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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Jeremiah 19

 

 

Verses 1-15

CHAPTER XII

THE BROKEN VESSEL - A SYMBOL OF JUDGMENT

Jeremiah 19:1-15

THE result of his former address, founded upon the procedure of the potter, had only been to bring out into clearer distinctness the appalling extent of the national corruption. It was evident that Judah was incorrigible, and the Potter’s vessel must be broken in pieces by its Maker.

"Thus said Iahvah: Go and buy a bottle" (baqbuq, as if "a pour pour"; the meaning is alluded to in the first word of Jeremiah 19:7 : ubaqqothi, " and I will pour out") "of a moulder of pottery" so the accents; but perhaps the Vulgate is right: "lagunculam figuli testeam," "a potter’s earthen vessel," A.V.; lit. a potter’s bottle, viz., earthenware), "and" (take: LXX rightly adds) "some of the elders of the people and of the elders of the priests, and go out into the valley of ben Hinnom at the entry of the Pottery Gate" (a postern, where broken earthenware and rubbish were shot forth into the valley: the term is connected with that for "pottery," Jeremiah 19:1, which is the same as that in Job 2:8), "and cry there the words that I shall speak unto thee,"-Jeremiah does not pause here, to relate how he followed the Divine impulse, but goes on at once to communicate the tenor of the Divine "words"; a circumstance which points to the fact that this narrative was only written some time after the symbolical action which it records; "and say thou, Hear ye Iahvah’s word, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Thus said Iahvah Sabaoth, the God of Israel: Lo, I am about to bring an evil upon this place, such that, whoever heareth it, his ears shall tingle!" If we suppose, as seems likely, that this series of oracles (Jeremiah 18:1-23; Jeremiah 19:1-15; Jeremiah 20:1-18) belongs to the reign of Jehoiachin, the expression "kings of Judah" may denote that king and the queen mother. Another view is that the kings of Judah in general are addressed "as an indefinite class of persons," here and elsewhere, [Jeremiah 17:20; Jeremiah 22:4] because the prophet did not write the main portion of his book until after the siege of Jerusalem (Ewald). The announcement of this verse is quoted by the compiler of Kings in relation to the crimes of king Manasseh. [2 Kings 21:12]

"Because that they forsook Me, and made this place strange"-alienated it from Iahvah by consecrating it to "strange gods"; or, as the Targum and Syriac, "polluted" it-"and burnt incense therein to other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers knew"; [Jeremiah 16:13] "and the kings of Judah did fill this place with blood of innocents" (so the LXX "Nor the kings of Judah" gives a poor sense; they are included in the preceding phrase), "and built the bamoth Baal" (High places of Baal; a proper name), [Joshua 13:17] "to burn their sons in the fire," ("as burnt offerings to the Baal"; LXX omits, and it is wanting, Jeremiah 7:31, Jeremiah 32:35. It may be a gloss, but is probably genuine, as there are slight variations in each passage), "which I commanded not" ("nor spake": LXX omits), "neither came it into My mind: therefore, behold days are coming, saith Iahvah, when this place will no more be called the Tophet and valley of ben Hinnom but the Valley of Slaughter!" ("and in Tophet shall they bury, so that there be"-remain-"no room to bury!" This clause, preserved at the end of Jeremiah 19:11, but omitted there by the LXX, probably belongs here). "And I will pour out" [Isaiah 19:3] "the counsel of Judah and Jerusalem in this place"-that is, I will empty the land of all wisdom and resourcefulness, as one empties a bottle of its water, so that the heads of the state shall be powerless to devise any effectual scheme of defence in the face of calamity {cf. Jeremiah 13:13} -"and I will cause them to fall by the sword ‘before their enemies"’, [Deuteronomy 28:25] "and by the hand of them that seek their life; and I will make ‘their carcases food unto the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth"’ (Deuteronomy 28:26; Jeremiah 7:33, Jeremiah 16:4). "And I will set this city ‘for an astonishment"’ [Deuteronomy 28:37] "and a hissing"; [Deuteronomy 18:16] "every one that passeth by her shall be astonished and hiss at all her ‘strokes"’ [Jeremiah 49:17; Jeremiah 1:13] or "plagues." [Deuteronomy 28:59] "And I will cause them to ‘eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters,’ and each the flesh of his fellow shall they eat-‘in the stress and the straitness wherewith their enemies’ and they that seek their life ‘shall straiten them."’ It will be seen from the references that the Deuteronomic colouring of these closing threats (Jeremiah 19:7-9) is very strong, the last verse being practically a quotation. [Deuteronomy 28:53] The effect of the whole oracle would thus be to suggest that the terrible sanctions of the sacred Law would not remain inoperative; but that the shameless violation of the solemn covenant under Josiah, by which the nation undertook to observe the code of Deuteronomy, would soon be visited with the retributive calamities so vividly foreshadowed in that book.

