She Had Failed To Turn Back To Him, Something That Judah Is Also Failing To Do (Jeremiah 3:6-11).

YHWH here refers Judah back to consideration of the behaviour of Israel, her erstwhile northern neighbour whose land had been devastated and had by now been taken over by strangers. Because backsliding Israel had herself ‘played the harlot’ on every high hill and every green tree, and had subsequently refused to turn back to YHWH, she had been punished and sent into exile. This was now intended to be an object lesson to ‘treacherous Judah’. For it was YHWH Who had given Israel a bill of divorce which had resulted in her exile among the nations. And yet even now it appeared that Judah had not learned her lesson and was demonstrating by her behaviour that Israel had been more righteous than ‘treacherous Judah’, in that, while following in the ways of Israel, Judah was feigning a response to YHWH that was not genuine. This will then later lead on to the question as to what that would mean for Judah (Jeremiah 4:3 ff.), but first the issue must be pressed home, accompanied by a remarkable promise of future hope.

Jeremiah 3:6

‘Moreover YHWH said to me in the days of Josiah the king, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She went up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there she played the harlot.”

During the days when Josiah the king was on the throne YHWH, with a view to giving a message to Judah, asked Jeremiah whether he had noted what backsliding Israel had done. She had gone up on every high hill and under every green tree where she had ‘played the harlot’. (Compare Jeremiah 2:20 where the same was then true of Judah). In other words the whole of Israel, apart from the few who had heeded the teaching of the prophets like Hosea and Amos, had been following idolatrous practises.

Jeremiah 3:7

“And I said after she had done all these things, ‘She will return to me’, but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it.’

But YHWH then informed Jeremiah (speaking anthropomorphically) that He had consoled Himself with the thought that Israel would eventually realise their folly and return to Him. Once they had sated themselves with these things surely they would return! But the truth had turned out to be that they did not return. And not only did they not return but the fact was observed by their treacherous sister Judah (many of whom probably visited the shrines at Bethel and Gilgal for the syncretistic feasts). The description of Judah as ‘treacherous’ (it will be repeated three times) indicates that what He is now saying is really aimed at Judah.

Jeremiah 3:8

“And I saw, when, for the very reason that backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce, yet treacherous Judah her sister did not fear, but she also went and played the harlot.”

But although Judah had observed what Israel had done in committing adultery against YHWH, and had noted that as a result YHWH had given to Israel a certificate of divorce (sending her into exile), ‘treacherous Judah’ did not learn from it and become faithful to YHWH, but instead, she also went and ‘played the harlot’. She too committed adultery against YHWH.

Jeremiah 3:9

“And it came about that through the lightness of her whoredom (i.e. Israel’s casual attitude towards her whoredom), the land was polluted, and she committed adultery with stones and with trees.’

The result of Israel’s light-hearted attitude towards her ‘whoredom’ (that is, to her seeking to Baal and Asherah through ritual sexual misbehaviour) was that the land was polluted, and ‘she committed adultery with stones and trees’. The reference is seemingly to the fact that the sacred prostitutes with whom they mated represented Baal and Asherah who in turn were represented by stone pillars and wooden images.

Jeremiah 3:10

“And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah has not returned to me with her whole heart, but feignedly (in pretence),” the word of YHWH (neum YHWH).’

And yet even with this vivid example before her, treacherous sister Judah also did not genuinely return to YHWH, but only pretended to do so - and this was stated to be so on ‘the word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH).

Jeremiah 3:11

‘And YHWH said to me, “Backsliding Israel has showed herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.”

Consequently YHWH sums up the situation by declaring that ‘backsliding Israel had showed herself to be more righteous than treacherous Judah’. Better an honest sinner than a hypocrite! And Judah’s failure was made all the worse because they had already had the warning which Israel’s fate should have brought home to them, and because they had experienced the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah.. Note the threefold description of Judah as ‘treacherous’ demonstrating the completeness of her treachery.


Verses 6-30

Subsection 2). YHWH’s Solemn Warning To Judah In The Days Of Josiah (Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 6:30).

This section can be divided into four parts:

· Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 4:2. Israel is held up as an example to Judah, both of faithlessness and of hope for the future. For because of what they had done Israel were in exile, and were ashamed of their ways, but if only they would turn to Him in their exile they would be restored. For them there was hope. It was very different with ‘treacherous Judah’. They were without shame and without repentance.

· Jeremiah 4:3-31. YHWH warns Judah that if they will not repent invasion by a fierce adversary is threatening and will undoubtedly come because of their sins, something which calls to mind the vision of a world returned to its original unformed condition, and a nation in anguish.

