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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : 3. The Siege. (XXI, XXXII-XXXIV, XXXVII, XXXVIII.)

Jeremiah by William Smith

3. The Siege. (XXI, XXXII-XXXIV, XXXVII, XXXVIII.)

History has no harder test for the character and doctrine of a great teacher than the siege of his city. Instances beyond the Bible are those of Archimedes in the siege of Syracuse, 212 B.C., Pope Innocent the First in that of Rome by Alaric, 417 A.D., and John Knox in that of St. Andrews by the French, 1547. A siege brings the prophet's feet as low as the feet of the crowd. He shares the dangers, the duties of defence, the last crusts. His hunger, and, what is still keener, his pity for those who suffer it with him, may break his faith into cowardice and superstition. But if faith stands, and common-sense with it, his opportunities are high. His powers of spiritual vision may prove to be also those of political and even of military foresight, and either inspire the besieged to a victorious resistance, or compel himself, alone in a cityful of fanatics, to counsel surrender. A siege can turn a prophet or quiet thinker into a hero.

The Old Testament gives us three instances -- Elisha's brave visions during the Syrian blockade of Dothan and siege of Samaria; Isaiah, upon the solitary strength of his faith, carrying Jerusalem inviolate through her siege by the Assyrians; and now a century later Jeremiah, with a more costly courage, counselling her surrender to the Babylonians.

The records of the Prophet's activity and sufferings during the siege are so curiously scattered through the Book and furnished with such headlines as to leave it clear that they were added at different times and possibly from different sources. Some of them raise the question whether or not they are doublets.

Three, XXI.1-10, XXXIV.1-7, XXXVII.3-10, bear pronouncements by Jeremiah that the city must surrender or be stormed and burned. Of these the first and third each gives as the occasion of the pronouncement it quotes, Sedekiah's mission of two men to the Prophet. Several critics regard these missions as identical. But can we doubt that during that crisis of two years the distracted king would send more than once for a Divine word? And for this what moments were so natural as when the Chaldeans were beginning the siege, XXI.4, and when they raised it, XXXVII.5? That one of the two messengers is on each occasion the same affords an inadequate reason -- and no other exists -- for arguing that both passages are but differently telling the same story.(569) Nor have any grounds been offered for identifying the occasion of either passage with that of XXXIV.1-7. Thus we have three separate deliverances from Jeremiah to the king, each with its own vivid phrases and distinctive edge.

The first, XXI 1-10, was given as the Chaldeans closed upon Jerusalem but the Jews were not yet driven within the walls.(570) Sedekiah sent Pashhur and Sephaniah to inquire if by a miracle the Lord would raise the siege. The grim answer came that the Lord Himself would fight the besieged, till they died of pestilence and the survivors were slaughtered by Nebuchadrezzar -- I(571) shall not spare nor pity them -- which is proof that this Oracle was uttered before the end of the siege, when the survivors were not slain but deported. The people are advised to desert to the enemy -- counsel which we shall consider later.

The second, XXXIV.1-7, records a pronouncement unsought by the king but evoked from Jeremiah by the progress of the Chaldean arms, which had overrun all Judah save the fortresses of Jerusalem, Lachish and Azekah. Its vivid genuineness is further certified by its unfulfilled promise of a peaceful death for Sedekiah. The following is mainly after the Greek.

XXXIV.2b. Thus saith the Lord: This city shall certainly be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it and burn it with fire.3. And thou shalt not escape but surely be taken and delivered into his hand; and thine eyes shall look into his eyes, and his mouth speak with thy mouth,(572) and to Babylon shalt thou come.4. Yet hear the Lord's Word, O Sedekiah, king of Judah! 5. Thus saith the Lord,(573) In peace shalt thou die, and as the burnings(574) for thy fathers who reigned before thee so shall they burn for thee, and with |Ah lord!| lament thee. I have spoken the Word -- Rede of the Lord.

The miserable king, how much worse was in store for him than even Jeremiah was given to foresee! Duhm (to our surprise, as Cornill remarks) agrees that the passage is from Baruch; but only in order to support the precarious thesis that Baruch knew nothing of Sedekiah's being afterwards blinded and that the reports of this(575) sprang from unfounded rumour.

