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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Jeremiah 24

 

 

Verses 1-10

CHAPTER VIII

BAD SHEPHERDS AND FALSE PROPHETS

Jeremiah 23:1-40, Jeremiah 24:1-10

"Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!"- Jeremiah 23:1

"Of what avail is straw instead of Grain?is not My word like fire, like a hammer that shattereth the rocks?"- Jeremiah 23:28-29

THE captivity of Jehoiachin and the deportation of the flower of the people marked the opening of the last scene in the tragedy of Judah and of a new period in the ministry of Jeremiah. These events, together with the accession of Zedekiah as Nebuchadnezzar’s nominee, very largely altered the state of affairs in Jerusalem. And yet the two main features of the situation were unchanged-the people and the government persistently disregarded Jeremiah’s exhortations. "Neither Zedekiah, nor his servants, nor the people of the land, did hearken unto the words of Jehovah which He spake by the prophet Jeremiah." [Jeremiah 37:2] They would not obey the will of Jehovah as to their life and worship; and they would not submit to Nebuchadnezzar. "Zedekiah did evil in the sight of Jehovah, according to all that Jehoiakim had done; and Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon." [2 Kings 24:18-20]

It is remarkable that though Jeremiah consistently urged submission to Babylon, the various arrangements made by Nebuchadnezzar did very little to improve the prophet’s position or increase his influence. The Chaldean king may have seemed ungrateful only because he was ignorant of the services rendered to him-Jeremiah would not enter into direct and personal cooperation with the enemy of his country, even with him whom Jehovah had appointed to be the scourge of His disobedient people-but the Chaldean policy served Nebuchadnezzar as little as it profited Jeremiah. Jehoiakim, in spite of his forced submission, remained the able and determined foe of his suzerain, and Zedekiah, to the best of his very limited ability, followed his predecessor’s example.

Zedekiah was uncle of Jehoiachin, half-brother of Jehoiakim, and own brother to Jehoahaz. Possibly the two brothers owed their bias against Jeremiah and his teaching to their mother, Josiah’s wife Hamutal, the daughter of another Jeremiah, the Libnite. Ezekiel thus describes the appointment of the new king: "The king of Babylon took one of the seed royal, and made a covenant with him; he also put him under an oath, and took away the mighty of the land: that the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that by keeping of his covenant it might stand." [Ezekiel 17:13-14] Apparently Nebuchadnezzar was careful to choose a feeble prince for his "base kingdom"; all that we read of Zedekiah suggests that he was weak and incapable. Henceforth the sovereign counted for little in the internal struggles of the tottering state. Josiah had firmly maintained the religious policy of Jeremiah, and Jehoiakim, as firmly, the opposite policy; but Zedekiah had neither the strength nor the firmness to enforce a consistent policy and to make one party permanently dominant. Jeremiah and his enemies were left to fight it out amongst themselves, so that now their antagonism grew more bitter and pronounced than during any other reign.

But whatever advantage the prophet might derive from the weakness of the sovereign was more than counterbalanced by the recent deportation. In selecting the captives Nebuchadnezzar had sought merely to weaken Judah by carrying away every one who would have been an element of strength to the "base kingdom." Perhaps he rightly believed that neither the prudence of the wise nor the honour of the virtuous would overcome their patriotic hatred of subjection; weakness alone would guarantee the obedience of Judah. He forgot that even weakness is apt to be foolhardy when there is no immediate prospect of penalty.

One result of his policy was that the enemies and friends of Jeremiah were carried away indiscriminately; there was no attempt to leave behind those who might have counselled submission to Babylon as the acceptance of a Divine judgment, and thus have helped to keep Judah loyal to its foreign master. On the contrary Jeremiah’s disciples were chiefly thoughtful and honourable men, and Nebuchadnezzar’s policy in taking away "the mighty of the land" bereft the prophet of many friends and supporters, amongst them his disciple Ezekiel and doubtless a large class of whom Daniel and his three friends might be taken as types. When Jeremiah characterises the captives as "good figs," and those left behind as "bad figs," (chapter 24) and the judgment is confirmed and amplified by Ezekiel, (chapters 7-11) we may be sure that most of the prophet’s adherents were in exile.

We have already had occasion to compare the changes in the religious policy of the Jewish government to the alternations of Protestant and Romanist sovereigns among the Tudors; but no Tudor was as feeble as Zedekiah. He may rather be compared to Charles IX of France, helpless between the Huguenots and the League. Only the Jewish factions were less numerous, less evenly balanced; and by the speedy advance of Nebuchadnezzar civil dissensions were merged in national ruin.

The opening years of the new reign passed in nominal allegiance to Babylon. Jeremiah’s influence would be used to induce the vassal king to observe the covenant he had entered into and to be faithful to his oath to Nebuchadnezzar. On the other hand a crowd of "patriotic" prophets urged Zedekiah to set up once more the standard of national independence, to "come to the help of the Lord against the mighty." Let us then briefly consider Jeremiah’s polemic against the princes, prophets, and priests of his people. While Ezekiel in a celebrated chapter (chapter 8) denounces the idolatry of the princes, priests, and women of Judah, their worship of creeping things and abominable beasts, their weeping for Tammuz, their adoration of the sun, Jeremiah is chiefly concerned with the perverse policy of the government and the support it receives from priests and prophets, who profess to speak in the name of Jehovah. Jeremiah does not utter against Zedekiah any formal judgment like those on his three predecessors. Perhaps the prophet did not regard this impotent sovereign as the responsible representative of the state, and when the long-expected catastrophe at last befell the doomed people, neither Zedekiah nor his doings distracted men’s attention from their own personal sufferings and patriotic regrets. At the point where a paragraph on Zedekiah would naturally have followed that on Jehoiachin, we have by way of summary and conclusion to the previous sections a brief denunciation of the shepherds of Israel.

"Woe unto die shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of My Pasture!

Ye have scattered My flock, and driven them away, and have not cared for them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings."

These "shepherds" are primarily the kings, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, who have been condemned by name in the previous chapter, together with the unhappy Zedekiah, who is too insignificant to be mentioned. But the term shepherds will also include the ruling and influential classes of which the king was the leading representative.

The image is a familiar one in the Old Testament and is found in the oldest literature of Israel, [Genesis 49:24] J. from older source. [Micah 5:5] but the denunciation of the rulers of Judah as unfaithful shepherds is characteristic of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and one of the prophecies appended to the Book of Zechariah. (Chapters 9-11, Zechariah 13:7-9.) Ezekiel 34:1-31 expands this figure and enforces its lessons:-

"Woe unto the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool. Ye kill the fatlings: but ye feed not the sheep. The diseased have ye not strengthened, Neither have ye healed the sick, Neither have ye bound up the bruised, Neither have ye brought back again that which was driven away, Neither have ye sought for that which was lost, But your rule over them has been harsh and violent, And for want of a shepherd they were scattered, And became food for every beast of the field." [Ezekiel 34:2-3]

So in Zechariah 9:1-17, etc., Jehovah’s anger is kindled against the shepherds, because they do not pity His flock. [Zechariah 10:3; Zechariah 11:5] Elsewhere [Jeremiah 25:34-38] Jeremiah speaks of the kings of all nations as shepherds, and pronounces against them also a like doom. All these passages illustrate the concern of the prophets for good government. They were neither Pharisees nor formalists; their religious ideals were broad and wholesome. Doubtless the elect remnant will endure through all conditions of society; but the Kingdom of God was not meant to be a pure Church in a rotten state. This present evil world is no manure heap to fatten the growth of holiness: it is rather a mass for the saints to leaven.

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel turn from the unfaithful shepherds whose "hungry sheep look up and are not fed" to the true King of Israel, the "Shepherd of Israel that led Joseph like a flock, and dwelt between the Cherubim." In the days of the Restoration He will raise up faithful shepherds, and over them a righteous Branch, the real Jehovah Zidqenu, instead of the sapless twig who disgraced the name "Zedekiah." Similarly Ezekiel promises that God will set up one shepherd over His people, "even My servant David." The pastoral care of Jehovah for His people is most tenderly and beautifully set forth in the twenty-third Psalm. Our Lord, the root and the offspring of David, claims to be the fulfilment of ancient prophecy when He calls Himself "the Good Shepherd." The words of Christ and of the Psalmist receive new force and fuller meaning when we contrast their pictures of the true Shepherd with the portraits of the Jewish kings drawn by the prophets. Moreover the history of this metaphor warns us against ignoring the organic life of the Christian society, the Church, in our concern for the spiritual life of the individual. As Sir Thomas More said, in applying this figure to Henry VIII, "Of the multitude of sheep cometh the name of a shepherd." A shepherd implies not merely a sheep, but a flock; His relation to each member is tender and personal, but He bestows blessings and requires service in fellowship with the Family of God.

