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THE IMPENDING DESTRUCTION OF JUDAH
The chapter begins with a conclusion of the prophet's address to the Northern Israel (Jeremiah 4:1-2); then there is a call for Judah's repentance and return to duty as the very last hope of her averting destruction (Jeremiah 4:3-4); next, the Babylonian invasion is prophesied (Jeremiah 4:5-9); there follows the most difficult verse in the chapter (Jeremiah 4:10); a continued description of the forthcoming invasion is given (Jeremiah 4:11-18); personified Judah bewails her fate (Jeremiah 4:19-21); God's answer and the cause of their misery are related (Jeremiah 4:22); a prophecy of the awful extent of the destruction is announced (Jeremiah 4:23-26); and, notwithstanding God's promise not to make a "full end" of Judah (Jeremiah 4:27); there follows the magnificent prophecy of the Judgment of Judah in terminology that suggests also the final destruction of Adam's rebellious race in the Day of Judgment (Jeremiah 4:16-31).
What marvelous things could have happened if only Israel had repented and returned to God. This promise came a hundred years after their going captive into Assyria; but even then God could have achieved wonders through them IF, only IF, they had repented. Of course, it proved a vain hope. There is no evidence whatever of any slightest intention upon their part of returning to God.
Note especially that "the nations," that is, the Gentiles would have been converted, and that Israel would have been the means of God's reaching them! Gentiles and nations are alternate renditions of the same Hebrew noun.
As Cook stated it:
"Two great truths are taught in this verse: (1) that the Gentiles were to be members of the Church of the Messiah, and (2) that Israel's peculiar office was to be God's instrument in that great work. Thus Jeremiah is in exact accord with the evangelical teaching of Isaiah."F1
It should not be overlooked that, "The situation envisaged here was a prospect, rather than a reality."F2 There could be neither a return of Israel to their homeland nor the conversion of the nations without a genuine abandonment of their apostasy, which never happened.
These verses appear to be God's answer to Israel's response to the invitation of Jer. 3:22. "When God called Israel to repent, they immediately answered, Lord, we return; now God takes notice of it in this reply."F3 "If you have it in mind to return to me, return; but come all the way back to me"!F4 Of course, there are three things involved in such a return: (1) the immediate and total abandonment of their idolatry, (2) a return to the sincere and wholehearted worship and service of the true God, and (3) a radical revision and restructuring of their lives in a pattern of obedience, justice, and faithfulness. These remain still, in all ages, the basics of true repentance.
Here God's Word is directed to Judah, the Southern Israel, with a call for their true repentance and conversion, coupled with a threat of drastic punishment.
Break up your fallow ground
(Jeremiah 4:3). `Fallow ground' refers to land that had not been recently cultivated, indicating that conditions in Judah were not at all favorable for the planting of God's Word; and the practical import of the admonition is that they should get rid of all their idols, no longer visit the shrines of the fertility gods, and produce the kind of environment that would encourage godly living. It appears to this writer that McGee's comment about our own country's needing this same kind of advice is appropriate:
The fallow ground needs to be broken up. We are a nation in danger. We say we are one of the greatest nations in the world, but we could fall overnight. Babylon the great fell in one night. Rome fell from within ... Our nation is decaying from within. Morality is deteriorating. Someone needs to say something about it. We are still preaching, but we are sowing the seed among the thorns.F5
Circumcise yourselves to Jehovah. take away the foreskins of your heart ..
(Jeremiah 4:4). The second clause here explains the first. Circumcision was observed for all Jewish males; but the kind of circumcision they needed was not physical but spiritual. Cutting off the foreskins of their hearts meant removing from their thoughts and affections all of the sinful indulgences to which they were so addicted. As Harrison commented, Inner cleansing of the heart is the only alternative to destruction by fire, a theme prominent also in the New Testament (Matt. 25:41, etc.)F6
Some have difficulty understanding the part that man must play in his own conversion, repentance, and regeneration. The passage before us declares that the men of Judah and Jerusalem were to "circumcise their hearts"; but Deut. 30:6 declares that, "The Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart!" Is this a contradiction? Certainly not.
The simple fact is that man is both active and passive in regeneration. The text here (Jeremiah 4:4) stresses his activity, and the passage in Deuteronomy stresses his passivity.F7
This is the way it is in the New Birth. The sinner must "Arise and be baptized and wash away his sins" (Acts 22:16); but the actual cleansing and the convert's reception of the Holy Spirit are from above, the convert being passive in their reception. It is for this truth that Paul could say, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). Yes indeed, there are things for the sinner to do if he is ever going to be saved.