The third pronouncement to Sedekiah, XXXVII.3-10,(576) was made when the king sent Jehucal and Sephaniah to seek the Prophet's prayers, after the Chaldeans had raised the siege in order to meet the reported Egyptian advance to the relief of Jerusalem.

XXXVII.7. Thus saith the Lord: Thus say ye to the king of Judah who sent you to inquire of Me,(577) Behold, Pharaoh's army, which is coming forth to help you, shall return to the land of Egypt.8. And the Chaldeans shall come back and fight against this city and take it and burn it with fire.9. For(578) thus saith the Lord: Deceive not yourselves saying, The Chaldeans shall surely go off from us; they shall not go.10. Even though ye smote the whole host of the Chaldeans that are fighting with you, and but wounded men were left, yet should these rise, each in his tent,(579) and burn this city with fire.

It is very remarkable how the spiritual powers of the Prophet endowed him with these sound views of the facts of his time, and of their eventualities whether in the political or in the military sphere. For nearly forty years he had foretold judgment on his people out of the North: for eighteen at least he had been sure that its instrument would be Nebuchadrezzar and he had foreseen the first deportation of the Jews to Babylonia. Now step by step through the siege he is clear as to what must happen -- clear that the Chaldeans will invest the city, clear when they raise the investment that they will beat off the Egyptian army of relief and return, clear that resistance to them is hopeless, and will but add thousands of deaths by famine and pestilence before the city is taken and burned and its survivors carried into exile -- all of which comes to pass. But this political sagacity and military foresight have their source in moral and spiritual convictions -- the Prophet's assurance of the character and will of God, his faith in the Divine Government not of a single nation but of all the powers of the world, and his belief that a people is saved and will endure for the service of mankind, neither because of past privileges nor by the traditions in which it trusts, nor by adherence to dogmas however vital these have been to its fathers, nor even by its passionate patriotism and its stubborn gallantry in defence of land and homes, but only by its justice, its purity, and its obedience to God's will. These are the spiritual convictions which alone keep the Prophet's eyes open and his heart steadfast through the fluctuations of policy and of military fortune that shake his world, and under the agony of appearing to be a traitor to his country and of preaching the doom of a people whom he loves with all his soul.

The case of John Knox affords a parallel to that of the Hebrew prophet. He told the garrison and citizens of St. Andrews, when besieged by the French, that |their corrupt life could not escape punishment of God and that was his continued advertisement from the time he was called to preach| among them. |When they triumphed of their victory (the first twenty days they had many prosperous chances) he lamented and ever said 'They saw not what he saw!' When they bragged of the force and thickness of their walls, he said, 'They should be but egg-shells!' When they vaunted 'England will rescue us!' he said, 'Ye shall not see them, but ye shall be delivered into your enemies' hands and shall be carried to a strange country!' | that is France. All of which came to pass, as with Jeremiah's main predictions.(580)

The second of Jeremiah's pronouncements given above is followed by the story of the besieged's despicable treatment of their slaves, XXXIV.8-22; based on a memoir by Baruch, but expanded. Both the Hebrew and the shorter Greek offer in parts an uncertain text, and add this problem that their story begins with a covenant to proclaim a Liberty(581) for the Hebrew slaves in general, while the words which they attribute to Jeremiah limit it to the emancipation, in terms of a particular law, of those slaves who had completed six years of service (verse 14).(582) But neither this nor the other and smaller uncertainties touch the substance of the story.(583) As the siege began the king and other masters of slaves in Jerusalem entered into solemn covenant to free their Hebrew slaves, obviously in order to propitiate their God, and also some would assert (though unsupported by the text) in order to increase their fighting ranks; but when the siege was raised they forced their freedmen back to bondage: |a deathbed repentance with the usual sequel on recovery.|(584) This is the barest exposure among many we have of the character of the people with whom Jeremiah had to deal, and justifies the hardest he has said of their shamelessness.

