Jeremiah 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the LORD, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight, then shalt thou not remove.

(1) If thou wilt return.—The “if” implies a return from the hopes with which Jeremiah 3 ended to the language of misgiving, and so, inferentially, of earnest exhortation.

Abominations.—Literally, things of shame, as in Jeremiah 3:24; the idols which Israel had worshipped.

Then shalt thou not remove.—Better, as continuing the conditions of forgiveness, if thou wilt not wander.

And thou shalt swear, The LORD liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness; and the nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.
(2) And thou shalt swear.—The conditions are continued: If thou wilt swear by the living Jehovah [“the Lord liveth” being the received formula of adjuration], in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness.

And the nations shall bless themselves in him.—This forms the completion of the sentence. If the conditions of a true repentance are fulfilled by Israel, then the outlying heathen nations shall bless themselves in Jehovah—i.e., shall own Him and adore Him, be blessed by Him.

For thus saith the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.
(3) For thus saith the Lord . . .—The words seem the close of one discourse, the opening of another. The parable of Israel is left behind, and the appeal to Judah and Jerusalem is more direct.

To the men of Judah.—Literally, to each man individually.

Break up your fallow ground.—The Hebrew has the force which comes from the verb and noun being from the same root, Break up for you a broken ground or fallow a fallow field. The metaphor had been used before by Hosea (Hosea 10:12). What the spiritual field needed was to be exposed to God’s sun and God’s free air, to the influences of spiritual light and warmth, and the dew and soft showers of His grace.

Sow not among thorns.—Not without a special interest as, perhaps, containing the germ of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:7. Here, as there, the seed is the “word of God,” spoken by the prophet, and taking root in the heart, and the thorns are the “cares of this world,” the selfish desires which choke the good seed and render it unfruitful.

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
(4) Circumcise yourselves to the Lord.—The words show that the prophet had grasped the meaning of the symbol which to so many Jews was merely an outward sign. He saw that the “foreskin of the heart” was the fleshly, unrenewed nature, the “flesh” as contrasted with the “spirit,” the “old man” which St. Paul contrasts with the new (Romans 6:6; Romans 8:7). The verbal coincidence, with Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6 shows the influence of that book, of which we find so many traces in Jeremiah’s teaching.

Lest my fury come forth like fire . . .—The words, which describe the righteousness of Jehovah as a consuming fire, have their parallel in Jeremiah 7:20, Amos 5:6, and form the transition to the picture of terror which opens in the next verse.

Declare ye in Judah, and publish in Jerusalem; and say, Blow ye the trumpet in the land: cry, gather together, and say, Assemble yourselves, and let us go into the defenced cities.
(5) Declare.i.e., proclaim as a herald proclaims. The cry is that of an alarm of war. The prophet sees, as it were, the invading army, and calls the people to leave their villages and to take refuge in the fortified cities.

Set up the standard toward Zion: retire, stay not: for I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction.
(6) Set up the standard toward Zion.—Still the language of alarm. The words are as a command, “Raise the signal which shall point to Zion as a place of refuge from the foe, by whom the rest of the country is laid waste.”

Retire.—Withdraw, in the transitive sense, “gather, with a view to removing” (as in Exodus 9:19), and this is followed by “stay not,” linger not, be quick. The call to retreat was urgent.

I will bring.—Literally, I am bringing.

From the north.—The Chaldæan, and possibly the Scythian, invasion, as in Jeremiah 1:14.

The lion is come up from his thicket, and the destroyer of the Gentiles is on his way; he is gone forth from his place to make thy land desolate; and thy cities shall be laid waste, without an inhabitant.
(7) The lion is come up . . .—The “lion” is, of course, the Chaldæan invader, the destroyer, not of men only, but of nations. So in Daniel 7:4 the lion is the symbol of the Assyrian monarchy. The winged lions that are seen in the palaces of Mosul and Nimroud gave a special character to what was in any case a natural metaphor. The word “Gentiles” answers to the meaning, but there is no special reason why it should be used here, rather than nations.

