Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 20: Jeremiah and Lamentations, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Lecture One Hundred and Thirty-Sixth
1. The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth of his dominion, and all the people, fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities thereof, saying,
1. Sermo qui fuit ad Jeremiam a Jehova, cum Nebuchadnezer rex Babylonis et totus excreitus ejus et omnia regna terrae, quae sub dominatione marius ejus erant, et omnes populi pugnarent contra Jerusalem (hoc est, oppugnarent Jerosolymam) et cunctas urbes, dicendo,
2. Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire:
2. Sic dicit Jehova, Deus Israel, Vade et dices Zedechiae regi Jehudah, dices, inquam, illi, Sic dicit Jehova, Ecce ego trado urbem hanc in manum regis Babylonis, et incendet eam igni.
It is no wonder, nor ought it to be deemed useless, that the Prophet so often repeats the same things, for we know how great was the hardness of the people with whom he had to do. Here, then, he tells us that he was sent to King Zedekiah when the city was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar and his whole army. The Prophet mentions the circumstances, by which we may understand how formidable that siege was, for Nebuchadnezzar had not brought a small force, but had armed many and various people. Hence the Prophet here expressly mentions the kingdoms of the earth and the nations who were, under his dominion
Zedekiah was then the king at Jerusalem, and there remained two other cities safe, as we shall hereafter see; but it is evident how unequal he must have been to contend with an army so large and powerful. Nebuchadnezzar was a monarch; the kingdom of Israel had been cut off, which far exceeded in number the kingdom of Judah; and he had subdued all the neighboring nations. Such a siege then ought to have immediately taken away from the Jews every hope of deliverance; and yet the Prophet shews that the king was as yet resolute, and there was still a greater obstinacy among the people. But Zedekiah was not overbearing; we find that he was not so proud and so cruel as tyrants are wont to be: as then he was not of a ferocious disposition, we hence see how great must have been the pride of the whole people, and also their perverseness against God, when they made the king to be so angry with the Prophet. Yet the state of things as described ought to have subdued his passion; for as ungodly men are elevated by prosperity, so they ought to be humbled when oppressed with adversity. The king himself, as well as the people, were reduced to the greatest extremities, and yet they would not be admonished by God’s Prophet; and hence it is expressly said in 2Ch 36:16, that Zedekiah did not regard the word of the Prophet, though he spoke from the mouth of the Lord, by whom he had been sent.
The sum of this prophecy is as follows: — He first says that the word was given him by Jehovah; and secondly, he points out the time, for what reason we have already stated. For if he had reproved Zedekiah when there was peace and quietness, and when there was no fear of danger, the king might have been easily excited, as it is usual, against the Prophet. But when he saw the city surrounded on every side by so large and powerful an army, — when he saw collected so many from the kingdoms of the earth, — so many nations, that he could hardly muster up the thousandth part of the force of his enemies,wthat he could not and would not, notwithstanding all this, submit to God and acknowledge his vengeance just, — this was an instance of extreme blindness, and a proof that he was become as it were estranged in mind. But God had thus blinded him, because his purpose was, as it is said elsewhere, to bring an extreme punishment on the people. The blindness, then, and the madness of the king, was an evidence of God’s wrath towards the whole people; for Zedekiah might have appeased God if he had repented. It was then God’s will that he should have been of an intractable disposition, in order that he might by such perverseness and obstinacy bring on himself utter ruin.
He mentions Nebuchadnezzar and his whole army; he afterwards describes the army more particularly, with all the kingdoms under his dominion, and all nations When Jerusalem was in this condition, the Prophet was sent to the king. The substance of the message follows, even that the city was doomed to destruction, because God had resolved to deliver it into the hand of the enemy. This was a very sad message to Zedekiah. Hypocrites, we know, seek flatteries in their calamities; while God spares them they will not bear to be reproved, and they reject wise counsels, and even become exasperated when God’s Prophets exhort them to repent. But when God begins to smite them, they wish all to partake of their misfortunes; and then also they accuse God’s servants of cruelty, as though they insulted their misery by setting their sins before them.
This is what we are taught by daily experience. When any one of the common people, at the time when God does not chasten them either by disease or poverty, or any other adversity, is admonished, the petulant answer is, “What do you mean? in what respect am I worthy of blame? I am conscious of no evil.” Thus hypocrites boast as long as God bears with them, and though his kindness spares them. But when any adversity happens to them, when any one is laid on his bed, when another is bereaved of a son or a wife, or in any way visited with afltietion, — if then God’s judgment is set before them, they think that a grievous wrong is done to them: “What! have I not evils enough without any addition? I expected comfort from God’s servants, but they exaggerate my calamities.” In short, hypocrites are never in a fit condition to receive God’s reproofs.
There is then no doubt but that Jeremiah knew that his message would be intolerable to King Zedekiah, and to his people. However, he boldly declared, as we shall see, what God had committed to him. And we further perceive how stupid and hardened Zedekiah must have been, for he hesitated not to cast God’s Prophet into prison, even at the time when things were come into extremity. It was the same thing as though God with a stretched out arm and a drawn sword had shewn himself to be his enemy; yet he ceased not to manifest his rage against God; and as he could do nothing worse, he cast God’s servant into prison; and though he did this, not so much through the impulse of his own mind as that of others, he yet could not have been excused from blame.
Now the Prophet says, Behold, I will deliver this city into the hand of the king of Babylon Had he simply said that the city would in a short time be taken, it would have been a general truth, not effectual but frigid. It was therefore necessary to add this, — that the ruin of the city was a just punishment inflicted by God. And Zedekiah was also thus reminded, that though he were stronger than his enemy, yet he could not effectually resist him, for the war was carrid on under the authority of God, as though he had said, “Thou thinkest that thou contendest with men; it would be difficult enough for thee and more than enough, to contend with the eastern monarchy and so many nations and kingdoms; farther than this, God himself is thine enemy; have regard to him, that thou mayest learn to dread his judgment.” And that the words might be more forcible, God himself speaks in his own person, Behold, he says, I will deliver this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will burn it with fire This last sentence was a dreadful aggravation; for it often happens that cities are taken, and the conquerors are satisfied with the spoils. When, therefore, Nebuchadnezzar came against the city of Jerusalem with so much rage that he burnt it, it was a proof of the dreadful vengeance of God. It now follows —
3. 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.
3. Et tu non liberaberis e manu ejus, quia comprehendendo comprehenderis et in manum ejus traderis; et oculi tui videbunt oculos regis Babylonii, et os ejus loquetur ad os tuum (vel, eum ore tuo) et Babylonem migrabis.
As Zedekiah saw the people still doing their duty he despised his enemy; for as the city was very strongly fortified, he hoped to be able to preserve it a little time longer. Hence was the false hope of deliverance; for he thought that the enemy being wearied would return into Chaldea. He was deceived by this expectation. But the Prophet forthwith assailed him, and declared that he would become a captive, which Zedekiah indeed deserved through his ingratitude: for Nebuchadnezzar had put hint in the place of his nephew, when Jeconiah was led away into Babylon and had made him king. He afterwards revolted from the king of Babylon, to whom he had pledged his faith, and to whom he became tributary. But the Prophet did not regard these intermediate causes, but the primary cause, the fountain, even because the people had not ceased to add sins to sins, because they had been wholly untameable and had rejected all promises, and had also closed their ears against all wise counsels. Then God, resolving to inflict extreme punishment on a people so perverse and desperate, blinded their king, as we have before said, so that he revolted from the king of Babylon, and thus brought destruction on himself, and the city, and the whole country. Thus God overruled the intermediate causes which are apparent to us; but he had his hidden purpose which he executed through external means.