XXXIV.17. Therefore thus saith the Lord: Ye have not obeyed Me by proclaiming a Liberty each for his countryman. Behold I am about to proclaim for you a Liberty -- to the sword, to the famine and to the pestilence, and I will set you a consternation to all kingdoms of the earth....21. And Sedekiah, king of Judah, and his princes will I give into the hands of their foes, the king of Babylon's host that are gone up from you.22. Behold, I am about to command -- Rede of the Lord -- and bring them back to this city and they shall storm and take it and burn it with fire, and the townships of Judah will I make desolate and tenantless.

Are we not in danger of the guilt of a similar perjury to the men who fought for us in the Great War, and for whom we have not yet fulfilled all the promises made to them by our governors?

About this time the ill-treatment of Jeremiah, which had ceased on Sedekiah's accession, was resumed. The narrative, or succession of narratives, of this begins at XXXVII.11, and continues to XXXIX.14, with interruptions in XXXIX.1, 2, 4-13. Save for a few expansions, the whole must have been taken from Baruch's memoirs. Except for the omission of XXXIX.4-13, the differences of the Greek from the Hebrew are unimportant, consisting in the usual absence of repetitions of titles, epithets and names.

The siege being raised, Jeremiah was going out by the North gate of the city to Anathoth to claim or to manage(585) some property there, when he was arrested by the captain of the watch, and charged with deserting. He denied this, but was taken to the princes, who flogged him and flung him into a vault in the house of Jonathan, the Secretary. After many days he was sent for by the king who asked, Is there Word from the Lord? There is, he replied, and, as if drumming a lesson into a stupid child's head, repeated his message, Thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the King of Babylon. He asked what he had done to be treated as he had been, and, by contrast, where were the prophets who had said that the Babylonians would not come to Judah -- his irony was not yet starved out of him! -- and begged not to be sent back to the vault. The king committed him to the Court of the Guard, where at least he was above ground, could receive visitors, and was granted daily a loaf from the Bakers' Bazaar while bread lasted in the city.(586)

Yet through his bars he still defied his foes and they were at him again, quoting to the king two Oracles which he had uttered before and apparently was repeating to those who resorted to him in the Guard-Court.

XXXVIII.1. And Shephatiah, Mattan's son, Gedaliah Pashhur's son, Jucal Shelamiah's son, and Pashhur Malchiah's son,(587) heard the words Jeremiah was speaking about the people:(588) |Thus saith the Lord, He that abides in this city shall die by the sword, the famine or the pestilence, but he that goes forth to the Chaldeans shall live -- his life shall be to him for a prey but he shall live.|(589) 3. |Thus(590) saith the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon's host and they shall take it.|

Verse 2 is rejected by Duhm and Cornill partly on the insufficient ground that verses 2 and 3 have separate introductions and therefore could have had originally no connection. But in quoting two utterances of the Prophet for their cumulative effect it was natural to prefix to each his usual formula. Duhm's and Cornill's real motive, however, is their repugnance to admitting that Jeremiah could have advised desertion from the city. So Duhm equally rejects XXI.9, of which XXXVIII.2 is but an abbreviation; while Cornill seeks to save XXI.9 by reading it as a summons to the whole people to surrender and so distinguishes it from XXXVIII.2, advice to individuals to desert. I fail to follow this distinction. The terms used are as individual in the one verse as in the other; if the one goes the other must also. But need either go? Duhm's view is that both are from a later period, when there was no longer a native government in Judah, reverence for the monarchy was dead, and the common conscience of Jewry was not civic but ecclesiastical! This is ingenious, but far from convincing. There are no grounds either for denying these verses to Jeremiah, or for reading his advice to go forth to the Chaldeans as meant otherwise than for the individual citizens.