· Jeremiah 5:1-31. YHWH presents the reasons why the invasion is necessary. It is because there are no righteous people in Jerusalem, and they are full of adultery (both spiritual and physical), and have grown fat and sleek, whilst they also appear to be unaware of Who He is, and their prophets and priests are untrustworthy.

· Jeremiah 6:1-30. YHWH stresses the imminence of the invasion which will be violent and complete, because He has rejected His people.

YHWH now gives a solemn warning to Judah based on what had happened to the northern tribes (‘the ten tribes’) as a result of their behaviour towards YHWH, thereby facing Judah up to the certainty of coming judgment if they do not amend their ways, a judgment that would come in the form of a ravaged land and exile for its people (Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 6:30). Included, however, within this warning, almost as an appetiser, is a brief glimpse of the everlasting kingdom, which was being offered to Israel, when YHWH will be seated on His throne, and all His people will look to Him as Father (Jeremiah 3:12-18). Like Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets before him Jeremiah balances his message of doom with promises of future blessing. Whatever Israel and Judah did, he knew that God’s purposes would not fail in the end.

In the words found in Jeremiah 3:6 to Jeremiah 6:30 we have now come to the only passage in chapters 1-20 which is specifically said to have been a revelation given, at least in part, during the days of a particular king, and in this case it is in the days of King Josiah. This is probably intended to underline the fact that Jeremiah’s early teaching, while giving an overall coverage, includes words spoken during that reign, and it is thus of prime importance as continually stressing that even during Josiah’s reign things were not well in Judah.


Verses 12-19

A Brief Glimpse Of The Future Establishment Of The Everlasting Kingdom (Jeremiah 3:12-19).

Having established that Judah was even more guilty than Israel YHWH now breaks into the message of gloom by demonstrating hope for the future for Israel. On the basis of His great mercy He called through Jeremiah for Israel’s return to the land. This was a flash-forward into the future. While at present she was in exile, if she would only admit her backsliding and repent He promises that He will bring her back and will once again be a husband to her (compare the inference in Jeremiah 2:2, and Hosea 1-3). Then He will give to her shepherds according to His own heart who will feed her in knowledge and understanding. And in that day Israel will no more be dependent on the presence of the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH (which was seen by them as the throne of YHWH), nor will they even think of it or miss it, because the whole of Jerusalem will have become (will ‘be called’) ‘The Throne of YHWH’. Then all nations will gather to Jerusalem, and Israel will no longer walk in the stubbornness of their evil hearts, but will rather be one with Judah, something which will be made possible by their looking to YHWH as their Father and truly following Him.

In these words YHWH makes clear His future intentions for His people, and seeks to arouse Judah to jealousy. Initially His words were a call to return accompanied by glowing promises, but when that call failed to achieve its purpose it became a prophetic indication of what the future would hold.

Jeremiah 3:12

“Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, ‘Return, you backsliding Israel,’ says YHWH, ‘I will not look in anger on you, for I am merciful,’ says YHWH, ‘I will not keep my anger for ever.’ ”

Jeremiah is commanded to go and ‘proclaim words towards the north’ for it was to the north that Israel had been taken captive (2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 17:23). Such proclamations to a far off people are found regularly in the prophets, for the prophets were acting in the Name of YHWH, and could therefore be sure that their words would eventually be fulfilled because they were His word which went forth from His mouth and would prosper in the way to which He sent it (Isaiah 55:10-13). And this proclamation to Israel was to be that they should return from their backsliding with the assurance that if they did so YHWH would no longer look on them with anger (view their sin with antipathy), which would be as a consequence of His great compassion. As the Merciful One He would not retain His anger for ever.

‘Return you backsliding Israel.’ The Hebrew is emphatic and poignant. Shubah meshubah yisrael (return O turning away Israel’).

Jeremiah 3:13

“Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against YHWH your God, and have scattered your ways to strangers under every green tree, and you have not obeyed my voice,” the word of YHWH.’

Nevertheless their return was conditional on their acknowledging their iniquity, and admitting that they had transgressed against YHWH, and had had sexual relationships with (‘scattered their ways to’) strangers under every green tree, thus failing to be obedient to His voice. There could be no return without repentance and a full admission of guilt. This again was ‘the word of YHWH’ (neum YHWH).

Jeremiah 3:14-15

“Return, O backsliding children,” says YHWH, “for I am a husband to you, and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion, and I will give you shepherds according to my heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”

So YHWH calls for the return of Israel, His backsliding children in exile, on the grounds that He is their ‘husband’, a word expressing His tender love and concern for them (compare Hosea 1:3). They are not being called back to slavery, but to a loving family relationship. Yet He recognises that all will not return, and He informs them that He will therefore call from among them a remnant, one from a city, two from a family, and will bring them to Zion, and there He would give them shepherds after His own heart who would provide them with true knowledge and understanding. The idea would appear to be in order to arouse Judah to jealousy.