He then says, Thou shalt not be freed from his hand, for thou shalt be taken; and then he adds, Thou shalt be delivered into his hand What he says in many words might have been expressed in one sentence: but it was necessary to rouse the king’s sottishness, by which he was inebriated, so that he might be awakened in order that he might dread the punishment which was at hand, which, however, was not the case; but he was thereby rendered more inexcusable. Thus the threatenings which God repeats by his servants are never useless; for if the ears of those who are reproved are deaf, yet what God declares will be a testimony against them, so that every excuse on the ground of ignorance is removed.
He says afterwards, Thine eyes shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon And this happened; but his eyes were afterwards pulled out. He met, indeed, with singular disgrace, for he was taken to Riblah and tried as a criminal. He was not treated as a king, nor did he retain any of his former dignity; but he was taken before the tribunal of the king of Babylon as a thief or a miscreant. Then after he was convicted of ingratitude and treachery, the Chaldean king ordered his children to be slain before his eyes, and also his chief men and counsellors, and himself to be bound with chains and his eyes to be pulled out; and he brought him to Babylon. It was, then, a most cruel punishment which the king of Babylon inflicted on Zedekiah. And the Prophet seems to have indirectly referred to what happened, Thine eyes, he says, shall see the eyes of the king of Babylon: he was forced to look with his eyes on the proud conqueror, and then his eyes were pulled out; but he had first seen his own children slain.
He adds, and his mouth shall speak to thy mouth, that is, “Thou shalt hear the dreadful sentence pronounced upon thee, after thou shalt be convicted of a capital offense; the king himself shall degrade thee with all possible disgrace.” Now, this was a harder fate than if Zedekiah had been secretly put to death. He was dragged into the light; he then underwent many terrible things when led into the presence of his enemy. This, then, the Prophet related, that Zedekiah might understand that he in vain defended the city, for its miserable end was near at hand. He afterwards adds, —
4. Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah; Thus saith the LORD of thee, Thou shalt not die by the sword:
4. Tamen audi sermonum Jehovae, Zedechia rex Jehudah, sic dicit Jehova de to, Non morieris gladio;
5 But thou shalt die in peace: and with the burnings of thy fathers, the former kings which were before thee, so shall they burn odours for thee; and they will lament thee, saying, Ah lord! for I have pronounced the word, saith the LORD.
5. In pace morieris, et combustionibus patrum tuorum regum superiorum, qui ruerunt ante re, sic comburent to, et, Heus domine, plangent super to, quia sermonum ego locutus sum, dicit Jehova.
Here Jeremiah adds some comfort, even that Zedekiah himself would not be slain by the sword, but that he would die in his bed, and, as they commonly say, yield to his fate. It was indeed some mitigation of punishment, that God extended his life and suffered him not to be immediately smitten with the sword. And yet if we consider all circumstances, it would have been a lighter evil at once to be put to death, than to prolong life on the condition of being doomed to pine away in constant misery. When the eyes are pulled out, we know that the principal part of life is lost. When, therefore, this punishment was inflicted on Zedekiah, was not death desirable? And then he was not only deprived of his royal dignity, but was bereaved also of all his offspring, and was afterwards bound with chains. We hence see that what remained to him was not so much an object of desire, he might have preferred ten times or a hundred times to die. God, however, designed it as a favor, that he was not smitten with the sword.
A question may be here raised, Ought violent death to be so much dreaded? We indeed know that some heathens have wished it. They tell us of Julius Caesar, that the day before he was killed, he disputed at supper what death was the best, and that he deemed it the easiest death (εὐθανασίαν) when one is suddenly deprived of life, — the very thing which happened to him the day after. Thus he seemed to have gained his wish, for he had said, that it was a happy kind of death to be suddenly extinguished. There is, however, no doubt but that natural death is always more easy to be borne, when other things, as they say, are equal; for the feeling of nature is this, that men always dread a bloody death, and it is regarded a monstrous thing when human blood is shed; but when any one dies quietly through disease, as it is a common thing, we do not feel so much horror. Then time is granted to the sick, to think of God’s hand, to reflect on the hope of a better life, and also to flee to God’s mercy, which cannot be done in a violent death. When, therefore, all these are duly weighed, it ought not to be deemed strange, that God, willing to mitigate the punishment of Zedekiah, should say, Thou shaft not die by the sword, but thou shall die in peace To die in peace is to die a natural death, when no violence is used, but when God hhnself calls men, as though he stretched forth his hand to them. It is indeed certain, that it is much better for some to be slain by the sword, than to pine away through disease: for we see that many are either seized with frenzy on their bed, or rage against God, or remain obstinate: there are, in short, dreadful examples, which daily occur, where the Spirit of God does not work nor rule. For there is then no tenderness in man, especially when he has the fear of death; he then kindles up as it were into rage against God. But, on the other hand, many who are brought into affliction, acknowledge themselves to be justly condemned, and at the same time acknowledge the punishment inflicted to be medicine, in order that they may obtain mercy before God. To many, then, it is better to die a violent death than to die in peace; but this happens through the fault of men: at the same time, natural death, as I have said, justly deserves to be much preferred to a violent and bloody death, and I have briefly stated the reasons. The subject might indeed be more fully handled, but it is enough to touch shortly on the chief point as the passage requires.
In peace, he says, shalt thou die, and then adds, with the burnings of thy fathers shall they burn thee, and lament over thee, “Alas! Lord.” Here is added another comfort, — that when Zedekiah should die, there would be some to bury him, not only in a humane, but also in an honorable manner. And burial in many places is reckoned as one of God’s favors, as in life God shews himself kind and bountiful to us when we are in health and in vigor. For as health and food sufficient for the necessities of life, are evidences of God’s love, so is burial after death; for burial distinguishes men from brutes. When a wild beast dies, his carcase is left to putrify. Why are men buried, except in hope of the resurrection, as though they were laid up in a safe place till the time of restoration? Burial, then, as it is a symbol of our immortality, makes a distinction between us and brute animals after death. In death itself there is no difference; the death of a man and the death of a dog, have no certain marks to distinguish the one from the other. Then it is God’s will that there should be some monument, that men might understand how nmch more excellent: is their condition than that of brute animals. Hence then it is, that when God favors us with a burial, he shows his paternal care towards us. On the contrary, when the body of any one is cast away, it is in itself a sign of God’s displeasure, as it appeared before, when the Prophet said of Jehoiakim that his burial would be that of an ass, (Jer 22:19) As then Jehoiakim was threatened with the burial of an ass, so now he promises an honorable burial to Zedekiah.
I said that this is true, when the thing is in itself considered. For it sometimes happens that the most wicked are buried with honor and great pomp, when the children of God are either burnt or torn by wild beasts. Known is that complaint of the Psalmist, that the bodies of the saints were cast away and became food to birds and wild beasts. (Ps 79:2) And it is said of the rich man, who lived in splendor, that he died and was buried, but there is no mention made of the burial of Lazarus. (Lu 16:22) We ought not then simply to conclude, that those are miserable who are not buried, and that those are blessed who obtain the honor of a burial. As the sun is said to rise on the children of God and on strangers, so also after death, as burial is a temporal benefit, it may be considered as belonging indiscriminately to the good and to the bad. It may on the contrary be, that God should deprive his children of a burial; yet still that truth remains fixed, that burial in itself is an evidence of God’s favor; and that; when any one is cast away and denied a burial, it is a sign of God’s displeasure. When yet we come to individuals, the Lord turns a temporal punishment into a benefit to his own people; and makes his temporal blessings to serve for a heavier condemnation to all the reprobate and ungodly, hence they were barbarous who dared to deride burial, as the Cynics did, who treated burial with contempt. This was inhumanity.
