We explained yesterday why this command was given to Jeremiah at the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign, which was not yet to be executed until the time of Zedekiah: it was God's design to strengthen him in the meantime, lest he should faint in his course. Let us now see what was the object of this prophecy and what is its meaning.
The Prophet seems to have addressed the ambassadors who were sent by neighboring kings to King Zedekiah; and he was bidden to command them to declare each to his master, that they were all to come under the yoke of the king of Babylon. There is, moreover, no doubt but that God designed especially and chiefly to give a lesson to Zedekiah and to the Jews; for these legations mentioned here might have so emboldened them as to despise all prophecies, and to think themselves beyond all danger. For the purpose for which these legations were sent by the king of Sidon, by the king of Tyrus, by the king of Moab and Ammon, ought to be particularly observed: when they saw that the king of Babylon would not spare them, they began to join their forces. Every one at first consulted his own advantage, and saw no need of mutual help; and so it was that the Chaldeans easily overcame them while they were disunited. Experience at length taught them, that neither the king of Judah nor ally of the neighboring kings could sustain the contest unless they formed a confederacy. Thus, then, it happened that the king of Tyrus, the king of Sidon, the king of Moab, and the king of Ammon, offered their forces and their money to the king of Judah, and that he also promised to help them in return, if the Chaldean attacked them. It was therefore a new occasion for confidence to the Jews, so that they gathered courage, and thus were emboldened to resist, relying on so many neighboring kings.
The Chaldeans had been hitherto successful, for they had assailed each by himself; but when all of them were ready by their united forces to oppose and restrain their attacks, it was hardly credible that they could be conquered. It was therefore God's purpose to remove this false confidence, and to warn Zedekiah and the whole people, lest they should be deceived by such allurements, but that they might know that they were patiently to endure the punishment inflicted on them by God. This therefore was the reason why the Prophet was sent to the ambassadors who had come to Jerusalem. He was not set a teacher over them; but this was done with reference to Zedekiah and the people. It is yet probable that these commands were set forth before the king, that the king might know that he had been wholly deceived, and that he still foolishly trusted to the subsidies which had been offered.
We may easily imagine how grievous it must have been to the king and to the people to hear this prophecy. The ambassadors were in a manner dishonored; the kings, by whom they had been sent, might have complained that they were treated with great indignity. Hence the king and the people must have been very incensed against Jeremiah. But the Prophet boldly performed what God commanded him, as it behoved him. And we shall hereafter see, that his words were addressed to King Zedekiah rather than to these heathens.
We now understand the reason why God would have his Prophet to give these commands to the ambassadors, who had been sent by heathen kings to King Zedekiah: it was that the king might know that it was wholly useless for these kings to promise their assistance; for he had to do, not with the Chaldean king, but rather with the judgment of God, which is irresistible, and which men in vain struggle with.
Though the Prophet was bidden to command the ambassadors to say to the kings by whom they had been sent, Thus saith Jehovah, of hosts, they yet might have refused to do so, and that with indignation: |What! Are we come here to be ambassadors to thee? and who indeed art thou who commandest us? besides, dost thou think that we are so mad as to threaten for thy sake, our kings and masters, and to declare to them what thou biddest, that they are shortly to become the servants of the Chaldean king?| The ambassadors then might have thus treated the holy Prophet with derision and laughter: but, as we have said, the whole was done for the sake of Zedekiah and the people, in order that the Prophet might dissipate that vain splendor and pomp, by which he saw that Zedekiah and all the Jews were deceived; for they thought that they had as it were high and large mountains to be set in opposition to the Chaldean king and his army: |On what part can they assail us, since the king of Tyrus is on our side, and also the king of Sidon, the king of Moab, and the king of Ammon? these rule widely, and their cities are impregnable.| Thus, then, the Jews were convinced that they would be exempt from every trouble and molestation; but in order that they might not deceive themselves with that vain display, Jeremiah said,
|Declare, ye ambassadors, to your masters what God has spoken, even that ye must submit to the yoke of the king of Babylon.|
And a visible symbol was added in order to confirm the prediction: the Prophet was bidden to put a yoke on his neck, or yokes, for he speaks in the plural number. mvt muth, means a pole, a yoke, a transverse piece of wood: and no doubt he applied some pieces of wood to his neck, like the yoke laid on oxen; and then he tied this yoke or crossbar; for ysr, isar, means to bind or tie, and so mvsrvt, musarut, are bands; mvsr, musar, also means sometimes a girdle; but here it is to be taken for bands or ligaments. It was a sad spectacle to see on the neck of Jeremiah, when he went forth, the symbol of the bondage of all kings and nations: he was as it were in the place of all a captive before the time: but when God laid a yoke on the Jews and on all other nations, Jeremiah was then a free man; for though he bore this mark of bondage, he yet expected God's judgment with a resigned mind, while others disregarded it. But this confirmation rendered them more inexcusable, as the case is, when God, to strengthen faith, adds sacraments or other helps to his word, by which means he impresses us the more, for he thus teaches not only our ears, but also our eyes and all our senses: when God thus omits nothing that may tend to strengthen our faith in his word, a heavier condemnation awaits us, if such signs avail not.
We then perceive the reason why the Prophet applied to his neck the symbol of future bondage: were there any teachable among the people, to see such a sign with their eyes must have been useful to them. But as the greater part had hardened themselves in their obstinacy, what ought to have done them good, by humbling them in time before God, so as to anticipate his judgment, had no other effect but to render their punishment more grievous.
Then follow these words, I have made the earth, the man and the beast, which are on the face of the earth, by my great power, and by mine extended arm. The spectacle would have been unmeaning and to no purpose, had Jeremiah only put the yoke on his neck, and added no instruction; for we know that all signs are as it were dead, except life is given them by the word. As then an image avails not much, so whatever signs may be set before our eyes, they would be frivolous and without meaning, were no doctrine added as the life. And hence also is condemned the madness of the Papists, who amuse the minds of the people with many signs, while no doctrine is conveyed. It therefore follows that they are mere figments, and attended with no profit. God, then, has ever added to signs his doctrine, which may therefore be truly compared to the soul, which gives life to the body, that would otherwise be without motion or strength. On this account Jeremiah shews what the yoke meant. He also speaks of the power and sovereign authority of God; for kings, though they confess that God holds the government of the world, cannot yet entertain the idea that they can be in a moment overwhelmed and cast down from their dignity. For they seem to themselves to be fixed in their nests, and so they promise to themselves a permanent condition, and imagine that they are not subject to the common lot of mortals.
As, then, kings are so inflated with pride, the Lord used this preface, that he made the earth and all living beings. He speaks not of heaven, but mentions only that he made the earth, and man, and the animals which are on the face of the earth; and adds, by my great power and extended arm Why was this said, except that men might be awakened on hearing that the earth continues not as it is, but as it is sustained by God's power by which it was once created? The same power preserves men and animals; for nothing can remain safe except God exercises from heaven his hidden power. This, then, was the reason why these words were introduced. God set his own arm and power in opposition to the pride of those who thought that they stood by their own power, and did not acknowledge that they were dependent on the nod of God alone, who sustained them as long as he pleased, and then overthrew and reduced them to nothing when it seemed good to him.
This doctrine, then, ought to be applied to ourselves: for Jeremiah did not speak generally and indiscriminately of God's power, but accommodated to the subject in hand what he said of God's power, that men might, know that there is nothing fixed or permanent in this world, but that God preserves men and animals, and yet in such a way, that at any moment he can by a single breath reduce to nothing all those who exist and all that they have. It follows --