By a natural sequence the denunciation of the unfaithful shepherds is followed by a similar utterance "concerning the prophets." It is true that the prophets are not spoken of as shepherds; and Milton’s use of the figure in "Lycidas" suggests the New Testament rather than the Old. Yet the prophets had a large share in guiding the destinies of Israel in politics as well as in religion, and having passed sentence on the shepherds-the kings and princes-Jeremiah turns to the ecclesiastics, chiefly, as the heading implies, to the prophets. The priests indeed do not escape, but Jeremiah seems to feel that they are adequately dealt with in two or three casual references. We use the term "ecclesiastics" advisedly; the prophets were now a large professional class, more important and even more clerical than the priests. The prophets and priests together were the clergy of Israel. They claimed to be devoted servants of Jehovah, and for the most part the claim was made in all sincerity; but they misunderstood His character, and mistook for Divine inspiration the suggestions of their own prejudice and self-will.

Jeremiah’s indictment against them has various counts. He accuses them of speaking without authority, and also of time serving, plagiarism, and cant.

First, then, as to their unauthorised utterances: Jeremiah finds them guilty of an unholy license in prophesying, a distorted caricature of that "liberty of prophesying" which is the prerogative of God’s accredited ambassadors.

"Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you.

They make fools of you:

The visions which they declare are from their own hearts,

And not from the mouth of Jehovah.

Who hath stood in the council of Jehovah,

To perceive and hear His word?

Who hath marked His word and heard it?

I sent not the prophets-yet they ran;

I spake not unto them-yet they prophesied."

The evils which Jeremiah describes are such as will always be found in any large professional class. To use modern terms-in the Church, as in every profession, there will be men who are not qualified for the vocation which they follow. They are indeed not called to their vocation; they "follow," but do not overtake it. They are not sent of God, yet they run; they have no Divine message, yet they preach. They have never stood in the council of Jehovah; they might perhaps have gathered up scraps of the King’s purposes from His true councillors; but when they had opportunity they neither "marked nor heard"; and yet they discourse concerning heavenly things with much importance and assurance. But their inspiration, at its best, has no deeper or richer source than their own shallow selves; their visions are the mere product of their own imaginations. Strangers to the true fellowship, their spirit is not "a well of water springing up unto eternal life," but a stagnant pool. And, unless the judgment and mercy of God intervene, that pool will in the end be fed from a fountain whose bitter waters are earthly, sensual, devilish.

We are always reluctant to speak of ancient prophecy or modern preaching as a "profession." We may gladly dispense with the word, if we do not thereby ignore the truth which it inaccurately expresses. Men lived by prophecy, as, with Apostolic sanction, men live by "the gospel." They were expected, as ministers are now, though in a less degree, to justify their claims to an income and an official status, by discharging religious functions so as to secure the approval of the people or the authorities. Then, as now, the prophet’s reputation, influence, and social standing, probably even his income, depended upon the amount of visible success that he could achieve.

In view of such facts, it is futile to ask men of the world not to speak of the clerical life as a profession. They discern no ethical difference between a curate’s dreams of a bishopric and the aspirations of a junior barrister to the woolsack. Probably a refusal to recognise the element common to the ministry with law, medicine, and other professions, injures both the Church and its servants. One peculiar difficulty and most insidious temptation of the Christian ministry consists in its mingled resemblances to and differences from the other professions. The minister has to work under similar worldly conditions, and yet to control those conditions by the indwelling power of the Spirit. He has to "run," it may be twice or even three times a week, whether he be sent or no: how can he always preach only that which God has taught him? He is consciously dependent upon the exercise of his memory, his intellect, his fancy: how can he avoid speaking "the visions of his own heart"? The Church can never allow its ministers to regard themselves as mere professional teachers and lecturers, and yet if they claim to be more, must they not often fall under Jeremiah’s condemnation?

It is one of those practical dilemmas which delight casuists and distress honest and earnest servants of God. In the early Christian centuries similar difficulties peopled the Egyptian and Syrian deserts with ascetics, who had given up the world as a hopeless riddle. A full discussion of the problem would lead us too far away from the exposition of Jeremiah and we will only venture to make two suggestions.

The necessity, which most ministers are under, of "living by the gospel," may promote their own spiritual life and add to their usefulness. It corrects and reduces spiritual pride, and helps them to understand and sympathise with their lay brethren, most of whom are subject to a similar trial.

Secondly, as a minister feels the ceaseless pressure of strong temptation to speak from and live for himself-his lower, egotistic self-he will be correspondingly driven to a more entire and persistent surrender to God. The infinite fulness and variety of Revelation is expressed by the manifold gifts and experience of the prophets. If only the prophet be surrendered to the Spirit, then what is most characteristic of himself may become the most forcible expression of his message. His constant prayer will be that he may have the child’s heart and may never resist the Holy Ghost, that no personal interest or prejudice, no bias of training or tradition or current opinion, may dull his hearing when he stands in the council of the Lord, or betray him into uttering for Christ’s gospel the suggestions of his own self-will or the mere watchwords of his ecclesiastical faction.

But to return to the ecclesiastics who had stirred Jeremiah’s wrath. The professional prophets naturally adapted their words to the itching ears of their clients. They were not only officious, but also time serving. Had they been true prophets, they would have dealt faithfully with Judah; they would have sought to convince the people of sin, and to lead them to repentance; they would thus have given them yet another opportunity of salvation.

"If they had stood in My council,

They would have caused My people to hear My words;

They would have turned them from their evil way,

And from the evil of their doings."

But now:-

"They walk in lies and strengthen the hands of evildoers,

That no one may turn away from his sin.

They say continually unto them that despise the word of Jehovah,

Ye shall have peace;

And unto every one that walketh in the stubbornness of his heart they say,

No evil shall come upon you."

Unfortunately, when prophecy becomes professional in the lowest sense of the word, it is governed by commercial principles. A sufficiently imperious demand calls forth an abundant supply. A sovereign can "tune the pulpits"; and a ruling race can obtain from its clergy formal ecclesiastical sanction for such "domestic institutions" as slavery. When evildoers grow numerous and powerful, there will always be prophets to strengthen their hands and encourage them not to turn away from their sin. But to give the lie to these false prophets God sends Jeremiahs, who are often branded as heretics and schismatics, turbulent fellows who turn the world upside down.

The self-important, self-seeking spirit leads further to the sin of plagiarism:-

"Therefore I am against the prophets, is the utterance of Jehovah,

Who steal My word from one another."

The sin of plagiarism is impossible to the true prophet, partly because there are no rights of private property in the word of Jehovah. The Old Testament writers make free use of the works of their predecessors. For instance, Isaiah 2:2-4 is almost identical with Micah 4:1-3; yet neither author acknowledges his indebtedness to the other or to any third prophet. Uriah ben Shemaiah prophesied acording to all the words of Jeremiah, [Jeremiah 26:20] who himself owes much to Hosea, whom he never mentions. Yet he was not conscious of stealing from his predecessor, and he would have brought no such charge against Isaiah or Micah or Uriah. In the New Testament 2 Peter and Jude have so much in common that one must have used the other without acknowledgment. Yet the Church has not, on that ground, excluded either Epistle from the Canon. In the goodly fellowship of the prophets and the glorious company of the apostles no man says that the things which he utters are his own. But the mere hireling has no part in the spiritual communism wherein each may possess all things because he claims nothing. When a prophet ceases to be the messenger of God, and sinks into the mercenary purveyor of his own clever sayings and brilliant fancies, then he is tempted to become a clerical Autolycus, "a snapper up of unconsidered trifles." Modern ideas furnish a curious parallel to Jeremiah’s indifference to the borrowings of the true prophet, and his scorn of the literary pilferings of the false. We hear only too often of stolen sermons, but no one complains of plagiarism in prayers. Doubtless among these false prophets charges of plagiarism were bandied to and fro with much personal acrimony. But it is interesting to notice that Jeremiah is not denouncing an injury done to himself; he does not accuse them of thieving from him, but from one another. Probably assurance and lust of praise and power would have overcome any awe they felt for Jeremiah. He was only free from their depredations, because-from their point of view-his words were not worth stealing. There was nothing to be gained by repeating his stern denunciations, and even his promises were not exactly suited to the popular taste.