This prophecy was in fact initially fulfilled in that many Israelites would have made their way back to Palestine in ones and twos once Cyrus’s policies had made it possible, and would have united with the men of Judah in re-establishing the land. This is demonstrated by their presence there in the time of Jesus. Initially the shepherds after His own heart would be the later prophets and the later godly rulers like Zerubbabel, but finally they would be Jesus Christ and His Apostles. It was they who would provide true knowledge and understanding. But the final reference, as what follows makes clear, is to the heavenly Zion, for only there could the promises reach their final fulfilment. This is confirmed in Hebrews 11:10-14 where the land to be received by Abraham and his descendants is ‘a heavenly country’, and in the transference of the true Jerusalem from earth to Heaven (Galatians 4:21-31; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21-22), something already made clear in Isaiah.

Jeremiah 3:16

“And it will come about, when you are multiplied and increased in the land, in those days,” says YHWH, “they will no more say, ‘The ark of the covenant of YHWH’, nor will it come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made any more.”

As always with the prophets, Jeremiah spoke of the coming eternity in terms connected with this earth. God’s promises were to be seen as firmly rooted in reality, and not in some world of the gods beyond the skies. But when Israel/Judah did later multiply and increase in the land it was only once again to sink into failure. That is why in the end the multiplying and increasing will take place in the new Heaven and the new earth (Revelation 7:9), and the land in which they will increase will be ‘the better country’ that Abraham was seeking (Hebrews 11:10-14).

This verse has within it the ring of eternity. In that future day earthly symbols will no longer be required, but will be gone for ever. And that would be true even of the holy ‘Ark of the Covenant of YHWH’ which was seen as YHWH’s earthly throne (and disappeared at the time of the Babylonian captivity). It would neither come to mind, or be remembered or be missed, or have reference made to it, because (as Jeremiah 3:17 makes clear) they would be enjoying something even more glorious, the real presence of YHWH upon His throne in the new Jerusalem where they would walk in His light and see His face (Revelation 21:22-23; Revelation 22:3-5). ‘There will be no curse any more, and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it --’ (Revelation 22:3), and His people will be there as His bride (compare Jeremiah 3:14, and see Revelation 19:7-10; Revelation 21:2).

We must always remember that the prophets as they looked forward saw heavenly realities in terms of this earth. They had no concept of a Heaven beyond to which human beings could go. That was something that had not yet been revealed and was outside the range of their thinking, and it was well that it was so, for had they enunciated such an idea it would immediately have been mixed up in men’s minds with polytheistic ideas about the world of the gods, and have been seen as supporting Baalism. Thus their ideas were firmly rooted in terms of this earth, but would eventually develop into the idea of ‘the new Heaven and the new earth’ (Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 2. Peter Jeremiah 3:13; Revelation 21:1). It was there that the promises to Abraham would be fulfilled (Hebrews 11:10-14). For the coming of an everlasting kingdom required an everlasting environment.

As we look back on history we can see how the promises made through the prophets were slowly being fulfilled. Initial fulfilment came in the return of the people of Israel/Judah back to Palestine and the re-establishment of the Davidic rule and of God’s Law. This was then followed, once that Israel had once again failed, by the establishment of the new Israel by Jesus Christ, the son of David (John 15:1-6; Matthew 16:18; Matthew 21:43; Galatians 3:29; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 5:9; 1 Peter 1:1; James 1:1) proclaiming truth and understanding. And that, as Jesus made clear, would achieve its final fulfilment in the new Heaven and the new earth. That is why we are to set our minds on things above and build up treasure in Heaven (Colossians 1:1-3; Matthew 6:19).

Jeremiah 3:17

“At that time they will call Jerusalem the throne of YHWH, and all the nations will be gathered to it, to the name of YHWH, to Jerusalem, nor will they walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil heart.”

And at that time there will be a new Jerusalem, a heavenly Jerusalem, which will be called ‘The Throne of YHWH’ (see Revelation 22:3). This was something already clearly depicted by Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 4:2-6; Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 33:20-24; Isaiah 65:18-25, none of which could be literally fulfilled on this earth. And to this new Jerusalem will be gathered men and women of all nations, gathered to the Name of YHWH, and they will no longer walk after the stubbornness of their own hearts (see Revelation 21:24; Revelation 21:27).