But we ought to hold these points, — that as God supplies us with bread, wine, and water, and other necessaries of life, in order to feed us, and to preserve us in health and rigor, so we ought to regard burial; but when the faithful are exposed to hunger, when they die through cold or nakedness, or when they are made subject to other evils, and when they are treated ignominiously after death, all this turns out for their salvation, for the Lord regards their good even when he seems to afflict them with adversities.
This, then, is the reason why the Prophet now in some measure mitigates the sorrow of Zedekiah, by saying,. They shall bury thee, and with the burnings of thy fathers shall they burn thee This was not a common but a royal mode of burial. He then promises, that after many degradations and reproaches, God would at length shew him, when dead, some favor. But one may say, what would this avail Zedekiah? for his body would then be without sense or feeling. But. it was well to hear of this kindness of God, for he might thereby conclude that God would be at length merciful to him, if he really humbled himself. There is then no doubt but that a hope of pardon was promised to him, though he was to be sharply and severely chastised even until he died. God then intended that this symbol should ever be remembered by him, that he might not wholly despair. We now then understand why the Prophet promised this to Zedekiah, not that it might be a matter of interest to him to be buried with honor, but that he might have some conception of God’s kindness and mercy.
Now we know that the dead bodies of kings were burnt at a great expense; many precious odors were procured, a fire was kindled, and the bodies were seared; not that they were reduced to ashes, (for this was not the custom, as among the Romans and other nations, who burnt the bodies of the dead, and gathered the ashes) But among the Jews, the body was never burnt; only they kindled a fire around the dead body, that putrefaction might not take place. The bodies of the dead were dried by a slow fire. This was not indeed commonly done, but only at the burials of kings, as it appears from the case of Asa and of others. (2Ch 16:14)
Then he says, With the burnings of thy fathers shall they burn thee, and they shall lament thee, “Alas! Lord,” it may be asked, whether these lamentations were approved by God? To this there is a ready answer, — that the Prophet does not here commend immoderate mourning, and cryings, and ejaculations, when he says, they shall lament thee, but that he took the expression from what was commonly done, as though he had said, “They shall perform for thee this office of humanity, such as is usually done over the remains of kings in full power, in the day of their prosperity.” God, then, in speaking here of lamentation and mourning, does not commend them as virtues, or as worthy of praise, but refers only to what was then commonly done. But we know what Paul especially teaches us, — that we are so to moderate our sorrow, as not to be like the unbelieving, who have no hope, (1Th 4:13) for they think that death is the death of the soul as well as of the body: they therefore lament their dead as for ever lost; and they also murmur against God, and sometimes utter horrid blasphemies. Paul then would have us to be moderate in our sorrow. He does not condemn sorrow altogether, but only requires it to be moderate, so that we may shew what influence the hope of resurrection has over us.
And yet there is no doubt but that men, in this respect, exceed moderation. It has commonly been the case almost in all ages to be ostentatious in mourning for the dead. For not only are they without genuine feeling in lamenting for their friends or relatives, but they are carried away by a sort of ambition, while burying the dead with great noise and lamentation. When they are alone they contain themselves, so that at least they make no noise; but when they go out before others, they break forth into noisy lamentations. It hence appears that, as I have said, mourning is often ostentatious. But as men have from the beginning gone astray in this respect, greater care ought to be taken by us, that each of us may check and restrain himself. Still it is natural, as I have said, to weep for the dead; but doubtless, it may be said, the ejaculations mentioned by the Prophet cannot be approved; for to what purpose was it to cry, “Alas! Lord; our king is dead,” and things of the same kind? But we ought to bear in mind, that eastern nations were always excessive in this respect, and we find them to be so at this day. The warmer the climate the more given to gestures and ceremonies the people are. In these cold regions gesticulations and crying out, “Alas! Lord, alas! father,” would be deemed impertinent and foolish. But where they tear off their hair, and also cut themselves and tear their cheeks not only with their nails, but also with knives, — where they do these things, they also utter these ejaculations spoken of by the Prophet.
Grant, Almighty God, that as it is ever expedient for us to be often chastised by thine hand, — O grant, that we may learn to bear thy scourges patiently, and with quiet minds, and so acknowledge our sins, that we may not at the same time doubt but that thou wilt be merciful to us, and that we may with this confidence ever flee to seek pardon, and that it may avail also to increase our repentance, so that we may strive more and more to put off all the vices of the flesh, and to put on the new man, so that thine image may be renewed in us, until we shall at length come to partake of that eternal glory, which thou hast prepared in heaven for us, through Christ thy Son. — Amen.
Lecture One Hundred and Thirty-Seventh
6. Then Jeremiah the Prophet spake all these words unto Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem,
6. Et loquutus est Jeremias Propheta ad Zedechiam, regem Jehudah, omnes sermones istos in Jerusalem.
7. When the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish, and against Azekah: for these defenced cities remained of the cities of Judah.
7. Et exercitus regis Babylonii pugnabant (hoc est, oppugnabant) Jerusalem et onmes urbes Jehudah quae residuae erant, nempe Lachis et Azekah, quoniam ipsae restabant in urbibus Jehudah urbes munitionis (id est, minutiae)
Here Jeremiah only relates that he had delivered the message committed to him; and here is seen the Prophet’s magnanimity, for as it appeared yesterday, he was an unwelcome messenger; and though there was danger, yet Jeremiah performed his office, for he knew that God would not suffer the king to do anything to him unless it were for some benefit. There is then no doubt but that he deposited his life in God’s hand, and offered himself, as it were, a sacrifice, when he dared openly to threaten the king, which could not have been done without offending him; and
“the wrath of a king,” as Solomon says,
“is the messenger of death.” (Pr 16:14)
Here, then, the firmness of the Prophet is deserving of praise; for he dreaded no danger when he saw that necessity was laid on him by God.
He again repeats that Jerusalem was then surrounded by the army of the king of Babylon, as well as the other cities of Judah, which he names, even Lachish and Azekah. He seems, therefore, indirectly to reprove the arrogance of Zedekiah, for he still retained his high spirits, when yet he was reduced to such straits. All the cities of Judah, — how many were they? Two, says the Prophet. This, then, was no unsuitable way of indirectly exposing to ridicule the vain confidence of the king, who still thought that he could overcome the enemy, though he was master only of three cities, that is, Jerusalem, Lachish, and Azekah. But the Prophet gives a reason why these cities did not immediately fall into the hands of the king of Babylon, because they were fortified. It hence follows, that the other cities were taken without trouble, or that they surrendered of their own accord. Zedekiah the king was then deprived of his power, and yet he had not relinquished the ferocity of his mind, nor was he terrified by the threatenings of the Prophet; and this was a proof of extreme madness. For he hence appears that he was alienated in mind; for. the dreadful hand of God was put forth against him, and yet he rushed headlong to his own ruin as a wild beast destitute of reason. Let us proceed, —
8 This is the word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them;
8. Sermo qui factus est ad Jeremiam a Jehova, postquam percussit rex Zedechias foedus cum toto popalo, qui erant in Jerusalem, ad promulgandum ipsis (hoc est, inter ipsos) libertatem;
9. That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free; that none should serve himself of them, to wit, of a Jew his brother.
9. Ut dimitteret quisque servum suum, et quisque ancillam suam (vir, vir, ad verbum, sed significat quisque indefinite) Hebraeum vel Hebraeum liberos, ut ne ultra servirent ipsis (vel, transitive, ut alii malunt et bene quadrat, ut non haberent cos servos) inter Judaeos vir fratrem suum.