"And break thou the bottle, to the eyes of the men that go with thee, and say unto them: Thus said Iahvah Sabaoth; So will I break this people and this cry, as one breaketh the potter’s vessel so that it cannot be mended again! Thus will I do to this place, saith Iahvah, and to the inhabitants thereof, and make" (infin. constr), as in Jeremiah 17:10, continuing the mood and person of the preceding verb; which is properly a function of the infin, absol., as in Jeremiah 19:13) "this city like a Tophet"-make it one huge altar of human sacrifice, a burning place for thousands of human victims. "And the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Judah"-the palace of David and Solomon, in which king after king had reigned, and "done the evil in Iahvah’s eyes,"-"shall become like the place of the Tophet, the defiled ones! even all the houses upon the roofs of which they burnt incense unto all the host of heaven, and poured outpourings" (libations of wine and honey) "unto other gods." (So the Hebrews punctuation, which seems to give a very good sense. The principal houses those of the kings and grandees, are called "the defiled," because their roofs especially have been polluted with idolatrous rites. The last clause of the verse explains the epithet, which might have been referred to "the kings of Judah," had it preceded "like the place of the Tophet." The houses were not to become "defiled"; they were already so, past all cleansing; they were to be destroyed with fire, and in their destruction to become the Tophet or sacrificial pyre of their inhabitants. We need not, therefore, read "Tophteh," after Isaiah 30:33, as I at first thought of doing, to find afterwards that Ewald had already suggested it. The term rendered "even all," is lit. "unto all," that is, "including all." {cf. Ezekiel 44:9}

The command "and break thou the bottle and say unto them" compared with that of Jeremiah 19:2, "and cry there the words that I shall speak unto thee!" seems to indicate the proper point of view from which the whole piece is to be regarded. Jeremiah is recalling and describing a particular episode in his past ministry; and he includes the whole of it, with the attendant circumstances and all that he said, first to the elders in the vale of ben Hinnom, and then to the people assembled in the temple, under the comprehensive "Thus said Iahvah!" with which he begins his narrative. In other words, he affirms that he was throughout the entire occurrence guided by the impulses of the Spirit of God. It is very possible that the longer first address (Jeremiah 19:2-9) really gives the substance of what he said to the people in the temple on his return from the valley, which is merely summarised in Jeremiah 19:15.

"And Jeremiah came in"-into the temple "from the Tophet, whither Iahvah had sent him to prophesy, and took his stand in the court of Iahvah’s House; and said unto all the people: Thus said Iahvah Sabaoth Israel’s God; Lo, I am about to bring upon" (Jeremiah 19:3) "this city and upon all her cities" ("and upon her villages": LXX adds) "all the evil that I have spoken concerning her; because they stiffened their neck," [Jeremiah 7:26] "not to hear My words!" In this apparent epitome of His discourse to the people in the temple, the prophet seems to sum up all his past labours, in view of an impending crisis. "All the evil" spoken hitherto concerning Jerusalem is upon the point of being accomplished. {cf. Jeremiah 25:3}

In reviewing the entire oracle, we may note as in former instances, the care with which all the circumstances of the symbolical action are chosen, in order to enhance the effect of it upon the minds of the witnesses. The Oriental mind delights in everything that partakes of the nature of an enigma; it loves to be called upon to unravel the meaning of dark sentences, and to disentangle the wisdom wrapped up in riddling words and significant actions. It would have found eloquence in Tarquin’s unspoken answer to his son’s messenger. "Rex velut deliberabundus in hortum aedium transit, sequente nuncio filii: ibi inambulans tacitus summa papaverum capita dicitur baculo decussisse" (Liv. 1:54). No doubt Jeremiah’s companions would watch his every step, and would not miss the fact that he carried his earthenware vessel out of the city by the "Sherd Gate." Here was a vessel yet whole, treated as though it were already a shattered heap of fragments! They would be prepared for the oracle in the valley.

