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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 37

 

 


Verses 1-5

A Summary Of The Political Situation At This Stage (Jeremiah 37:1-5).

The political situation at this stage can be summed up in a few words. Jerusalem was under siege because Zedekiah, Jehoiakim’s uncle, who was now king and had previously been appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, had rebelled against him and withheld tribute. And he had done this contrary to YHWH’s words through Jeremiah. Neither he nor his people had been willing to listen to the voice of YHWH. Nevertheless they asked for Jeremiah to pray for them and allowed him his freedom, but were meanwhile looking for deliverance by Egyptian forces.

We can therefore imagine their exuberance when, as a consequence of the advance of an Egyptian army, the siege appeared to have been lifted. They began to think that it was they who had made the right choice after all. With the defeat of the Babylonians by the Egyptians they would have peace with honour and no more be subjected to the Babylonian yoke. And surely Pharaoh Hophra with his chariots and horsemen would be too powerful for the Babylonians.

Jeremiah 37:1

‘And Zedekiah the son of Josiah reigned as king, instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, whom Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah.’

In fulfilment of Jeremiah 36:30 Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin was displaced by his uncle Zedekiah when Jerusalem surrendered to the Babylonians in 597 BC. Coniah was short for Jeconiah, which was another name for Jehoiachin. He was carried off to Babylon with all the leading politicians and artisans, including Ezekiel, leaving a depleted Jerusalem to carry on as best they could, bereft of their finest leaders.

It should be noted that Zedekiah was not the popular choice. He was the choice of Nebuchadnezzar. To the people Jehoiachin was still king, and we know that this was later even recognised in Babylon. But he never ‘sat on the throne of David’ as ruler over Judah. He would die in exile, even though in his latter days he would be released from prison and be treated with honour.

Jeremiah 37:2

‘ But neither he, nor his servants, nor the people of the land, listened to the words of YHWH, which he spoke by the prophet Jeremiah.’

But neither Zedekiah nor his people listened to the voice of YHWH. This is Jeremiah’s equivalent of the phrase used in Kings, ‘he did what was evil in the sight of YHWH’. Jeremiah’s emphasis is on their disobedience. Neither the king, nor his aristocracy, nor the people, listened to the words of YHWH spoken through the prophet Jeremiah. They were too taken up in their own ideas, and in their own way of living and worship.

Jeremiah 37:3

‘And Zedekiah the king sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah, the priest, to the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “Pray now to YHWH our God for us.”

Yet even in his disobedience Zedekiah hoped that YHWH would look on the needs of His people, for he asked Jeremiah to pray to ‘YHWH OUR God for us’. It was a case of ‘any port in a storm’. It has always been man’s vain hope that when it comes down to the wire God will not take his sin too seriously. But as Jeremiah had already made clear, and will continue to make clear, God takes sin very seriously. That is why such a prayer would have been in vain. The time had come for final judgment. It had been long in coming, but now it was here.

It is clear that Zedekiah was putting feelers out to Jeremiah because in his own heart he had great respect for him and his message. Note indeed how he sent high officials to consult with him rather than simply summoning him to court. But his problem was that the majority of his advisers were pressing him to rebellion, and had no time for Jeremiah whom they saw as a traitor, and he did not feel strong enough to resist them. He was overall a weak king. Both the men sent by the king to Jeremiah had elsewhere had dealings with him, Jehucal in Jeremiah 38:1 and Zephaniah (not the prophet) in Jeremiah 21:1; Jeremiah 29:25. Jehucal was his enemy, but Zephaniah appears to have been more neutral, and possibly even sympathetic.

Jeremiah 37:4

‘Now Jeremiah came in and went out among the people, for they had not put him in prison.’

Meanwhile it is emphasised that at this stage Jeremiah was not in prison. He was still free to go about among the people. In fact it is his imprisonments that will be the theme of this passage. For the king and the people still pinned their hopes in the power of Egypt and in the promises of the Pharaoh. Thus they were willing for a time to tolerate what they saw as Jeremiah’s pessimism.

But Jeremiah would not have been alone in supporting the idea of yielding to Babylon. Even among the nobility there were many who sympathised with his message as we have already seen. The Lachish letters also tell us of ‘nobles who weaken the hands of the people’, presumably by calling for surrender to Babylon. The king’s advisers were thus torn between those who advised submission to Babylon, and those who called for resistance and trust in Egypt. But it was the Egyptian party who were winning. And after all, Egypt was local.