Was such advice right or wrong? The question is much debated. The two German scholars just quoted find it so wrong that they cannot think of it as Jeremiah's. But in that situation and under the convictions which held him, the Prophet could not have spoken differently. He knew, and soundly knew, not only that the city was doomed and that her rulers who persisted in defending her were senseless, if gallant, fanatics, but also that they had forfeited their technical legitimacy. To talk to-day of duty, civil or military, to such a perjured Government does not even deserve to be called constitutional pedantry, for it has not a splinter of constitutionalism to support it. Sedekiah held his vassal throne only by his oath to his suzerain of Babylon and when he broke that oath his legitimacy crumbled.(591) Of right Divine or human there was none in a government so forsworn and self-disentitled, besides being so insane, as that of the feeble king and his frantic masters, the princes. For Jeremiah the only Divine right was Nebuchadrezzar's. But to the conviction that Sedekiah and the princes were not the lawful lords of Judah, we must add the pity of the Prophet as he foresaw the men, women and children of his people done to useless death by the cruel illusions of their illegitimate governors. Calvin is right, when, after a careful reservation of the duties of private citizens to their government at war, he pronounces that |Jeremiah could not have brought better counsel| to the civilians and soldiers of Jerusalem.(592) And it is no paradox to say that the Prophet's sincerity in giving such advice is sealed by his heroic refusal to accept it for himself and resolution to share to the end what sufferings the obstinacy of her lords was to bring on the city. Nor, be it observed, did he bribe his fellow citizens to desert to the enemy by any rich promise. He plainly told them that this would leave a man nothing but bare life -- his life for a prey.

It would, however, be most irrelevant to deduce from so peculiar a situation, and from the Divine counsels applicable to this alone, any sanction for |pacificism| in general, or to set up Jeremiah as an example of the duty of deserting one's government when at war, in all circumstances and whatever were the issues at stake. We might as well affirm that the example of the man, who rouses his family to flee when he finds their home hopelessly on fire, is valid for him whose house is threatened by burglars. Isaiah inspired resistance to the Assyrian besiegers of Jerusalem in his day with as Divine authority as Jeremiah denounced resistance to the Chaldean besiegers in his. Nor can we doubt that our Prophet would have appreciated the just, the inevitable revolt of the Maccabees against their pagan tyrants, which is divinely praised in the Epistle to the Hebrews as a high example of faith. It is one thing to deny allegiance, as Jeremiah did, to a government that had broken the oath on which alone its rights were founded, and the keeping of which was the sole security for |the stability of the times.| It is another and very different thing to refuse, on alleged grounds of conscience, to follow one's government when it lifts the sword against a people who have broken their oath, and mobilises its subjects in defence of justice and of the freedom of weaker nations, imperilled by that perjury.

But the princes seem to have honestly believed that Jeremiah was guilty of treason, and said to the king --

XXXVIII.4. Let this man, we pray, be put to death forasmuch as he weakens the hands of the men of war left to the city and the hands of all the people by speaking such words to them, for this man is seeking not the welfare of this people but the hurt.5. And the king said, Behold he is in your hand; for the king was not able to do anything against them.(593) 6. So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah the king's son, in the Court of the Guard; and they let down Jeremiah with cords. In the cistern there was no water, only mire, and Jeremiah sank in the mire.

The story which follows is one of the fairest in the Old Testament, XXXVIII.7-13.(594) When no others seem to have stirred to rescue the Prophet -- unless Baruch had a hand in what he tells and is characteristically silent about it -- Ebed-melech, a negro eunuch of the palace, sought the king where he then was(595) and charged the princes with starving Jeremiah to death.(596) The king at once ordered him to take three(597) men and rescue the Prophet. The thoughtful negro, perhaps prompted by the women of the palace, procured some rags and old clouts from a lumber room, told Jeremiah to put them under his arm-pits to soften the roughness of the ropes, and so drew him gently from the mire and he was restored to the Guard-Court. Ebed-melech had his reward in the Lord's promise to save him from the men whom he had made his foes by his brave rescue of their prey.(598)

Once more, as we might expect, the restless king sent for Jeremiah.(599) Shaken by his terrible experiences the Prophet, before he would answer, asked if the king would put him to death for his answer or act on his advice. The king swore not to hand him over to the princes; so Jeremiah promised that if Sedekiah would give himself up to the Chaldeans he and his house would be spared and the city saved. The king -- it is another credible trait in this weak character -- feared that the Chaldeans would deliver him to the mockery of those Jews who had already deserted to them. Jeremiah sought to reassure him, again urged him to surrender, and then burst out with the vision -- an extraordinarily interesting phase of prophetic ecstasy -- of another mockery which the king would suffer from his own women if he did not yield but waited to be taken captive.