10. Now when all the princes, and all the people, which had entered into the covenant, heard that every one should let his manservant, and every one his maidservant, go free, that none should serve themselves of them any more; then they obeyed, and let them go.
10. Et audierunt omnes principes et torus populus, qui venerant ad foedus, ut dimitteret servum suum et ancillam suam liberos, ut ne servirent amplius ipsis (vel, ut ne dominarentur) et obedierunt et dimiserunt.
11. But afterward 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.
11. Et reversi aunt (hoc est, mutarunt concilium) postea, et reduxerunt servos suos et ancillas suas quos dimiserant liberos et subegerunt cos in servos et ancillas.
12. Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,
12. Et fuit sermo Jehovae ad Jeremiam a Jehova, dicendo, (hoec necessario contexere oportet)
13. Thus saith the LORD, 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 bondmen, saying,
13. Sic dicit Jehova, Deus Israel, Ego percussi foedus cum pattibus vestris die quo eduxi ipsos e terra Egypti, e domo servorum, dicendo,
14. At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother an Hebrew, which hath been sold unto thee; and when he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee: but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear.
14. A fine septem annorum dimittetis quisque fratrem suum Hebraeum, qui venditus tibi fuerit et serviret tibi sex annis, et dimittes liberum abesse tecum (hoc est, ut non sit amplius tecum, vel apud to) et non audierunt patres vestri me, et non inclinarunt aurem suam.
15. And ye were now turned, and had done right in my sight, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbour; and ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name:
15. Et conversi estis vos hodie, et fecistis quod rectum erat in oculis meis, promulgando libertatem quisque proximo suo, et pepigistis foedus coram facie mea in domo super quam invocatum est nomen meum:
16. But ye turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.
16. Et reversi estis (hoc est, mutastis consilium) et profanastis nomen meum, et reduxistis quisque servum suum, et quisque ancillam suam, quos dimiseratis liberos animae suae, (hoc est, ad arbitrium suum) et subegistis ipsos ut essent vobis in servos et ancillas.
17. Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbour: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the LORD, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.
17. Propterea sic dicit Jehova, Vos non audistis ad promulgandum libertatem quisque fratri suo, et quisque proximo suo, ecce ego pro-mulgo contra vos libertatem, dicit Jehova, gladio et pesti et fatal, et dabo vos in commotionum (vel, con-cussionem) cunctis regnis terrae.
Though we do not read that what the Prophet relates here was done by God’s command, yet we may easily gather that Zedekiah the king had been admonished to liberate the servants according to the Law, as written in Ex 21:2. It was God’s will that some difference should be between the people he had adopted and other nations; for God had chosen the seed of Abraham as his peculiar treasure, and other nations were in this respect aliens. It was therefore his will to establish this law among the people of Israel, that servitude should not be perpetual, except one bound himself willingly, of his own accord, through his whole life, according to what we read in Deut. 15:16, 17; for when one of an ignoble mind deprived himself of the benefit of this law, his master bored his ear with an awl; and having this mark, he could no longer become free, except, perhaps, he lived to the jubilee year. By the words of the Prophet we learn that this command of the Law had been disregarded, for at the end of the seventh year the servants were not made free. Hence the King Zedekiah, having been warned on the subject, called the people together, and by the consent of all, liberty was proclaimed, according to what God had commanded. But this was done in bad faith, for soon after the servants were remanded, and thus treachery was added to cruelty. They had before unjustly oppressed their brethren, but now perjury was heaped on wickedness. We hence see that they not only wronged their own brethren, by imposing on them perpetual servitude, but they also wickedly profaned the sacred name of God, having thus violated a solemn oath.
Now, Jeremiah says that he was sent at the time when, by a wicked perjury, the people began to oppress again their servants and their maids. He therefore says, that the word of Jehovah came to him after the covenant was made. A covenant he calls that solemn agreement when God’s Law was revived, that servitude should not be perpetual among the people of Israel. And he expresses the same thing when he says, that a covenant was made with all the people who were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty to them Some take “to them,” להם, laem, as referring to the servants and maids, but we may take it as meaning among them, so that the Law should be in force, not only for the present, but perpetually. Then follows what sort of liberty it was to be, even that every one should let free his servant, and every one should let free his maid, a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, so that they should not serve Some take the verb עבר ober, in an intransitive, and others in a transitive sense, as we say in French, Qu’ils ne leur fussent plus serfs, ou, Qu’ils ne se servissent plus d’eux. As to the main point there is not much difference. If we take עבר ober, in the sense of serving, we must read thus, “That they may not serve,” or, “That they may not be their servants.” But if we take עבר ober, in the sense of ruling, it must be read thus, That no man, that is, that no one may rule over them, that is, over his Jewish brother, or, That no man among them should serve, that is, his Jewish brother. 93
Here a question arises, Is perpetual servitude so displeasing to God, that it ought not to be deemed lawful? To this the answer is easy, — Abraham and other fathers had servants or slaves according to the common and prevailing custom, and it was not deemed wrong in them. Before the Law was given, there was nothing to forbid one who had servants or maids to exercise power over them through life; and then the Law, mentioned here, was not given indiscriminately and generally, but it was a peculiar privilege in favor of the chosen people. Hence it is without reason that any one infers that it is not lawful to exercise power over servants and maids; for, on the contrary, we may reason thus, That since God permitted the fathers to remain servants and maids, it is a thing lawful; and further, as God permitted the Jews also, under the Law, to bear rule over aliens, and to keep them perpetually as servants, it follows that this cannot be disapproved. And still a clearer evidence may be adduced; for since the Gentiles have been called to the hope of salvation, no change has in this respect been made. For the Apostles did not constrain masters to liberate their servants, but only exhorted them to use kindness towards them, and to treat them humanely as their fellow-servants. (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1) If, then, servitude were unlawful, the Apostles would have never tolerated it; but they would have boldly denounced such a profane practice had it been so. Now, as they commanded masters only to be humane towards their servants, and not to treat them violently and reproachfully, it follows that what was not denied was permitted, that is, to retain their own servants. We also see that Paul sent back Onesimus to Philemon. (Phm 1:12) Philemon was not only one of the faithful, but a pastor of the Church. He ought, then, to have been an example to others. His servant had fled away from him; Paul sent him back, and commended him to his master, and besought his master to forgive his theft. We hence see that the thing in itself is not unlawful.
Our servitudes have been abolished, that is, that miserable condition when one had no right of his own, but when the master had power over life and death; that custom has ceased, and the abolition cannot be blamed. Some superstition might have been at the beginning; and I certainly think that the commencement of the change arose from superstition. It is, however, by no means to be wished that there should be slaves among us, as there were formerly among all nations, and as there are now among barbarians. The Spaniards know what servitude is, for they are near neighbors to the Africans and the Turks; and then those they take in war they sell; and as one evil proceeds from another, so they retain miserable men as slaves throughout life. But as no necessity constrains us, our condition, as I have said, is better, that is, in having hired servants and not slaves; for those called servants at this day are only hired servants.
When heathens commended humanity and kindness towards servants, they said, Let them not be treated as servants, but as those who are hired. So also Cicero said. (Off. 1) he distinguished between servants and such as were hired, he calls the first slaves, that is, those who were under the power of another, and those hired servants who undertook to work for hire, as the case is with us.
