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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Jeremiah 34

 

 

Verses 1-22

CHAPTER XI

A BROKEN COVENANT

Jeremiah 21:1-10, Jeremiah 34:1-22, Jeremiah 37:1-10

"All the princes and peoplechanged their minds and reduced to bondage again all the slaves whom they had set free." Jeremiah 34:10-11

IN our previous chapter we saw that, at the point where the fragmentary record of the abortive conspiracy in the fourth year of Zedekiah came to an abrupt conclusion, Jeremiah seemed to have regained the ascendency he enjoyed under Josiah. The Jewish government had relinquished their schemes of rebellion and acquiesced once more in the supremacy of Babylon. We may possibly gather from a later chapter that Zedekiah himself paid a visit to Nebuchadnezzar to assure him of his loyalty. If so, the embassy of Elasah ben Shaphan and Gemariah ben Hilkiah was intended to assure a favourable reception for their master.

The history of the next few years is lost in obscurity, but when the curtain again rises everything is changed and Judah is once more in revolt against the Chaldeans. No doubt one cause of this fresh change of policy was the renewed activity of Egypt. In the account of the conspiracy in Zedekiah’s fourth year, there is a significant absence of any reference to Egypt. Jeremiah succeeded in baffling his opponents partly because their fears of Babylon were not quieted by any assurance of Egyptian support. Now there seemed a better prospect of a successful insurrection.

About the seventh year of Zedekiah, Psammetichus II of Egypt was succeeded by his brother Pharaoh Hophra, the son of Josiah’s conqueror, Pharaoh Necho. When Hophra-the Apries of Herodotus-had completed the reconquest of Ethiopia, he made a fresh attempt to carry out his father’s policy and to reestablish the ancient Egyptian supremacy in Western Asia; and, as of old, Egypt began by tampering with the allegiance of the Syrian vassals of Babylon. According to Ezekiel, [Ezekiel 17:15] Zedekiah took the initiative: "he rebelled against him (Nebuchadnezzar) by sending his ambassadors into Egypt, that they might give him horses and much people."

The knowledge that an able and victorious general was seated on the Egyptian throne, along with the secret intrigues of his agents and partisans, was too much for Zedekiah’s discretion. Jeremiah’s advice was disregarded. The king surrendered himself to the guidance-we might almost say, the control-of the Egyptian party in Jerusalem; he violated his oath of allegiance to his suzerain, and the frail and battered ship of state was once more embarked on the stormy waters of rebellion. Nebuchadnezzar promptly prepared to grapple with the reviving strength of Egypt in a renewed contest for the lordship of Syria. Probably Egypt and Judah had other allies, but they are not expressly mentioned. A little later Tyre was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar; but as Ezekiel [Ezekiel 26:2] represents Tyre as exulting over the fall of Jerusalem, she can hardly have been a benevolent neutral, much less a faithful ally. Moreover, when Nebuchadnezzar began his march into Syria, he hesitated whether he should first attack Jerusalem or Rabbath Ammon:-

"The king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way to use divination: he shook the arrows to and fro, he consulted the teraphim, he looked in the liver." [Ezekiel 21:21]

Later on Baalis, king of Ammon, received the Jewish refugees and supported those who were most irreconcilable in their hostility to Nebuchadnezzar. Nevertheless the Ammonites were denounced by Jeremiah for occupying the territory of Gad, and by Ezekiel [Ezekiel 25:1-7] for sharing the exultation of Tyre over the ruin of Judah. Probably Baalis played a double part. He may have promised support to Zedekiah, and then purchased his own pardon by betraying his ally.

Nevertheless the hearty support of Egypt was worth more than the alliance of any number of the petty neighbouring states, and Nebuchadnezzar levied a great army to meet this ancient and formidable enemy of Assyria and Babylon. He marched into Judah with "all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth that were under his dominion, and all the peoples," and "fought against Jerusalem and all the cities thereof."

At the beginning of the siege Zedekiah’s heart began to fail him. The course of events seemed to confirm Jeremiah’s threats, and the king, with pathetic inconsistency, sought to be reassured by the prophet himself. He sent Pashhur ben Malchiah and Zephaniah ben Maaseiah to Jeremiah with the message:-

"Inquire, I pray thee, of Jehovah for us, for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon maketh war against us: peradventure Jehovah wilt deal with us according to all His wondrous works, that he may go up from us."

