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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 34

 

 

Verses 1-7

Subsection 3 Part 1. Jerusalem Is Surrounded And Jeremiah Declares that There Is no Point In Holding Out Because Jerusalem Is About To Be Destroyed And Zedekiah Will Be Carried Off To Babylon To Meet Nebuchadrezzar Face To Face Where He Will Die ‘In Peace’ And Be Lamented By His Nobles (Jeremiah 34:1-7).

Jerusalem was in dire straits. Surrounded by the Babylonians and by armies from ‘all the kingdoms of the earth which were under his dominion’ it knew that only two other cities of Judah were still holding out, the fortified cities of Lachish and Azekah. Otherwise the whole of Judah was being ravaged and was in Nebuchadnezzar’s hands. But it still thought that it had one hope. It was depending on Pharaoh Hophra to arrive with an Egyptian army and drive off the Babylonians. Jeremiah, however, warns them against such a vain hope. Let them be in no doubt. Jerusalem would be taken and burned with fire and Zedekiah its king would be carried off to Babylon never again to participate in political intrigue (he would die ‘in peace’, excluded from political activity), and there he would meet Nebuchadnezzar face to face to receive his punishment. That was on the word of YHWH. It is noteworthy that there is no reference at this stage to his being blinded, confirmation that this is a prophecy before the event.

Jeremiah 34:1

‘The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth which were under his dominion, and all the peoples, were fighting against Jerusalem, and against all its cities, saying,’

This is clearly describing a time prior to Jeremiah’s imprisonment. The impossible position of Jerusalem is underlined. They were surrounded by the armies of ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ which were under Nebuchadnezzar’s control. (Note the use of ‘world’ to indicate the local ‘known world’). ‘All the peoples’ were fighting against Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah. The idea is that there really was no hope. Of course, as vassals of Nebuchadnezzar the other kingdoms had little choice in the matter. It was part of their commitment as vassals to provide Nebuchadnezzar with regiments to bolster up his army.

The change in description from Nebuchadrezzar (used earlier in chapters 21-25, and in Jeremiah 29:31; Jeremiah 32:1; Jeremiah 32:28; Jeremiah 35:11; Jeremiah 37:1; Jeremiah 39:1; Jeremiah 39:11, but not in Jeremiah 27:1 to Jeremiah 29:3) to Nebuchadnezzar indicates very little, for such a change could easily be made by the same author writing at a different time, especially as the use of the ‘n’ in place of the ‘r’ could simply have been in order to introduce a derogatory element into the name in view of the increasing intensity of the situation.

In Jeremiah the use of Nebuchadnezzar is mainly restricted to the passage Jeremiah 27:1 to Jeremiah 29:3 (Nebuchadrezzar appears in Jeremiah 29:21), whilst also occurring here in Jeremiah 34:1, with this last appearance having no obvious explanation. Nebuchadrezzar is used in Jeremiah 32:1; Jeremiah 32:28; Jeremiah 35:11; Jeremiah 37:1; Jeremiah 39:1; Jeremiah 39:11. In the end we may think what we like about the significance of the change for we have little to go on. The pattern is not wholly consistent.

Jeremiah 34:2

‘Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, “Go, and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah, and tell him, Thus says YHWH, Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire,”

YHWH here underlines their lack of hope. As ‘YHWH, the God of Israel’ He calls on Jeremiah to go to Zedekiah the king of Judah and tell him that YHWH Himself intends to deliver Jerusalem into the hand of the king of Babylon. This reveals Israel’s hopelessness in that if Israel’s own God was not supporting them, what possible hope could they have? Furthermore, He declares that the city will be burned with fire, something which was the regular treatment for a rebellious and obstinate city.

Jeremiah 34:3

“And you will not escape out of his hand, but will surely be taken, and delivered into his hand, and your eyes will behold the eyes of the king of Babylon, and he will speak with you mouth to mouth, and you will go to Babylon.”

Nor should Zedekiah think that somehow he himself might escape from Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. He was to recognise that he would certainly be taken and handed over to Nebuchadnezzar, and would have to see him face to face, and speak to him mouth to mouth (he would of course do it grovelling before him with his face to the ground), for ‘he would go to Babylon’ whether he liked it or not.

Jeremiah 34:4

‘Surely hear the word of YHWH, O Zedekiah king of Judah, “Thus says YHWH concerning you, You will not die by the sword,”

Furthermore he would not die nobly by the sword, neither in actively fighting for his country (no such noble death was to be his), nor by execution. This too was the word of YHWH. His only future lay in prison. (It should be noted that no mention is made of the fact that he would be blinded, something which demonstrates that the prophecies were not tampered with after the event. It would have been all too easy for a dishonest or over-enthusiastic copyist to introduce the idea. The fact that it did not happen reminds us how carefully copyists refrained from such activities).

