Jeremiah 4
Pulpit Commentary
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.
Verses 1, 2. - The form and structure of the translation require a change. Render, If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith Jehovah, wilt return unto me; and if thou wilt put away, etc., and not wander; and wilt swear, As Jehovah liveth, with good faith, with justice, and with righteousness; then shall the nations bless themselves by him, and in him shall they glory. The clause, "and not wander," seems too short; the Septuagint had a choicer reading, "and put away, etc., from his [thy] mouth, and not wander from before me." It is the close of the prophecy which we have here. The prophet subjoins a promise which he has heard from Jehovah. True, it does not appeal to Israel's self-love (as Isaiah 48:18, 19; Psalm 81:13-16), but to a nobler feeling of responsibility for the world's welfare. Israel has been entrusted with a mission, and on the due performance of this mission hangs the weal or woe of humanity. Hence Jehovah's longing for Israel's repentance. If Israel will but "return," and obey God's commandments, all nations will be attracted to the true religion. The form of expression used for the latter statement is borrowed probably from Genesis 22:18; Genesis 26:4 (it is less closely parallel with Genesis 12:3; Genesis 18:18). To "bless by" any one is to use his name in the benediction formula. Seeing Israel so blessed through his allegiance to Jehovah, all nations shall wish themselves a similar blessing (the reverse of the process in Jeremiah 29:22; comp. Isaiah 65:16). To "swear, As Jehovah liveth," means to call Jehovah to witness to the truth of a statement. This is to be done "with good faith," etc., i.e. the object of the oath must be consistent with honesty and probity. Abominations; i.e. idols, as often (see 2 Kings 23:24).
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.
For thus saith the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.
Verse 3. - There is no occasion to separate vers. 3, 4, from the preceding prophecy. We have other instances of as sudden a transition from the Israelites (in the narrower sense) to the men of Judah (see Isaiah 8:6-14; Isaiah 10:1-4; Isaiah 28:1-6; in the writer's commentary). For thus, etc. "For" is here not causal, but explanatory: "I say this not only to the men of Israel, but to you, O men of Judah, who need the admonition to repentance, how deeply!" (see Jeremiah 5:2). Break up your fallow ground; the same figure as in Hosea 10:12. To understand it we must read the clause in connection with the following one. Sow not among thorns. The prophet means, though he does not say so, the roots which will spring up into thorns. "Do not plant your good resolutions in a heart filled up with the roots of thorns, but first rake up the soil, and clear it of noxious germs, and then sow the seed which will grow up in a holy life" (comp. Matthew 13:7).
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.
Verse 4. - Circumcise yourselves to the Lord. A significant passage. All the Jews were circumcised, but not all were "circumcised to the Lord." There were but too many who were "circumcised in uncircumcision" (Jeremiah 9:25), and the prophet sternly reduces ouch circumcision to the level of the heathenish rite of cutting off the hair (Jeremiah 9:26; comp. Herod. 3:8). Jeremiah seems to have been specially anxious to counteract a merely formal, ritualistic notion of circumcision, sharing in this, as in other points, the influence of the Book of Deuteronomy, so lately found in the temple (comp. Deuteronomy 10:16). To him the venerable rite of circumcision (older, certainly, than Abraham) is a symbol of the devotion of the heart to its rightful Lord (comp. St. Paul in Romans 2:28, 29; Colossians 2:11; Philippians 3:3).
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.
Verses 5-31. - A revelation of grievous purport has suddenly reached the prophet. See how the foe draws nearer and nearer, and how alarm drives the scattered population to seek for refuge in the fortified cities. Can such be the issue of the promises of peace with which Jehovah has encouraged his people? Such are the contents of the first paragraph (vers. 5-10). Next,-in short, detached figures the prophet sets forth the sin of the people and its punishment. Like a scorching simoom is the former; like swift clouds, and like a whirlwind, is the onward march of the instruments of the latter. Swift, indeed, must repentance be, if it is to outrun punishment. For the northern peoples are already here (vers. 11-18). The impression is so strong on the mind of the prophet that he vents himself in language such as the last man might employ on the morrow of the final judgment day (vers. 19-26). And now, "lest what precedes might seem only poetry" (Payne Smith), the Divine decree is solemnly announced. The judgment is irrevocable; but there is a gleam of hope: "I will not make a full end." On the question whether the Scythians or the Baby-Ionians are mainly alluded to, see Introduction.) Verse 5. - Cry, gather together; rather, cry aloud.
Set up the standard toward Zion: retire, stay not: for I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction.