The memories of the great deliverance from Sennacherib were fresh and vivid in men’s minds. Isaiah’s denunciations had been as uncompromising as Jeremiah’s, and yet Hezekiah had been spared. "Peradventure," thought his anxious descendant, "the prophet may yet be charged with gracious messages that Jehovah repents Him of the evil and will even now rescue His Holy City." But the timid appeal only called forth a yet sterner sentence of doom. Formidable as were the enemies against whom Zedekiah craved protection, they were to be reinforced by more terrible allies; man and beast should die of a great pestilence, and Jehovah Himself should be their enemy:-

"I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands, wherewith ye fight against the king of Babylon and the Chaldeans

I Myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a strong arm, in anger and fury and great wrath."

The city should be taken and burnt with fire, and the king and all others who survived should be carried away captive. Only on one condition might better terms be obtained:-

"Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.

He that abideth in this city shall die by the sword, the famine, and the pestilence; but he that goeth out, and falleth to the besieging Chaldeans, shall live, and his life shall be unto him for a prey." [Jeremiah 21:1-10]

On another occasion Zephaniah ben Maaseiah with a certain Tehucal ben Shelemiah was sent by the king to the prophet with the entreaty, "Pray now unto Jehovah our God for us." We are not told the sequel to this mission, but it is probably represented by the opening verses of chapter 34. This section has the direct and personal note which characterises the dealings of Hebrew prophets with their sovereigns. Doubtless the partisans of Egypt had had a severe struggle with Jeremiah before they captured the ear of the Jewish king, and Zedekiah was possessed to the very last with a half superstitious anxiety to keep on good terms with the prophet. Jehovah’s "iron pillar and brasen wall" would make no concession to these royal blandishments: his message had been rejected, his Master had been slighted and defied, the Chosen People and the Holy City were being betrayed to their ruin; Jeremiah would not refrain from denouncing this iniquity because the king who had sanctioned it tried to flatter his vanity by sending deferential deputations of important notables. This is the Divine sentence:-

"I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon,

And he shall burn it with fire.

Thou shalt not escape out of his hand;

Thou shalt assuredly be taken prisoner;

Thou shalt be delivered into his hand.

Thou shalt see the king of Babylon, face to face;

He shall speak to thee, mouth to mouth,

And thou shalt go to Babylon."

Yet there should be one doubtful mitigation of his punishment:-

"Thou shalt not die by the sword;

Thou shalt die in peace:

With the burnings of thy fathers, the former kings that were before thee,

So shall they make a burning for thee;

And they shall lament thee, saying, Alas lord!

For it is I that have spoken the word-it is the utterance of Jehovah."

King and people were not proof against the combined terrors of the prophetic rebukes and the besieging enemy. Jeremiah regained his influence, and Jerusalem gave an earnest of the sincerity of her repentance by entering into a covenant for the emancipation of all Hebrew slaves. Deuteronomy had reenacted the ancient law that their bondage should terminate at the end of six years, [Deuteronomy 15:12; Cf. Exodus 21:2; Exodus 23:10] but this had hot been observed: "Your fathers hearkened not unto Me, neither inclined their ear." [Jeremiah 34:14] A large proportion of those then in slavery must have served more than six years; [Jeremiah 34:13] and partly because of the difficulty of discrimination at such a crisis, partly by way of atonement, the Jews undertook to liberate all their slaves. This solemn reparation was made because the limitation of servitude was part of the national Torah, "the covenant that Jehovah made with their fathers in the day that He brought them forth out of the land of Egypt"-i.e., the Deuteronomic Code. Hence it implied the renewed recognition of Deuteronomy, and the restoration of the ecclesiastical order established by Josiah’s reforms.

Even Josiah’s methods were imitated. He had assembled the people at the Temple and made them enter into "a covenant before Jehovah, to walk after Jehovah, to keep His commandments and testimonies and statutes with all their heart and soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant." [2 Kings 23:3] So now Zedekiah in turn caused the people to make a covenant before Jehovah, "in the house which was called by His name," [Jeremiah 34:14] "that every one should release his Hebrew slaves, male and female, and that no one should enslave a brother Jew." [Jeremiah 34:9] A further sanction had been given to this vow by the observance of an ancient and significant rite. When Jehovah promised to Abraham a seed countless as the stars of heaven, He condescended to ratify His promise by causing the symbols of His presence-a smoking furnace and a burning lamp-to pass between the divided halves of a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, and between a turtle dove and a young pigeon. [Genesis 15:1-21] Now, in like manner, a calf was cut in twain, the two halves laid opposite each other, and "the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land passed between the parts of the calf." [Jeremiah 34:19] Similarly, after the death of Alexander the Great, the contending factions in the Macedonian army ratified a compromise by passing between the two halves of a dog. Such symbols spoke for themselves: those who used them laid themselves under a curse; they prayed that if they violated the covenant they might be slain and mutilated like the divided animals.