Jeremiah 34:5

“You will die in peace; and with the burnings of your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so will they make a burning for you, and they will lament you, saying, ‘Ah Lord!’ for I have spoken the word, the word of YHWH.”

Indeed he would die ‘in peace’ (i.e. in a non-belligerent situation, languishing in prison) and would have a normal royal funeral, with the burning of perfumes and spices (compare 2 Chronicles 16:14; 2 Chronicles 21:19) and the lamentations of his nobles. That at least would be permitted to him and was all that he had to look forward to. The emphasis is more on the fact that his usefulness was at an end and that he would not accomplish anything more in his life, rather than being intended as being an indication that he would have a pleasant life. He would, in fact, probably die in prison.

Jeremiah 34:6-7

‘And Jeremiah the prophet spoke all these words to Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, when the king of Babylon’s army was fighting against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah which were left, against Lachish and against Azekah, for these alone remained of the cities of Judah as fortified cities.’

It is then emphasised that these words were spoken when Judah was on its last legs, with only two other fortified cities, apart from Jerusalem still holding out. Lachish and Azekah were in the low foothills of Judah and were two strong cities. Lachish was 40 kilometres (23 miles) south west of Jerusalem and surrounded on three sides by the River Lachish which meandered around it. It was important enough for Sennacherib of Assyria in c. 701 BC, having failed to capture Jerusalem, to celebrate its subjection by a relief sculpture in his palace at Nineveh. It was eventually to be taken again by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Azekah was seemingly almost as strong and held out bravely, although succumbing to the Babylonians some time earlier than Lachish. It was about 26 kilometres (18 miles) south west of Jerusalem. Interestingly we have possible contemporary evidence of its fall, for letters were discovered in the ruins of Lachish in which a guard commander, presumably writing from an outpost, informs his governor that ‘we are watching for the signal fires of Lachish for we cannot see those of Azekah’, which may indicate that the latter had ceased burning because the city was taken.


Verses 1-28

SECTION 2 (Jeremiah 26:1 to Jeremiah 45:5). (continued).

As we have previously seen this Section of Jeremiah from Jeremiah 26:1 to Jeremiah 45:5 divides up into four main subsections, which are as follows:

1. Commencing With A Speech In The Temple Jeremiah Warns Of What Is Coming And Repudiates The Promises Of The False Prophets (Jeremiah 26:1 to Jeremiah 29:32).

2. Following The Anguish To Come Promises Are Given Of Eventual Restoration, Central To Which is A New Covenant Written In The Heart And The Establishment Of A Shoot (Branch) Of David On His Throne (Jeremiah 30:1 to Jeremiah 33:26).

3. YHWH’s Continuing Word of Judgment Is Given Through Jeremiah, The Continuing Disobedience Of The People Is Brought Out, And Jeremiah’s Resulting Experiences Leading Up To The Fall Of Jerusalem Are Revealed (Jeremiah 34:1 to Jeremiah 38:28).

4. The Fall Of Jerusalem And Events Subsequent To It Are Described (Jeremiah 39:1 to Jeremiah 45:5).

We have already commented on Subsections 1). in Jeremiah 4 and subsection 2). in Jeremiah 5. We must now therefore consider subsection 3). This subsection deals with various experiences of Jeremiah (although not in chronological order) in the days of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah.

Section 2 Subsection 3. YHWH’s Continuing Word of Judgment Is Given Through Jeremiah, The Continuing Disobedience Of The People Is Brought Out, And Jeremiah’s Resulting Experiences Leading Up To The Fall Of Jerusalem Are Revealed (Jeremiah 34:1 to Jeremiah 38:28).

The promise of future restoration having been laid out Jeremiah now returns to the current situation with Jerusalem under threat. He demonstrates the different ways in which YHWH has been rejected, and treated with contempt by 1). a hypocritical pretence of obedience to the covenant, which is reneged on, 2). a treating of YHWH’s Fatherhood with contempt by the people, something which is in stark contrast with the obedience and reverence shown by the Rechabites to their father, 3). a burning of YHWH’s very word in a brazier, and 4). a continuing misuse of YHWH’s prophet. All this but confirms YHWH’s prophecies of judgment against Jerusalem,

The subsection divides up easily into five parts, each of which is opened by a crucial phrase, thus:

1. 34:1-7 ‘The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH when Nebuchadnezzar --- fought against Jerusalem and all its cities.’ This was a word declaring that Jerusalem would be destroyed and Zedekiah would be carried off to Babylon and meet Nebuchadnezzar face to face. There he will die ‘in peace’ and be lamented by his nobles.

