Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, when king Zedekiah sent unto him Pashur the son of Melchiah, and Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, saying,XXI.
(1) The word which came unto Jeremiah . . .—There is obviously a great gap at this point in the collection of the prophet’s utterances, and we enter on a new body or group of prophecies which extends to the close of Jeremiah 33. Thus far we have had his ministry under Jehoiakim, the roll which was read before that king, and formed the first part of his work. Now we pass to the later stage, which forms what has been called the roll of Zedekiah. The judgment predicted in the previous roll had come nearer. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar were gathering round the city. The prophet was now honoured and consulted, and the king sent his chief minister, Pashur (not the priest who had been the prophet’s persecutor, as in the preceding chapter, but the head of the family or course of Melchiah), and Zephaniah, the “second priest,” or deputy of Jeremiah 52:24, to ask his intercession. We learn from their later history that they were in their hearts inclined to the policy of resistance, and ready to accuse Jeremiah of being a traitor (Jeremiah 38:1-4).
Inquire, I pray thee, of the LORD for us; for Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon maketh war against us; if so be that the LORD will deal with us according to all his wondrous works, that he may go up from us.(2) Nebuchadrezzar.—This form of the name, as might be expected in the writings of one who was personally brought into contact with the king and his officers, is more correct than that of Nebuchadnezzar, which we find elsewhere, and even in Jeremiah’s own writings (Jeremiah 34:1; Jeremiah 39:5).
The name has been variously interpreted by scholars as “Nebo protects against misfortune,” “Nebo protects the land-marks,” “Nebo protects the crown,” or “Fire, the shining God.”
If so be that the Lord will deal with us . . .—The messengers come to inquire of the prophet, and yet suggest the answer which he is expected to give. Jehovah is to show His wondrous works in the deliverance of the city. The history of Sennacherib’s army (2 Kings 19; Isaiah 37) was probably present to their minds. It was apparently an attempt on the part of the king and his counsellors, under the show of a devout reverence, to entice Jeremiah to change his tone and side with the policy of resistance to the Chaldæans. In Jeremiah 37:3 we have another like mission, coming apparently at a somewhat later date in the reign of Zedekiah
That he may go up from us.—i.e., in modern phraseology, that he may “raise the siege.”
Thus saith the LORD God of Israel; Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands, wherewith ye fight against the king of Babylon, and against the Chaldeans, which besiege you without the walls, and I will assemble them into the midst of this city.(4) Behold, I will turn back . . .—Jeremiah’s answer is far other than they looked for, and had even ventured to suggest. The judgment could no longer be averted. The hand of Jehovah was against them, and would bring the Chaldæans that were now outside the walls nearer and nearer, till they came within them. In the structure of the sentence, however, “without the walls “belongs to “wherewith ye fight.” The defenders of the city were to be driven back within its gates from the outer line of fortifications.
And I will smite the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast: they shall die of a great pestilence.(6) They shall die of a great pestilence.—This was doubtless, as in other instances (Thuc. ii. 52), the natural consequence of the siege, but it came before the people as another proof that Jehovah had stretched out his arm against them, that they were fighting against that arm as well as against the host of the invaders. The “outstretched hand” may be noted as another Deuteronomic phrase (Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 26:8).
And afterward, saith the LORD, I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah, and his servants, and the people, and such as are left in this city from the pestilence, from the sword, and from the famine, into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those that seek their life: and he shall smite them with the edge of the sword; he shall not spare them, neither have pity, nor have mercy.(7) He shall smite them with the edge of the sword.—The words were bold words for the prophet to utter while the king was still on the throne, and urged on by his princes to defy the power of the Chaldæan king. In Jeremiah 52:10; Jeremiah 52:24-27 we find their literal fulfilment.
And unto this people thou shalt say, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death.(8) The way of life, and the way of death.—The words are not unlike those of Deuteronomy 11:26-27; Deuteronomy 30:15; Deuteronomy 30:19, but there is something like a solemn irony in their application here. They obviously present themselves, not with the wide spiritual application with which they meet us there, but are to be taken in their lowest and most literal sense. The “way of life” is no longer that way of righteousness which the men of Judah had forsaken, leading to the life of eternal blessedness, but simply submission to the Chaldæans, and the life so gained was one of exile and poverty, if not of bondage also.