These verses are a prophecy of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of Judah. That terrible judgment against Judah, like many other judgments of God throughout history against cities and/or nations whose wickedness had reached a point of no return, is also typical of the ultimate overthrow of Adam's rebellious race in the Final Judgment. This is indicated by the words "at that day" in Jer. 4:9.
Blow ye the trumpet in the land
(Jeremiah 4:5). This was an all-out war alarm, a signal for Judah and Jerusalem to brace themselves for the conflict.
Set up a standard toward Zion
(Jeremiah 4:6). This meant that road signs should be set up pointing the way to the nearest fortified cities to which the people might flee for safety. It should not be thought, however, that any true safety was available. Of course, there was yet time, IF, only IF Judah repented and turned to the Lord, There would then have been hope, that protected by their fortified cities, they might have waited till the tide of war had passed; but as long as their sins remained unrepented of, their punishment would continue.F8
I will bring evil from the north, and a great devastation
(Jeremiah 4:6). Quite a few of the scholars whose writings on this chapter we have consulted still believe they find the Scythians indicated here; but, as in our introduction, we cannot agree with that interpretation.
Taking all into consideration, we see that referring this prophecy to the Scythians is founded neither on exegetical results, nor upon historical evidence; but such a reference relies solely upon rationalistic prejudice that the prophecies of the Biblical prophets are nothing more than either disguised descriptions of historical events, or threatenings based upon forthcoming events that astute political observations could predict.F9
That the prophecy here refers to the Babylonians is a certainty, as proved by the next verse.
A lion has gone up from his thicket, and a destroyer of nations
(Jeremiah 4:7). This lion was no ordinary beast, but a destroyer of nations. While true enough that a lion could represent either Assyria or Babylon, after the fall of Nineveh (612 B.C.) the metaphor could have applied only to Babylon.
Jamieson identified the lion as, "Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans ... his `thicket' was Babylon."F10 Of course, the emphasis in Babylon upon the lion as their symbol is proved by the lion's den into which Daniel was cast, and also, as Harrison noted: "Archaeological discoveries have uncovered beautiful representations of lions in enamel from the Processional Street of ancient Babylon."F11
Gird you with sackcloth, lament and wail
(Jeremiah 4:8). There is nothing left for Judah except to weep and wail as the penalty of their sins is ruthlessly executed upon them by the savage lion of the Babylonians. Also note that the expression at that day also points forward to that day when the weeping and the gnashing of teeth shall mark the final punishment of our rebellious race of the sons of Adam.
This thought is developed more fully a little later in the chapter. "Jehovah's judgment of his people here is similar to that of Isa. 24, where the judgment of the enemies of Israel is interwoven with the judgment upon the earth."F12
We have called this the most difficult verse in the chapter; because, as it is written, we find it very difficult either to believe or to interpret. As it stands, it would have to be based upon the oriental conception that everything that happens is actually accomplished by Jehovah; and some commentators take that view; but in English, this understanding is by no means evident. Another view, held by some, that this is really the way Jeremiah felt about it, and that the thought should be forgiven due to the discouragement of Jeremiah; but we cannot allow that a blasphemous view like this ever belonged to Jeremiah.
"One of the three most ancient MSS, namely, the Codex Alexandrinus, along with the Arabic Version and the LXX, give the first three verses here as `They will say.'"F13 Many scholars support this rendition, among whom are Wiseman and Ash, with Green in the Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971) accepting the meaning that "The leaders of Israel" are the ones who accused God of deceiving them, although he apparently retained the American Standard Version reading. To us, "They will say" is the only reading that makes any sense at all. Certainly it was the false prophets who, all along, were deceiving God's people with promises of peace and safety.
Here we have a further description of the coming of Babylon upon the apostate Judah. It shall be like a bank of threatening clouds, like the terrible sirocco, or simoon, a wind, not at all helpful like the one used for winnowing, but a violent and destructive wind. The swift chariots shall descend upon the helpless people swifter than an eagle descends upon the prey. There will be no recourse for Judah; she must drink the bitter cup, because it came upon her solely as the result of her terrible wickedness, represented here as "procuring" the terrible disaster that befell her.
From Dan. from the hills of Ephraim ..