Verse 6. - Set up the standard. The "standard" was a tall pole with a flag, pointing in the direction of Zion, for the guidance of fugitives. Retire, stay not; rather, save your goods by flight; linger not. The former verb occurs again in the same sense in Exodus 9:19; Isaiah 10:31. From the north. The expression suits either the Scythians or the Chaldeans (see on 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.
Verse 7. - The lion; the symbol of irresistible might and royalty (Genesis 49:7; Revelation 5:5). Of the Gentiles; rather, of the nations. There is no reference to the distinction between Jews and Gentiles; the Jews themselves are not allowed to escape. An ordinary lion attacks individual men; this lion destroys nations. Is on his way; literally, has broken up his encampment - a phrase perhaps suggested by the nomad Scythiaus.
For this gird you with sackcloth, lament and howl: for the fierce anger of the LORD is not turned back from us.
Verse 8. - Is not turned back from us. As we in our folly believed (Jeremiah 2:35).
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.
Verse 9. - The heart... shall perish; i.e. they shall lose their reason. The same verb in Ethiopic means "to be mad." The "heart" in Old Testament language is the center of the intellectual as well as of the moral life (comp. Hosea 4:11; Job 12:24; Proverbs 15:28). So St. Ephrem the Syrian says ('Works,' in Syriac, 2:316, quoted by Delitzsch), "The reason expatiates in the heart as in a palace."
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.
Verse 10. - Ah, Lord God! rather, Alas! O Lord Jehovah (see on Jeremiah 1:6). Thou hast greatly deceived this people, etc. Much difficulty has been felt in interpreting this verse, partly because it seems directly to charge Jehovah with "deceit," and partly because the prophecy, Ye shall have peace, on which this charge is founded, accords exactly with the strain of the "false prophets" (see Jeremiah 6:14; Jeremiah 14:13; Jeremiah 23:17). Hence some (e.g., Ewald) have altered the points of the verb at the beginning of the verse., so as to enable them to render. "And one shall say," the subject understood being either a "false prophet" or one of the people. This view is not in itself impossible (Keil's objection will not bear examination), but is not absolutely necessary, for the present is not the only passage in which Jeremiah, under the influence of strong emotion, charges Jehovah with "deceit" (see Jeremiah 20:7, a synonymous word is used; and comp. 1 Kings 22:23), and the words, "Ye shall have peace, may be meant to summarize the cheering promises in Jeremiah 3:14-18. Jeremiah may (it is not incorrect to conjecture) have supposed the fulfillment of his prophecy to be nearer than it really was (comp. 1 Peter 1:11); hence his disappointment, and hence his strong language. So St. Jerome, "Quia supra dixerat, In illo tempore vocabunt Jerusalem solium Dei, etc.. et nunc dicit, Peribit cor regis, turbatur propheta et in se Deum putat esse meutitum; nec intelligit, illud multa post tempera repromissum, hoc autem vicino futurum tempore." To suppose, with Keil, that Jeremiah refers the prophecies of the "false prophets" to God as their ultimate Author, seems inconsistent with Jeremiah's own statements in Jeremiah 14:14 (comp. Jeremiah 5:13). Moreover, we have parallels elsewhere in the prophets, as well as in the Book of Job, for the use of language with regard to Providence which a calmer judgment would condemn. A notable instance is Isaiah 63:17, where the Jewish Church, through its mouthpiece the prophet, throws the responsibility of its errors upon Jehovah. Depressed by melancholy, they give way for the moment to those human "thoughts" which are not as "My thoughts." They felt the "burden of the mystery." Unto the soul; i.e. unto the life.
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,
Verse 11. - Shall it be said to this people; i.e. words like these may be used with reference to this people. A dry wind, etc.; literally, a clear wind (but the notions of dryness and heat are closely connected with that of heat; comp. Isaiah 18:4). The prophet doubtless means the east wind, which is very violent in Palestine, and, of course, quite unsuitable for the winnowing process. High places should rather be bare hills. Toward; or (is) the way cf. So Hitzig, supposing the conduct of the Jews to be likened to a wind which brings no blessing, but only drought and desolation.
Even a full wind from those places shall come unto me: now also will I give sentence against them.
Verse 12. - Even a full wind from those places. The passage is obscure, but this is a very possible rendering. "Full," equivalent to "violent;" "those (places)," equivalent to the bare hills spoken of in ver. 11. Keil and Payne Smith, however, render, "a fuller wind than those," i.e. a more violent wind than those which serve for winnowing the corn; while Hitzig (see on ver. 11) supposes "from those" to mean the persons described in ver. 11 as "the daughter of my people." Unto me; or perhaps for me, at my beck and call. Now also will I, etc. We must supply the other term of the antithesis from the context: "As they have sinned against me, so will I also now hold a court of justice upon them" (see on Jeremiah 1:16).
