Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentJEREMIAH 34
SLAVES EMANCIPATED AND ENSLAVED AGAIN
This chapter features two prophecies: (1) There is the announcement of a conditional prophecy for Zedekiah (Jeremiah 34:1-8), offering that king certain blessings on condition of his surrender to Babylon. (2) There is the prophecy of doom for the population of Jerusalem as a just reward of their emancipation of slaves according to God's Word in a mocking, hypocritical ceremony enacted in the sacred temple itself, followed at once by their treacherous, perfidious and shameless cancellation of the emancipation and their enslavement of their former slaves again.
There could have been no better justification of God's terrible punishment of the Chosen People than the events recorded in this chapter. In every way, they completely deserved all the sorrows that came upon them.
Regarding the date of the chapter, it is accurately revealed by the historical situation in which it is set. "Both of these prophecies belong to the first period of the final siege of Jerusalem, probably the ninth year of Zedekiah the king."F1 "That year was 589-588 B.C."F2
THE PROPHECY REGARDING ZEDEKIAH
The word which came unto Jeremiah from Jehovah, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth that were under his dominion, and all the peoples, were fighting against Jerusalem, and against all the cities thereof, saying: Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, Go, and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah, and tell him, Thus saith Jehovah, Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire: and thou shalt not escape out of his hand, but shalt surely be taken, and delivered into his hand; and thine eyes shall behold the eyes of the king of Babylon, and he shall speak with thee mouth to mouth, and thou shalt go to Babylon. Yet hear the word of Jehovah, O Zedekiah king of Judah: thus saith Jehovah concerning thee, Thou shalt not die by the sword; thou shalt die in peace; and 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], Ah Lord! for I have spoken the word, saith Jehovah.
All the kingdoms of the earth
(Jeremiah 34:1) This is a reference to the composite nature of Nebuchadnezzar's army, which was made up of numerous detachments from the many nations that had submitted to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar as the suzerain overlord of all those countries had the right to demand troops of all of them to aid in his fight against enemies. He even had that right over Zedekiah who had at this juncture of events rebelled against him.
And against all the cities thereof
(Jeremiah 34:1). This refers to the surrounding cities in Palestine which were fortified towns and would of necessity be captured prior to the assault against Jerusalem the major stronghold. Lachish and Azekah (Jeremiah 34:7) were the last two of these to hold out against the Chaldeans.
Thou shalt not escape out of his hand
(Jeremiah 34:3). This meant that Zedekiah would most certainly he required to give an account to Nebuchadnezzar his overlord, with whom he had negotiated a covenant of obedience, in all probability cutting a covenant after the pattern of that mentioned in Jer. 34:18, below, and entailing the most terrible consequences upon its violation by the vassal.
Yet. thou shalt not die by the sword ... but in peace ..
(Jeremiah 34:4). The very word yet in this passage seems to hold out a certain hope for Zedekiah, always contingent, of course, (See Jer. 18:7-10) upon his obedience to God's command to deliver the city at once into the hands of his overlord. Whether or not this is actually the true understanding of this place does not appear absolutely certain to this writer; but Barnes, and many others, hold this view.
The city was doomed and Zedekiah's capture was assured, but he was still in a position to procure good terms; and the prophet here laid before him the alternative; but Zedekiah with all the obstinacy of a weak man chose to continue the war, and lost: (1) the kingdom; (2) his eyesight; and (3) his liberty.F3
This view, in effect, denies that the prophecy here was fulfilled, due to Zedekiah's violation of the condition implied in the prophecy itself. Ash, Dummelow, and others concur with Barnes in this understanding. Dummelow submits as proof of this interpretation that, "Although the key condition of Zedekiah's surrender is omitted in this chapter, it is emphatically stated in Jer. 38:17."F4 We accept this understanding of the place and note that, in addition to the benefits to Zedekiah which were conditionally promised here, the lives of his sons would also have been spared if he had obeyed the word of the Lord (Jer. 38:17ff).
Thou shalt die in peace
(Jeremiah 34:5). How could one die in peace, after his sons were slain before him, and after he had been blinded, enslaved, and deported to Babylon where he died? We agree with Matthew Henry that one may die in peace, even though in prison,F5 and also that to die in peace might have referred to his attaining peace with God, as did Manasseh at the end of his life. Others have also suggested that, when contrasted with the death of Jehoiachim who died unmourned, receiving the burial of an ass, Zedekiah did indeed die in peace. If so, then this part of the prophecy was unconditional.