2. 34:8-22 ‘The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people at Jerusalem to proclaim freedom to them.’ Zedekiah having persuaded the more wealthy in Jerusalem to enter into a covenant before YHWH to set free their Hebrew slaves, thus fulfilling the Sinai covenant, the more wealthy do so, but once the danger appears to be past, change their minds and re-enslave them, bringing down on themselves the renewed wrath of YHWH and the certainty of Babylonian subjection.

3. 35:1-19 ‘The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH in the days of Jehoiakim.’ YHWH uses the example of the Rechabites as an illustration of a filial obedience to their father, which is the very opposite of Judah’s disobedience to their Father, something which will result in judgment coming on Judah and Jerusalem.

4. 36:1-32 ‘And it came about in the fourth year of Jehoiakim --- this word came to Jeremiah from YHWH.’ Jeremiah records his prophecies in a book in the days of Jehoiakim, prophecies which impress the nobles, but which are treated with disdain by Jehoiakim and his associates, resulting in Jehoiakim cutting up the ‘leaves’ of the book and burning them, thereby bringing judgment on himself.

5. 37:1-38:28 ‘And king Zedekiah the son of Josiah reigned instead of Coniah -- but did not listen to the words YHWH which He spoke by the prophet Jeremiah.’ YHWH’s prophet is rejected. Jeremiah warns the king not to expect deliverance through the approaching Egyptian army, and on seeking to visit his hometown during a lull in the siege is accused of attempted desertion and is shut up in prison, although there he is surreptitiously consulted by Zedekiah. His various sufferings, resulting from his prophesying, including a near death experience, are described, and he ends up in the royal prison where he is comparatively well treated.

It will be noted from this that after the initial warning of the success of the Babylonians there is a continuing emphasis on the growing disobedience towards, and rejection of, YHWH and His covenant. This is illustrated firstly by the breaking of a solemn covenant made by the people, a covenant in which they guaranteed to free their Hebrew slaves as required by the Sinaitic covenant, something which they subsequently reneged on; secondly by a disobedience which is shown to be the direct opposite of the obedience of the Rechabites (who sought to be faithful to the principles of wilderness days) to their father; thirdly by the disrespect shown to YHWH’s prophecies as written down by Jeremiah when Jehoiakim contemptuously burned them in a brazier; and fourthly by the continual disrespect shown to Jeremiah himself in his various imprisonments. The growth in intensity of the disobedience as each chapter progresses (breach of the ancient covenant, falling short of a righteous example presented before their very eyes, burning the currently received word of YHWH, and finally misusing the prophet of YHWH because of his up to date prophecies), helps to explain why the prophecies have been put in this order.

We may also see here a deliberate attempt to sandwich between two references to the approaching end and to Zedekiah’s reign, reasons as to why that end is necessary from earlier days. This follows a similar pattern to chapters 21-24 which also sandwiched earlier situations between two examples of the days of Zedekiah.


Verses 8-22

Having Set Free Their Hebrew Slaves In Accordance With The Sinai Covenant The Inhabitants Of Jerusalem Renege On Their Commitment, Bringing Down On Themselves The Wrath Of YHWH And The Certainty Of Babylonian Subjection (Jeremiah 34:8-22).

In the face of the Babylonian threat King Zedekiah managed to persuade the people of Jerusalem that it was in their interests to ‘proclaim freedom’ to their Hebrew slaves, in accordance with the requirements of the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:2 ff.; see also Deuteronomy 15:12-18). The idea of ‘proclaiming freedom’ en masse is usually connected with the year of Yubile where both Israelite bondmen and property were freed (Leviticus 25:10; Isaiah 61:1). This may thus have been a year of Yubile, or it may have had the aim of fulfilling such a year which had previously been ignored. This proclamation of ‘freedom’ may have had a number of purposes in Zedekiah’s eyes:

1. In order to impress YHWH with their obedience to His covenant in the hope that He would then unbend towards them (this would explain the solemnity of the covenant into which they entered before YHWH).

2. In order to give the ex-slaves a greater reason to defend Jerusalem as freemen.

3. In order to enable the ex-slaves to fend for themselves in the siege, rather than their being the responsibility of their owners who would have problems enough fending for themselves.

The seriousness of the covenant into which they entered, which was by ‘cutting’ a covenant, that is by binding themselves through the slaughter of a sacrifice, and stepping between the divided parts (compare Genesis 15:9-17), suggests that an appeal for YHWH’s clemency was very much in mind. It suggests that it was He Who had to be impressed with their genuineness.