(Jeremiah 4:15). Dan was at the northern extremity of Palestine, and Ephraim was quite near Jerusalem. The rapid advance of the enemy upon Jerusalem is indicated:
Make ye mention to the nations
(Jeremiah 4:16). The pagan nations are called to witness God's punishment of Judah. The tents or booths of the besiegers are compared to the stations of the farmers who guarded their crops in more prosperous times.F14
This thy wickedness
(Jeremiah 4:18). The meaning of this verse was given thus by the Dean of Canterbury:
"This word signifies both evil done and evil suffered by anyone. It means, `this is thy wretchedness, this army, and thy approaching ruin is thy misery, thy wretched lot.'"F15
Jeremiah was evidently not the owner of the many tents suggested in Jer. 4:20; and therefore it seems better to accept this paragraph as did Jamieson: "The prophet suddenly assumes the language of the Jewish state personified lamenting its affliction."F16 "Jer. 4:19-22 are best understood as a series of ejaculations, in which the people express their grief at the ravages committed by the enemy."F17
God did not, however, leave the cries of his people unanswered but promptly supplied the reason that lay behind their dreadful suffering.
My people are foolish. sottish ... know me not... no understanding ... wise to do evil ... etc., ..
(Jeremiah 4:22). `Sottish' means `stupefied with drink,' thus adding drunkenness to the list of the debaucheries of the people.
The Anchor Bible has an interesting rendition of Jer. 4:22 as follows:
"Ah, my people are fools!
Me they know not.
Stupid sons are they,
Senseless -- they.
Clever are they to do wrong,
To do right, they don't know how!"F18
The terminology here clearly points to the final judgment. See Zeph. 1:1-4; Rev. 6:12-17, etc. The lesson would appear to be that the judgment of God repeatedly executed throughout history upon rebellious cities and nations are all typical of the ultimate Judgment of the Final Day.
Of very great interest is the promise of God in Jer. 4:27 that he will not make a full end of Judah. Not so for Nineveh. God promised to make a "Full end of her place" (Nahum 1:8); and that was surely her fate, because when Alexander the Great encamped his army near the ancient ruins of Nineveh, he did not even know that a city had ever been there!
Ash complained that the optimistic note of Jer. 4:27 "seems out of place, and some scholars suggest omitting the not. This would seem more harmonious with Jer. 4:28!"F19 All such scholar objections are founded upon the rationalistic prejudice that the same author could not prophecy both doom and deliverance at the same time. We reject that whole prejudice out of hand. It is just another one of the false rules followed by radical critics. Did not Jesus Christ himself prophecy heaven and hell in the same breath? Of course he did.
It was absolutely necessary that Jeremiah should have mentioned this hope in Jer. 4:27 that Judah would not be completely destroyed. Isaiah, who preceded Jeremiah, had named one of his sons Shear-Jashub, meaning, "A remnant shall return" (Isa. 7:3; 10:21);F20 and therefore at the very moment of his announcing the end of Judah was by all considerations exactly the right time for Jeremiah to have reiterated the promise that a remnant would return. This alone was the device by which God would at last fulfill all of the glorious promises to the patriarchs. It would have been criminal to have left it out of this context in which we find it.
Cook called Jer. 4:27b "One of the most striking points of the prophecy."F21
And when thou art made desolate
(Jeremiah 4:30). The extremity of Judah's punishment is depicted in these last verses.
Through her behavior in courting lovers Judah has become tainted with mortal disease, and by using the figure of a fatal miscarriage, the prophet depicts the nation moribund and gasping spasmodically with arms outstretched, crying `The murderers have killed me!' Like the wanton she had become, Judah is here shown paying the price of her iniquity.F22
Robinson has an interesting comment on the contrasting figures employed here by Jeremiah to describe the helplessness of Judah before the invading Babylonians:
"Jer. 4:30 and Jer. 4:31 there is an effective contrast between the gaily decked prostitute and the travailing woman, though both figures are used to express the same fact, i.e., Jerusalem's helplessness before the invader, either to allure or to withstand."F23
I heard a voice
(Jeremiah 4:31). The cry is of one whose agony is unbearable. Jerusalem is in her death throes.F24 The tragic picture developed in this chapter of the conquest of Judah is not merely a masterpiece; but it is the most tragic picture ever presented of the pitiful end of rebellion against the Creator, whether of an individual, or of a nation. The extremely sorrowful emotions of the great prophet himself seem to wrap every line of the revelation here in tears. Something of this same deep emotion also belonged to Jesus Christ when he wept over the city of Jerusalem upon the occasion of his sentencing her to death, Because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation!
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.