These prophets were prepared to cater for the average religious appetite in the most approved fashion-in other words, they were masters of cant. Their office had been consecrated by the work of true men of God like Elijah and Isaiah. They themselves claimed to stand in the genuine prophetic succession, and to inherit the reverence felt for their great predecessors, quoting their inspired utterances and adopting their weighty phrases. As Jeremiah’s contemporaries listened to one of their favourite orators, they were soothed by his assurances of Divine favour and protection, and their confidence in the speaker was confirmed by the frequent sound of familiar formulae in his unctuous sentences. These had the true ring; they were redolent of sound doctrine, of what popular tradition regarded as orthodox.

The solemn attestation NE’UM YAHWE, "It is the utterance of Jehovah," is continually appended to prophecies, almost as if it were the sign manual of the Almighty. Isaiah and other prophets frequently use the term MASSA (A.V., R.V., "burden") as a title, especially for prophecies concerning neighbouring nations. The ancient records loved to tell how Jehovah revealed Himself to the patriarchs in dreams. Jeremiah’s rivals included dreams in their clerical apparatus:-

"Behold, I am against them that prophesy lying dreams-Ne’um Yahwe-

And tell them, and lead astray My people

By their lies and their rodomontade;

It was not I who sent or commanded them,

Neither shall they profit this people at all, Ne’um Yahwe."

These prophets "thought to cause the Lord’s people to forget His name, as their fathers forgot His name for Baal, by their dreams which they told one another."

Moreover they could glibly repeat the sacred phrases as part of their professional jargon:-

"Behold, I am against the prophets,

It is the utterance of Jehovah,

That use their tongues

To utter utterances"

"To utter utterances"-the prophets uttered them, not Jehovah. These sham oracles were due to no Diviner source than the imagination of foolish hearts. But for Jeremiah’s grim earnestness, the last clause would be almost blasphemous. It is virtually a caricature of the most solemn formula of ancient Hebrew religion. But this was really degraded when it was used to obtain credence for the lies which men prophesied out of the deceit of their own heart. Jeremiah’s seeming irreverence was the most forcible way of bringing this home to his hearers. There are profanations of the most sacred things which can scarcely be spoken of without an apparent breach of the Third Commandment. The most awful taking in vain of the name of the Lord God is not heard among the publicans and sinners, but in pulpits and on the platforms of religious meetings.

But these prophets and their clients had a special fondness for the phrase "The burden of Jehovah," and their unctuous use of it most especially provoked Jeremiah’s indignation:-

"When this people priest, or prophet shall ask thee,

What is the burden of Jehovah?

Then say unto them, Ye are the burden.

But I will cast you off, Neum Yahwe.

If priest or prophet or people shall say,

The burden of Jehovah, I will punish that man and his house."

"And ye shall say to one another,

What hath Jehovah answered? and,

What hath Jehovah spoken?

And ye shall no more make mention of the burden of Jehovah:

For (if ye do) men’s words shall become a burden to themselves.

Thus shall ye inquire of a prophet,

What hath Jehovah answered thee?

What hath Jehovah spoken unto thee?

But if ye say, The burden of Jehovah,

Thus saith Jehovah: Because ye say this word, The burden of Jehovah.

When I have sent unto you the command,

Ye shall not say, The burden of Jehovah,

Therefore I will assuredly take you up,

And will cast away from before Me both you

And the city which I gave to you and to your fathers.

I will bring upon you everlasting reproach

And everlasting shame, that shall not be forgotten."

Jeremiah’s insistence and vehemence speak for themselves. Their moral is obvious, though for the most part unheeded. The most solemn formulae, hallowed by ancient and sacred associations, used by inspired teachers as the vehicle of revealed truths, may be debased till they become the very legend of Antichrist, blazoned on the Vexilla Regis Inferni. They are like a motto of one of Charles’ Paladins flaunted by his unworthy descendants to give distinction to cruelty and vice. The Church’s line of march is strewn with such dishonoured relics of her noblest champions. Even our Lord’s own words have not escaped. There is a fashion of discoursing upon "the gospel" which almost tempts reverent Christians to wish they might never hear that word again. Neither is this debasing of the moral currency confined to religious phrases; almost every political and social watchword has been similarly abused. One of the vilest tyrannies the world has ever seen-the Reign of Terror-claimed to be an incarnation of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity."

Yet the Bible, with that marvellous catholicity which lifts it so high above the level of all other religious literature, not only records Jeremiah’s prohibition to use the term "Burden," but also tells us that centuries later Malachi could still speak of "the burden of the word of Jehovah." A great phrase that has been discredited by misuse may yet recover itself; the tarnished and dishonoured sword of faith may be baptised and burnished anew, and flame in the forefront of the holy war.

Jeremiah does not stand alone in his unfavourable estimate of the professional prophets of Judah; a similar depreciation seems to be implied by the words of Amos: "I am neither a prophet nor of the sons of prophets." One of the unknown authors whose writings have been included in the Book of Zechariah takes up the teaching of Amos and Jeremiah and carries it a stage further:-

"In that day (it is the utterance of Jehovah Sabaoth) I will cut off the names of the idols from the land,

They shall not be remembered any more;

Also the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness

Will I expel from the land.

When any shall yet prophesy, His father and mother that begat him shall say unto him,

Thou shalt not live, for thou speakest lies in the name of Jehovah":

"And his father and mother that begat him shall

Thrust him through when he prophesieth.

In that day every prophet when he prophesieth

Shall be ashamed of his vision;

Neither shall any wear a hairy mantle to deceive:

He shall say, I am no prophet;

I am a tiller of the ground,

I was sold for a slave in my youth."

No man with any self-respect would allow his fellows to dub him prophet; slave was a less humiliating name. No family would endure the disgrace of having a member who belonged to this despised caste; parents would rather put their son to death than see him a prophet. To such extremities may the spirit of time serving and cant reduce a national clergy. We are reminded of Latimer’s words in his famous sermon to Convocation in 1536:

"All good men in all places accuse your avarice, your exactions, your tyranny. I commanded you that ye should feed my sheep, and ye earnestly feed yourselves from day to day, wallowing in delights and idleness. I commanded you to teach my law; you teach your own traditions, and seek your own glory."

Over against their fluent and unctuous cant Jeremiah sets the terrible reality of his Divine message. Compared to this, their sayings are like chaff to the wheat; nay, this is too tame a figure-Jehovah’s word is like fire, like a hammer that shatters rocks. He says of himself:-

"My heart within me is broken; all my bones shake:

I am like a drunken man, like a man whom wine hath overcome,

Because of Jehovah and His holy words."

Thus we have in chapter 23, a full and formal statement of the controversy between Jeremiah and his brother prophets. On the one hand, self-seeking and self-assurance winning popularity by orthodox phrases, traditional doctrine, and the prophesying of smooth things; on the other hand, a man to whom the word of the Lord was like a fire in his bones, who had surrendered prejudice and predilection that he might himself become a hammer to shatter the Lord’s enemies, a man through whom God wrought so mightily that he himself reeled and staggered with the blows of which he was the instrument.

The relation of the two parties was not unlike that of St. Paul and his Corinthian adversaries: the prophet, like the Apostle, spoke "in demonstration of the Spirit of power"; he considered "not the word of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." In our next chapter we shall see the practical working of this antagonism which we have here set forth.


Verse 2

CHAPTER XXVII

SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS CORRUPTION

"Very bad figs too bad to be eaten."- Jeremiah 24:2; Jeremiah 24:8; Jeremiah 29:17

PROPHETS and preachers have taken the Israelites for God’s helots, as if the Chosen People had been made drunk with the cup of the Lord’s indignation, in order that they might be held up as a warning to His more favoured children throughout after ages. They seemed depicted as "sinners above all men," that by this supreme warning the heirs of a better covenant may be kept in the path of righteousness. Their sin is no mere inference from the long tragedy of their national history, "because they have Suffered such things"; their own prophets and their own Messiah testify continually against them. Religious thought has always singled out Jeremiah as the most conspicuous and uncompromising witness to the sins of his people. One chief feature of his mission was to declare God’s condemnation of ancient Judah. Jeremiah watched and shared the prolonged agony and overwhelming catastrophes of the last days of the Jewish monarchy, and ever and anon raised his voice to declare that his fellow countrymen suffered, not as martyrs, but as criminals. He was like the herald who accompanies a condemned man on the way to execution, and proclaims his crime to the spectators.