Jeremiah 37:5

‘And Pharaoh’s army had come forth out of Egypt, and when the Chaldeans who were besieging Jerusalem heard news of them, they decamped from Jerusalem.’

And for a while the Egyptian party appeared to have been right. News came that Pharaoh Hophra had come out of Egypt at the head of a large army, in order to relieve Jerusalem, in response to Zedekiah’s previous negotiations with him (Ezekiel 17:15-18). It must have appeared to them as though Jerusalem had been saved. Who could stand against the might of the Egyptians with their powerful chariots and horsemen?

Indeed to all outward appearances that was the case, for on hearing the news of the Egyptian advance the Chaldean army raised the siege, departed from Jerusalem and went out to face the Egyptians. The people were jubilant. Once more Jerusalem had been delivered! It was, however, to prove a false dawn.


Verses 1-28

The Disobedience Of Judah And Its King Is Highlighted By Their Treatment Of The Prophet Of YHWH (Jeremiah 37:1 to Jeremiah 38:28).

These events once again took place during the reign of Zedekiah, the final king of Judah before the exile. Along with Jeremiah 34:1-7 this passage forms an inclusio for this subsection on disobedience, paralleling the similar inclusio in chapters 21-24, which brings out that the final intention of the prophecy at this stage is to concentrate on the destruction of Jerusalem and its aftermath in the light of the sin that has gone before.

With this in view the different imprisonments of Jeremiah at the hands of both king and people are emphasised in what follows. The passage commences by underlining the fact that he had not been imprisoned at first (Jeremiah 37:4), and then goes on to deal with a number of imprisonments (Jeremiah 37:15; Jeremiah 37:21; Jeremiah 38:6; Jeremiah 38:13; Jeremiah 38:28), something which is emphasised in the concluding verse (Jeremiah 38:28). Thus there is a continual emphasis throughout on his imprisonment. In this we have the fourth and greatest example of the disobedience of both king and people in that they sought to restrain the prophet of YHWH, something in the main unknown in previous generations.


Verses 6-10

Jeremiah Prophesies The Failure Of The Egyptians, The Reviving Of The Siege And The Destruction Of Jerusalem Because It Was YHWH’s Fixed Purpose (Jeremiah 37:6-10).

Jeremiah dismissed the good news. He pointed out that it was so much YHWH’s purpose that Jerusalem be destroyed that even if the Babylonians were left few in number, and ailing at that, they would still succeed in their purpose.

Jeremiah 37:6

‘Then came the word of YHWH to the prophet Jeremiah, saying,’

Once again Jeremiah is in receipt of ‘the word of YHWH’. Even though they were not listening, YHWH had not ceased from speaking to His people.

Jeremiah 37:7

“Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, Thus shall you say to the king of Judah, who sent you to me to enquire of me, ‘Behold, Pharaoh’s army, which is come forth to help you, will return to Egypt into their own land.’ ”

YHWH’s reply to Zedekiah was forthright, and it was that the Egyptians would fail as deliverers. They would turn tail and return to their own land.

Jeremiah 37:8

“And the Chaldeans will come again, and fight against this city, and they will take it, and burn it with fire.”

And the result would be that the Chaldeans would again come and besiege the city, and would eventually take it and burn it with fire. It had rebelled once too often.

Jeremiah 37:9

“Thus says YHWH, Do not deceive yourselves, saying, ‘The Chaldeans will surely depart from us,’ for they will not depart.”.

So they were not to be deceived into thinking that the Chaldeans would depart (which was the general position held in Jerusalem). For the fact was that the Chaldeans would not depart. They had come to fulfil a purpose, and fulfil that purpose they would.

Jeremiah 37:10

“For though you had smitten the whole army of the Chaldeans who fight against you, and there remained but wounded men among them, yet would they rise up every man in his tent, and burn this city with fire.”

And that purpose was to burn Jerusalem with fire. And so great was their zeal, and so firmly was YHWH on their side, that even if the whole army had been smitten, leaving only a small band of wounded men, yet they would still rise up against Jerusalem and take it and burn it with fire, because it was the determined will of YHWH.


Verses 11-15

When Seeking To Take Possession Of His Land In Benjamin During The Lull In The Siege Jeremiah Is Falsely Accused Of Treachery And Thrown Into Prison (Jeremiah 37:11-15).

