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Jeremiah by William Smith

1. The Release of Hope. (XXIV, XXIX.)

From these rapidly descending years a number of prophecies by Jeremiah have come to us, as well as narratives of the trials which he endured because of his faithfulness to the Word of the Lord, and his sane views of the facts of the time. As we read these prophecies and narratives several changes become clear in the position and circumstances of the Prophet, and in his temper and outlook. Signally vindicated as his words have been, we are not surprised that to his contemporaries he has grown to be a personage of greater impressiveness and authority than before. He has still his enemies but these are not found in exactly the same quarters as under Jehoiakim. Instead of an implacable king, and princes more or less respectful and friendly, in the king he has now a friend, though a timid and ineffective one, while the new and inferior princes appear almost wholly against him. Formerly both priests and prophets had been his foes, but now only the prophets are mentioned as such, and at least one priest is loyal to him.(482) Inwardly again, he has no more of those debates with God and his own soul, which had rent him during the previous years; only once does doubt escape from his lips in prayer.(483) Clearest of all, his hope has been released, and in contrast with his prophesying up to the surrender of Jerusalem in 597, but in full agreement with his enduring faith in God's Freedom and Patience,(484) he utters not a few predictions of a future upon their own land for both Israel and Judah. This greatest of the changes which appear is due partly to the fact that while the man's reluctant duty has been to pronounce the doom of exile upon his people, that doom has been fulfilled, and his spirit, which never desired it,(485) is free to range beyond its shadows. To the clearness into which he rises he is helped, under belief in the Divine Grace, by the truth obvious to all but fanatics that peace and order were possible for that shaken world only through submission to Nebuchadrezzar's firm government, including as this did a policy comparatively lenient to the Jewish exiles. But there was another and stronger reason why Jeremiah should at last turn himself to a ministry of hope, however sternly he must continue to denounce the Jews left in Jerusalem and Judah. The catastrophe of 597 largely separated the better elements of the nation, which were swept into exile, from the worse which remained in the land.

It is this drastic sifting, ethically one of the most momentous events in the history of Israel, with which Jeremiah's earliest Oracle under Sedekiah is concerned, Ch. XXIV. Once more the Word of the Lord starts to him from a vision, this time of two baskets, one of good the other of bad figs, which the Lord, he says, caused me to see: a vision which I take to be as physical and actual as those of the almond-rod and the caldron upon his call, or of the potter at his wheel, though others interpret it as imaginative like the visions of Amos.(486) Note how easily again the Prophet passes from verse to prose. The verse is slightly irregular. The stresses of the four couplets are these -- 3 + 3; 4 + 3; 4 + 3; 3 + 3 -- to which the following version only approximates.

XXIV.3. And the Lord said to me, What art thou seeing, Jeremiah? And I said, Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad very bad, which for their(487) badness cannot be eaten.4. And the Word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel --

Like unto these good figs
I look on the exiles of Judah,
Whom away from this place I have sent
To the Chaldeans' land for (their) good.
For good will I fix Mine eye upon them, 6
And bring them back to this land,
And build them and not pull them down,
And plant them and not pluck up.

7. And I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord, and they shall be for a people unto Me, and I will be to them for God, when they turn to me with all their heart.8. But like the bad figs which cannot be eaten for their(488) badness -- thus saith the Lord -- so I give up Sedekiah, king of Judah, and his princes and the remnant of Jerusalem, the left in this land,(489) with them that dwell in the land of Egypt.(490) 9. And I will set them for consternation(491) to all kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse, in all places whither I drive them. And I will send among them the sword, the famine and the pestilence, till they be consumed from off the ground which I gave to them.(492)

We cannot overestimate the effect upon Jeremiah himself, and through him and Ezekiel upon the subsequent history of Israel's religion, of this drastic separation in 597 of the exiles of Judah from the remnant left in the land. After suffering for years the hopelessness of converting his people, the Prophet at last saw an Israel of whom hope might be dared. It was not their distance which lent enchantment to his view for he gives proof that he can descry the dross still among them, despite the furnace through which they have passed.(493) But the banished were without doubt the best of the nation, and now they had |dreed their weird,| gone through the fire, been lifted out of the habits and passions of the past, and chastened by banishment -- pensive and wistful as exile alone can bring men to be.