With the burnings of thy fathers, etc.,
(Jeremiah 34:5). The Jews never had a custom of cremation, and this refers to the lighting of bonfires upon the death of a beloved monarch, spices also being added to the burning faggots in such lamentations. The expression Ah Lord was the customary exclamation upon the death of a king. Barnes and others thought this promise of that kind of a burial for Zedekiah was a pledge (if he had obeyed the Lord) of a successful tenure on the throne of Jerusalem as a vassal of Babylon. However, it is by no means impossible that the captive Jews in Babylon would have been allowed thus to honor their deceased monarch. Still, we favor the view of this whole prophecy as conditional and the conclusion that it was not fulfilled because Zedekiah violated the conditions in it.
TIME WHEN THIS WAS PROPHESIED
Verses 6, 7
Then Jeremiah the prophet spake all these words unto Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, when the king of Babylon's army was fighting against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and against Azekah; for these [alone] remained of the cities of Judah [as] fortified cities.
It is a marvelous fact that the details of this siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar have been strikingly confirmed by the spade of the archaeologist within our very generation. "The Mari letters and the Lachish Ostraca (broken pieces of pottery with inscriptions upon them) have been uncovered in the ruins of Lachish during the years 1935-1938, and have been positively dated in this very year of the final siege of Jerusalem."F6 "These treasures were discovered by the Wellcome-Marston Expedition."F7
Lachish and Azekah
(Jeremiah 34:7). These were important fortified towns, which longer than any others except Jerusalem itself, resisted the Chaldean army. Lachish, at one time, had been larger than Jerusalem itself, and according to the Lachish Letters was the last to surrender prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Lachish was located 23 miles southwest of Jerusalem, and Azekah was eleven miles north of Lachish. Letter No. 4 deals with the very time when this prophecy was written by Jeremiah.
It records urgent military messages from the commander of Jerusalem's defenders to the garrison commander in Lachish, saying, "Let my lord know that we are watching the signals of Lachish (the smoke signals), according to all the indications which my lord has given; for we cannot see Azekah (evidently Azekah had fallen)."F8
There are also mentioned in these letters a half dozen names, including that of the father of Baruch, which are also found in this section of Jeremiah. Now, not for a moment, do we suppose that anything in the Bible needs to be confirmed either by pagan writers, or by fragments digged up from ancient ruins; but it is interesting and encouraging indeed to find that the deeper the spade of the archaeologist goes, the more is the proof of the truth of every word in the Holy Bible verified.
"This prophecy was given just a short time before Letter IV was written,"F9 because Azekah had not yet fallen (Jeremiah 34:7).
SLAVES FREED AND PROMPTLY ENSLAVED AGAIN (JER. 34:8-22)
The word that came unto Jeremiah from Jehovah, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people that were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them; that every man should let his man-servant, and every man his maid-servant, that is a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, go free; that none should make bondmen of them, [to wit], of a Jew his brother. And all the princes and all the people obeyed, that had entered into the covenant, that every one should let his man-servant, and every one his maid-servant, go free, that none should make bondmen of them any more; they obeyed, and let them go:
As evident later in the chapter, this solemn covenant was entered into in the holy Temple itself, and was witnessed by the priesthood and attested by all of the appropriate ceremonies.
Made a covenant
(Jeremiah 34:8,10). Evidently, the covenant here resembled that of Gen. 15:2, in which one or more birds or animals or both were cut in half, and the contracting parties walked between the divided portions of the living creatures that were slain, thus calling all men and God Himself to witness that any violator of the solemn agreement entered into by this ceremony would himself be destroyed after the manner of the slain creatures.
They obeyed, and let them go free
(Jeremiah 34:11). In the abbreviated account here, it is not clear whether or not the Jews freed all of their slaves, or only those who were being kept in bondage contrary to the Law of Moses; but, in any case, the number of manumissions must have been very considerable, as all the princes and the people entered into the covenant to do so.
Again the existence of the Pentateuch, and the Jews' familiarity with its teachings, is emphatically evident in the events of this prophecy. The laws appealed to here were those of Exo. 21:2,7 and Lev. 25:39-55. The Jews knew all about those laws but simply refused to obey them. What induced the change here?
Early in the final siege of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar's immense composite army approached the city. It was early January in Zedekiah's ninth year. The evident danger quickened the conscience of the king and his people; and they at once "cut the covenant" to free their slaves, no doubt praying that, as a reward, God might spare their city.
This good deed was evidently a case of "death-bed repentance,"F10 as indicated in a quotation which Green attributed to Peake. Feinberg called it, "panic piety."F11
Since there seems to have been no genuine religious devotion whatever behind this maneuver, we are led to inquire what was behind it?
REASONS FOR THIS MANEUVER
(1) In the approaching siege, by freeing their slaves, the evil masters would be no longer obligated to feed them.
(2) The shortage of defenders of the city might have been somewhat alleviated by making freemen of all the slaves, who then would be expected to fight for "their" city.