He that abideth in this city shall die by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence: but he that goeth out, and falleth to the Chaldeans that besiege you, he shall live, and his life shall be unto him for a prey.(9) And falleth to the Chaldeans.—The words must have seemed to the messengers to counsel treachery and desertion, and were remembered against the prophet in the taunt of Jeremiah 37:13. They were, however, acted on by not a few (Jeremiah 39:9; Jeremiah 52:15).
His life shall be unto him for a prey.—The phrase is characteristic of Jeremiah, and forcibly illustrates the misery of the time. Life itself was not a secure possession, but as the spoil which a man seizes on the field of battle, and with which he hastens away, lest another should deprive him of it. It occurs again in Jeremiah 39:18; Jeremiah 45:5.
For I have set my face against this city for evil, and not for good, saith the LORD: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.(10) He shall burn it with fire.—Another detail of prediction fulfilled literally in Jeremiah 52:13. Such a destruction was, of course, common enough as an incident of the capture of besieged cities, but it was not universal. Often, indeed, the conquerors sought to preserve the city and to occupy its palaces. The actual answer to Zedekiah’s messengers possibly ended with this verse.
And touching the house of the king of Judah, say, Hear ye the word of the LORD;(11) Say, Hear ye the word of the Lord.—The interpolated “say” is not wanted, and tends to convey the probably wrong impression that we are dealing with a new message rather than a continuation of the former one. The question whether it is such a continuation has been variously answered by different commentators. On the one hand, the conditional threatenings are said to imply an earlier stage of Jeremiah’s work than the doom, absolute and unconditional, pronounced in Jeremiah 21:1-10, and so have led men to refer the message to the earlier years of Jehoiakim. On the other, it is urged that the words may have the character of a last promise, and therefore a last warning.
O house of David, thus saith the LORD; Execute judgment in the morning, and deliver him that is spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor, lest my fury go out like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.(12) Execute judgment in the morning.—The words point to one of the chief duties of the ideal Eastern king. To rise at dawn of day, to sit in the gate and listen to the complaints of those who had been wronged, was the surest way to gain the affection of his people. It was David’s neglect of this that gave an opening for the rebellion of Absalom (2Samuel 15:2). Solomon’s early fame for wisdom rested on his discharge of this duty (1Kings 3:28). If the king remained slothfully in his palace in those golden hours of morning, the noon-tide heat made it impossible for him to retrieve the lost opportunity. (Comp. 2Samuel 4:5.) Still worse was it when, as with luxurious and sensual kings, the morning hours were given to revelry and feasting (Ecclesiastes 10:16-17).
Behold, I am against thee, O inhabitant of the valley, and rock of the plain, saith the LORD; which say, Who shall come down against us? or who shall enter into our habitations?(13) O inhabitant of the valley . . .—The noun, as the marginal “inhabitress” shows, is feminine; and, as in “the daughter of Zion” for Zion itself, describes the lower city of Jerusalem, Isaiah’s “valley of vision” (Isaiah 22:1; Isaiah 22:5), the Tyropœon of Josephus. The “rock of the plain” (comp. Notes on Jeremiah 17:3; Jeremiah 18:14) is, in like manner, the higher city built on the hill of Zion. The king and his people trusted, as the Jebusites had done of old (2Samuel 5:8), in what seemed to them the impregnable strength of their natural position. There seems no adequate reason for taking the words as symbolising the kingly house of Judah, but it is probable enough that local associations, palaces on the hill or in the valley, may have given the words a specially pointed application.
But I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, saith the LORD: and I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof, and it shall devour all things round about it.(14) I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof.—The “forest” thus referred to may be either literally the woods, then covering a larger surface than in later times, at Kirjath-jearim (Psalm 132:6; 1Samuel 7:2), or the wood of the lone wilderness of Ziph (1Samuel 23:15), or the valley of Rephaim (2Samuel 5:22), or, figuratively, the royal palace, which, from its cedar columns (1Kings 7:2; 1Kings 10:21), was known as “the house of the forest of Lebanon.” (Comp. the comparison of the king’s house to “Gilead and the head of Lebanon,” in Jeremiah 22:6.) The desolation wrought by an invading army such as that of Nebuchadnezzar, cutting down the “choice fir-trees of Lebanon and the forest of Carmel” (2Kings 19:23), showed itself in this destruction of forests in its most conspicuous form, and explains the comparative scarcity of trees in modern Palestine. So Assur-nasirpal narrates, in the history of his conquests, how he had cut down the pine, box, cypress, and other trees of the forest (Records of the Past, iii. p. 74).