XXXVIII.21. But if thou refuse to go forth this is the thing the Lord has given me to see: 22. Behold all the women, that are left in the king of Judah's house,(600) brought forth to the princes of the king of Babylon and saying,

They set thee on and compelled thee,
The men of thy peace;
Now they have plunged thy feet in the swam
They turn back from thee!(601)

The verse is in Jeremiah's favourite measure, and its figures spring immediately from his experience. The mire can hardly have dried on him, into which he had been dropped, but at least his friends had pulled him out of it; the king had been forced into far deeper mire by his own counsellors, and they were leaving him in it!

The nervous king jibbed from the vision without remark and begged Jeremiah not to tell what had passed between them, but, if asked, to say that he had been supplicating Sedekiah not to send him back to the house of Jonathan; which answer the Prophet obediently gave to the inquisitive princes and so quieted them: the matter was not perceived. He has been blamed for prevaricating. On this point Calvin is as usual candid and sane. |It was indeed not a falsehood, but this evasion cannot wholly be excused. The Prophet had an honest fear; he was perplexed and anxious -- it would be better to die at once than be thus buried alive in the earth.... Yet it was a kind of falsehood. He confesses that he did as the king charged him and there is no doubt that he had before him the king's timidity.... He cannot be wholly exempted from blame. In short, we see how even the servants of God have spoken evasively when under extreme fear.| The prophets were men of like passions with ourselves. By now Jeremiah had aged, and was strained by the flogging, the darkness, the filth and the hunger he had suffered. Can we wonder at or blame him? But with what authenticity does its frankness stamp the whole story!

With most commentators I have treated Ch. XXXVIII as the account of a fresh arrest of Jeremiah and a fresh interview between him and Sedekiah. I see, however, that Dr. Skinner takes the whole chapter to be |a duplication.|(602) He considers it a general improbability that two such interviews, as XXXVII.17-21 and XXXVIII.14-27 relate, |should have taken place in similar circumstances within so short a time.| Yet the king was just the man to appeal to the Prophet time after time during the siege. The similarities in the two stories are natural because circumstances were more or less similar at the various stages of such a siege; but the differences are more significant. The vivid details of XXXVIII attest it as the account of an event and of sayings subsequent to those related in XXXVII. The Prophet's precaution, before he would answer, in getting a pledge that he would not be put to death nor handed over to the princes, as he had already been, and his consent for Sedekiah's sake, as well as for his own, to prevaricate to the princes are features not found in the other reports of such interviews, but intelligible and natural after the terrible treatment he had suffered. Dr. Skinner, too, admits that the two accounts may be read as of different experiences of the Prophet, |if we can suppose that the offence with which he is charged in XXXVIII.1 ff. could have been committed while he was a prisoner in the court of the guard;| but this appears to Dr. Skinner as |hardly credible.| Yet the incidents related in XXXII.6-15 show not only that it is credible but that it actually happened. In the East such imprisonment does not prevent a prisoner, though shackled, from communicating with his friends and even with the gaping crowd outside his bars, as I have seen more than once.

In the Court of the Guard Jeremiah remained till the city was taken.(603) He regained communication with his friends; and it is not surprising to have as from this time several sayings by him, or to discover from them that his heart, no longer confined to reiterating the certain doom of the city, was once more released to the hope of a future for his people, hope across which the shadow of doubt appears to have fallen but once. His guard-court prophecies form part of that separate collection, Chs. XXX-XXXIII, to which the name The Book of Hope has been fitly given. Of these chapters XXX and XXXI, without date, imply that the city has already fallen and the exile of her people is complete. But XXXII and XXXIII are assigned to the last year of the siege and to the Prophet's confinement to the guard-court. There is now general agreement that XXXII.1-5 (or at least 3-5) are from a later hand, which correctly dates the story it introduces but attributes Jeremiah's imprisonment to Sedekiah instead of to the princes, and even seems to confound Sedekiah with Jehoiachin; and second that the story itself, of a transaction between Jeremiah and his cousin regarding some family property, is genuine, dictated by the Prophet to Baruch before or after the end of the siege. Some reject as later all the rest of the chapter: a long prayer by Jeremiah and the Lord's answer to it, both of which are full of deuteronomic phrases. Yet that an editor should have made so large an addition to the book without genuine material to work from is hardly credible; while it is characteristic of Jeremiah to have fallen into the doubt his prayer reveals, and this doubt would naturally be followed by a Divine answer. But such original elements it is not possible to discriminate exactly from the expansions by which they have been overlaid.(604)