Jeremiah 3:18

“In those days the house of Judah will walk with the house of Israel, and they will come together out of the land of the north to the land that I gave for an inheritance to your fathers.”

In that day there will no longer be division and disunity. Israel and Judah will once again be united, and they will come again out of the land of the north to which they had been exiled (so Judah’s exile is already in mind) to the land given as an inheritance to their fathers. This certainly happened when, once Cyrus was on the throne, exiles were allowed to return to their own lands, and the Jews became one people, so much so that by the time of Jesus most could not be sure of their tribal connections, which were lost in antiquity (with the result that those who could make those connections saw themselves as superior to the others). But as previously YHWH’s deliverance would fail to achieve its purpose because of man’s rebellion, with the result that the promises were transferred to the new Heaven and the new earth, to the new land given to their fathers for an inheritance (Hebrews 11:10-14; Revelation 21).

Jeremiah 3:19

“And I said, ‘How I will put you among the children, and give you a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of the nations!’ and I said, ‘You will call me My Father, and will not turn away from following me.’ ”

YHWH’s intentions for them were good. They would be set among the people of the world (‘among the children’ connects with ‘my Father’ demonstrating that here ‘Father’ has in mind God as the Lord of creation) in a pleasant land, a goodly heritage, one which was either given to them by the hosts of the nations, or one that was outstanding among the hosts of the nations, depending on how we interpret the words.

One point being established here was that God as Creator was the Father of all the people in the world (they were His children), but that the nations as a whole had turned away from Him and had refused to follow Him. Israel were to be different. They were to call Him ‘my Father’, and were to follow Him and walk in obedience to Him (as children were expected to be obedient to their fathers).

And there, He said, ‘You will call Me ‘My Father’ and will not turn away from following Me.’ It is hardly necessary to point out that this was precisely the message that Jesus Christ came to bring, arriving in the land to which they had gathered and laying great emphasis on God as the heavenly Father of His believing people. And those who did respond did not turn away from following Him, even in the most adverse circumstances of severe persecution. But again its final fulfilment awaits the new Heaven and the new earth ‘wherein dwells righteousness’ (2 Peter 3:13), for only there will sin be finally done away.

‘A goodly heritage of the hosts of the nations.’ This is literally ‘a heritage of the beauty of the beauties (tsebi tsibeoth) of the nations’. We could paraphrase as ‘the beautiful heritage outstanding among the beautiful heritages of the nations’, or as ‘the most beautiful heritage among those of the nations’ (Hebrew regularly expressed adjectival thought in genitival phrases. Thus seeing ‘heritage of the beauty’ as signifying ‘beautiful heritage’, and ‘beauty of the beauties’ as signifying ‘very beautiful’). The translation ‘host of the nations’ comes from repointing tsibeoth (beauties) as tsebaoth (hosts)).


Verse 20

Having Given His Glowing Promises YHWH Now Describes The Present Situation Of Israel Which Is In Stark Contrast To The Glowing Picture That He Has Painted (Jeremiah 3:20 to Jeremiah 4:2).

The beautiful vision just revealed of YHWH’s intentions for His people is in deliberate and stark contrast to the reality. For far from turning to Him in repentance Israel are seen as set in their evil ways. They are like a wife who has treacherously deserted her husband, and in their perverted way are weeping and praying on the bare heights to gods who will not profit, because they have forgotten YHWH their God. This may refer to the exiles, or to the remnants who had remained in the land, or to both.

Nevertheless unfailingly He still offers them the opportunity of repentance. They are, however depicted as seeing themselves as beyond repentance, superficially recognising that YHWH is indeed the only Saviour, but being filled with deep shame because their penchant for idolatry (‘the shameful thing’) has resulted in the loss of everything that they had previously possessed, with the result that they feel that they can only lie down in shame and allow their confusion to cover them because of the depths of their sin against YHWH. They feel totally lost and without hope.

But YHWH then promises that if only they will truly come to Him in true repentance, putting away their idols, they can be delivered from their helpless state and become established in YHWH in truth and righteousness and a blessing to the nations. God’s mercy is still being offered to smitten Israel. There is in this a wonderful picture of the continuing graciousness of God towards those who have rejected Him, and to those who backslide. And it includes us, for had it not been for His continuing mercy in the face of our sin, where would we have been?

Jeremiah 3:20

“Surely as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel,” says YHWH.

Israel’s true state is made clear. They have dealt treacherously with God like a wife who has treacherously deserted her husband (which was why they were now in exile). Note therefore that it is not only Judah who are treacherous. It was just that Judah were more treacherous both in their hypocritical double standards and in their ignoring what had happened to Israel.