But as I have already said, the practice among the chosen people was peculiar. For it was the Lord’s will that those whom he had redeemed should remain free and enjoy in this respect the benefits of freedom. That there might then be a memorial of God’s favor among the people of Israel, it was the Lord’s will that servitude among them should be temporary, even for six years only. And as the law had been disregarded, Zedekiah exhorted the people to set free their servants. But there is no doubt but that God at the same time made it known, that external enemies justly exercised cruelty towards the people, because they themselves shewed no commiseration towards their own brethren. For when they ruled over their servants according to their own wantonness, they in vain complained of the Chaldeans or of the Assyrians, they in vain proclaimed that they were unjustly oppressed, or that the people of God were harassed by the violence of a tyrannical power; for the first originators of cruelty were themselves, and not the Chaldeans or the Assyrians. It was then on this account that Zedekiah was induced to call the people together, and that by a public act all the servants were set free.
He says, that all the princes and all the people heard, who had come to the covenant, that every one should let his servant free, etc.; and then he adds, And they obeyed The verb שמע, shemo, is to be taken in a twofold sense; at the beginning of the verse it refers to the simple act of hearing, and at the end of the verse, to obedience. Then he says that they obeyed, and that every one set free his servant. By saying that the princes, as well as all the people, heard, he took away every pretense as to ignorance; so that they could not make an excuse, that they relapsed through want of knowledge or through inconsideration. How so? because they had heard; nor is it to be doubted, but that the Law of God to which we have referred, had been set before them, that they might be ashamed of the iniquity and tyrannical violence which they had exercised towards their servants. The hearing then mentioned here, proves that the Jews were wholly inexcusable, for they saw that God’s Law had been long disregarded by them. And hence we learn, that each of them had sinned the more grievously, as he had been taught what was right, and had, as it were, designedly cast off the yoke. So also Christ teaches us, that the servant who knows his master’s will and does it not, shall be more severely punished than one who offends through ignorance. (Lu 12:47)
He then adds, And they afterwards turned, that is, after they had heard and obeyed. The turning refers to a change of purpose, for they immediately repented of what they had done. They had felt some fear of God, and then equity and kindness prevailed; but they soon turned or changed. The word is taken sometimes in a good, and sometimes in a bad sense. He says that they turned, or returned, because they receded or turned back after having commenced a right course. And they remanded; there is a correspondence between the verbs ישובו ishibu, they turned, and ישיבו ishibu, they remanded, or made to return the servants and maids whom they let go free, and brought them under as servants and maids There is no doubt but that the Jews alleged some excuse when they thus remanded their servants, and robbed them of the privilege of freedom: but God designed that they should act in sincerity and without disguise. Whatever, then, subtle men may contrive as an excuse for oppressing the miserable, and however they may disguise things before men, yet God, who requires integrity, does not allow such disguises, for he would have us to deal honestly with our neighbors, for all craftiness is condemned by him.
Now follows the message: The Prophet had, indeed, said that the word of God had been committed to him, but he interposed this narrative, that we might know for what reason God had sent this message to the Jews. For if he had thus begun, “The word came to Jeremiah from Jehovah,” and then added, “Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, I have made a covenant,” etc., the passage would have been more obscure. It was therefore necessary that the narrative should come first, and with this the Prophet’s message was connected, even that the Jews had added perjury to cruelty, and thus had committed a heinous iniquity. The Prophet now then comes to close quarters with them, and introduces God as the speaker, I made a covenant with your fathers the day I brought them up from the land of Egypt, from the house of servants
God reminded the Jews of their own law; and though he might have justly required whatever he pleased, yet he proved that the Israelites were bound to him, because he brought then, out of the house of servants Who can dare to arrogate to himself dominion over others, who is himself a servant? for there cannot be dominion where there is no liberty. Any one may be free, though without a servant; but no one can be a master except he be free. So God declares that the Israelites were not once free, for they were in a miserable state of servitude, when he stretched out his hand to them. Whence then came liberty to the Israelites? even from the gratuitous mercy of God, who made them free, who brought them forth from tyranny in Egypt. It hence follows, that they could not be masters over others, since they themselves were servants. This is the reason why he says that he made a covenant the day he brought them up from the house of servants, as though he had said, that they came forth from their prisons, because he had been pleased to draw them out, not that they might domineer for ever over their brethren, but only for a time. He relates here the law given by Moses in Exodus 21, as we have stated. At the end of seven, years 94 every one shall set free his brother, a Hebrew, who had been sold to him, and him who has served him six years he shall let free from him, that is, that he should not be with him; but your fathers hearkened not to me, nor inclined their ear The Israelites at first, no doubt, submitted to what God had commanded, but shortly after the law was disregarded. When, therefore, he complains here that his voice was not hearkened to, it ought not to be so generally understood, as that the Law had been at all times disregarded; but it is the same as though he had said, “Your fathers formerly were disobedient, because they did not set free their servants within the prescribed time, at the end of the sixth year.”
This passage, as many others, clearly shews the great perverseness of the people. Certainly the Law spoken of here ought to have been well approved by the Jews, for they found that they were by a privilege exempted from the common lot of men, and had been preferred before all nations. As, then, they saw that it was a signal evidence of God’s bounty towards the seed of Abraham, this ought to have allured them to observe the Law, inasmuch as they found in it what was especially suitable to them; but as every one became addicted to his own private advantage, the poor were oppressed, and a temporary servitude was changed into what was perpetual. There is no wonder then that men soon forgot what was right, though they seemed to have hearkened for a short time to God. It has been the common vice of all ages that the laws of God became soon forgotten and disregarded; so the law of freedom, though especially excellent, became, as we see, neglected.
He adds, Nor inclined their ear We have stated elsewhere that this phrase is emphatic, when added to the expression of not hearkening; for it is a proof of deliberate wickedness, when men close up their ears, and listen not to what is right. It is possible for one to neglect what is said, or not to understand it; but when one intentionally closes his ears, it is a proof of hopeless obstinacy. God, then, is wont to express by this mode of speaking, the perverseness and hardness that prevailed in the ancient people, through which they rejected all sound doctrine. And this ought to be carefully noticed; for where the word of God is made clearly known, in vain we excuse ourselves for not following what he commands, for he speaks not obscurely, as he says by Isaiah. (Isa 45:19) How comes it, then, that doctrine does not produce fruit in us? even because we wilfully reject it, closing our cars and disregarding God himself when he speaks. Now the reason why God brings a charge against the fathers is, that the comparison might enhance the wickedness of their children, who, after having professed that they had some regard for religion and some feeling of mercy, soon returned to their old ways, according to what follows —
And ye now turned, and did what was right in my eyes, by proclaiming liberty every one to his neighbor: God seems at first to commend the people; and no doubt it ought to have been deemed praiseworthy, that the people, after having been reminded that they had perversely disregarded God’s law, willingly engaged in doing their duty; but as they gave but a false proof of repentance, and did not really perform what they had promised, it was, as I have said, a great aggravation of their crime. So then God commended the repentance of the people, in order to shew how detestable is hypocrisy; for they shewed for a short time some feeling of humanity, but soon after proved that it was nothing but dissimulation. He therefore says, that they did what was right by proclaiming liberty And hence it also appears that they had not gone astray through ignorance, for God had required this kindness from them, that is, to restore what had been wickedly taken away from servants and maids, and to let them free again: except they had been constrained by the clear testimony of the Law, they would have never thus given up their private advantages. But after having made a pretense that they wished to obey God, they again soon remanded their servants and their maids. It hence appears evident that they trifled with God, and that it was a mere fraud to set free their servant only for a short time.
He says that they made a covenant in the house on which his name had been called, and also, that they had profaned his name All this added to their wickedness; for not only liberty had been proclaimed and confirmed by an oath, but this had also been done in the Temple. Hence he aggravates the sin of the people by this circumstance, — that they had made the covenant which they afterwards violated in the presence of God. For though the eyes of God penetrate into the most hidden recesses, yet the wickedness of the people became greater, and it was an evidence of men lost to all shame, that they dared to violate their pledged faith, and thus to shew no regard for the Temple, as though they had lost all reverence for God and all fear. It is hence evident how profane they were become, that they dared to come to the Temple and to make an oath before God, and then immediately to forfeit their faith.
