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Jeremiah by William Smith

1. His Earliest Oracles. (II. 2-IV. 4.)

These bear few marks of the later date at which they were dictated by Jeremiah -- in fact only a probable reference to Egypt's invasion of Palestine in 608, Ch. II.16, and part, if not all, of Ch. III.6-18. The general theme is a historical retrospect -- Israel's early loyalty to her God, and her subsequent declension to the worship of other gods, figured as adultery; along with a profession of penitence by the people, to which God responds by a stern call to a deeper repentance and thorough reform; failing this, her doom, though vaguely described as yet, is inevitable. The nation is addressed as a whole at first in the second person singular feminine, but soon also in the plural, and the plural prevails towards the end. The nation answers as a whole, sometimes as I but sometimes also as We.

Before expounding the truths conveyed by these early Oracles it is well to translate them in full, for though not originally uttered at the same time, they run now in a continuous stream of verse -- save for one of those |portages| of prose which I have described.(137) There is no reason for denying the whole of this passage to Jeremiah, whether because it is in prose or because it treats of Northern Israel as well as Judah.(138) But on parts of it the colours are distinctly of a period later than that of the Prophet. All the rest of the Oracles may be taken to be from himself. Duhm after much hesitation has come to doubt the genuineness of Ch. II.5-13, but his suspicions of deuteronomic influence seem groundless, and even if they were sound they would be insufficient for denying the verses to Jeremiah.(139)

II.1, 2, And he said, Thus sayeth the Lord:(140)

I remember the troth of thy youth,
Thy love as a bride,
Thy following Me through the desert,
The land unsown.
Holy to the Lord was Israel, 3
First-fruit of His income;
All that would eat it stood guilty,
Evil came on them.
Rede of the Lord --
Hear the Lord's Word, House of Jacob, 4
All clans of Israel's race!
[Thus sayeth the Lord] 5
What wrong found your fathers in Me,
That so far they broke from Me,
And following after the Bubble(141)
Bubbles became.
Nor said they: 6
Where is the Lord who carried us up
From the land of Misraim?(142)
Who led us through the desert,
Land of waste and chasms,
Land of drought and barren,(143)
A land which nobody crosses,
Nor mankind settles upon it.
And I brought you into a garden, 7
To feed on its fruit and its wealth.
But coming ye fouled My land,
My heritage turned to loathing.
The priests never said, 8
Where is the Lord?
They who handle the Law knew Me not,
The rulers(144) rebelled against Me;
By Baal the prophets did prophesy,
And followed the worthless.
So still with you must I strive,(145) 9
And strive with your sons.(146)
For cross to the isles of Kittim and look 10
Send to Kedar, and think for yourselves,(147)
And see, was ever like this?
Have any nations(148) changed their gods, 11
And these no gods at all?
Yet My people exchanged their(149) Glory
For that which is worthless.
Be heavy,(150) O heavens, for this, 12
Shudder and shudder again!
Twain the wrongs My people have wrought -- 13
Me have they left,
The Fount of live water,
To hew themselves cisterns,
Cisterns broken,
That cannot hold water!

Israel a slave! 14
Or house-born serf!
Why he for a prey?
Against him the young lions roar, 15
Give forth their voice,
And his land they lay waste,
Burned are his towns and tenantless.
The sons, too, of Noph and Tahpanhes have forced, 16 Have abused thee.(151)
Is not all this being done thee 17
For thy leaving of Me?(152)
And now what to thee is the road to Misraim,(153)
Nile's waters to drink?
Or what is to thee the road to Asshur, 18
To drink of the River?
Be thy scourge thine own sin, 19
Thy doublings convict thee!
Know and see how sore for thyself,
How bitter to leave Me!
But never was awe of Me thine --
Rede of the Lord thy God.(154)