What were these crimes? How was Jerusalem a sink of iniquity, an Augean stable, only to be cleansed by turning through it the floods of Divine chastisement? The annalists of Egypt and Chaldea show no interest in the morality of Judah; but there is no reason to believe that they regarded Jerusalem as more depraved than Tyre, or Babylon, or Memphis. If a citizen of one of these capitals of the East visited the city of David he might miss something of accustomed culture, and might have occasion to complain of the inferiority of local police arrangements, but he would be as little conscious of any extraordinary wickedness in the city as a Parisian would in London. Indeed, if an English Christian familiar with the East of the nineteenth century could be transported to Jerusalem under King Zedekiah, in all probability its moral condition would not affect him very differently from that of Cabul or Ispahan.

When we seek to learn from Jeremiah wherein the guilt of Judah lay, his answer is neither clear nor full: he does not gather up her sins into any complete and detailed indictment; we are obliged to avail ourselves of casual references scattered through his prophecies. For the most part Jeremiah speaks in general terms; a precise. and exhaustive catalogue of current vices would have seemed too familiar and commonplace for the written record.

The corruption of Judah is summed up by Jeremiah in the phrase "the evil of your doings," and her punishment is described in a corresponding phrase as "the fruit of your doings," or as coming upon her "because of the evil of your doings." The original of "doings" is a peculiar word occurring most frequently in Jeremiah, and the phrases are very common in Jeremiah, and hardly occur at all elsewhere. The constant reiteration of this melancholy refrain is an eloquent symbol of Jehovah’s sweeping condemnation. In the total depravity of Judah, no special sin, no one group of sins, stood out from the rest. Their "doings" were evil altogether.

The picture suggested by the scattered hints as to the character of these evil doings is such as might be drawn of almost any Eastern state in its darker days. The arbitrary hand of the. government is illustrated by Jeremiah’s own experience of the bastinado [Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 37:15] and the dungeon, (chapters 37, 38) and by the execution of Uriah ben Shemaiah. [Jeremiah 26:20-24] The rights of less important personages were not likely to be more scrupulously respected. The reproach of shedding innocent blood is more than once made against the people and their rulers; [Jeremiah 2:34; Jeremiah 19:4; Jeremiah 22:17] and the more general charge of oppression occurs still more frequently. [Jeremiah 5:25; Jeremiah 6:6; Jeremiah 7:5]

The motive for both these crimes was naturally covetousness; [Jeremiah 6:13] as usual, they were specially directed against the helpless, "the poor," [Jeremiah 2:34] "the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow"; and the machinery of oppression was ready to hand in venal judges and rulers. Upon occasion, however, recourse was had to open violence-men could "steal and murder," as well as "swear falsely"; [Jeremiah 7:5-9] they lived in an atmosphere of falsehood, they "walked in a lie." [Jeremiah 23:14] Indeed the word "lie" is one of the keynotes of these prophecies. The last days of the monarchy offered special temptations to such vices. Social wreckers reaped an unhallowed harvest in these stormy times. Revolutions were frequent, and each in its turn meant fresh plunder for unscrupulous partisans. Flattery and treachery could always find a market in the court of the suzerain or the camp of the invader. Naturally, amidst this general demoralization, the life of the family did not remain untouched: "the land was full of adulterers." [Jeremiah 23:10; Jeremiah 23:14] Zedekiah and Ahab, the false prophets at Babylon are accused of having committed adultery with their neighbours’ wives. [Jeremiah 29:23] In these passages "adultery" can scarcely be a figure for idolatry; and even if it is, idolatry always involved immoral ritual.

In accordance with the general teaching of the Old Testament, Jeremiah traces the roots of the people’s depravity to a certain moral stupidity; they are "a foolish people, without understanding," who, like the idols in Psalms 115:5-6, "have eyes and see not" and "have ears and hear not." In keeping with their stupidity was an unconsciousness of guilt which even rose into proud self-righteousness. They could still come with pious fervour to worship in the temple of Jehovah and to claim the protection of its inviolable sanctity. They could still assail Jeremiah with righteous indignation because he announced the coming destruction of the place where Jehovah had chosen to set His name. (chapters 7, 26) They said that they had no sin, and met the prophet’s rebukes with protests of conscious innocence: "Wherefore hath Jehovah pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against Jehovah our God?" [Jeremiah 16:10]

When the public conscience condoned alike the abuse of the forms of law and its direct violation, actual legal rights would be strained to the utmost against debtors, hired labourers, and slaves. In their extremity, the princes and people of Judah sought to propitiate the anger of Jehovah by emancipating their Hebrew slaves; when the immediate danger had passed away for a time, they revoked the emancipation. (Chapter 34) The form of their submission to Jehovah reveals their consciousness that their deepest sin lay in their behaviour to their helpless dependents. This prompt repudiation of a most solemn covenant illustrated afresh their callous indifference to the well-being of their inferiors. The depravity of Judah was not only total, it was also universal. In the older histories we read how Achan’s single act of covetousness involved the whole people in misfortune, and how the treachery of the bloody house of Saul brought three years’ famine upon the land; but now the sins of individuals and classes were merged in the general corruption. Jeremiah dwells with characteristic reiteration of idea and phrase upon this melancholy truth. Again and again he enumerates the different classes of the community: "kings, princes, priests, prophets, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem." They had all done evil and provoked Jehovah to anger; they were all to share the same punishment. [Jeremiah 32:26-35] cf. "Characteristic Expressions." (chapter 3) They were all arch rebels, given to slander; nothing but base metal; corrupters, every one of them. [Jeremiah 6:28] "The universal extent of total depravity is most forcibly expressed when Zedekiah with his court and people are summarily described as a basket of "very bad figs, too bad to be eaten." The dark picture of Israel’s corruption is not yet complete-Israel’s corruption, for now the prophet is no longer exclusively concerned with Judah. The sin of these last days is no new thing; it is as old as the Israelite occupation of Jerusalem. "This city hath been to Me a provocation of My anger and of My fury from the day that they built it even unto this day"; from the earliest days of Israel’s national existence, from the time of Moses and the Exodus, the people have been given over to iniquity. "The children of Israel and the children of Judah have done nothing but evil before Me from their youth. [Jeremiah 32:26-35] Thus we see at last that Jeremiah’s teaching concerning the sin of Judah can be summed up in one brief and comprehensive proposition. Throughout their whole history all classes of the community have been wholly given over to every kind of wickedness.

This gloomy estimate of God’s Chosen People is substantially confirmed by the prophets of the later monarchy, from Amos and Hosea onwards. Hosea speaks of Israel in terms as sweeping as those of Jeremiah. "Hear the word of Jehovah, ye children of Israel; for Jehovah hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. Swearing and lying and killing and stealing and committing adultery, they cast off all restraint, and blood toucheth blood." As a prophet of the Northern Kingdom, Hosea is mainly concerned with his own country, but his casual references to Judah include her in the same condemnation. Amos again condemns both Israel and Judah: Judah, "because they have despised the law of Jehovah, and have not kept His commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers walked"; Israel, "because they sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes, and pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor and turn aside the way of the meek." [Amos 2:4-8] The first chapter of Isaiah is in a similar strain: Israel is "a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers"; "the whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores." According to Micah, "Zion is built up with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money." [Micah 3:10-11]

Jeremiah’s older and younger contemporaries, Zephaniah and Ezekiel, alike confirm his testimony. In the spirit and even the style afterwards used by Jeremiah, Zephaniah enumerates the sins of the nobles and teachers of Jerusalem. "Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolvesHer prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law." [Zephaniah 3:3-4] Ezekiel 20:1-49 traces the defections of Israel from the sojourn in Egypt to the Captivity. Elsewhere Ezekiel says that "the land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence"; (Ezekiel 7:23 :; Ezekiel 7:9; Ezekiel 22:1-12) Jeremiah 22:23-30 he catalogues the sins of priests, princes, prophets, and people, and proclaims that Jehovah "sought for a man among them that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none."