Note on Bondage in Israel.

There were different ways and different reasons why men and women should become bondmen and bondwomen in Israel. The Law in fact distinguished at least two different types of bondage. The first was of ‘Hebrews’. ‘Hebrews’ were originally landless people who had no other way to live. They lived at the time that the Law was given by entering into seven year contracts of ‘bondage’ (they were called Habiru elsewhere, such as at Nuzi), but in Israel were to be released at the end of the sixth year, and sent away fully provisioned for the seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:12-18; Exodus 21:2 ff). They could thus have one year’s ‘rest’. The second was of Israelite debtors who had to sell themselves into bondage to pay their debts. They were to be treated as servants and not as bondservants, and they automatically received their freedom in the year of Yubile, which came after each forty nine year period (Leviticus 25:39-42). Thus in Israel, theoretically at least, no Israelite could become a permanent slave. However, over the centuries the practise had no doubt altered, and it would appear that Hebrew bondpersons were at this time being kept in bondage beyond the stipulated six year, perhaps permanently. Furthermore at this time most of these Hebrews, if not all, would be Israelites/Jews. It is possible also that the year of Yubile was being ignored for debtors who had become bondpersons. This would explain why a general ‘proclamation of freedom’ (Leviticus 25:10) could be made. The idea would be that it was to be a time of setting right the failure to do what should have been done in the past, the effects of which still continued. The aim would be to gain YHWH’s favour and to demonstrate that they were observing the covenant. Had the Law been properly observed in the past it would not have been necessary.

End of note.

The fact that Jeremiah speaks of ‘Hebrews’ only here and nowhere else, and clearly relates it to Deuteronomy 15:12-18, suggests that these distinctions between different classes of bondmen had been to some extent maintained. A certain class called ‘Hebrews’ (landless persons) was still recognised, which as a result of land takeovers, and the ignoring of the redemption at the year of Yubile, had become quite large. They had seemingly lost all rights. If the year of Yubile had ceased to apply to debtors they also would be seen as ‘Hebrews’ as they would then have had no family land.

Jeremiah 34:8-9

‘The word that came to Jeremiah from YHWH, after the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem, to proclaim freedom to them, that every man should let his man-servant, and every man his maid-servant, who is a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, go free, that none should make bondmen of them, that is, of a Jew his brother.’

With the Babylonians at the gates it would appear that Zedekiah sought to win YHWH’s favour by calling on the people to ‘declare freedom’ for all their bondpersons who would, if the Law had not been observed, at this stage all have been ‘Hebrews’. The people had seemingly agreed, partly because it would relieve them of the responsibility of feeding the bondpersons, partly because it would mean that there were more free persons available to defend the city, and partly because they did hope that it might sway YHWH in their favour.

Jeremiah 34:10

‘And all the princes and all the people obeyed, who had entered into the covenant that every one should let his man-servant, and every one his maid-servant, go free, that none should make bondmen of them any more. They obeyed, and let them go,’

So all the princes and all the people entered into solemn covenant to release their bondpersons, both men and women, and let them go permanently. They did it by means of the ancient custom of dividing an animal and stepping between its parts, probably as an indication that if they went back on their covenant they were to be treated like the slaughtered animal (compare Genesis 15:9-17). And having made the covenant they had done precisely what they had agreed, and had let their bondpersons go. So far, so good.

Jeremiah 34:11

‘But afterwards they turned, and made the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, return, and brought them into subjection as servants and as handmaids.’

However, when the Babylonians withdrew from outside the city wall because of the approach of Pharaoh Hophra’s Egyptian army they changed their minds, presumably because they felt that it was no longer necessary. With the siege lifted they felt that they could carry on as before. They had got their way and so obedience was no longer necessary. And so they once again enslaved their bondmen and bondwomen, totally disregarding their covenant.

Jeremiah 34:12

‘Therefore the word of YHWH came to Jeremiah from YHWH, saying,’

Not surprisingly YHWH was not pleased at this, and He sent His word to Jeremiah to make clear His thoughts.

Jeremiah 34:13-14

“Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel. I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years you shall let go every man his brother who is a Hebrew, who has been sold to you, and has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you. But your fathers did not listen to me, nor inclined their ear.”

Through Jeremiah He pointed out the law that He had previously made at Sinai about freeing Hebrew bondpersons at the end of seven years, once they had served for six years, and had had a year’s sabbatical, which was to be in the light of the fact that He had delivered His people as a whole from slavery in Egypt. He then pointed out that their fathers had not listened or taken notice, and thus had not observed the law.