We also have come out of the Great War with the best of us gone, and feel the contrast between their distant purity, out of great tribulation, and the unworthiness of those who are left. But neither to Jeremiah nor to any of his time was such inspiration possible as we draw from our brave, self-sacrificing dead. No confidence then existed in a life beyond the grave. Jeremiah himself can only weep for the slain of his people. His last vision of them is of corpses strewn on the field like sheaves left after the reaper which nobody gathers, barren of future harvests; and the last word he has for them is, they went forth and are not.(494) But that separated and distant Israel has for the Prophet something at least of what the cloud of witnesses by which we are encompassed means for us. There was quality in them, quality purified by suffering and sacrifice, more than enough to rally the conscience of the nation from which they had been torn. For the Prophet himself they released hope, they awoke the sense of a future, they revived the faith that God had still a will for His people, and that by His patient Grace a pure Israel might be re-born.

If the vision of the Figs reveals the ethical grounds of Jeremiah's new hope for Israel, his Letter to the Exiles, XXIX.1-23, discloses still another ground on which that hope was based -- his clear and sane appreciation of the politics of his time. And it adds a pronouncement of profound significance for the future of Israel's religion, that the sense of the presence of God, faith in His Providence and Grace, and prayer to Him were independent of Land and Temple.

From the subsequent fortunes of the exiles we know what liberal treatment they must have received from Nebuchadrezzar. They were settled by themselves; they were not, as in Egypt of old, hindered from multiplying; they were granted freedom to cultivate and to trade, by which many of them gradually rose to considerable influence among their captors. All this was given to Jeremiah to foresee and to impress upon the first exiles. But it meant that their exile would be long.

It is proof of the change in the Prophet's position among his people(495) that his Letter was carried to Babylon by two ambassadors from the King of Judah to Nebuchadrezzar, and evidently with the consent of Sedekiah himself. The text of the Letter and of its title, originally no doubt from Baruch's memoirs, has been considerably expanded, as is clear not only from the brevity of the Greek version, but from the superfluous formulas and premature insertions which the Hebrew and the Greek have in common. Following others I have taken verses 5-7 as metre; and if this is right we have a fresh instance of Jeremiah's passing from metre to prose in the same discourse. The metrical character of 5-7 is not certain. Its couplets run on the following irregular scheme of stresses: 3 + 4, 2 + 3, 3 + 3, 3 + 2 (?), 3 + 4, 3 + 4 -- the last line as so often in a strophe being a long one.(496)

XXIX.1. These are the words of the Letter which Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem unto [the remnant of] the elders of the exiles, by the hand of Eleasah, son of Shaphan, and Gemariah, son of Hilkiah, whom Sedekiah, king of Judah, sent to Babylon unto the king of Babylon saying, Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, unto the exiles whom I have exiled from Jerusalem:(497)

Build houses and settle ye down, 5
Plant gardens and eat of their fruit,
Take ye wives, 6
And beget sons and daughters.
Take wives to your sons,
Give your daughters to husbands,
To beget sons and daughters,(498)
And increase(499) and do not diminish.
And seek ye the peace of the land,(500) 7
To the which I have banished you,
And pray for it unto the Lord,
For in her peace your peace shall be.

8. [For thus saith the Lord, Let not the prophets in your midst deceive you, nor your diviners, nor hearken to the dreams they (?) dream.9. For falsehood are they prophesying unto you in My Name; I have not sent them.](501) 10. For thus saith the Lord, So soon as seventy years be fulfilled for Babylon, I will visit you and establish My Word toward you by bringing you(502) back to this place.

For I am thinking about you -- 11
Rede of the Lord --
Thoughts not of evil but peace
To give you a Future and Hope.
Ye shall pray Me, and I will hear you, 12
Seek Me and find; 13
If ye ask Me with all your heart
I shall be found of you. 14

By omitting all of verses 12-14 that is not given by the Greek we get these eight lines in approximately Jeremiah's favourite Qinah-measure. The Greek also lacks verses 16-20, which irrelevantly digress from the exiles to the guilt and doom of the Jews in Jerusalem, and which it is difficult to think that Jeremiah would have put into a letter to be carried by two of these same Jews.(503) Verse 15 goes with 21-23,(504) a separate message to the exiles which we shall treat in the following section.

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