It is worth while, by the way, to notice who those companions were. They were certain of "the elders of the people" and of "the elders of the priests." Jeremiah, it seems, was no wild revolutionary dreamer and schemer, whose hand and voice were against all established authority in Church and State. This was not the character of the Hebrew prophets in general, though some writers have conceived thus of them. There is no evidence that Jeremiah ever sought to divest himself of the duties and privileges of his hereditary priesthood; or that he looked upon the monarchy and the priestly guilds and the entire social organisation of Israel, as other than institutions divinely originated and divinely preserved through all the ages of the national history. He did not believe that man created these institutions, though experience taught him that man might abuse and pervert them from their lawful uses. His aim was always to reform, to restore, to lead the people back to "the old paths" of primitive simplicity and rectitude; not to abolish hereditary institutions, and substitute for the order which had become an integral part of the national life, some brand new constitution which had never been tried, and would be no more likely to fit the body corporate than the armour of Saul fitted the free limbs of the young shepherd who was to slay Goliath.

The prophets never called for the abolition of those laws and customs, civil and ecclesiastical, which were the very framework of the state, and the pillars of the social edifice. They did not cry, "Down with kings and priests!" but to both kings and priests they cried, "Hear ye Iahvah’s word!" And all experience proves that they were right. Paper constitutions have never yet redeemed a nation from its vices, nor delivered a community from the impotence and the decay which are the inevitable fruits of moral corruption. Arbitrary legislative changes will not alter the inward condition of a people; covetousness and hypocrisy, pride and selfishness, intemperance and uncleanness and cruelty, may be as rampant in a commonwealth as in a kingdom.

The contents of the oracle are much what we have had many times already. The chief difference lies in a calm definiteness of assurance, a tone of distinct certitude, as though the end were so near at hand as to leave no room for doubt or hesitation. And this difference is fittingly and impressively suggested by the particular symbol chosen-the shattering of an earthenware vessel, beyond the possibility of repair. The direct mention of the king of Babylon and the Babylonian captivity, in the sequel (chapter 20), points to the presence of a Babylonian invasion, probably that which ended with the exile of Jeconiah and the chief citizens of Jerusalem.

The fatal sin, from which the oracle starts and to which it returns, is forsaking Iahvah, and making the city of His choice "strange" to Him, that is, hateful and unclean, by contact with foreign and bloody superstitions, which were even falsely declared by their promoters to be pleasing to Iahvah, the Avenger of innocent blood! [Jeremiah 7:31] The punishment corresponds to the offence. The sacrifices of blood will be requited with blood, shed in torrents on the very spot which had been so foully polluted; they who had not scrupled to slay their children for the sacrifice, were to slay them again for food under the stress of siege and famine; the city and its houses, defiled with the foreign worships, will become one vast Molech fire, [Jeremiah 32:35] in which all will perish together.

It may strike a modern reader that there is something repulsive and cold blooded in this detailed enumeration of appalling horrors. But not only is it the case that Jeremiah is quoting from the Book of the Law, at a time when, to an unprejudiced eye, there was every likelihood that the course of events would verify his dark forebodings; in the dreadful experience of those times such incidents as those mentioned (Jeremiah 19:9) were familiar occurrences in the obstinate defence and protracted sufferings of beleaguered cities. The prophet, therefore, simply affirms that obstinate persistence in following their own counsels and rejecting the higher guidance will bring upon the nation its irretrievable ruin. We know that in the last siege he did his utmost to prevent the occurrence of these unnatural horrors by urging surrender; but then, as always, the people "stiffened their neck, not to hear Iahvah’s words."

Jeremiah knew his countrymen well. No phrase could have better described the resolute obstinacy of the national character. How were the headstrong, self-will, the inveterate sensuality, the blind tenacity of fanatical and non-moral conceptions which characterised this people, to be purified and made serviceable in the interests of true religion, except by means of the fiery ordeal which all the prophets foresaw and foretold? As we have seen, polytheism exercised upon the popular mind a spell which we can hardly comprehend from our modern point of view; a polytheism foul and murderous, which violated the tenderest affections of our nature by demanding of the father the sacrifice of his child, and violated the very instinct of natural purity by the shameless indulgence of its worship. It was a consecration of lust and cruelty, -that worship of Molech, those rites of the Baals and Asheras. Meagre and monotonous as the sacred records may on these heads appear to be, their witness is supplemented by other sources, by the monuments of Babylon and Phoenicia.

It is hard to see how the religious instinct of men in this peculiar stage of belief and practice was to be enlightened and purified in any other way than the actual course of Providence. What arguments can be imagined that would have appealed to minds which found a fatal fascination, nay, we must suppose an intense satisfaction, in rites so hideous that one durst not even describe them; minds to which the lofty monotheism of Amos, the splendid eloquence of an Isaiah, the plaintive lyrical strain of a Jeremiah, appealed in vain? Appeals to the order of the world, to the wonders of organic life, were lost upon minds which made gods of the most obvious subjects of that order, the sun, moon, and stars; which even personified and adored the physical principle whereby the succession of life after life is perpetuated.