Is on his way.—Literally, has broken up his encampment, i.e., has started on his march.

Without an inhabitant.—The language, like that of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:11), was probably in some measure hyperbolical, but the depopulation caused by the Chaldæan invasion (as seen in Jeremiah 39:9) must have been extreme.

For this gird you with sackcloth, lament and howl: for the fierce anger of the LORD is not turned back from us.
(8) Gird you with sackcloth.—From the earliest times the outward sign of mourning, and therefore of repentance (Joel 1:8; Isaiah 22:12).

And it shall come to pass at that day, saith the LORD, that the heart of the king shall perish, and the heart of the princes; and the priests shall be astonished, and the prophets shall wonder.
(9) The heart of the king shall perish.—The heart, as representing the mind generally. Judgment and wisdom were to give way to panic and fear.

Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, Ye shall have peace; whereas the sword reacheth unto the soul.
(10) Ah, Lord God! (literally, my Lord Jehovah!) surely thou hast greatly deceived this people.—The words are startling, but are eminently characteristic. Jeremiah had been led to utter words that told of desolation and destruction. But if these were true, what was he to think of the words of the other prophets, who, speaking in the name of the Lord, had promised peace through the reign of Josiah, and even under Jehoiakim? Had not Jehovah apparently sanctioned those prophets also? and, if so, had He not deceived the people? (Comp. Jeremiah 20:7.) This seems, on the whole, preferable to the interpretations which see in it a dramatic irony representing the prophet as having shared in the hopes of the people and awakening to a terrible disappointment, or refer the words to the contrast between the glorious visions of the future in Isaiah and his own terrible predictions, or to the bolder course of an alteration of the text, so that the words would run “it is said,” the complaint being represented as coming from the people.

At that time shall it be said to this people and to Jerusalem, A dry wind of the high places in the wilderness toward the daughter of my people, not to fan, nor to cleanse,
(11) At that time.—i.e., when the lion and destroyer of Jeremiah 4:7 should begin his work of destruction.

A dry wind.—Literally, a clear wind, the simoom, the scorching blast from the desert, coming clear and without clouds. Other winds might be utilised for the threshing-floor, but this made all such work impossible, and was simply devastating, and was therefore a fit symbol of the terrible invader.

Even a full wind from those places shall come unto me: now also will I give sentence against them.
(12) A full wind from those places.—Better, a wind fuller than those, or, fuller than for this . . . i.e., more tempestuous than those which serve for the work of the thresher, and blowing away both grain and chaff together.

Shall come unto me.—Better, for me, as doing my pleasure.

Give sentence against, against the sinful people of Judah and Jerusalem.

Behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as a whirlwind: his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe unto us! for we are spoiled.
(13) He shall come up as clouds.—He, the destroyer of nations, with armies that sweep like storm-clouds over the land they are going to destroy. (Comp. Ezekiel 38:16.)

Swifter than eagles.—A possible quotation from David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2Samuel 1:23). The fact that another phrase is quoted in Jeremiah 4:30 (“clothest thyself with crimson,” where the Hebrew is the same as the “scarlet” of 2Samuel 1:24), makes the possibility something like a certainty. It was natural that one who himself wrote two sets of lamentations, one early (2Chronicles 35:25), the other late, in life, should have been a student of earlier elegies. For the flight of the eagle as representing the swift march of the invader, comp. Lamentations 4:19; Hos. viii 1; Habakkuk 1:8.

Woe unto us! for we are spoiled.—Probably the cry of the terrified crowds of Jerusalem, with which the prophet, with dramatic vividness, as in Jeremiah 9:18-19, interrupts his description.

O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved. How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee?
(14) O Jerusalem.—The prophet’s answer to the cry that comes from the city. In that “washing of the heart” which had seemed impossible before (Jeremiah 2:22), but is thought of now as “possible with God,” is the one hope of salvation. (Comp. Isaiah 1:16.)

Vain thoughts.—The Hebrew has a force which the English does not reproduce, thoughts of vanity, thoughts of aven, i.e., of the word which had been specially applied, as in Beth-aven for Beth-el (the “house of vanity” for the “house of God”) to the idols which Israel and Judah worshipped (Hosea 4:15; Hosea 10:5; Amos 5:5).