From of old thou hast broken thy yoke, 20
Hast burst thy bonds,
Saying, |I will not serve!|
While upon every high hill,
And under each rustling tree,
Harlot thou sprawlest!
Yet a noble vine did I plant thee, 21
Wholly true seed;
How could'st thou change to a corrupt,(155)
A wildling grape?
Yea, though thou scour thee with nitre, 22
And heap to thee lye,
Ingrained is thy guilt before Me,
Rede of the Lord, thy God.(156)
How sayest thou, |I'm not defiled, 23
Nor gone after the Baals.|
Look at thy ways in the Valley,
And own thy deeds!
A young camel, light o' heel,(157)
Zig-zagging her tracks,
A heifer, schooled to the desert -- 24
In the heat of her lust,
Snapping the wind in her passion,
Who is to turn her?
None that would seek her need strain them,
In her month they shall find her.
Save thou thy feet from the peeling, 25
Thy throat from thirst!
But thou sayest, |No use!(158)
For with strangers I'm fallen in love,
Them must I after!|
Like the shame of the thief when he's caught, 26
Shall Israel's sons(159) be shamed.
[They and their kings and their princes,
Their priests and their prophets](160)
Who say to a stock |Thou my Father!| 27
To a stone |Thou hast borne me!|
Their(161) backs they have turned to Me
Never their(162) faces.
Yet in time of their trouble they say
|Rise up and save us!|
Where be thy gods thou hast made thee? 28
Let them rise, if so they may save thee
In time of thy trouble;
For as thy townships in number,(163)
So be, O Judah, thy gods!
What quarrel have you against Me? 29
All you are the sinners;(164)
Against Me you all have rebelled --
Rede of the Lord.
In vain have I smitten your sons 30
Ye(165) took not correction
Your(166) sword has devoured your prophets,
Like a ravaging lion.
O generation -- you! -- look at the Word of the Lord!(167) 31 Have I been a desert to Israel,
Or land of thick darkness?
Why say My folk |We are off,
No more to meet Thee!|
Can a maiden forget her adorning, 32
Or her girdle a bride?
Yet Me have My people forgotten,
Days without number!
Why trimmest thou still thy ways 33
To seek after love?
Therefore thou also to evil
Thy ways hast trained:(168)
Yea, on thy skirts is found blood 34
Of innocent souls,
Not only on felons(?) I find it
But over all these.(169)
Yet thou said'st, |I am assoiled, 35
Sure His wrath turns from me!|
Behold I am going to judge thee
For saying, |I'm sinless!|
How very light dost thou take it, 36
To change thy ways!
E'en of Misraim shalt thou be ashamed(170)
As ashamed of Ashshur.
Out of this too shalt thou come 37
With thy hands on thy head,
For spurned hath the Lord the things of thy trust,
Not by them shalt thou prosper!

III.1. [Saying]: -- If a man dismiss his wife and she go from him and become another man's, shall she return to him?(171) Is that woman(172) not too polluted? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers and -- wouldest return unto Me? Rede of the Lord.

Lift to the clearings thine eyes, 2
Where not wast thou tumbled?
For them by the roads thou hast sate,
Like an Arab in desert,
Thou hast fouled the land with thy whoredoms
And with thy vices;
With thy lovers so many 3
It has meant but thy snare.(173)
The brow of a harlot was thine,
Shame thou hadst done with.
But now -- thou callest me |Father, 4
Friend of my youth!|
|Bears He a grudge for ever, 5
Stands on His guard for aye?|(174)
Lo, so thou hast spoken, yet done
Ills to thine utmost.

6. And the Lord said unto me in the days of Josiah, the king,(175) Hast thou seen what recreant Israel did to Me(176) going up every high hill and under each rustling tree, and there playing the harlot.7. And I said, After she has done all these things can she return to Me? -- and she did not return.8. And her treacherous sister Judah saw, yes she saw,(177) that, all because recreant Israel committed adultery, I had dismissed her and given her the bill of her divorce; yet her sister treacherous Judah was not afraid, but also went and played the harlot.9. And it came to pass that, through the wantonness of her harlotry, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stones and with stocks.10. And yet, for all this, treacherous Judah(178) has not returned to Me with all her heart, but only in feigning.(179) 11. And the Lord said to me, Recreant Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah.12. Go and call out these words toward the North and say,

Turn thee to Me,(180) recreant Israel,
I frown(181) not upon thee;
For gracious am I (Rede of the Lord),
Nor for ever bear grudge.
Only acknowledge thy guilt, 13
That defying the Lord thy God,
Thou hast scattered to strangers thy ways
Under each rustling tree,
And hast(182) not obeyed My voice --
Rede of the Lord.