Jeremiah 34:15

“And you were now turned, and had done what is right in my eyes, in proclaiming freedom every man to his neighbour, and you had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name,”

However, He had noted with pleasure that they themselves had changed their minds and had done what was right in YHWH’s eyes. They had ‘proclaimed freedom’ and had freed their bondpersons without obligation, and they had done it by a solemn covenant made before YHWH in the House that was called by His Name. It was the beginning of an attempt to return to observation of the full covenant. And YHWH had taken them seriously!

Jeremiah 34:16

“But you turned and profaned my name, and made every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their pleasure, return, and you brought them into subjection, to be servants and for handmaids to you.”

But now they had treated His Name lightly by assuming that they could just ignore what they had covenanted. Having released those of their bondservants who had desired freedom, they had once again brought those bondservants into bondage, so that they would have to serve them as bondservants once again. By this they were indicating to YHWH that they had not taken seriously the promises that they had made to Him. They were assuming that they could just ignore the significance of the covenant that they had made simply because circumstances had altered.

How easy it is for us also to make promises to God when we face times of difficulty, only to renege on them when the difficulty is passed. Do we think that we will escape similar condemnation?

Jeremiah 34:17

“Therefore thus says YHWH, you have not listened to me, to proclaim freedom, every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbour. Behold, I proclaim to you a freedom, the word of YHWH, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine, and I will cause you to be tossed to and fro among all the kingdoms of the earth.”

As a result their disobedience was even greater than that of their fathers. For they had pretended to ‘declare freedom’ every man to his brother under the most solemn oath, but had in fact prevented that freedom from taking effect. In effect they had insulted YHWH by treating Him in the most casual fashion.

Let them therefore take note that in response YHWH was going to ‘declare freedom’ for them. But this would be the freedom to suffer under the sword, and pestilence and famine, and the freedom to be tossed about among the nations. And ironically this was because He had ‘set them free’ so that they were no longer His servants and under His protection.

Jeremiah 34:18-20

“And I will give the men who have transgressed my covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts, the princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the high official (or eunuchs), and the priests, and all the people of the land, who passed between the parts of the calf. I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those who seek their life, and their dead bodies will be for food to the birds of the heavens, and to the beasts of the earth.”

We learn here for the first time the depths of their iniquity and folly. Their iniquity because they had made such a solemn oath and had broken it, and their folly because they had ignored the fact that by doing so they had called for retribution on themselves. By their actions they had actually called on YHWH to slaughter them. Well, He would grant them their request. They would be given into the hands of their enemies and into the hands of those who sought their lives. And they would suffer the further ignominy of having their bodies left unburied to be available to the scavengers who gathered around dead bodies, both birds and beasts. In those days that was seen as the most ignominious of ways to die.

This type of covenant in which an animal was slain and the parties to the covenant passed between the parts, was a common one practised throughout history. We have an example of it as early as Genesis 15:9-17. It was a most solemn covenant ceremony and was probably declaring them as worthy of death if they broke it, in the same way as the animal had died to seal the covenant. Compare the similar idea in 1 Samuel 11:7. In other circumstances it may also have included the thought that both parties to a covenant were being united by joint-participation in the released life of the victim, which they would lose in death if they broke it, but this would hardly have been seen as applying to YHWH Himself. Alternately it may have been seen as uniting the parties to the covenant in a sacrificial meal, although Genesis 15:9-17 would appear to be against that interpretation as there is no thought there of such a meal.

We can compare here the prayer offered by the priest to Jupiter in Livy 1:24. His prayer was, ‘O Jupiter, do you on that day (that they break the covenant) so smite the Roman people, as I this day smite this pig, yes so much the more smite them as you are mightier and more prevailing’. This would confirm the idea that the main significance was the death of those who broke the covenant.

The word often translated ‘eunuchs’ probably simply refers to high officials regardless of whether they were eunuchs or not (compare Genesis 39:1 where it was used of Potiphar, who was married; 1 Samuel 8:15; etc.).

Jeremiah 34:21

“And Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes will I give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which has gone away from you.”

And disaster was also to happen to King Zedekiah and his princes. They would be given into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who sought their lives, namely into the hands of the King of Babylon’s army whom they had thought that they had seen the backs of. It was true that those armies had gone away to face the Egyptian threat, but they would return. The foolish people of Jerusalem had acted too precipitately.

Jeremiah 34:22

“Behold, I will command, the word of YHWH, and cause them to return to this city, and they will fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire, and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.”

For YHWH Himself would command their army to return (this was the sure word of YHWH), and they would fight against the city and burn it and make all the cities of Judah desolate and without inhabitant. (And could anyone deny in view of what had happened here, that they deserved it? They would actually be receiving what they had called down on themselves).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 34:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-34.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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