This covenant was forthwith carried into effect, the princes and people liberating their Hebrew slaves according to their vow. We cannot, however, compare this event with the abolition of slavery in British colonies or with Abraham Lincoln’s Decree of Emancipation. The scale is altogether different: Hebrew bondage had no horrors to compare with those of the American plantations; and moreover, even at the moment, the practical results cannot have been great. Shut up in a beleaguered city, harassed by the miseries and terrors of a siege, the freedmen would see little to rejoice over in their new found freedom. Unless their friends were in Jerusalem they could not rejoin them, and in most cases they could only obtain sustenance by remaining in the households of their former masters, or by serving in the defending army. Probably this special ordinance of Deuteronomy was selected as the subject of a solemn covenant, because it not only afforded an opportunity of atoning for past sin, but also provided the means of strengthening the national defence. Such expedients were common in ancient states in moments of extreme peril. In view of Jeremiah’s persistent efforts, both before and after this incident, to make his countrymen loyally accept the Chaldean supremacy, we cannot doubt that he hoped to make terms between Zedekiah and Nebuchadnezzar. Apparently no tidings of Pharaoh Hophra’s advance had reached Jerusalem; and the nonappearance of his "horses and much people" had discredited the Egyptian party, and enabled Jeremiah to overthrow their influence with the king and people. Egypt, after all her promises, had once more proved herself a broken reed; there was nothing left but to throw themselves on Nebuchadnezzar’s mercy.

But the situation was once more entirely changed by the news that Pharaoh Hophra had come forth out of Egypt "with a mighty army and a great company." [Ezekiel 17:17] The sentinels on the walls of Jerusalem saw the besiegers break up their encampment, and march away to meet the relieving army. All thought of submitting to Babylon was given up. Indeed, if Pharaoh Hophra were to be victorious, the Jews must of necessity accept his supremacy. Meanwhile they revelled in their respite from present distress and imminent danger. Surely the new covenant was bearing fruit. Jehovah had been propitiated by their promise to observe the Torah; Pharaoh was the instrument by which God would deliver His people; or even if the Egyptians were defeated, the Divine resources were not exhausted. When Tirhakah advanced to the relief of Hezekiah, he was defeated at Eltekeh, yet Sennacherib had returned home baffled and disgraced. Naturally the partisans of Egypt, the opponents of Jeremiah, recovered their control of the king and the government. The king sent, perhaps at the first news of the Egyptian advance, to inquire of Jeremiah concerning their prospects of success. What seemed to every one else a Divine deliverance was to him a national misfortune; the hopes he had once more indulged of averting the ruin of Judah were again dashed to the ground. His answer is bitter and gloomy:-

"Behold, Pharaoh’s army, which is come forth to help you,

Shall return to Egypt into their own land.

The Chaldeans shall come again, and fight against this city;

They shall take it, and burn it with fire.

Thus saith Jehovah: Do not deceive yourselves, saying,

The Chaldeans shall surely depart from us:

They shall not depart.

Though ye had smitten the whole army of the Chaldeans that fight against you,

And there remained none but wounded men among them,

Yet should they rise up every man in his tent,

And burn this city with fire."

Jeremiah’s protest was unavailing, and only confirmed the king and princes in their adherence to Egypt. Moreover Jeremiah had now formally disclaimed any sympathy with this great deliverance, which Pharaoh-and presumably Jehovah-had wrought for Judah. Hence it was clear that the people did not owe this blessing to the covenant to which they had submitted themselves by Jeremiah’s guidance. As at Megiddo, Jehovah had shown once more that He was with Pharaoh and against Jeremiah. Probably they would best please God by renouncing Jeremiah and all his works-the covenant included. Moreover they could take back their slaves with a clear conscience, to their own great comfort and satisfaction. True, they had sworn in the Temple with solemn and striking ceremonies, but then Jehovah Himself had manifestly released them from their oath. "All the princes and people changed their mind, and reduced to bondage again all the slaves whom they had set free." The freedmen had been rejoicing with their former masters in the prospect of national deliverance; the date of their emancipation was to mark the beginning of a new era of Jewish happiness and prosperity. When the siege was raised and the Chaldeans driven away, they could use their freedom in rebuilding the ruined cities and cultivating the wasted lands. To all such dreams there came a sudden and rough awakening: they were dragged back to their former hopeless bondage-a happy augury for the new dispensation of Divine protection and blessing!