Jeremiah’s family appears to have had much land in Anathoth, and with the siege of Jerusalem temporarily lifted it gave him the opportunity to once again take possession of it and its produce. This lifting of the siege would also give an opportunity to all the people of Jerusalem to resupply themselves with food, and Jeremiah may well also have had this in mind. But on going out through the Benjamin gate he was seized by the officer in charge of the gate whose duty it was to watch who went in and out. Being one of those who were antagonistic towards Jeremiah (whom he no doubt saw as undermining the morale of the people) he convinced himself that Jeremiah was slipping out in order to join the Babylonians, as others had previously done (Jeremiah 38:19; Jeremiah 39:9; Jeremiah 52:15). So he handed him over to the authorities, no doubt making clear to them his opinion of what the situation was, and they in turn threw him into prison. These were the new authorities who had replaced the previous ones when the latter were exiled to Babylon in 597 BC. (It was now around 587 BC).

Jeremiah 37:11

‘And it came about that, when the army of the Chaldeans was decamped from Jerusalem for fear of Pharaoh’s army,’

The decamping of the Chaldeans as they went off to meet the Egyptian threat opened up the opportunity for people to take advantage of the situation in order to see to their possessions outside Jerusalem, and in order to reprovision themselves. The opportunity would especially be taken by those who believed Jeremiah’s words that the enemy would be returning to renew the siege.

Jeremiah 37:12

‘Then Jeremiah went forth out of Jerusalem to go into the land of Benjamin, to receive his portion there, in the midst of the people.’

In the course of this Jeremiah decided to go to his lands at Anathoth to ‘receive his share there’ among the people. This may indicate his taking over the family lands from those who were watching over it, or indeed his claiming his ‘rents’ in the form of provisions. It was a matter of sorting out his affairs while the opportunity offered. No doubt many others were leaving for the same reason. ‘In the midst of the people’ stresses his good intentions. There was nothing surreptitious about his actions.

Jeremiah 37:13

‘And when he was in the gate of Benjamin, a captain of the ward was there, whose name was Irijah, the son of Shelemiah, the son of Hananiah, and he laid hold on Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “You are falling away to the Chaldeans.” ’

But when he reached ‘the gate of Benjamin’, which was the gate that led out onto ‘the way to Benjamin’, he was spotted by Irijah, the officer of the gate. It was his responsibility to observe who sought to use the gate and to deal with any irregularities. His view on seeing Jeremiah was stated to be that he was sneaking out in order to join the Chaldeans, although as the city as a whole probably thought that they had seen the last of the Chaldeans that may well simply have been a means of getting his own back on the prophet for being ‘a troublemaker’ who had constantly weakened the morale of the troops.

Jeremiah 37:14

‘Then Jeremiah said, “It is false. I am not falling away to the Chaldeans.” But he did not listen to him. So Irijah laid hold on Jeremiah, and brought him to the princes.’

Jeremiah immediately stressed that he was wrong, and that he was not ‘falling away’ to the Chaldeans, but the officer refused to listen to him, and arrested him and brought him before the authorities.

Jeremiah 37:15

‘And the princes were furious with Jeremiah, and smote him, and put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe, for they had made that the prison.’

These authorities were not the ones mentioned in the previous chapter, who would have been carried off to Babylon ten years previously, but were their replacements from among the lower levels of society who were left in Jerusalem once the cream of the inhabitants had been taken away. They were small-minded men who were filled with hatred at Jeremiah because of his prophesying, and they took the word of the officer and had him beaten and placed in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe, which had seemingly been made into a prison. Such prisons were unpleasant places, and this one probably had subterranean dungeons into which prisoners would be lowered. It would appear from what follows that there he was badly treated.


Verses 16-21

After Having Spent Some Time In Prison Jeremiah Was Summoned To Appear Before King Zedekiah Who Secretly Sought His Counsel, Giving Jeremiah The Opportunity To Appeal Against His Situation. As A Result He Was Transferred To The Prison In The Palace-Complex Which Was For Important State Prisoners Where He Was Better Treated (Jeremiah 37:16-21).