Grant, Almighty God, that since we have been redeemed by thine only-begotten Son, not only from temporal servitude, but also from the miserable tyranny of the devil and death, — O grant, that we may acknowledge thee as our Deliverer, and so wholly devote ourselves to thee, that we may also labor to serve one another, and by mutual acts of kindness so cherish among ourselves brotherly love, that it may appear that thou indeed rulest among us, and that we are subject to thee through the same thy Son. — Amen.
Lecture One Hundred and Thirty-Eighth
16. But ye turned, and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom he had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.
16. Et reversi estis et polluistis nomen meum, et reduxistis quisque servum suum, et quisque ancillam suam, quos dimiseratis liberas animae suae (id est, arbitrio suo) et subegistis eos, ut essent vobis in servos et in ancillas.
The Prophet expostulates here with the Jews, as we said in the last Lecture, with regard to their perjury; for they had made in a solemn manner a covenant in the Temple of God, to set free their servants according to what the law prescribed. There would have been no need of such a ceremony, had they observed what they learnt from the Law; but neither they nor their fathers observed the equity prescribed to them by God. Hence there was a necessity for a new promise, sanctioned by sacrifice. The Prophet commended them for obeying God’s command. But he now shews, that they were the more inexcusable, because they soon after returned to their old ways. But ye turned, he says, that is, they soon repented of the obedience they had promised to render to God. Their promptitude was worthy of praise, when they promised that they would willingly obey; but by doing this in bad faith, they treated God with mockery.
He adds that God’s name was polluted We hence learn that whenever we misuse God’s name, it is a kind of sacrilege; for nothing is deemed more precious by God than truth; yea, as he himself is truth, and is so called, (Joh 14:6) there is nothing more adverse to his nature than falsehood. It is then an intolerable profanation of God’s name whenever it is falsely appealed to; and thus perjury is allied with sacrilege. God’s name is indeed polluted in other ways than by perjury, that is, when God’s name is taken in vain rashly, thoughtlessly, and without reverence. But the most heinous pollution of it is, when the truth is changed into a lie. This passage then contains a useful doctrine, which teaches us to act faithfully, especially when God’s name is interposed.
He afterwards adds, Ye have remanded every one his servant and every one his maid, whom ye have set free, etc. The crime was doubled by this circumstance, — that they had emancipated their servants, and then remanded them. For had they not dissembled, their obstinacy could by no means have been tolerated; but their rebellion became still more base, when they had pretended to obey God, and it became shortly known that they had perfidiously promised liberty to their servants. He says that they were set free to their own soul, that is, to their own will; for we call men free when it is in their power to choose what they please, for when they are under the power of another, they have no will, no choice of their own. 95 And indignity is increased, when servants who have been made free are afterwards deprived of so great a privilege; for nothing is more desirable than liberty, as even heathens have declared. He adds that this was done by force, Ye have made them subject The verb כבש cabesh, means to subject and to oppress. The Prophet then shews, that those who had been made free, were not willing to return to their miserable condition, and that they were not constrained to submit to the yoke in any other way than by tyranny. 96 It hence appears that their masters not only employed deceit, but also cruel and tyrannical violence; so that to perjury they added inhumanity, which more increased their crime. It now follows, —
17. Therefore thus saith the LORD, Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbour: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the LORD, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.
17. Propterea sic dicit Jehova, Vos non audistis me ad promulgandam (hoc est, ut promulgaretis) libertatem quisque fratri suo, et quisque proximo suo (vel, propinquo, vel, sodali suo) ecce promulgo contra vos libertatem, dicit Jehova, gladio, pesti et fami, et dabo vos in commotionum cunctis regnis terrae (alii vertunt, ecce promulgo vobis libertatem ad gladium et ad pestera et ad famem; quantum ad summam rei pertinet, non multum est discriminis utrumvis legamus, nempe, promulgo vobis libertatem ad, etc., vel, promulgo contra vos libertatem gladio, etc., ut videbimus)
Here the Prophet shews that a just reward was prepared for the Jews, who robbed their brethren of the privilege of freedom, for they also would have in their turn to serve after the Lord had made them free. But he alludes to the way then in use in which they had granted freedom, and says, Ye have not proclaimed liberty They had indeed proclaimed it, as we have seen; but not in sincerity, for they who had been for a short time made free, were soon afterwards constrained to serve. God then makes here no reference to the outward act which the Jews had performed, but shews that faithfulness and integrity are so pleasing to him, that he makes no account of what is merely done outwardly. Hence the promulgation of liberty is not before God the verbal one, but that which is carried into effect. With men it is enough to profess a thing, but God regards as nothing all false professions. He therefore complains that the Jews did not obey his word. We have already said that it was not right according to the law to retain servants longer than six years; for in the seventh year the law ordered those who had given themselves up to servitude to be set free. But God restored this law as it were by way of recovery, as it had become almost obsolete. And this is the reason why he says that they hearkened not For he had not only taught by Moses what was right, but had also shewn by Jeremiah that the Jews impiously and wickedly disregarded this humane command. We hence learn what it is to obey God’s word, even when we not only embrace what he declares, but also persevere in obedience to him: for it is not enough to exhibit some kind of a right feeling for a short time, except we continue to obey God. The Jews had with their mouth made a profession, and gave some evidence of a disposition to obey; the servants were allowed their liberty; but as the masters shortly after returned to their previous injustice, we see the reason why God says that they had not hearkened to him
It is added, that he would proclaim liberty to them, that is, against them. If we read, “Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,” then the meaning is, “I will emancipate you,” that is, “I shall have nothing more to do with you; go and enjoy your own liberty; but ye shall immediately become a prey to other masters, even to the sword, to the pestilence, and to famine.” This meaning is not unsuitable; for it was the happiness of the ancient people alone to be under the protection of God: but when they became disobedient, he dismissed them, and would not have them under his guardianship. But nothing can be more miserable than such emancipation, that is, when God rejects those over whom he had been pleased to rule, and whose patron he had for a time been; for all kinds of evils will soon come upon them, and God will not interpose his hand. This, then, is the liberty of those who are not willing to bear, as it becomes them, the yoke of obedience to God, even to be exposed to all evils, for it is only by him we can be defended. We hence see that the meaning is very suitable, when we read “Behold, I proclaim to you liberty, but it is to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine.”
We may, however, take another view, “Behold, I proclaim liberty for you,” that is, against you; for ל, lamed, has this sense: “I proclaim liberty against you,” — how? to the sword, etc., that is, “I order the sword to exercise power against you, and I will permit also the same right to the pestilence, and I will permit a like dominion to the famine: the sword, then, and the pestilence, and the famine, shall rule over you, for ye cannot bear my authority.” For though the Jews boasted that they were God’s chosen people, yet as they were so refractory as to despise the Law and the Prophet, it is quite evident that what they wished was unbridled licentiousness. God then renounces here his own right, and says that it was their fault that they were not free, for he would no more defend them, as an advocate his clients, or as a master his servants. So also it is said in the Psalms,
“Behold, our eyes are to God, as the eyes of servants who look to their masters, as the eyes of a maid to her mistress.”
(Ps. 123:1, 2)
We indeed know that servants formerly were exposed to all sorts of wrongs; they dared not move a finger, when grievously treated; but if any servant was wronged by another man, his master would undertake his cause and defend him. Then the Psalmist compares the people to servants and slaves, and says that their whole safety depended on the help of God. But God now declares that he will be no longer their guardian; and when he dismissed them, all kinds of evils, as we have said, would come upon them, even the sword, the pestilence, and the famine.