(3) The lack of opportunity to employ the slaves on the surrounding farm lands of Jerusalem, due to the occupation of this land by the enemy, could have made the quartering, clothing, and feeding of the slaves a very unwelcome burden.
Whatever the reasons, we can find nothing whatever honorable in this conduct of the Hebrew people.
but afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids.
What caused a reversal like this? It is easy to ascertain. The approach of an Egyptian army led by Pharaoh-Hophra caused a brief interruption of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem; and the Jews jumped to the conclusion that God had spared the city, even as he had in 701 B.C., when Sennacherib's army was destroyed in a single night, and Jerusalem was spared. This false appraisal of their true situation occasioned their display of their true colors that exposed the whole people as a heartless group of wicked, selfish men who cared neither for God or mankind.
Harrison made this comment on Jer. 34:11, "By breaking their promises the owners not merely disregarded the covenantal oath but also profaned the divine name they had invoked when they made it. This, however, was typical of the casual and irresponsible attitude which had characterized the Chosen People for many generations, and for which stem retribution was now at hand."F12
Was the king in on this crooked reversal of the people's solemn promises? He evidently was, because he had led the way in the making of it.
Therefore the word of Jehovah came to Jeremiah from Jehovah, saying, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee, and hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee: but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear. And ye were now turned, and had done that which is right in mine eyes, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbor; and ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name: but ye turned and profaned my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and ye brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.
Proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbor
(Jeremiah 34:15). The words here are particularly those used in Leviticus, stressing the existence of all the other books of the Pentateuch in addition to Deuteronomy.
It would be impossible to overestimate the extent of Judah's crime in the event here recorded: (1) It was a violation of God's specific commandment. (2) They had mocked God Himself by that hypocritical "covenant" they cut in the very house that was called by God's name. (3) They profaned the name of God by invoking his holy name upon an action which they had no intention of honoring. (4) It was an inhuman, unfeeling crime against innocent and defenseless people. (5) It was a violation and repudiation of the promises they themselves had made under oath; it was a perfidious perjury. (6) It was a crime against both God and mankind. (7) It was a crime against their wicked state which suffered the punishment their conduct so richly deserved.
Therefore thus saith Jehovah: ye have not hearkened unto me, to proclaim liberty, every man to his brother, and every man to his neighbor: behold, I proclaim unto you a liberty, saith Jehovah, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be tossed to and fro among all the kingdoms of the earth.
What a proclamation is this! God says, "Very well, I make a proclamation for you, freeing you from my love and protection, and giving you your liberty to be destroyed by the ravages of war, disease, and starvation."
And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, that have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before me, when they cut the calf in twain and passed between the parts thereof;
For more on the nature of the covenant here, see under Jer. 34:8,10 above. It was the kind of covenant that God made with Abraham in Gen. 15:10ff, in which birds and/or animals were divided, and the parties of the covenant passed between the divided portions of the creatures that had been slain. The implication was that any violator would deserve to suffer the same fate of the animals or birds used in the ceremony. Here it was a calf that had been cut in twain.
The prophet here enumerated the men who had thus violated the solemn covenant. The list given in the next verses included practically all the leaders of the nation, even that of the king himself and his princes.
Verses 19, 20
the princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, that passed between the parts of the calf; I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life; and their dead bodies shall be for food unto the birds of the heavens, and to the beasts of the earth.
In a word, this was a death sentence for the violators of the covenant. Note the opening words in the next line, "And Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes." Thus there is no way to exempt the king and his advisers from association with the crimes enumerated here.
Verses 21, 22
And Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes will I give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon's army, that are gone away from you. Behold, I will command, saith Jehovah, and cause them to return to this city; and they shall fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire: and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.
These two verses fix the date of the events in this chapter. They occurred in that brief period during the appearance of Pharaoh-Hophra with his Egyptian army that caused Nebuchadnezzar to lift the siege momentarily. In that interval, the Jews enslaved the servants they had freed, and the whole nation violated its solemn promises.
God at once pronounced the sentence of death upon them; and within a year's time, it was fully executed.
Footnotes for Jeremiah 34
1: C. F. Keil, Keil-Delitzsch's Old Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 79.
2: Charles Lee Feinberg in Ezekiel (Chicago: Moody Press), p. 595.
3: Barnes' Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), p. 232.
4: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 474.
5: Matthew Henry's Commentary, p. 624.
6: Merrill F. Unger, Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p. 10.
7: The New Bible Dictionary, p. 704.
8: J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archeology (Grand Rapid, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972) p. 608.
9: Anthony L. Ash, Psalms (Abilene, Texas: A.C.U. Press, 1987), p. 245.
10: Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), p. 160.
11: Charles Lee Feinberg in Ezekiel (Chicago: Moody Press), p. 597.
12: R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, p. 146.