XXXII.6. And Jeremiah said, The Word of the Lord came to me saying, Behold, Hanamel son of Shallum thine uncle is coming to thee to say, Buy thee my field in Anathoth, for thine is the right of redemption to buy it.8. And Hanamel son of my uncle came to me in the guard-court and said, Buy my field that is Anathoth, for the right of inheritance is thine and thine the redemption; buy it for thyself. Then I knew that it was the Lord's Word.9. So I bought the field from Hanamel mine uncle's son and weighed to him seventeen silver shekels.10. And I subscribed the deed and sealed it and took witnesses, weighing the money in the balances.11. And I took the deed of sale, both that which was sealed and that which was open,(605) and I gave it to Baruch son of Neriah, son of Mahseiah, in the sight of Hanamel mine uncle's son, and in sight of the Jews sitting in the guard-court.13. And in their sight I charged Baruch, saying, Thus saith the Lord of Hosts: Take this deed of sale which is sealed, and this deed which is open, and put them in an earthen vessel that they may last many days.15. For thus saith the Lord, Houses and fields and vineyards shall yet again be bought in this land.16. Now after I had given the deed of sale to Baruch, Neriah's son, I prayed to the Lord saying, Ah Lord ... (?) behold the mounts; they are come to the city to take it, and the city shall be given into the hands of the Chaldeans who are fighting against it, because of the sword and the famine and the pestilence; and what Thou hast spoken is come to pass, and, lo, Thou art seeing it.25. Yet Thou saidst to me, Buy thee the field for money, so I wrote the deed and sealed it and took witnesses -- whereas the city is to be given into the hands of the Chaldeans!

The tone of the expostulating Jeremiah is here unmistakable; and (as I have said) a Divine answer to his expostulations must have been given him, though now perhaps irrecoverable from among the expansions which it has undergone, verses 26-44. Two things are of interest: the practical carefulness of this great idealist, and the fact that the material basis of his hope for his country's freedom and prosperity was his own right to a bit of property in land. Let those observe, who deny to such individual rights any communal interest or advantage. Jeremiah at least proves how a small property of his own may help a prophet in his hope for his country and people.

All this is followed in Ch. XXXIII by a series of oracles under the heading The Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah a second time while he was still shut up in the guard-court. Because verses 14-26 are lacking in the Greek and could not have been omitted by the translator had they been in the original text, and because they are composed partly of mere echoes of Jeremiah and partly of promises for the Monarchy and Priesthood not consonant with his views of the institutions of Israel, they are very generally rejected. So are 2 and 3 because of their doubtful relevance and their style, that of the great prophet of the end of the Exile. The originality of 1 and 4-13 has also been denied. The question is difficult. But there is no reason to doubt that the editor had good material for the data in 1, or that under the Hebrew text, which as it stands in 4, 5 is impossible(606) and throughout 6-13 has been much expanded, there is something of Jeremiah's own. Verses 4 and 5 reflect the siege in progress, though if the date in verse 1 be correct we must take torn down as future. In 6-13 are promises of the restoration of the ruined city, of peace and stability, of the return of the exiles both of Judah and Israel and of their forgiveness; Jerusalem shall again be a joy, and the voices of joy, of the bridegroom and bride, and of worship in the Temple, shall again be heard; shepherds and their flocks shall be restored throughout Judah and the Negeb. It would be daring to deny to the Prophet the whole of this prospect. The city was about to be ruined, its houses filled with dead; the land had already been ravaged. His office of doom was discharged; it is not unnatural to believe that his great soul broke out with a vision of the hope beyond for which he had taken so practical a pledge. That is all we can say; some of the details of the prospect can hardly be his.(607)

Jerusalem fell at last in 586 and Jeremiah's imprisonment in the guard-court was over.(608)

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