Jeremiah turned upon them in fierce wrath, like that of Elijah against Ahab when he met him taking possession of Naboth’s vineyard. They had profaned the name of Jehovah, and-

"Therefore thus saith Jehovah:

Ye have not hearkened unto Me to proclaim

A release every one to his brother and his neighbour:

Behold, I proclaim a release for you-it is the utterance of Jehovah-

Unto the sword, the pestilence, and the famine;

And I will make you a terror among all the kingdoms of the earth."

The prophet plays upon the word "release" with grim irony. The Jews had repudiated the "release" which they had promised under solemn oath to their brethren, but Jehovah would not allow them to be so easily quit of their covenant. There should be a "release" after all, and they themselves should have the benefit of it-a "release" from happiness and prosperity, from the sacred bounds of the Temple, the Holy City, and the Land of Promise-a "release" unto "the sword, the pestilence, and the famine."

"I will give the men that have transgressed My covenant into the hands of their enemies . . .

Their dead bodies shall be meat for the fowls of heaven . . .

And for the beasts of the earth, Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes will I give into the hand of . . .

The host of the king of Babylon, which are gone up from you.

Behold, I will command-it is the utterance of Jehovah-

And will bring them back unto this city:

They shall fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire.

I will lay the cities of Judah waste, without inhabitant."

Another broken covenant was added to the list of Judah’s sins, another promise of amendment speedily lost in disappointment and condemnation. Jeremiah might well say with his favourite Hosea:-

"Oh Judah, what shall I do unto thee?

Your goodness is as a morning cloud,

And as the dew that goeth early away." [Hosea 6:4]

This incident has many morals; one of the most obvious is the futility of the most stringent oaths and the most solemn symbolic ritual. Whatever influence oaths may have in causing a would be liar to speak the truth, they are very poor guarantees for the performance of contracts. William the Conqueror profited little by Harold’s oath to help him to the crown of England, though it was sworn over the relics of holy saints. Wulfnoth’s whisper in Tennyson’s drama-

"Swear thou today, tomorrow is thine own"-

states the principle on which many oaths have been taken. The famous "blush of Sigismund" over the violation of his safe conduct to Huss was rather a token of unusual sensitiveness than a confession of exceptional guilt. The Christian Church has exalted perfidy into a sacred obligation. As Milman says:-

"The fatal doctrine, confirmed by long usage, by the decrees of Pontiffs, by the assent of all ecclesiastics, and the acquiescence of the Christian world, that no promise, no oath, was binding to a heretic, had hardly been questioned, never repudiated."

At first sight an oath seems to give firm assurance to a promise; what was merely a promise to man is made into a promise to God. What can be more binding upon the conscience than a promise to God? True; but He to whom the promise is made may always release from its performance. To persist in what God neither requires nor desires because of a promise to God seems absurd and even wicked. It has been said that men "have a way of calling everything they want to do a dispensation of Providence." Similarly, there are many Nays by which a man may persuade himself that God has cancelled his vows, especially if he belongs to an infallible Church with a Divine commission to grant dispensations. No doubt these Jewish slaveholders had full sacerdotal absolution from their pledge. The priests had slaves of their own. Failing ecclesiastical aid, Satan himself will play the casuist-it is one of his favourite parts-and will find the traitor full justification for breaking the most solemn contract with Heaven. If a man’s whole soul and purpose go with his promise, oaths are superfluous; otherwise, they are useless.

However, the main lesson of the incident lies in its added testimony to the supreme importance which the prophets attached to social righteousness. When Jeremiah wished to knit together again the bonds of fellowship between Judah and its God, he did not make them enter into a covenant to observe ritual or to cultivate pious sentiments, but to release their slaves. It has been said that a gentleman may be known by the way in which he treats his servants; a man’s religion is better tested by his behaviour to his helpless dependents than by his attendance on the means of grace or his predilection for pious conversation. If we were right in supposing that the government supported Jeremiah because the act of emancipation would furnish recruits to man the walls, this illustrates the ultimate dependence of society upon the working classes. In emergencies, desperate efforts are made to coerce or cajole them into supporting governments by which they have been neglected or oppressed. The sequel to this covenant shows how barren and transient are concessions begotten by the terror of imminent ruin. The social covenant between all classes of the community needs to be woven strand by strand through long years of mutual helpfulness and goodwill, of peace and prosperity, if it is to endure the strain of national peril and disaster.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jeremiah 34:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/jeremiah-34.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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