14. [Return ye backsliding children, Rede of the Lord, for I am your Baal,(183) and I will take you, one from a city and two from a clan, and will bring you to Sion.15. And I will give you Shepherds after My heart, and they shall shepherd you with knowledge and with skill.16. And it shall be, when ye multiply and increase in the land in those days (Rede of the Lord), they shall not again say, |The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord!| It shall not come to mind, it shall be neither remembered nor missed,(184) nor shall it be made again.17. At that time they shall call Jerusalem the Throne of the Lord and all nations shall gather to her,(185) nor walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil hearts.18. In those days the House of Judah shall walk with the House of Israel, that together they may come from the land of the North to the land which I gave their(186) fathers for a heritage.]

But I(187) had declared the How(?) 19
I should set thee(188) among the sons,
And should give thee a land of delight,
Fairest domain of the nations.
And said, Thou would'st call Me Father,
Nor from after Me turn.
As a woman plays false to her fere,(189) 20
So to Me ye played false!
[O House of Israel, Rede of the Lord.]

Hark! 21
From the clearings weeping is heard,
Wailing of Israel's sons,
That they have perverted their way,
Forgotten the Lord their God.
Return ye oft-turning children, 22
Let me heal your back-turnings!
|Here are we! to Thee we are come,
Thou Lord art our God.
|Surely the heights are a fraud 23
The hills and their hubbub!(190)
|Alone in the Lord our God
Is Israel's safety.
|The Baal hath devoured our toil 24
And our sires' from their youth,
|Their flocks and their herds,
Their sons and daughters --
|Lie we low in our shame, 25
Our dishonour enshroud us!
|For to our God(191) have we sinned,
|[We and our sires from our youth]
Up to this day!
|Nor have heeded the voice
Of the Lord our God.|

[Israel, if thou wilt return, IV.1
Return to Me,
And thy loathly things put from thy mouth
Nor stray from My face.(192)
If in truth thou swear by the life of the Lord, 2
Honest and straight,
Then the nations shall bless them by Him
And in Him shall they glory.](193)

3. Thus saith the Lord to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of(194) Jerusalem:

Fallow up your fallow-ground,(195)
And sow not on thorns!
To your God(196) circumcise ye, 4
Off from your heart with the foreskin!
[O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem]
Lest My fury break out like fire,
And burn with none to quench!
[Because of the ill of your doings.]

From his call the Prophet went forth, as we saw, with a heavy sense of the responsibility and the power of the single soul, so far as he himself was concerned; and while we study his ministry we shall find him coming to feel the same for each of his fellow-men. But in these his earliest utterances he follows his predecessors, and especially Hosea, in addressing his people as a whole, and treating Israel as a moral unit from the beginning of her history to the moment of his charge to her. He continues the figures which Hosea had used. Long ago in Egypt God chose Israel for His child, for His bride, and led her through the desert to a fair and fruitful land of her own. Then her love was true. The term used for it, hesedh, is more than an affection; it is loyalty to a relation. To translate it but kindness or mercy, as is usually done, is wrong -- troth is our nearest word.

I remember the troth of thy youth,
Thy love as a bride,
Thy following Me through the desert,
The land unsown.

Upon the unsown land there were no rival gods. But in fertile Canaan the nation encountered innumerable local deities, the Baalim, husbands of the land, begetters of its fruits and lords of its waters. We conceive how tempting these Baalim were both to the superstitious prudence of tribes strange to agriculture and anxious to conciliate the traditional powers thereof; and to the people's passions through the sensuous rites and feasts of the rural shrines. Among such distractions Israel lost her innocence, forgot what her own God was or had done for her, and ceased to enquire of Him. Hence her present vices and misery in contrast with her early troth and safety. Hence the twin evils of the time -- on the one hand the nation's trust in heathen powers and silly oscillation between Egypt and Assyria; on the other the gross immoralities to which the Baals had seduced its sons. There was a double prostitution, to gods and to men, so foul that the young prophet uses the rankest facts in the rural life which he is addressing in order to describe it.

The cardinal sin of the people, the source of all their woes is religious,

Is not this being done thee
For thy leaving of Me?