He at length adds, And I will give you for a commotion to all the kingdoms of the earth The words may mean two things. Some take them as though God threatened that they should become unsettled, and vagrants through all the kingdoms of the world; and others, that they would be for a commotion, for every one either seeing or hearing of their miserable state would tremble. The passage is taken from De 28:25, where we read,
“I will give thee for a commotion.”
The latter meaning is what I mostly approve, — that the Jews would be for a commotion; for the vengeance which God would take on them would be so dreadful, that all would be greatly moved or affected, according to what is said by Isaiah,
“The, commotion shall be for amazement.” (Isa 28:19)
We then perceive what the Prophet means, — that God would so severely punish perjury and treachery, that the Jews would become an example to all people; for it would be a sad spectacle for all nations to see the children of Abraham, whom God had adopted, the most miserable of human beings. Their condition, then, would be an object of horror; and this is what the Prophet now declares and threatens. It follows, —
18. And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the part thereof,
18. Et dabo viros qui transgressi sunt foedus meum, qui non stabilierunt sermones foederis, quod inciderunt coram me, vitulo quem conciderunt in duo, et transierunt inter partes ejus,
19. The princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf;
19. Principes Jehudah et principes Jerusalem, proceres (eunuchos) et sacerdotes, et totum populum terrae, qui transierunt inter partes vituli.
He pursues the same subject, — that perjury would not be unpunished. But here is described the manner of making an oath, even that they cut a calf into two parts, and passed between these parts Now we know that this was the custom in the time of Abraham, for it is said that he offered a sacrifice to God as a symbol of the covenant, and cut the victim, and passed between the parts. Historians also relate that the Macedonians in mustering an army observed the same ceremony; and it was probably a custom which prevailed among all nations. When the Romans made a covenant, they sacrificed a sow; they did not divide it into parts, but killed it with a stone; and this was the form of execration, — “So may Jupiter smite him who will violate this covenant; if I violate this covenant, may Jupiter thus smite me, as I now kill this sow.” But we see that among the Orientals, the victims were cut in two, and there was another form of execration, even that he might be thus cut asunder, who unjustly and in bad faith violated the given promise or engagement.
It is to this custom the Prophet refers here, and says, I will give the men who have transgressed my covenant, which they made before me by the calf which they cut into two parts, and passed between the parts, etc. But God assigns a reason why he resolved to inflict so dreadful punishment on perjury: he said before, that his name was profaned, and now he adds, that his covenant was violated. He does not speak here of the Law; the covenant of God is called the law for the most part in Scripture; but Jeremiah takes it here in a different sense, even the covenant in which God’s name was interposed, or what was sanctioned by an appeal to God, as by way of excellence, marriage is called by Solomon the covenant of God, because it is the principal contract among men. But as the Jews had promised in God’s presence that they were ready to obey, when Jeremiah commanded the servants to be made free, and as the agreement was confirmed by a solemn rite, hence the promise given to men is said to be the covenant of God, even on account of the sanction which we have mentioned.
Let us then remember, that whenever we perform not what we have pledged, not only wrong is done to men, but also to God himself, and that it is a sacrilege, and what is much more atrocious than theft, or fraud, or cruelty. Let us, therefore, learn from this passage to act in good faith, especially when the name of God is invoked, when he is appealed to as a witness and judge.
He adds afterwards, that they had transgressed his covenant; and he immediately explains himself, because they have not confirmed the words of the covenant which they had made before him. To confirm or establish the words, was to persevere in what they had promised. For the Jews gave a proof of humanity for a short time; but it was a mere falacious show and pretense. It was for this reason, then, that the Prophet says that they had not confirmed or ratified the words of the covenant which they had made Then follows the outward ceremony, the calf which they had cut into two parts; and they passed between them, in order that this very passing might produce a deep impression on their hearts, and make them dread the violation of their faith. For we know that external signs are intended for this end, — that men may be kept awake, who would otherwise be tardy and slothful. The same also is the use of sacred symbols, by which God intends to touch and move all our senses. It hence appears how great must have been the insensibility of the people, when they afterwards disregarded that awful protest, for they had passed between the parts, and imprecated such a death on themselves if they failed in what they promised. They afterwards hesitated not to violate their promise. We hence see that they were under the power of a diabolical madness, when they disregarded God’s judgment. 97
He adds, The princes of Judah and the princes of Jerusalem, etc. He does not here name them as though they were different persons, but he speaks by way of amplifying. He then says that he would punish these chief men, lest they should think themselves to be exempted, because they were superior to others in rank and honor; for we know that those who are elevated in the world are so filled with pride, that they deem themselves as free from all laws. This, then, is the reason why God expressly names the princes and the eunuchs. But he does not mean by the eunuchs those who had been emasculated, as we have stated already in several places. The chief men were called by this name, סרסים serasim. 98
He mentions the princes of Jerusalem, because they were especially proud, on account of their privileges as citizens; for in Jerusalem was the royal residence and the sanctuary of God. But the Prophet declares that their lot would be nothing better than that of the common people, because God would not suffer his holy name to be a mockery and all equity to be violated, and especially the covenant made in his name to be deemed as nothing, and rendered wholly void. At length he names the whole people; whosoever, he says, have passed between the parts of the calf, shall be punished. It follows —
20. 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 meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.
20. Et dabo illos in manum inimicorum ipsorum, et in manum quaerentium animam ipsorum: et erit cadaver ipsorum in cibum avi (hoc est, avibus) coelorum, (est heterosis numeri) et bestiae (hoc est, bestiis) terrae.
He confirms and explains what he had before said, and expresses how the punishment would be executed, — that he would deliver them into the hand of their enemies; and he adds, who seek their life, in order to shew that their enemies would not be content with the spoils, or with a moderate punishment, but would be their inveterate enemies, who would not be satisfied until they destroyed them. Now this passage teaches us also that the ungodly are God’s scourges, for the punishment he resolved to inflict on the transgressors of his law, he executed through them. Though then the Chaldeans had another object than to be God’s ministers in punishing the Jews, yet they performed God’s work as though they were his hired servants, subject to his own will and pleasure. Nor is there a doubt but that their minds had been greatly exasperated against the Jews, so that they shed blood indiscriminately withoat mercy: for as God often says,
“I will give you favor in the sight of your enemies,”
(Exod. 3:21, Exod. 11:3)
so also on the other hand, he declares, that when enemies raged cruelly against them, it was through hls secret influence, he having resolved severely to punish them. This is the reason why he now says, that he would deliver the Jews into the hand of those who sought their life, that is, who were not intent on prey or spoils, and would not be satisfied with moderate punishment, but would be implacable enemies, until they destroyed the people.
Another kind of punishment follows, Their carcases shall be for food to the birds of heaving, and to the beasts of the earth, as though he had said, that God’s vengeance on the Jews would be made evident even after death. We said last week, that it would be no loss to us were we to he unburied, for burial brings no advantage to us; but yet it is a sign of God’s vengeance. As then famine, and nakedness, and cold, and diseases, and other evils, are evidences of God’s wrath against men, so also it is when the body of a dead man is cast forth, and is either torn by wild beasts, or eaten by birds. If any one objects and says, that this has sometimes happened to the best and holiest of God’s servants; to this we answer, that temporal punishment happens in common to the good and the bad; but when God by famine and want, by diseases also, or by exile, or by prison, or by any other evils, tries and chastises his servants, all this is to them as a help to their salvation. Yet this special mercy of God towards the faithful, which is a peculiar privilege, is no reason why all miseries should in themselves be deemed evidences of God’s wrath, for they are everywhere called curses. And we also know that from the same fountain flow all the evils which men suffer in this life, even from God’s judgment, who in this manner executes punishment. It is not then without reason that the Prophet here declares, that so severe and dreadful would be God’s judgment towards the Jews, that it would extend beyond death itself, for they would become meat to the birds of heaven and to the beasts of the earth. It follows —
21. 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, which are gone up from you.