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.
Verse 13. - He shall come up as clouds, etc. It is needless to name the subject; who can it be but the host of Jehovah's warlike instruments? (For the first figure, comp. Ezekiel 38:16; for the second, Isaiah 5:28; Isaiah 66:15; and for the third, Habakkuk 1:8; Deuteronomy 28:49.) Woe unto us! etc. The cry of lamentation of the Jews (comp. ver. 20; Jeremiah 9:18).
O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved. How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee?
Verse 14. - Thy vain thoughts. The phrase specially belongs to sins against one's neighbor - such sins as are described in Jeremiah 7:5-9 (Keil). "Vain" should rather be "wicked" (immoral); the root-meaning of the noun is "a breath" (the symbol of material or moral emptiness).
For a voice declareth from Dan, and publisheth affliction from mount Ephraim.
Verse 15. - For a voice declareth, etc. There is no time to lose, for already news of the foe has arrived. He is now at Dan, the northern frontier-town, and is heard of almost as soon in the hill-country of Ephraim.
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.
Verse 16. - Make ye mention, etc. This verse contains a call to the neighboring nations to take notice of an event which nearly concerns them all. True, it is only the investment of Jerusalem which can as yet be reported, but there can hardly be a doubt of the issue, and the capture of the principal fortress will at once be followed by that of the other fortified "cities of Judah." Against in the second clause should rather be concerning. (For the use of "behold" before an imperative, comp. Psalm 134:1.) Watchers; i.e. besiegers (comp. ver. 17), who like the panther lie in wait for every one who comes out of the city, to kill him (Jeremiah 5:6; comp. Jeremiah 6:25).
As keepers of a field, are they against her round about; because she hath been rebellious against me, saith the LORD.
Verse 17. - As keepers of a field. The prophet compares the tents, or perhaps the booths (1 Kings 20:12, 16), of the besieging army to the booths of the guardians of the crepe (Isaiah 1:8; Job 27:18).
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.
Verse 18. - This is thy wickedness; i.e. the effect of thy wickedness. (For the following words, comp. Jeremiah 2:19; Jeremiah 4:10.) Because; rather, truly.
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.
Verse 19. - My bowels. It is doubted whether the speaker in vers. 19-21 is the prophet or the whole nation. Ver. 19 reminds us of Isaiah 15:5; Isaiah 16:11 and Isaiah 21:3, 4, and would be quite in harmony with the elegiac tone of our prophet elsewhere; the Targum too already regards the passage as an exclamation of the prophet. On the other hand, the phrase "my tents" (ver. 20) certainly implies that the people, or the pious section of the people, is the speaker. Both views may perhaps be united. The prophet may be the speaker in ver. 19, but simply (as is the case with so many of the psalmists) as the representative of his fellow-believers, whom in ver. 20 he brings on the stage more directly. Ver. 19 is best rendered as a series of exclamations -

"My bowels! my bowels! I must writhe in pain!
The walls of my heart! My heart moaneth unto me!
I cannot hold my peace!
For thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet,
The alarm of war!"
Observe, the "soul" hears; the "heart" is pained. So generally the one is more active, the other more passive. The Hebrew margin gives, for "I must writhe," "I must wait" (comp. Micah 7:7); but this rendering does not suit the context. The walls of my heart. A poetical way of saying, "My heart beats."
Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoiled: suddenly are my tents spoiled, and my curtains in a moment.
Verse 20. - My tents. Jeremiah uses a similar phrase in Jeremiah 30:18 (scrap. also 2 Samuel 20:1; 1 Kings 8:66; 1 Kings 12:16; Psalm 132:3; also Isaiah 29:1, "city where David encamped, i.e. dwelt"). The expression is evidently a "survival" of the nomadic, tent-dwelling age. (Comp. the parallel phrase, "my curtains," i.e. my tent-curtains; comp. Jeremiah 10:20; Isaiah 54:2; Song of Solomon 1:5.)
How long shall I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet?
Verse 21. - Shall I see the standard. (See on ver. 6.)
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.
Verse 22. - For my people is foolish. The Lord gives no direct answer to the complaining question in ver. 21. He simply states the moral ground for Judah's calamity, and implies that this will last so long as the people continue to be "foolish," i.e. virtual deniers of the true God.
I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light.