This was so, not only because He was their ancestral God -- though such an apostasy was unheard of among the nations -- but because He was such a God and had done so much for them; because from the first He had wrought both with grace and with might, while the gods they went after had neither character nor efficiency -- mere breaths, mere bubbles!

The nerve of the faith of the prophets was this memory -- that their God was love and in love had wrought for His people. The frequent expression of this by the prophets and by Deuteronomy, the prophetic edition of the Law, is the answer to those abstractions to which some academic moderns have sought to reduce the Object of Israel's religion -- such as, |a tendency not ourselves that makes for righteousness.| The God of Israel was Righteous and demanded righteousness from men; but to begin with He was Love which sought their love in return. First the Exodus then Sinai; first Redemption then Law; first Love then Discipline. Through His Deeds and His Word by the prophets He had made all this clear and very plain.

What wrong found your fathers in Me,
That so far they broke from Me?
Have I been a desert to Israel,
Or land of thick darkness?
Why say My folk, |We are off,
To meet Thee no more.|

Jeremiah has prefaced this Divine challenge with a passionate exclamation in prose -- O Generation -- you! -- look at the Word of the Lord! -- which (as I have said) I like to think was added to his earlier verses when he dictated these to Baruch. Cannot you see, cannot you see? He is amazed by the stupidity, the callousness, the abandonment with which his people from their leaders down have treated a guidance so clear, a love so constant and yearning. And again his soul sways upon the contrast between the early innocence and the present corruption of Israel.

A noble vine did I plant thee,
Wholly true seed,
How could'st thou change to a corrupt,
A wildling grape?

The sense of their terrible guilt governs him, and of their indifference to it, saying we are clean, to which he answers: --

Yea though thou scour thee with nitre
And heap to thee lye,
Ingrained is thy guilt before Me --
Rede of the Lord.

Yet the fervency with which he pleads the Divine Love reveals a heart of hunger, if hardly of hope, for his nation's repentance. Indeed apart from his own love for them he could not have followed Hosea so closely as he does at this stage of his career, without feeling some possibility of their recovery from even this, their awful worst; and his ear strains for a sign of it. Like Hosea he hears what sounds like the surge of a national repentance(197) -- was it when Judah listened to the pleadings and warnings of the discovered Book of the Law and all the people stood to the Covenant? But he does not say whether he found this sincere or whether it was merely a shallow stir of the feelings. Probably he suspected the latter, for in answer to it he gives not God's gracious acceptance, but a stern call to a deeper repentance and to a thorough trenching of their hearts.

Fallow up the fallow-ground,
Sow not on thorns!
To your God(198) circumcise ye,
Off from your heart with the foreskin!
Lest My wrath break out like the fire,
And burn with none to quench.(199)

Jeremiah has been called the blackest of pessimists, and among his best-known sayings some seem to justify the charge: --

Can the Ethiop change his skin,
Or the leopard his spots?
Then also may ye do good,
Who are wont to do evil.(200)

And again,

False above all is the heart,
And sick to despair,
Who is to know it?

But to his question came the answer: --

I, the Lord, searching the heart,
And trying the reins,
To give to each man as his ways,
As the fruit of his doings.(201)

In this answer there is awfulness but not final doom. The affirmation of a man's dread responsibility for his fate implies, too, the liberty to change his ways. In the dim mystery of the heart freedom is clear. Similarly, and even more plainly, is this expressed in the earlier call to break up the fallow-ground. This implies that beneath those surfaces of the national life, whether of callous indifference on the one hand or of shallow feeling on the other, there is soil which, if thoroughly ploughed, will be hospitable to the good seed and fit to bring forth fruits meet for repentance. Human nature even at its worst has tracts other than those on which there has been careless sowing among thorns, moral possibilities below those of its abused or neglected surfaces. Let us mark this depth, which the Prophet's insight has already reached. Much will come out of it; this is the matrix of all developments by himself and others of the doctrine of man and his possibilities under God. And for all time the truth is valid that many spoiled or wasted lives are spoiled or wasted only on the surface; and that it is worth while ploughing deeper for their possibilities.(202)

In what form the deep ploughing required was at first imagined by the Prophet we see from the immediately following Oracles.

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