We have now fairly before us the teaching of Jeremiah and the other prophets as to the condition of Judah: the passages quoted or referred to represent its general tone and attitude; it remains to estimate its significance. We should naturally suppose that such sweeping statements as to the total depravity of the whole people throughout all their history were not intended to be interpreted as exact mathematical formulae. And the prophets themselves state or imply qualifications. Isaiah insists upon the existence of a righteous remnant. When Jeremiah speaks of Zedekiah and his subjects as a basket of very bad figs, he also speaks of the Jews who had already gone into captivity as a basket of very good figs. The mere fact of going into captivity can hardly have accomplished an immediate and wholesale conversion. The "good figs" among the captives were presumably good before they went into exile. Jeremiah’s general statements that "they were all arch rebels" do not therefore preclude the existence of righteous men in the community, Similarly, when he tells us that the city and people have always been given over to iniquity, Jeremiah is not ignorant of Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, and the kings "who did right in the eyes of Jehovah"; nor does he intend to contradict the familiar accounts of ancient history. On the other hand, the universality which the prophets ascribe to the corruption of their people is no mere figure of rhetoric, and yet it is by no means incompatible with the view that Jerusalem, in its worst days, was not more conspicuously wicked than Babylon or Tyre; or even, allowing for the altered circumstances of the times, than London or Paris. It would never have occurred to Jeremiah to apply the average morality of Gentile cities as a standard by which to judge Jerusalem; and Christian readers of the Old Testament have caught something of the old prophetic spirit. The very introduction into the present context of any comparison between Jerusalem and Babylon may seem to have a certain flavour of irreverence. We perceive with the prophets that the City of Jehovah and the cities of the Gentiles must be placed in different categories. The popular modern explanation is that heathenism was so utterly abominable that Jerusalem at its worst was still vastly superior to Nineveh or Tyre. However exaggerated such views may be, they still contain an element of truth; but Jeremiah’s estimate of the moral condition of Judah was based on entirely different ideas. His standards were not relative, but absolute; not practical, but ideal. His principles were the very antithesis of the tacit ignoring of difficult and unusual duties, the convenient and somewhat shabby compromise represented by the modern word "respectable." Israel was to be judged by its relation to Jehovah’s purpose for His people. Jehovah had called them out of Egypt, and delivered them from a thousand dangers. He had raised up for them judges and kings, Moses, David, and Isaiah. He had spoken to them by Torah and by prophecy. This peculiar munificence of Providence and Revelation was not meant to produce a people only better by some small percentage than their heathen neighbours.

The comparison between Israel and its neighbours would no doubt be much more favourable under David than under Zedekiah, but even then the outcome of Mosaic religion as practically embodied in the national life was utterly unworthy of the Divine ideal; to have described the Israel of David or the Judah of Hezekiah as Jehovah’s specially cherished possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, [Exodus 19:6] would have seemed a ghastly irony even to the sons of Zeruiah, far more to Nathan, Gad, or Isaiah. Nor had any class, as a class, been wholly true to Jehovah at any period of the history. If for any considerable time the numerous order of professional prophets had had a single eye to the glory of Jehovah, the fortunes of Israel would have been altogether different, and where prophets failed, priests and princes and common people were not likely to succeed.

Hence, judged as citizens of God’s Kingdom on earth, the Israelites were corrupt in every faculty of their nature: as masters and servants, as rulers and subjects, as priests, prophets, and worshippers of Jehovah, they succumbed to selfishness and cowardice, and perpetrated the ordinary crimes and vices of ancient Eastern life.

The reader is perhaps tempted to ask: Is this all that is meant by the fierce and impassioned denunciations of Jeremiah? Not quite all. Jeremiah had had the mortification of seeing the great religious revival under Josiah spend itself, apparently in vain, against the ingrained corruption of the people. The reaction, as under Manasseh, had accentuated the worst features of the national life. At the same time the constant distress and dismay caused by disastrous invasionstended to general license and anarchy. A long period of decadence reached its nadir.

But these are mere matters of degree and detail; the main thing for Jeremiah was not that Judah had become worse, but that it had failed to become better. One great period of Israel’s probation was finally closed. The kingdom had served its purpose in the Divine Providence; but it was impossible to hope any longer that the Jewish monarchy was to prove the earthly embodiment of the Kingdom of God. There was no prospect of Judah attaining a social order appreciably better than that of the surrounding nations. Jehovah and His Revelation would be disgraced by any further association with the Jewish state.

Certain schools of socialists bring a similar charge against the modern social order; that it is not a Kingdom of God upon earth is sufficiently obvious; and they assert that our social system has become stereotyped on lines that exclude and resist progress towards any higher ideal. Now it is certainly true that every great civilisation hitherto has grown old and obsolete; if Christian society is to establish its right to abide permanently, it must show itself something more than an improved edition of the Athens of Pericles or the Empire of the Antonines.

All will agree that Christendom falls sadly short of its ideal, and therefore we may seek to gather instruction from Jeremiah’s judgment on the shortcomings of Judah. Jeremiah specially emphasises the universality of corruption in individual character, in all classes of society and throughout the whole duration of history. Similarly we have to recognise that prevalent social and moral evils lower the general tone of individual character. Moral faculties are not set apart in watertight compartments. "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all," is no mere forensic principle. The one offence impairs the earnestness and sincerity with which a man keeps the rest of the law, even though there may be no obvious lapse. There are moral surrenders made to the practical exigencies of commercial, social, political, and ecclesiastical life. Probably we should be startled and dismayed if we understood the consequent sacrifice of individual character.

We might also learn from the prophet that the responsibility for our social evils rests with all classes. Time was when the lower classes were plentifully lectured as the chief authors of public troubles; now it is the turn of the capitalist, the parson, and the landlord. The former policy had no very marked success, possibly the new method may not fare better.

Wealth and influence imply opportunity and responsibility which do not belong to the poor and feeble; but power is by no means confined to the privileged classes; and the energy, ability, and self-denial embodied in the great Trades Unions have sometimes shown themselves as cruel and selfish towards the weak and destitute as any association of capitalists. A necessary preliminary to social amendment is a General confession by each class of its own sins. Finally, the Divine Spirit had taught Jeremiah that Israel had always been sadly imperfect. He did not deny Divine Providence and human hope by teaching that the Golden Age lay in the past, that the Kingdom of God had been realised and allowed to perish. He was under no foolish delusion as to "the good old times"; in his most despondent moods he was not given over to wistful reminiscence. His example may help us not to become discouraged through exaggerated ideas about the attainments of past generations.

In considering modern life it may seem that we pass to an altogether different quality of evil to that denounced by Jeremiah, that we have lost sight of anything that could justify his fierce indignation, and thus that we fail in appreciating his character and message. Any such illusion may be corrected by a glance at the statistics of congested town districts, sweated industries, and prostitution. A social reformer, living in contact with these evils, may be apt to think Jeremiah’s denunciations specially adapted to the society which tolerates them with almost unruffled complacency.


Verse 6-7

CHAPTER XXXI

RESTORATION II

THE NEW ISRAEL

Jeremiah 23:3-8; Jeremiah 24:6-7; Jeremiah 30:1-24; Jeremiah 31:1-40; Jeremiah 33:1-26

"In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely: and this is the name whereby she shall be called."- Jeremiah 33:16

THE Divine utterances in chapter 33, were given to Jeremiah when he was shut up in the "court of the guard" during the last days of the siege. They may, however, have been committed to writing at a later date, possibly in connection with Chapters 30 and 31, when the destruction of Jerusalem was already past. It is in accordance with all analogy that the final record of a "word of Jehovah" should include any further light which had come to the prophet through his inspired meditations on the original message. Chapters 30, 31, and 33 mostly expound and enforce leading ideas contained in Jeremiah 32:37-44 and in earlier utterances of Jeremiah. They have much in common with 2 Isaiah. The ruin of Judah and the captivity of the people were accomplished facts to both writers, and they were both looking forward to the return of the exiles and the restoration of the kingdom of Jehovah. We shall have occasion to notice individual points of resemblance later on.

In Jeremiah 30:2 Jeremiah is commanded to write in a book all that Jehovah has spoken to him; and according to the present context the "all," in this case, refers merely to the following four chapters. These prophecies of restoration would be specially precious to the exiles; and now that the Jews were scattered through many distant lands, they could only be transmitted and preserved in writing. After the command "to write in a book" there follows, by way of title, a repetition of the statement that Jehovah would bring back His people to their fatherland. Here, in the very forefront of the Book of Promise, Israel and Judah are named as being recalled together from exile. As we read twice [Jeremiah 16:14-15; Jeremiah 23:7-8] elsewhere in Jeremiah, the promised deliverance from Assyria and Babylon was to surpass all other manifestations of the Divine power and mercy. The Exodus would not be named in the same breath with it: "Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that it shall no more be said, As Jehovah liveth, that brought up the Israelites out of the land of Egypt: but, As Jehovah liveth, that brought up the Israelites from the land of the north, and from all the countries whither He had driven them." This prediction has waited for fulfilment to our own times: hitherto the Exodus has occupied men’s minds much more than the Return; we are now coming to estimate the supreme religious importance of the latter event.

