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Commentary On Jeremiah And Lamentations Volume 1 by Jean Calvin

Jeremiah 2:20

20. For of old time I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou saidst, I will not transgress; when upon every high hill and under every green tree thou wanderest, playing the harlot.

20. Quia a seculo confregi, jugum tuum, disrupi vincula tua; et dixisti, Non serviam (vel, non transgrediar, est enim duplex lectio;) quia super omnem collem excelsum, et super omnem arborem frondosam tu discurristi meretrix.

As there are two readings in Hebrew, two meanings are given; for some think the verb to be, vd obed, and others, vr ober, the two letters being very similar. If we read, |I will not pass over,| or, I will not transgress, the sense is, |When I broke thy yoke;| that is, |When I delivered thee from the tyranny of Egypt, then thou didst pledge thy faith to me.| The covenant then made between God and the Israelites was mutual; for as God received them under his protection, when he became, as it were, their patron, so they, on the other hand, promised to submit to his authority. If we take this reading, the passage is an expostulation; as though God condemned here the people, for their ingratitude and perfidy. But the Prophet seems to mean another thing; and therefore I prefer the other reading, |I will not serve:| and yet I reject what interpreters have alleged; for this passage, I have no doubt, has been perverted. The prevailing exposition has been this, |I will not serve idols;| and they who seemed endued with some judgment did not see that this sense is unsuitable, and strained, or too far -- fetched: and it may have been, and it seems to me probable, that for this reason the letter has been changed; for all gave this explanation, |Thou hast said, I will not serve idols:| but it is wholly a strained comment.

Now, on the contrary, I think that God here complains that the liberty which he had given to his people was turned into licentiousness: and this view is exactly suitable, as it is evident from the context, -- For from old time have I broken thy yoke and burst thy bonds: therefore thou hast said, (the v here is an illative,) I will not serve; that is, |When thou oughtest to have devoted thyself to me, who had become thy Redeemer, thou thoughtest that liberty to do thine own will was granted thee.| And then the proof given of this is in every way appropriate, for on every high hill, and under every shady tree, didst thou run here and there like a harlot Then God shews that his redemption had been ill bestowed on the ungodly, who made a bad use of their privilege; for hence it was that they gave themselves up to all kinds of lasciviousness.

If any one prefers the other reading, I will not contend with him; and then the sense is, |I have long ago shaken off thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou hast said, (he speaks of the people as of a woman, for the feminine gender is used; and this is done, because God sustained the character of a husband towards that people; and whenever he accused them of defection, it was as though a husband charged an unchaste wife with the crime of adultery,) thou hast then said to me, that is, promised to me that thou wouldest not transgress;| or, in other words, |thou hast promised to be faithful to me, and pledged mutual chastity.| Then the particle, ky, ki, which is commonly a causative, is to be taken here, according to its meaning in some other parts of Scripture, as an adversative, Yet on every high hill and under every shady tree, thou didst run here and there like harlots, who are seeking lovers.

But as I have already said, it seems to me more probable that God is here expostulating with the people, because they availed themselves of the favor of liberty as an occasion for licentiousness and wantonness: and thus the whole passage reads well, and every clause is most suitable, consistent the one with the other.

What God says, that he had broken the yoke and burst the bands, is confined by some to their first redemption: but I approve of what others say, -- that the Prophet speaks here of many deliverances. We indeed know that the people were brought out of Egypt but once; but when they were afterwards oppressed, he stretched forth his hand to deliver them: God then had from old time, but at various periods, shaken off the yoke of the people; for this is evident from the book of Judges. As, then, the people were not made free, except through God's kindness, who redeemed them, ought they not to have devoted themselves to the service of their Redeemer? For on this condition, and for this end, they were redeemed by God, -- that they might consecrate themselves wholly to him. God then now condemns the people for their ingratitude, because they thought that the yoke was shaken off, that they might be, as we shall hereafter find, like untamable wild beasts.

That what the Prophet means may be more evident to us, let us remember what Paul teaches us in the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 6), -- that while we serve sin we are free from righteousness; for we go astray after our lusts, and are restrained by no bridle: but when God really sets us free from the miserable bondage of sin, we begin to be his servants, and the servants of righteousness; for being freed from sin we become the servants of righteousness: and this is the end of our redemption. But many turn the favor of God into an occasion for licentiousness, and thus abandon themselves, as though there was no law and no rule for a holy and upright life. God complains that this was the case with the people of Israel: Thou hast said, I will not serve |It is base ingratitude, that thou hast not in the first place regarded me as thy Redeemer; and that in the second place thou hast not considered that I dealt so kindly with thee for this very purpose -- that thou mightest be mine: for he who has been redeemed by another's kindness is no longer his own.| God had redeemed that people; and redemption brought with it an obligation, by which the people were bound willingly to submit to God as their Ruler and King. Thou hast then said, I will not serve Thus God complains that his favor had been ill bestowed on the people, because they had abused their liberty, and turned it into lasciviousness.

And the reason that is subjoined more fully explains the meaning, for thou didst run here and there as a harlot, on every high hill and under every shady tree For we know that the Israelites, whenever they departed from God, had some particular places, on hills and under trees, as though greater sanctity were there than anywhere else. And at this day the case is the same with the Papists; for the devotion, or rather the diabolical madness, by which they are carried away, is of a similar kind. |O! this place, they say, |is more favorable to devotion than another; there is in it more sanctity.| Of the same opinion were the Israelites: for they thought that they were nearer heaven when they went up to a mountain; they also thought that they had a more familiar intercourse with God when concealed under shady trees. And we see that the same folly has ever bewitched all heathen nations: for they imagined that God was nigher them on hills, and thought that there was some hidden divinity in fountains and under the shades of trees. As, then, this superstition had long prevailed among the Israelites, God here reproves them, because they ran here and there

But we must further notice the comparison: he says, that they were like harlots, who, having cast off all shame, run here and there, not only because they burn with insane lust, but are also carried away by their own avariciousness. Thou, harlot, he says, didst run here and there on all the high hills, and under all the shady trees; as though he had said, |This is what I have effected in delivering thee! thou thinkest that unbridled liberty has been granted thee! Hence, then, it is that thou art become so wanton as to follow thy base lusts.| It follows --

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