For a voice declareth from Dan, and publisheth affliction from mount Ephraim.
(15) Dan . . . Mount Ephraim.—The two places are chosen, not like Dan and Beer-sheba, as extreme limits, but as stages in the march of the invader: first Dan (as in Jeremiah 8:16), the northernmost point (Deuteronomy 34:1; Judges 20:1) of the whole land of Israel, then Mount Ephraim, as the northern boundary of Judaea. The verbs grow in strength with the imagined nearness, first announce, as of a rumour from a distance, then proclaim, as of a danger more imminent.

Affliction.—In the Hebrew the same word (aven) as in the “thoughts of vanity.” Playing on the two aspects of the word, the prophet says that aven comes as the penalty of aven—the “nothingness” of destruction as that of the “nothingness” of the idol.

Make ye mention to the nations; behold, publish against Jerusalem, that watchers come from a far country, and give out their voice against the cities of Judah.
(16) Make ye mention.—Better, Proclaim ye to the nations; behold. Call them to gaze on the ruin of Jerusalem, then, Cry aloud as for Jerusalem, that watchers (i.e., the besieging armies) are coming from a far country, and that they will give out their voice (i.e. raise the cry of war) against the cities of Judah.

As keepers of a field, are they against her round about; because she hath been rebellious against me, saith the LORD.
(17) Field.—With the meaning, as in all early English, of “open,” not “enclosed,” country (Leviticus 14:7; Leviticus 17:5). The image is that of a nomadic tribe encamped in the open country, or of men watching their flocks (Luke 2:8) or crops (Job 27:18). So shall be the tents of the invaders round Jerusalem—keeping, or (as in 2Samuel 11:16) “observing,” i.e., “blockading” the city.

Thy way and thy doings have procured these things unto thee; this is thy wickedness, because it is bitter, because it reacheth unto thine heart.
(18) This is thy wickedness.—Better, this is thy evil. She was reaping the fruit of her own doing, and this gave her sorrows a fresh bitterness. The Hebrew word, like the English “evil,” includes both guilt and its punishment.

My bowels, my bowels! I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.
(19) My bowels, my bowels!—As with Jeremiah 4:13, the words may be Jeremiah’s own cry of anguish, or that of the despairing people with whom he identifies himself. The latter gives more dramatic vividness, as we thus have the utterances of three of the great actors in the tragedy: here of the people, in Jeremiah 4:22 of Jehovah, in Jeremiah 4:23 of the prophet. The “bowels” were with the Hebrews thought of as the seat of all the strongest emotions, whether of sorrow, fear, or sympathy (Job 30:27; Isaiah 16:11).

At my very heart.—Literally (reproducing the physical fact of palpitation), I writhe in pain; the walls of my heart! my heart moans for me. The verb for “I am pained” is often used for the “travail” or agony of childbirth (Isaiah 23:4; Isaiah 26:18).

Thou hast heard, O my soul . . .—Silence at such a time was impossible. The prophet, as in the language of strong emotion, addresses his own soul, his very self (Comp. Psalm 16:2; Psalm 42:5; Psalm 42:11).

Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoiled: suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment.
(20) Destruction upon destruction is cried.—Literally, Breaking upon breaking, or crash upon crash, is reported.

Suddenly are my tents spoiled.—The tent dwelling retained its position even amid the cities and villages of Israel (2Samuel 18:17; 1Kings 8:66). The “curtains” are, of course, those of the tent (Isaiah 54:2). Conspicuous among such survivals of the nomad form of life we find the Rechabites of Jeremiah 35

How long shall I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet?
(21) How long shall I see . . .—The “standard,” as in Jeremiah 4:6, is the alarm signal given to the fugitives. The “trumpet” sounds to give the alarm, and quicken their flight to the defenced city. The prophet sees no end to the miseries of the coming war.