Nothing short of the perception "that the word of the prophets had come to pass," the recognition, therefore, that the prophetic idea of God was the true idea, could have succeeded in keeping the remnant of Judah safe from the contagion of surrounding heathenism in the land of their exile, and in radically transforming once for all the religious tendencies of the Jewish race.

In Jeremiah’s view, the heinousness of Judah’s idolatry is heightened by the consideration that the gods of their choice are gods "whom neither they nor their fathers knew" (Jeremiah 19:4). The kings Ahaz, Manasseh, Amon, had introduced novel rites, and departed from "the old paths" more decidedly than any of their predecessors. In this connection, we may remember that, while modern Romish controversialists do not scruple to accuse the Church of this country with having unlawfully innovated at the Reformation, the Anglican appeal has always been to Scripture and primitive antiquity. Such, too, was the appeal of the prophets. [Hosea 6:1; Hosea 6:7; Hosea 11:1;, Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 6:16; Jeremiah 11:3] It is the glory of our Church, aglory of which neither the lies of Jesuits nor the envy of the sectaries can rob her, that she returned to "the old paths," boldly overleaping the dark ages of mediaeval ignorance, imposture, and corruption, and planting her foot firmly on the rock of apostolic practice and the consent of the undivided Church.

Disunion among Christians is a sore evil, but union in the maintenance and propaganda of falsehood is a worse; and the guilt of disunion lies at the door of that system which abused its authority to crush out legitimate freedom of thought, to retard the advancement of learning, and to establish those monstrous innovations in doctrine and worship, which subtle dialecticians may prove to their own satisfaction to be innocent and non-idolatrous in essence and intention, though all the world can see that in practice they are grossly idolatrous. God preserve England from that toleration of serious error, which is so easy to sceptical indifference! God preserve her from lending an ear to the siren voices that would seduce her to yield her hard won independence, her noble freedom, her manly rational piety, to the unhistorical and unscriptural claims of the Papacy!

If we reverence those Scriptures of the Old Testament to which our Lord and His Apostles made their constant appeal, we shall keep steadily before our minds the fact that, in the estimation of a prophet like Jeremiah, the sin of sins, the sin that involved the ruin of Israel and Judah, was the sin of associating other objects of worship with the One Only God. The temptation is peculiarly strong to some natures. The continual relapse of ancient Israel is not so great a wonder to those of us who have any knowledge of mankind, and who can observe what is passing around them at the present day. It is the severe demand of God’s holy law, which makes men cast about for some plausible compromise-it is that demand which also makes them yearn after some intermediary power, whose compassion will be less subject to considerations of justice, whom prayers and entreaties and presents may overcome, and induce to wink at unrepented sin. In an age of unsettlement, the more daring spirits will be prone to silence their inconvenient scruples by rushing into atheism, while the more timid may take refuge in Popery. "For to disown a Moral Governour, or to admit that any observances of superstition can release men from the duty of obeying Him, equally serves the purpose of those, who resolve to be as wicked as they dare, or as little virtuous as they can" (Bp. Hurd).

Then too there is the glory of the saints and angels of God. How can frail man refuse to bow before the vision of their power and splendour, as they stand, the royal children of the King of kings, around the heavenly throne, deathless, radiant with love and joy and purity, exalted far above all human weakness and human sorrows? If the holy angels are "ministering spirits," why not the entire community of the Blessed? And what is to hinder us from casting ourselves at the feet of saint or angel, one’s own appointed guardian, or chosen helper? Let good George Herbert answer for us all.

Oh glorious spirits, who after all your bands

See the smooth face of God, without a frown,

Or strict commands

Where every one is king, and hath his crown,

If not upon his head, yet in his hands:

Not out of envy or maliciousness

Do I forbear to crave your special aid.

I would address

My vows to thee most gladly, blessed Maid,

And Mother of my God, in my distress:

But now, (alas!) I dare not; for our King,

Whom we do all jointly adore and praise,

Bids no such thing:

And where His pleasure no injunction lays,

(‘Tis your own case) ye never move a wing.

"All worship is prerogative, and a flower

Of His rich crown, from whom lies no appeal

At the last hour:

Therefore we dare not from His garland steal,

To make a posy for inferior power."

In this sense also, as in many others, the warning of St. John applies:

LITTLE CHILDREN, KEEP YOURSELVES FROM IDOLS!

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 19:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/jeremiah-19.html.

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