Elsewhere again Jeremiah connects his promise with the clause in his original commission "to build and to plant": [Jeremiah 1:10] "I will set My eyes upon them" (the captives) "for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up." [Jeremiah 24:7] As in Jeremiah 32:28-35, the picture of restoration is rendered more vivid by contrast with Judah’s present state of wretchedness; the marvellousness of Jehovah’s mercy is made apparent by reminding Israel of the multitude of its iniquities. The agony of Jacob is like that of a woman in travail. But travail shall be followed by deliverance and triumph. In the second Psalm the subject nations took counsel against Jehovah and against His Anointed:-

"Let us break their bands asunder,

And cast away their cords from us";

but now this is the counsel of Jehovah concerning His people and their Babylonian conqueror:-

"I will break his yoke from off thy neck,

And break thy bands asunder."

Judah’s lovers, her foreign allies, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and all the other states with whom she had intrigued, had betrayed her; they had cruelly chastised her, so that her wounds were grievous and her bruises incurable. She was left without a champion to plead her cause, without a friend to bind up her wounds, without balm to allay the pain of her bruises. "Because thy sins were increased, I have done these things unto thee, saith Jehovah." Jerusalem was an outcast, of whom men said contemptuously: "This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after." But man’s extremity is God’s opportunity; because Judah was helpless and despised, therefore Jehovah said, "I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds."

While Jeremiah was still watching from his prison the progress of the siege, he had seen the houses and palaces beyond the walls destroyed by the Chaldeans to be used for their mounds; and had known that every sally of the besieged was but another opportunity for the enemy to satiate themselves with slaughter, as they executed Jehovah’s judgments upon the guilty city. Even at this extremity He announced solemnly and emphatically the restoration and pardon of His people.

"Thus saith Jehovah, who established the earth, when He made and fashioned it-Jehovah is His name:

Call upon Me, and I will answer thee, and will show thee great mysteries, which thou knowest not."

"I will bring to this city healing and cure, and will cause them to know all the fulness of steadfast peace . . .

I will cleanse them from all their iniquities, and will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned and transgressed against Me."

The healing of Zion naturally involved the punishment of her cruel and treacherous lovers. The Return, like other revolutions, was not wrought by rose water; the yokes were broken and the bands rent asunder by main force. Jehovah would make a full end of all the nations whither He had scattered them. Their devourers should be devoured, all their adversaries should go into captivity, those who had spoiled and preyed upon them should become a spoil and a prey. Jeremiah had been commissioned from the beginning to pull down foreign nations and kingdoms as well as his native Judah. [Jeremiah 1:10] Judah was only one of Israel’s evil neighbours who were to be plucked up out of their land. And at the Return, as at the Exodus, the waves at one and the same time opened a path of safety for Israel and overwhelmed her oppressors.

Israel, pardoned and restored, would again be governed by legitimate kings of the House of David. In the dying days of the monarchy Israel and Judah had received their rulers from the hands of foreigners. Menahem and Hoshea bought the confirmation of their usurped authority from Assyria. Jehoiakim was appointed by Pharaoh Necho, and Zedekiah by Nebuchadnezzar. We cannot doubt that the kings of Egypt and Babylon were also careful to surround their nominees with ministers who were devoted to the interests of their suzerains. But now "their nobles were to be of themselves, and their ruler was to proceed out of their midst," [Jeremiah 30:21] i.e., nobles and rulers were to hold their offices according to national custom and tradition.

Jeremiah was fond of speaking of the leaders of Judah as shepherds. We have had occasion already (Cf. chapter 8) to consider his controversy with the "shepherds" of his own time. In his picture of the New Israel he uses the same figure. In denouncing the evil shepherds he predicts that, when the remnant of Jehovah’s flock is brought again to their folds, He will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them, [Jeremiah 23:3-4] shepherds. according to Jehovah’s own heart, who should feed them with knowledge and understanding. [Jeremiah 3:15]

Over them Jehovah would establish as Chief Shepherd a Prince of the House of David. Isaiah had already included in his picture of Messianic times the fertility of Palestine; its vegetation, by the blessing of Jehovah, should be beautiful and glorious: he had also described the Messianic King as a fruitful Branch out of the root of Jesse. Jeremiah takes the idea of the latter passage, but uses the language of the former. For him the King of the New Israel is, as it were, a Growth (cemah) out of the sacred soil, or perhaps more definitely from the roots of the House of David, that ancient tree whose trunk had been hewn down and burnt. Both the Growth (cemah) and the Branch (necer) had the same vital connection with the soil of Palestine and the root of David. Our English versions exercised a wise discretion when they sacrificed literal accuracy and indicated the identity of idea by translating both "cemah" and "necer" by "Branch."

"Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will raise up unto David a righteous Branch; and He shall be a wise and prudent King, and He shall execute justice and maintain the right. In His days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell securely, and his name shall be Jehovah ‘Cidqenu,’ Jehovah is our righteousness." Jehovah Cidqenu might very well be the personal name of a Jewish king, though the form would be unusual; but what is chiefly intended is that His character shall be such as the "name" describes. The "name" is a brief and pointed censure upon a king whose character was the opposite of that described in these verses, yet who bore a name of almost identical meaning-Zedekiah, Jehovah is my righteousness. The name of the last reigning Prince of the House of David had been a standing condemnation of his unworthy life, but the King of the New Israel, Jehovah’s true Messiah, would realise in His administration all that such a name promised. Sovereigns delight to accumulate sonorous epithets in their official designations-Highness, High and Mighty, Majesty, Serene, Gracious. The glaring contrast between character and titles often only serves to advertise the worthlessness of those who are labelled with such epithets: the Majesty of James I, the Graciousness of Richard III. Yet these titles point to a standard of true royalty, whether the sovereign be an individual or a class or the people; they describe that Divine Sovereignty which will be realised in the Kingdom of God.

The material prosperity of the restored community is set forth with wealth of glowing imagery. Cities and palaces are to be rebuilt on their former sites with more than their ancient splendour. "Out of them shall proceed thanksgiving, and the voice of them that make merry: and I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will also glorify them, and they shall not be small. And the children of Jacob shall be as of old, and their assembly shall be established before Me." [Jeremiah 30:18-20] The figure often used of the utter desolation of the deserted country is now used to illustrate its complete restoration: "Yet again shall there be heard in this place the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride." Throughout all the land "which is waste, without man and without beast, and in all the cities thereof," shepherds shall dwell and pasture and fold their flocks; and in the cities of all the districts of the Southern Kingdom enumerated as exhaustively as in Jeremiah 32:44 shall the flocks again pass under the shepherd’s hands to be told. [Jeremiah 33:10-13]

Jehovah’s own peculiar flock, His Chosen People, shall be fruitful and multiply according to the primeval blessing; under their new shepherds they shall no more fear nor be dismayed, neither shall any be lacking. [Jeremiah 23:3-4] Jeremiah recurs again and again to the quiet, the restfulness, the freedom from fear and dismay of the restored Israel. In this, as in all else, the New Dispensation was to be an entire contrast to those long weary years of alternate suspense and panic, when men’s hearts were shaken by the sound of the trumpet and the alarm of war. [Jeremiah 4:19] Israel is to dwell securely at rest from fear of harm. [Jeremiah 23:6] When Jacob returns he "shall be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid." [Jeremiah 30:10] Egyptian, Assyrian, and Chaldean shall all cease from troubling; the memory of past misery shall become dim and shadowy.

The finest expansion of this idea is a passage which always fills the soul with a sense of utter rest.

"He shall dwell on high: his refuge shall be the inaccessible rocks: his bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure. Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold a far-stretching land. Thine heart shall muse on the terror: where is he that counted, where is he that weighed the tribute? where is he that counted the towers? Thou shalt not see the fierce people, a people of a deep speech that thou canst not perceive; of a strange tongue that thou canst not understand. Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. There Jehovah will be with us in majesty, a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby." (Isaiah 33:16-21; , Isaiah 32:15-18.)

