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Commentary On Jeremiah And Lamentations Volume 1 by Jean Calvin

Jeremiah 3:1

1. They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD.

l. Dicendo, si dimiserit vir uxorem suam, et profecta ab eo, fuepit viri alterius, (id est, transierit ad alium virum) an revertetur ad eam adhuc? Annon pollutione polluta est terra in hoc? et tu scortata es cum sociis multis; revertere tamen ad me, dicit Jehova.

Many regard this verse as connected with the last, and thus read them connectedly, |God hates false confidences, because he says, |etc. But this seems not to me to be suitable; for Jeremiah brings before us here a new subject, -- that God seeks to be reconciled to his people, according to what a husband does, who desires to receive into favor an unchaste wife, and is ready to grant her full pardon, and to take her again as a chaste and faithful wife. This verse, then, cannot be connected with the foregoing, in which, as we have seen, the people are condemned. The word lsmr lamer, means the same, as I think, as when we say in French, par maniere de dire, or as when it is commonly said, |Suppose a case.| For the Prophet does not here introduce God as the speaker, but lays before us a common subject, with this preface, l'mr, lamer, that is, |Be it so, that a man divorces his wife, and she becomes allied to another husband, can she again return to her first husband? This is not usually done; but I will surpass whatever kindness there may be among men, for I am ready to receive thee, provided thou wilt in future observe conjugal fidelity, and part with thy adulteries and adulterers.|

As to the main point, there is here no ambiguity: for God shews that he would be reconciled to the Jews, provided they proceeded not obstinately in their sinful courses. But in order to set forth more fully his mercy, he uses a comparison which must be a little more attentively considered. He had before said that he held the place of a husband, that the people occupied the station of a wife; and then he complained of the base perfidy of the people, who had forsaken him, and said that they had acted like a wife who, having despised her husband, prostituted herself to such adulterers as might happen to meet her: but he now adds, |Behold, if a man dismisses his wife, and she becomes the wife of another, he will never receive her again.| And this was forbidden by the law. |But I am ready, |he says, |to receive thee, though I had not given thee the usual divorce at my pleasure, as husbands are wont to do who repudiate their wives, when there is anything displeasing in them.| It is not a simple comparison, as many think; (I know not whether all think so, for I have not read any who seem to understand the true meaning;) for God does not simply compare himself to a husband who has repudiated his wife for adultery; but as I have already said, there are here two clauses. The Jews were then wont to divorce their wives even for slight causes, and for no cause at all.

Now, God speaks thus by Isaiah,

|Shew me the bill of your mother's divorcement,| (Isaiah 50:1)

as though he had said, |I have not repudiated your mother.| For if any one then departed from his wife, the law compelled him to take some blame on himself; for what was the bill of divorcement? It was a testimony to the wife's chastity; for if any one was found guilty of adultery, there was no need of divorcement, as it was a capital crime. (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22.) Hence adulteresses were not usually divorced; but if any woman had conducted herself faithfully towards her husband, and he wished to repudiate her, the law constrained him to give her the bill of divorcement: |I repudiate this wife, not because she hath broken or violated the bond of marriage, but because her manners are not agreeable, because her beauty does not please me.| Thus the husbands were then commanded to take some of the blame on themselves. Hence the Lord says by Isaiah,

|Shew me the bill of your mother's divorcement;|

as though he had said, |She has departed from me; she has broken the bond of marriage by her fornications; I am not then in fault for being alienated from you.|

God then does not mean in this place, that he had divorced the people; for this would have been wrong and unlawful, and could not have been consistent with the character of God. But as I have already said, there is here a twofold comparison. |Though a husband should fastidiously send away his wife, and she through his fault should be led to contract another marriage, and become the partner of another, as though in contempt of him, he could hardly ever bear that indignity, and become reconciled to her: but ye have not been repudiated by me, but are like a perfidious woman, who shamefully prostitutes herself to all whom she may meet with; and yet I am ready to receive you, and to forget all your base conduct.| We now then understand the import of the words.

In the second clause there is a comparison made from the less to the greater. For the return into favor would have been easier, if the repudiated wife had afterwards become acceptable to him, though she had become the wife of another; but when an adulteress finds her husband so willing of himself, and ready to grant free pardon, it is certainly an example not found among mortals. Thus we see that God, by an argument from the less to the greater, enhances his goodness towards the people, in order to render the Jews the less excusable for rejecting so pertinaciously a favor freely offered to them.

But it may be asked, why the Prophet says, By pollution shall not this land be polluted, or, through this? I shall speak first of the words, and then refer to the subject. Almost all give this version, |Is not that land by pollution polluted.| But I know not what sense we can elicit by such a rendering, except, it may be, that God compares a divorced wife to the land, or that he, by an abrupt transition, transfers to the land what he had said of a divorced wife, or rather that he explains the metaphor which had been used. If this sense be approved, then the copulative which follows must be rendered as a causative, which all have rendered adversatively, and rightly too, |But thou.| I then prefer to read hhy', eeia, by itself, |by this;| that is, when a wife returns again to her first husband, after having married another; for the law, as we have said, forbad this; and the husband must have become an adulterer, if he took again the wife whom he had repudiated. Liberty was granted to women by divorce; not that divorce was by God allowed; but as the women were innocent, they were released, for God imputed the fault to the husbands. And when the repudiated wife married another man, this second marriage was considered legitimate. If, then, the first husband sought to recover the wife whom he had divorced, he violated the bond of the second marriage. For this reason, and according to this sense, the Prophet says, that the land would by this become polluted; as though he had said, |It is not lawful for husbands to take back their wives, however ready they may be to forgive them; but I require no other thing but your return to me.|

As to the words, we now see that the Prophet does not say without reason, |By this;| that is, when a woman unites herself to one man, and then to another, and afterwards returns to her first husband; for society would thus be torn asunder, and also the sacred bond of marriage, the main thing in the preservation of social order, would be broken.

It is added, But thou hast played the harlot with many companions What we have before observed is here confirmed, -- that the people had been guilty, not only of one act of adultery, but that they were become like common strumpets, who prostitute themselves to all without any difference; and this is what will be presently stated. Those whom he calls companions or friends were rivals. He says, Yet return to me, saith Jehovah: by which he intimated, -- |Pardon is ready for thee, provided thou repentest.|

An objection may, however, be here raised, -- How could God do what he had forbidden in his law? The answer is obvious, -- No other remedy could have been given to preserve order in society when men were allowed to repudiate their wives, except by adding this restraint, as a proof that God did not favor their levity and changeableness. It was thus necessary, for the interest of society, to punish such men as were too morose and rigid, by withholding from them the power of recovering the wives whom they had dismissed. It might otherwise have been, that one changed his love the third day, or in a month, or in a year, and demanded his wife. God then intended to put this restraint on divorce, so that no man, who had put away his wife, could take her again. But the case is very different as to God himself: it is therefore nothing strange that he claims for himself the right of being reconciled to the Jews on their repentance. It follows --

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