For my people is foolish, they have not known me; they are sottish children, and they have none understanding: they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge.
(22) For my people is foolish.—Jehovah answers the prophet’s question. The misery comes to punish the folly and sottishness of the people. It shall last as long as they last, or till it has accomplished its work of chastisement.

I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light.
(23) I beheld the earth.—In words of terrible grandeur the prophet speaks, as if he had already seen the consummated destruction; and repeating the words “I beheld,” as if he had passed through four distinct visions, describes its completeness.

Without form, and void.—An obvious quotation from the tohu va-bohu of Genesis 1:2. The goodly land of Israel was thrown back, as it were, into a formless chaos, before the words “Let there be light” had brought it into order.

I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly.
(24) The mountains, and, lo, they trembled.—The great earthquake in the days of Uzziah (Amos 1:1), of which we find traces in Isaiah (Isaiah 24:19-20), had probably made imagery of this kind familiar.

I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.
(25) There was no man.—To chaos and darkness and the earthquake was added the horrible sense of solitude. Not man only, but the creatures that seemed least open to man’s attack, were fled. (Comp. Jeremiah 2:6.) The same thought re-appears in Jeremiah 9:10.

I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the LORD, and by his fierce anger.
(26) The fruitful place.—The Carmel, or vine-land, became as “the wilderness.” The Hebrew article points probably to the well-known desert of the wanderings.

At the presence of the Lord.—Literally, from before Jehovah, from before the heat of his anger. The original has the emphasis of repeating the preposition.

For thus hath the LORD said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end.
(27) Yet will I not make a full end.—The thought is echoed from Amos 9:8; Isaiah 6:13; Isaiah 10:21, and repeated in Jeremiah 5:18. There was then hope in the distance. The destruction, terrible as it seemed, was not final. The penalty was a discipline. (Comp. Leviticus 26:44.)

For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it.
(28) For this shall the earth mourn . . .—As with all true poets, the face of nature seems to the prophet to sympathise with human suffering. (Comp. Amos 8:9; Matthew 24:29.)

The whole city shall flee for the noise of the horsemen and bowmen; they shall go into thickets, and climb up upon the rocks: every city shall be forsaken, and not a man dwell therein.
(29) The horsemen and bowmen.—A specially characteristic picture, as we see from the Nineveh sculptures, of Assyrian and Chaldæan armies.

Thickets . . . rocks.—Both words are Aramaic in the original. The former, elsewhere rendered “clouds,” is here used for the dark shadowy coverts in which men sought for shelter; the latter is the root of the name Cephas (= Peter). On the caves of Palestine as places of refuge in time of war, see Isaiah 2:19; 1Samuel 13:6.

And when thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do? Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life.
(30) And when thou art spoiled . . .—The sentence is clearer without the insertion of the words in italics: Thou spoiled one, what dost thou work, that thou clothest . . . that thou deckest . . . that thou rentest . . .? In vain dost thou beautify thyself. The “clothing with crimson “and “ornaments of gold” are, as before noticed (Note on Jeremiah 4:13), an echo from 2Samuel 1:24. The “rending the face” is, literally, enlarging the eyes with kohl, or antimony, still used for this purpose in the east, the black powder being laid on horizontally with a small stylus, or pencil, drawn between the eyelashes. The daughter of Zion is represented as a woman who puts on her costliest attire, as Jezebel had done (2Kings 9:30), in the vain hope of fascinating her lovers. The imagery points to the foreign alliances in which the statesmen and people of Jerusalem were trusting, and they are told that they shall be in vain. The lovers, i.e., the allies, shall become her foes.

For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child, the voice of the daughter of Zion, that bewaileth herself, that spreadeth her hands, saying, Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers.
(31) A woman in travail.—Literally, writhing in pain, as in Jeremiah 4:19.

Bewaileth herself.—Literally, pants for breath. The prophet draws his pictures with a terrible intensity. On the one side is Zion as the harlot, in her gold and crimson and cosmetics; on the other we see the forlorn and desperate castaway, in the hour of a woman’s utter helplessness, outraged and abandoned, stretching out her hands to implore mercy from the assassins who attack her, and imploring it in vain.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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