Verse 23. - I beheld. The prophet is again the speaker, but in a calmer mood. God's judgment has been pronounced, and it is not for him to rebel. He has now simply to record the vision of woe which has been granted him. He foresees the utter desolation into which not only the land of Judah, but the earth in general, will be brought, and which reminds him of nothing so much as the "waste and wild" condition of the earth previous to the first creative word. But why is "the earth" mentioned in this connection? Because the judgment upon Judah is but one act in the great general judgment which, when completed, will issue in a fresh order of things (comp. Isaiah 3:14, 15, where side by side are mentioned Jehovah's judgment of "the peoples" and of "his people," and Isaiah 24, where the judgment upon the enemies of Israel is interwoven with the judgment upon "the earth"). Without form, and void; rather, waste and wild (to represent in some degree the characteristic assonance of the original - tohu va-bohu); more literally, immovable and lifeless. It is the phrase used in Genesis L 2 for primeval chaos. Tohu and bohu occur in parallel lines in Isaiah 34:11, to express utter desolation; tohu alone five times in the Book of Isaiah, and once in Job. They had no light. The heavens were in the same condition as on the third day, subsequently to the creation of the heavens, but prior to that of the luminaries.
I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly.
Verse 24. - Moved lightly; rather, moved to and fro.
I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled.
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.
Verse 26. - The fruitful place; rather, the garden-land (see on Jeremiah 2:7). Not "the Carmel" (Keil, Payne Smith) for the context refers to the whole of the country, not to any single tract. The article before the two appellatives is the generic. At the presence of; rather, by reason of.
For thus hath the LORD said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end.
Verse 27. - The vision breaks off, and the prophet emphasizes its truthfulness by the announcement of the Divine decree. "Desolation, and yet not a full end," is its burden. This is the same doctrine of the" remnant" which formed so important a part of the prophetic message of Isaiah and his contemporaries. However severe the punishment of Judah may be, there will be a "remnant" which shall escape, and become the seed of a holier nation (Amos 9:8; Isaiah 4:2; Isaiah 6:13; Isaiah 10:20; Isaiah 11:11; Hosea 6:1, 2).
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.
Verse 28. - For this; i.e. because of the impending judgment. Be black. "To be black" is equivalent to "to put on mourning" (comp. Jeremiah 8:21; Jeremiah 14:2).
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.
Verse 29. - The whole city. The reading of which this is a version can hardly be the right one; for "the whole city" can only be Jerusalem, and in ver. 6 the people outside are bidden to take refuge in the capital. Hence Ewald, Hitzig, and Payne Smith (after Septuagint, Targum) would slightly amend the word rendered "city," so as to translate "the whole land" (of Judah). Shall flee; literally, fleeth. So afterwards render, "have gone.... is forsaken," "dwelleth." It is a vivid dramatic representation of the effects of the invasion. Bowmen. It is singular that Herodotus should say nothing about the use of the bow by the Chaldeans. But the monuments give ample evidence that they were a people of archers. So of course were the Scythians, as Herodotus testifies. The rooks; i.e. the limestone caverns which abound in Palestine, and which were frequently used as strongholds and hiding-places (see Judges 6:2; Judges 15:8; 1 Samuel 13:6; 1 Samuel 14:11; 1 Samuel 24:3 (especially); 1 Kings 18:13).
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.
Verse 30. - And when thou art spoiled, etc. It is Jerusalem who is addressed - Jerusalem, personified as a woman, who decks herself out finely to please her admirers. All these arts are in vain, for a violent repulsion has converted her lovers into her deadly enemies. And when Jerusalem is "spoiled," or taken by storm, what device will there be left to attempt? The "lovers" are the foreign powers to whom the Jews paid court (Jeremiah 2:18, 36, 87). Though thou rentest thy face, etc; alluding to the custom of Eastern women, who try to make their eyes seem larger by putting powdered antimony (the Arabic kohl) upon their eyelids. So, for instance, did Jezebel (see 2 Kings 11:30); and one of Job's daughters received the name Keren-happuch, "box of antimony," i.e. one who sets off the company in which she is, as antimony does the eye. An old author, Dr. Shaw, writes thus: "None of these ladies take themselves to be completely dressed till they have tinged the hair and edges of their eyelids with the powder of lead ore. And as this operation is performed by dipping first into this powder a small wooden bodkin of the thickness of a quill, and then drawing it afterwards through the eyelids over the ball of the eye, we have a lively image of what the prophet (Jeremiah 4:30) may be supposed to mean" (Shaw, 'Travels in Barbary and the Levant,' 2nd edit., p. 229).
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.
Verse 31. - For I have heard a voice, etc. This explains the preceding statement, "They will seek thy life." It is this murderous plot which calls forth the "cry as of a woman in pangs." Bewaileth herself; rather, sigheth deeply. Her hands; literally, her palms. Is wearied because of murderers; rather, fainteth into the hands of (literally, is treaty unto) the murderers.

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