For Jeremiah too the presence of Jehovah in majesty was the only possible guarantee of the peace and prosperity of Israel. The voices of joy and gladness in the New Jerusalem were not only those of bride and bridegroom, but also of those that said, "Give thanks to Jehovah Sabaoth, for Jehovah is good, for His mercy endureth forever," and of those that "came to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving in the house of Jehovah." [Jeremiah 33:11] This new David, as the Messianic King is called, [Jeremiah 30:9] is to have the priestly right of immediate access to God: "I will cause Him to draw near, and He shall approach unto Me: for else who would risk his life by daring to approach Me?" {Jeremiah 30:21, as Kautzsch.} Israel is liberated from foreign conquerors to serve Jehovah their God and David their King; and the Lord Himself rejoices in His restored and ransomed people.

The city that was once a desolation, an astonishment, a hissing, and a curse among all nations shall now be to Jehovah "a name of joy, a praise and a glory, before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear all the good that I do unto them, and shall tremble with fear for all the good and all the peace that I procure unto it." [Jeremiah 33:9]


Verse 8

CHAPTER XXVII

SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS CORRUPTION

"Very bad figs too bad to be eaten."- Jeremiah 24:2; Jeremiah 24:8; Jeremiah 29:17

PROPHETS and preachers have taken the Israelites for God’s helots, as if the Chosen People had been made drunk with the cup of the Lord’s indignation, in order that they might be held up as a warning to His more favoured children throughout after ages. They seemed depicted as "sinners above all men," that by this supreme warning the heirs of a better covenant may be kept in the path of righteousness. Their sin is no mere inference from the long tragedy of their national history, "because they have Suffered such things"; their own prophets and their own Messiah testify continually against them. Religious thought has always singled out Jeremiah as the most conspicuous and uncompromising witness to the sins of his people. One chief feature of his mission was to declare God’s condemnation of ancient Judah. Jeremiah watched and shared the prolonged agony and overwhelming catastrophes of the last days of the Jewish monarchy, and ever and anon raised his voice to declare that his fellow countrymen suffered, not as martyrs, but as criminals. He was like the herald who accompanies a condemned man on the way to execution, and proclaims his crime to the spectators.

What were these crimes? How was Jerusalem a sink of iniquity, an Augean stable, only to be cleansed by turning through it the floods of Divine chastisement? The annalists of Egypt and Chaldea show no interest in the morality of Judah; but there is no reason to believe that they regarded Jerusalem as more depraved than Tyre, or Babylon, or Memphis. If a citizen of one of these capitals of the East visited the city of David he might miss something of accustomed culture, and might have occasion to complain of the inferiority of local police arrangements, but he would be as little conscious of any extraordinary wickedness in the city as a Parisian would in London. Indeed, if an English Christian familiar with the East of the nineteenth century could be transported to Jerusalem under King Zedekiah, in all probability its moral condition would not affect him very differently from that of Cabul or Ispahan.

When we seek to learn from Jeremiah wherein the guilt of Judah lay, his answer is neither clear nor full: he does not gather up her sins into any complete and detailed indictment; we are obliged to avail ourselves of casual references scattered through his prophecies. For the most part Jeremiah speaks in general terms; a precise. and exhaustive catalogue of current vices would have seemed too familiar and commonplace for the written record.

The corruption of Judah is summed up by Jeremiah in the phrase "the evil of your doings," and her punishment is described in a corresponding phrase as "the fruit of your doings," or as coming upon her "because of the evil of your doings." The original of "doings" is a peculiar word occurring most frequently in Jeremiah, and the phrases are very common in Jeremiah, and hardly occur at all elsewhere. The constant reiteration of this melancholy refrain is an eloquent symbol of Jehovah’s sweeping condemnation. In the total depravity of Judah, no special sin, no one group of sins, stood out from the rest. Their "doings" were evil altogether.

The picture suggested by the scattered hints as to the character of these evil doings is such as might be drawn of almost any Eastern state in its darker days. The arbitrary hand of the. government is illustrated by Jeremiah’s own experience of the bastinado [Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 37:15] and the dungeon, (chapters 37, 38) and by the execution of Uriah ben Shemaiah. [Jeremiah 26:20-24] The rights of less important personages were not likely to be more scrupulously respected. The reproach of shedding innocent blood is more than once made against the people and their rulers; [Jeremiah 2:34; Jeremiah 19:4; Jeremiah 22:17] and the more general charge of oppression occurs still more frequently. [Jeremiah 5:25; Jeremiah 6:6; Jeremiah 7:5]

The motive for both these crimes was naturally covetousness; [Jeremiah 6:13] as usual, they were specially directed against the helpless, "the poor," [Jeremiah 2:34] "the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow"; and the machinery of oppression was ready to hand in venal judges and rulers. Upon occasion, however, recourse was had to open violence-men could "steal and murder," as well as "swear falsely"; [Jeremiah 7:5-9] they lived in an atmosphere of falsehood, they "walked in a lie." [Jeremiah 23:14] Indeed the word "lie" is one of the keynotes of these prophecies. The last days of the monarchy offered special temptations to such vices. Social wreckers reaped an unhallowed harvest in these stormy times. Revolutions were frequent, and each in its turn meant fresh plunder for unscrupulous partisans. Flattery and treachery could always find a market in the court of the suzerain or the camp of the invader. Naturally, amidst this general demoralization, the life of the family did not remain untouched: "the land was full of adulterers." [Jeremiah 23:10; Jeremiah 23:14] Zedekiah and Ahab, the false prophets at Babylon are accused of having committed adultery with their neighbours’ wives. [Jeremiah 29:23] In these passages "adultery" can scarcely be a figure for idolatry; and even if it is, idolatry always involved immoral ritual.

In accordance with the general teaching of the Old Testament, Jeremiah traces the roots of the people’s depravity to a certain moral stupidity; they are "a foolish people, without understanding," who, like the idols in Psalms 115:5-6, "have eyes and see not" and "have ears and hear not." In keeping with their stupidity was an unconsciousness of guilt which even rose into proud self-righteousness. They could still come with pious fervour to worship in the temple of Jehovah and to claim the protection of its inviolable sanctity. They could still assail Jeremiah with righteous indignation because he announced the coming destruction of the place where Jehovah had chosen to set His name. (chapters 7, 26) They said that they had no sin, and met the prophet’s rebukes with protests of conscious innocence: "Wherefore hath Jehovah pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against Jehovah our God?" [Jeremiah 16:10]

When the public conscience condoned alike the abuse of the forms of law and its direct violation, actual legal rights would be strained to the utmost against debtors, hired labourers, and slaves. In their extremity, the princes and people of Judah sought to propitiate the anger of Jehovah by emancipating their Hebrew slaves; when the immediate danger had passed away for a time, they revoked the emancipation. (Chapter 34) The form of their submission to Jehovah reveals their consciousness that their deepest sin lay in their behaviour to their helpless dependents. This prompt repudiation of a most solemn covenant illustrated afresh their callous indifference to the well-being of their inferiors. The depravity of Judah was not only total, it was also universal. In the older histories we read how Achan’s single act of covetousness involved the whole people in misfortune, and how the treachery of the bloody house of Saul brought three years’ famine upon the land; but now the sins of individuals and classes were merged in the general corruption. Jeremiah dwells with characteristic reiteration of idea and phrase upon this melancholy truth. Again and again he enumerates the different classes of the community: "kings, princes, priests, prophets, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem." They had all done evil and provoked Jehovah to anger; they were all to share the same punishment. [Jeremiah 32:26-35] cf. "Characteristic Expressions." (chapter 3) They were all arch rebels, given to slander; nothing but base metal; corrupters, every one of them. [Jeremiah 6:28] "The universal extent of total depravity is most forcibly expressed when Zedekiah with his court and people are summarily described as a basket of "very bad figs, too bad to be eaten." The dark picture of Israel’s corruption is not yet complete-Israel’s corruption, for now the prophet is no longer exclusively concerned with Judah. The sin of these last days is no new thing; it is as old as the Israelite occupation of Jerusalem. "This city hath been to Me a provocation of My anger and of My fury from the day that they built it even unto this day"; from the earliest days of Israel’s national existence, from the time of Moses and the Exodus, the people have been given over to iniquity. "The children of Israel and the children of Judah have done nothing but evil before Me from their youth. [Jeremiah 32:26-35] Thus we see at last that Jeremiah’s teaching concerning the sin of Judah can be summed up in one brief and comprehensive proposition. Throughout their whole history all classes of the community have been wholly given over to every kind of wickedness.