21. Et Zedechiam regem Jehudah, et principes ejus dabo in manum inimicorum ipsorum, et in manum quaerentium animam eorum, et in manum exercitus regis Babylonii, qui ascenderunt e vobis.
He repeats almost the same words, but yet he comes closer to the subject, for he names the enemies of whom he had spoken indefinitely before. He had indeed said that they would be cruel, and would seek their death, and would not be otherwise satisfied. He repeats again the same for the sake of confirmation; but he afterwards adds, that these enemies would be the soldiers of the king of Babylon, even the Chaldeans. He then shews, as by the finger, to the Jews, their calamity, lest they should, as usual, indulge themselves with the hope of security. He does not then declare generally, that they would be punished, and that enemies would come cruelly to destroy them; but he points out the army of the king of Babylon, and says that the Chaldeans would come, being armed by God and fighting under his banner, and would take the city, and destroy the whole kingdom.
But as the Chaldeans had departed, the confidence and the security of the Jews had increased, for they thought that they were now freed from danger. The cause of this departure was, that the Egyptians had gathered an army to help the Jews, or rather to provide by anticipation, for their own safety. There was an alliance, we know, at that time between the Jews and the Egyptians; and the object of both was to fortify themselves against the king of Babylon. The Egyptians had no great care for the Jews, but another reason influenced them; for it was well known, that as soon as the Chaldeans finished the Jewish war, they would make an attack on Egypt. Now they thought that it would be an advantage to them to engage with the Babylonian army in connection with the Jews; for they would have had to fight alone, had Nebuchadnezzar gained the victory; nay, the Jews themselves would have been compelled to assist in subduing Egypt. Hence the Egyptians, having well weighed these things, gathered a large army. The Babylonians, having heard the report, went forth to meet them. Thus the siege of the city was left. The Jews exulted as though they had escaped all danger. Hence the Prophet derides their folly in thinking that they would now be in peace and quietness, because the Chaldeans had gone up from them, because they left for a time the city, and went up towards Egypt. Though then, he says, (the particle is to be taken adversatively) they have ascended from you, yet God will deliver you into into their hand.
We now see that Jeremiah spared neither the king nor the princes; and thus we ought to notice the power of the Holy Spirit, which prevailed in the hearts of the Prophets, for they boldly addressed, not only the common people, but also kings and princes. As then we find the Prophet denouncing, with so much courage, the judgment of God on the king and the chief men, let us know, that none are fit to bear rule in the Church, except they be endued with so much firmness as not to fear any, and not to be disheartened by the power of any, so as not to reprove boldly the highest as well as the lowest. It follows —
22. Behold, I will command, saith the LORD, 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 an inhabitant.
22. Ecce ego praecipio, dicit Jehova, et reducam cos ad urbem hanc, et expugnabunt cam, et capient eam (vel, oppugnabunt eam, et capient eam) et comburent eam igni; et urbes Jehudah ponent vastitatem absque habitatore.
He shews the same thing in other words, but the repetition was not in vain, for what we read here seemed incredible to the Jews. For they raised up their horns when they saw the King Nebuchadnezzar departing from the city. Lest then this vain confidence should deceive them, he again declared to them that God conducted the war, as though he had said, that the Chaldeans had not thoughtlessly taken up arms, but as God had determined, and as he had commanded them. He does not indeed speak of an open command, for it was not the purpose of the Chaldeans to obey God, or to render service to him; but he speaks of his hidden providence. God is said to command, when the ungodly are guided by his secret impulse, for he can tuae them as he pleases, according to what is said in other places, “I will hiss for the Egyptians,” or for the Assyrians, or for the Chaldeans. The same is the meaning here, when he says, Behold, I will command, etc. In short, God commands the wicked, he commands diseases, he commands the sword, he commands the famine and the pestilence; and yet there is no reason or understanding in the sword, in the pestilence, or in the famine: but Scripture thus teaches us that all things are under his control, so that nothing can touch us, except as far as God intends by these to chastise or humble us.
And for the same purpose are these words, Behold, I, הנני, enni, etc. God shews that he was present, though the Chaldeans were not now seen in the land of Judah. The manner of his presence he sets forth by saying, I will bring them back to this city, and they shall attack it, and take it, and burn it with fire These things have been elsewhere explained, I shall therefore now pass them by.
Grant, Almighty God, that as we cease not continually to provoke thy wrath against us, — O grant, that we, being terrified by thy warnings, may obey thy wise counsels, and that thus by anticipating thy vengeance, which would otherwise remain on us, we may labor to be so reconciled to thee, that we may really find thee to be our Father and the guardian of our salvation, until we shall at length, having finished our course here, come to that blessed rest, which thou hast prepared for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. — Amen.
Lecture One Hundred and Thirty-Ninth
We saw in the last Lecture what the Prophet denounced on the Jews, — that as they had acted perfidiously towards their servants, God would punish them by making them servants perpetually. When Nebuchadnezzar went forth to meet the Egyptians, there was some appearance of freedom being granted; for the Jews thought that theywere afterwards to be free: but as they had deceived their servants, so the Prophet says, that they were greatly mistaken in thinking that they were to be perpetually free, because Nebuchadnezzar would soon return. So he declares that they were doomed to servitude, so that the liberty in which they gloried would prove illusory. Now follows, —
The Tarq. and the versions, except the Sept., give the idea of domineering or ruling; and this is the meaning of the verb everywhere when followed by ב —
To send away, a man his servant, and a man his maid, The Hebrew and the Hebrewess, free; So as not to domineer over them, A man over a Jew his brother.
This is a literal rendering of the verse. But perhaps it would be better to render “servant,” bondman; and “maid,” bondwoman, as they were the married as well as the unmarried. — Ed.
It is said afterwards that for six years was the servitude to be, and yet the statement here is, “at the end of seven years.” Were it not for two other places, (Deut. 15:1, Deut. 31:10,) where we find the same words, we might follow the Sept. and the Arab., and read six instead of seven. The Rabbins remove the difficulty by saying that the word, קף, means the commencing, as well as the terminating end or extremity; so the meaning then would be, “at the beginning of seven years;” and this would agree with the six years afterwards mentioned. And this is the best explanation of the passage. — Ed.
Our version, “at their pleasure,” is the best, or we may render it, “to themselves,” as נפש often has this meaning. — Ed.
The verb means here evidently to constrain or to force, —
And ye have forced them to be to you For bondmen and for bondwomen.
It would be better throughout the passage to retain the words bondmen and bondwomen — Ed.
The construction of this verse as to “the calf,” is various. Our version is that of Junius and Tremelius. It is difficult to understand the Sept., the Targ., and the Vulg. The Syr. is substantially as follows, —
18. And I will make the men who have transgressed my covenant, Who have not performed the words of the covenant, Which they made before me, like the calf, Which they cut in two and passed between its parts, —
19. The princes of Judah, etc. etc.
This is the most literal rendering of the passage: the omission of כ, like, or as, is not uncommon. — Ed
It is rendered “δυνάστας, rulers,” by the Sept., “eunuchs,” by the Vulg. and Syr., and “princes” by the Targ. They were the attendants on royalty, not necessarily eunuchs, for Potiphar, who had a wife, was so called. (Ge 39:7.) They may have acted as judges; and hence perhaps it is, that they are named here with “the priests.” — Ed