Jeremiah 3:21

“A voice is heard on the bare heights, the weeping and the supplications of the children of Israel, because they have perverted their way, they have forgotten YHWH their God.”

In a vivid picture the truth about them is made clear. On the bare heights (compare Jeremiah 3:2) where they had always gone to meet with their idolatrous gods they are still weeping before them and making supplication to them, and this was clear evidence that they had perverted their way and had forgotten YHWH. They were totally taken up with their idols. Or the idea may be that the remnants of Israel still in the land were weeping there in desperation for their stricken land. Not all of Israel had been taken into exile. A remnant still struggled on in the land.

Some see their weeping as directed at YHWH, but that would hardly have been on the bare heights where the false sanctuaries were, and had they so wept they would have been received back and forgiven.

Jeremiah 3:22

“Return (shubu), you backsliding (shubebim) children, I will heal your backslidings (shubethecem).”

So YHWH calls on Israel (this chapter is all about Northern Israel, being held up as an example to Judah) as His backsliding (turning away) children to return back so that He may ‘heal their backslidings (turnings away)’, by forgiving them and restoring them to the true path, and then restoring to them all that they have lost. The term backsliding (turning) includes the thoughts of falling away, turning away from Him, going far from Him and stubborn resistance to YHWH’s call. To bring out the force of the Hebrew we might translate as, ‘Turn back you turning away people, and I will heal your turnings away’.

Jeremiah 3:22

-23 “Behold, we are come to you, for you are YHWH our God. Truly in vain is (the help that is looked for) from the hills, the tumult on the mountains. Truly in YHWH our God is the salvation of Israel.”

Israel are then portrayed as ostentatiously and hypocritically acknowledging their folly and coming to Him. In doing so they profess to recognise that YHWH is their true God, and that all their attempts to look for help from the hills and to persuade the gods to act by all their tumultuous rituals and activities had been in vain. They profess to recognise that in truth YHWH alone is their God and is the only One Who can bring about the salvation of Israel. But it was not from the heart. They were simply oscillating in their despair between YHWH and their idols, assuring first one and then the other of their loyalty. (This is paralleled by the way that nations seek God at a time of national crisis with all kinds of expressions of submission, and then subsequently once again forget Him).

The introduction of ‘the help that is looked for’, which is not in the Hebrew, is in order to give the idea behind the literal ‘truly as a lie from the hills is the tumult on the mountains’. This is on the basis of the fact that as they have turned for help to YHWH, it was a recognition that what was from the hills had failed. The omission of words leaving the reader/hearer to fill them in is a feature of ancient Hebrew.

Jeremiah 3:24

“But the shameful thing has devoured the labour of our fathers from our youth, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.”

But then they have to recognise the realities of the situation. They have lost everything. For ‘the shameful thing’ (their idolatrous behaviour) has devoured everything that their fathers had worked for and had produced from their youth. This may signify the centuries of wasted sacrifices, or that now they had lost their flocks and their herds, and many had lost their sons and their daughters, to the invader. And they were in exile among the nations. It had been a bitter price to pay (but brings out how seriously God treats sin, seeing it as no light matter).

Jeremiah 3:25

“Let us lie down in our shame, and let our confusion cover us, for we have sinned against YHWH our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of YHWH our God.”

Thus they feel that they can only lie down in their shame and let their confusion cover them. For they recognise that they have sinned against YHWH their God, both them and their fathers, from their youth (just as they had worked from their youth (Jeremiah 3:24) to build up their herds and flocks while ignoring YHWH) and even to this day. And they had not obeyed YHWH their God. It is a true summary of Israel’s state. But their repentance was not deep enough to genuinely bring them back to Him.

Jeremiah 4:1-2

“If you will return, O Israel,” says YHWH, “if you will return to me, and if you will put away your abominations out of my sight, then you will not be removed, and you will swear, ‘As YHWH lives,’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, and the nations will bless themselves in him, and in him will they glory.”

But YHWH is ever ready to respond in mercy. He assures them that if they will genuinely turn to Him, and will put away their idols (their ‘abominations’) out of His sight, then once they have returned they will not again be removed. They will then be in a position to swear ‘as YHWH lives’ in truth and justice and righteousness. For having come to Him in repentance they will know Him and His living power, and will know that He is the living God, and will have become established in truth, justice and righteousness as a result of His inworking within them. And the consequence of this will be that the nations will bless themselves in YHWH, and will glory in Him. Israel’s turning to YHWH will result also in the nations coming to Him. This was always the final goal of the prophets. And it found its fulfilment when the remnant from among Israel truly repented and responded to Jesus Christ (Acts 2-12) and as a result proclaimed His truth among the nations.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 3:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-3.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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