This gloomy estimate of God’s Chosen People is substantially confirmed by the prophets of the later monarchy, from Amos and Hosea onwards. Hosea speaks of Israel in terms as sweeping as those of Jeremiah. "Hear the word of Jehovah, ye children of Israel; for Jehovah hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. Swearing and lying and killing and stealing and committing adultery, they cast off all restraint, and blood toucheth blood." As a prophet of the Northern Kingdom, Hosea is mainly concerned with his own country, but his casual references to Judah include her in the same condemnation. Amos again condemns both Israel and Judah: Judah, "because they have despised the law of Jehovah, and have not kept His commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers walked"; Israel, "because they sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes, and pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor and turn aside the way of the meek." [Amos 2:4-8] The first chapter of Isaiah is in a similar strain: Israel is "a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers"; "the whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores." According to Micah, "Zion is built up with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money." [Micah 3:10-11]

Jeremiah’s older and younger contemporaries, Zephaniah and Ezekiel, alike confirm his testimony. In the spirit and even the style afterwards used by Jeremiah, Zephaniah enumerates the sins of the nobles and teachers of Jerusalem. "Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolvesHer prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law." [Zephaniah 3:3-4] Ezekiel 20:1-49 traces the defections of Israel from the sojourn in Egypt to the Captivity. Elsewhere Ezekiel says that "the land is full of bloody crimes, and the city is full of violence"; (Ezekiel 7:23 :; Ezekiel 7:9; Ezekiel 22:1-12) Jeremiah 22:23-30 he catalogues the sins of priests, princes, prophets, and people, and proclaims that Jehovah "sought for a man among them that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none."

We have now fairly before us the teaching of Jeremiah and the other prophets as to the condition of Judah: the passages quoted or referred to represent its general tone and attitude; it remains to estimate its significance. We should naturally suppose that such sweeping statements as to the total depravity of the whole people throughout all their history were not intended to be interpreted as exact mathematical formulae. And the prophets themselves state or imply qualifications. Isaiah insists upon the existence of a righteous remnant. When Jeremiah speaks of Zedekiah and his subjects as a basket of very bad figs, he also speaks of the Jews who had already gone into captivity as a basket of very good figs. The mere fact of going into captivity can hardly have accomplished an immediate and wholesale conversion. The "good figs" among the captives were presumably good before they went into exile. Jeremiah’s general statements that "they were all arch rebels" do not therefore preclude the existence of righteous men in the community, Similarly, when he tells us that the city and people have always been given over to iniquity, Jeremiah is not ignorant of Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, and the kings "who did right in the eyes of Jehovah"; nor does he intend to contradict the familiar accounts of ancient history. On the other hand, the universality which the prophets ascribe to the corruption of their people is no mere figure of rhetoric, and yet it is by no means incompatible with the view that Jerusalem, in its worst days, was not more conspicuously wicked than Babylon or Tyre; or even, allowing for the altered circumstances of the times, than London or Paris. It would never have occurred to Jeremiah to apply the average morality of Gentile cities as a standard by which to judge Jerusalem; and Christian readers of the Old Testament have caught something of the old prophetic spirit. The very introduction into the present context of any comparison between Jerusalem and Babylon may seem to have a certain flavour of irreverence. We perceive with the prophets that the City of Jehovah and the cities of the Gentiles must be placed in different categories. The popular modern explanation is that heathenism was so utterly abominable that Jerusalem at its worst was still vastly superior to Nineveh or Tyre. However exaggerated such views may be, they still contain an element of truth; but Jeremiah’s estimate of the moral condition of Judah was based on entirely different ideas. His standards were not relative, but absolute; not practical, but ideal. His principles were the very antithesis of the tacit ignoring of difficult and unusual duties, the convenient and somewhat shabby compromise represented by the modern word "respectable." Israel was to be judged by its relation to Jehovah’s purpose for His people. Jehovah had called them out of Egypt, and delivered them from a thousand dangers. He had raised up for them judges and kings, Moses, David, and Isaiah. He had spoken to them by Torah and by prophecy. This peculiar munificence of Providence and Revelation was not meant to produce a people only better by some small percentage than their heathen neighbours.

The comparison between Israel and its neighbours would no doubt be much more favourable under David than under Zedekiah, but even then the outcome of Mosaic religion as practically embodied in the national life was utterly unworthy of the Divine ideal; to have described the Israel of David or the Judah of Hezekiah as Jehovah’s specially cherished possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, [Exodus 19:6] would have seemed a ghastly irony even to the sons of Zeruiah, far more to Nathan, Gad, or Isaiah. Nor had any class, as a class, been wholly true to Jehovah at any period of the history. If for any considerable time the numerous order of professional prophets had had a single eye to the glory of Jehovah, the fortunes of Israel would have been altogether different, and where prophets failed, priests and princes and common people were not likely to succeed.

Hence, judged as citizens of God’s Kingdom on earth, the Israelites were corrupt in every faculty of their nature: as masters and servants, as rulers and subjects, as priests, prophets, and worshippers of Jehovah, they succumbed to selfishness and cowardice, and perpetrated the ordinary crimes and vices of ancient Eastern life.

The reader is perhaps tempted to ask: Is this all that is meant by the fierce and impassioned denunciations of Jeremiah? Not quite all. Jeremiah had had the mortification of seeing the great religious revival under Josiah spend itself, apparently in vain, against the ingrained corruption of the people. The reaction, as under Manasseh, had accentuated the worst features of the national life. At the same time the constant distress and dismay caused by disastrous invasionstended to general license and anarchy. A long period of decadence reached its nadir.

But these are mere matters of degree and detail; the main thing for Jeremiah was not that Judah had become worse, but that it had failed to become better. One great period of Israel’s probation was finally closed. The kingdom had served its purpose in the Divine Providence; but it was impossible to hope any longer that the Jewish monarchy was to prove the earthly embodiment of the Kingdom of God. There was no prospect of Judah attaining a social order appreciably better than that of the surrounding nations. Jehovah and His Revelation would be disgraced by any further association with the Jewish state.

Certain schools of socialists bring a similar charge against the modern social order; that it is not a Kingdom of God upon earth is sufficiently obvious; and they assert that our social system has become stereotyped on lines that exclude and resist progress towards any higher ideal. Now it is certainly true that every great civilisation hitherto has grown old and obsolete; if Christian society is to establish its right to abide permanently, it must show itself something more than an improved edition of the Athens of Pericles or the Empire of the Antonines.

All will agree that Christendom falls sadly short of its ideal, and therefore we may seek to gather instruction from Jeremiah’s judgment on the shortcomings of Judah. Jeremiah specially emphasises the universality of corruption in individual character, in all classes of society and throughout the whole duration of history. Similarly we have to recognise that prevalent social and moral evils lower the general tone of individual character. Moral faculties are not set apart in watertight compartments. "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all," is no mere forensic principle. The one offence impairs the earnestness and sincerity with which a man keeps the rest of the law, even though there may be no obvious lapse. There are moral surrenders made to the practical exigencies of commercial, social, political, and ecclesiastical life. Probably we should be startled and dismayed if we understood the consequent sacrifice of individual character.

We might also learn from the prophet that the responsibility for our social evils rests with all classes. Time was when the lower classes were plentifully lectured as the chief authors of public troubles; now it is the turn of the capitalist, the parson, and the landlord. The former policy had no very marked success, possibly the new method may not fare better.

Wealth and influence imply opportunity and responsibility which do not belong to the poor and feeble; but power is by no means confined to the privileged classes; and the energy, ability, and self-denial embodied in the great Trades Unions have sometimes shown themselves as cruel and selfish towards the weak and destitute as any association of capitalists. A necessary preliminary to social amendment is a General confession by each class of its own sins. Finally, the Divine Spirit had taught Jeremiah that Israel had always been sadly imperfect. He did not deny Divine Providence and human hope by teaching that the Golden Age lay in the past, that the Kingdom of God had been realised and allowed to perish. He was under no foolish delusion as to "the good old times"; in his most despondent moods he was not given over to wistful reminiscence. His example may help us not to become discouraged through exaggerated ideas about the attainments of past generations.

In considering modern life it may seem that we pass to an altogether different quality of evil to that denounced by Jeremiah, that we have lost sight of anything that could justify his fierce indignation, and thus that we fail in appreciating his character and message. Any such illusion may be corrected by a glance at the statistics of congested town districts, sweated industries, and prostitution. A social reformer, living in contact with these evils, may be apt to think Jeremiah’s denunciations specially adapted to the society which tolerates them with almost unruffled complacency.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 24:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/jeremiah-24.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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