Having been put in prison under unpleasant circumstances it appears that Jeremiah was badly treated, for he would later speak to the king of the possibility that he might have died under his ill-treatment. Common prisons were at their best very unpleasant and unwholesome places, and as an enemy of the state he was probably put in the part where conditions were at their worst and the warders least sympathetic. Furthermore one of YHWH’s charges against the people had been the way in which they treated each others and their tendency to violence. Thus we may assume that Jeremiah discovered this aspect of their behaviour to the full.

Fortunately for his wellbeing, however, Zedekiah eventually decided to consult him secretly, and called for him, no doubt under the pretence of examining his case. By this time the siege had probably been renewed, and it is probable that Zedekiah was desperately seeking a way out, and wanted to know if YHWH had any word for him. YHWH had, and it was simple. ‘You will be delivered into the hands of the Babylonians’.

Jeremiah then appealed against the conditions under which he was being held and Zedekiah had him moved to the prison for important state prisoners, where he was treated as befitted such prisoners.

Jeremiah 37:16-17

‘When Jeremiah had come into the dungeon-house, and into the cells, and Jeremiah had remained there many days, then Zedekiah the king sent, and fetched him. And the king asked him secretly in his house, and said, “Is there any word from YHWH?” And Jeremiah said, “There is.” He also said, “You will be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon.”

Jeremiah was placed in a dungeon (house of a pit) which was seemingly separated into separate pits or cells (the word is used only here). The aim was both to prevent him being able to speak to the people, and in order to vent their spite on him for his pro-Babylonian views. And he was held there for some weeks. It would appear that he received little food (prisoners were rarely fed, it was left to relatives to bring them food) but much rough treatment. Eventually he was summoned before the king, purportedly in order to be examined. But the real reason was because Zedekiah wanted to consult him privately. He therefore got him alone in his palace and asked him whether there was any word from YHWH. The siege may well by now have been recommenced, and he possibly hoped that he would hear something comforting.

Jeremiah assured him that not only had he received a word from YHWH, but that that word had not changed. It was that ‘you’ (the king and his people) would be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon. We should not that even his desire to escape from the awful conditions under which he was being held did not dissuade Jeremiah from proclaiming the true word of YHWH.

Jeremiah 37:18

‘Moreover Jeremiah said to king Zedekiah, “In what way have I sinned against you, or against your servants, or against this people, that you have put me in prison?”

But recognising the king’s sympathy he then asked him why he was being kept under such awful conditions. How, he asked, had he sinned against the king and his council, or indeed against the people, in telling them the truth? Had not what he said come about?

Jeremiah 37:19

“Where now are your prophets who prophesied to you, saying, ‘The king of Babylon will not come against you, nor against this land?’ ”

Why, he was asking, are you consulting me when you have your own prophets? Was it not clear from Zedekiah’s own words that he had little confidence that they had any word from YHWH. And no wonder, for their prophecies had proved false. Surely it was the prophets who had misinformed them by declaring that the king of Babylon would never come against the city who should have been being punished, rather than him. Why then was he suffering because he had prophesied what had actually happened?

Jeremiah 37:20

“And now hear, I pray you, O my lord the king, let my supplication, I pray you, be presented before you, that you do not cause me to return to the house of Jonathan the scribe, lest I die there.’

So he asked Zedekiah to prevent him from being sent back to the prison in the house of Jonathan the Scribe lest he die there. The conditions in that prison were clearly very bad.

Jeremiah 37:21

‘Then Zedekiah the king commanded, and they committed Jeremiah to the court of the guard, and they gave him daily a loaf of bread out of the bakers’ street, until all the bread in the city was spent. Thus Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.’

Zedekiah responded to his plea and commanded that he be committed to the court of the guard, which was adjacent to the palace (Jeremiah 32:12; Nehemiah 3:25) and was where the high level prisoners would be kept, watched over by elite troops. And there, while rations held out, he received a daily allowance of food, a loaf of bread from the court bakers. The city had been able to renew its resources somewhat, but it was still on strict rations. Note the ominous ‘until all the bread in the city was spent’. Things would by then be getting to starvation level.

‘The baker’s street.’ Like many large cities, in Jerusalem different occupations had their own streets and local markets (compare Nehemiah 3:8; Nehemiah 3:32). This was the street of the bakers.

‘Thus Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.’ Note the repetition of this idea in Jeremiah 38:6; Jeremiah 38:13; Jeremiah 38:28. What follows therefore is a description of what occurred to him in the court of the guard once rations had run out.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 37:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-37.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 29th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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