Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders which were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon;XXIX.
(1) These are the words.—The prophecy in this chapter was addressed to those whom we may describe as the first of the Babylonian exiles who had been carried into captivity with Jeconiah (see Note on Jeremiah 35:2). Among these also, probably in connection with the projects which we have traced in the preceding chapter, there was a restless disquietude, fostered by false prophets, who urged the people to rebel against their conquerors. Against that policy Jeremiah, in accordance with the convictions on which he had all along acted, enters an earnest protest. The letter was sent by special messengers, of whom we read in Jeremiah 29:3, and shows that Jeremiah had been kept well informed of all that passed at Babylon. The spelling of the prophet’s name, in the Hebrew text, as Jeremiah, instead of the form Jeremiahu, which is the more common form throughout the book, is probably an indication that the opening verse which introduces the letter was the work of a later hand. The date of the letter was probably early in the reign of Zedekiah, before the incidents of the previous chapter. It is brought before us as following in almost immediate sequel on the deportation mentioned in Jeremiah 29:2. The term “residue of the elders,” in connexion with “priests and prophets,” points to the fact that the whole body of counsellors, so named, had not been carried into exile, but only the more prominent members. Such “elders” we find in Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 20:1. Ezekiel himself may be thought of as among the priests and prophets.
(After that Jeconiah the king, and the queen, and the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the carpenters, and the smiths, were departed from Jerusalem;)(2) The queen.—This was probably the queen-mother, Nehushta, the daughter of Elnathan (2Kings 24:8). The name probably indicates a connection with the Elnathan the son of Achbor, of Jeremiah 26:22, but we cannot assert with any confidence the identity of the one with the other.
The carpenters, and the smiths.—See Note on Jeremiah 24:1. Among the exiles thus referred to as “princes” we have to think of Daniel, and those who are best known to us by their Babylonian names as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Daniel 1:6-7). The conduct, we may well believe, was in accordance with Jeremiah’s teaching.
By the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, (whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent unto Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon) saying,(3) By the hand of Elasah . . .—The names of the messengers are of some interest. Elasah, the son of Shaphan, was the brother of Jeremiah’s protector. Ahikam (Jeremiah 26:24). Gemariah (to be distinguished from his namesake the son of Shaphan in Jeremiah 36:12) was probably the son of Hilkiah, the high-priest under Josiah who found the lost Book of the Law (2Kings 22:4), and took a prominent part in the work of reformation. Each would therefore naturally take his place among the prophet’s friends and supporters. They carried his letter as well as the diplomatic missive of the king. That they had been sent as envoys by Zedekiah indicates that the policy of the weak and vacillating king had been to some extent affected by the counsels of Jeremiah, and that he had at least half abandoned the idea of revolt, and had sent to acknowledge the suzerainty of Nebuchadnezzar. It is hardly likely, at least, that the letter from the prophet, of which they were the bearers, should have been in flagrant antagonism with their mission as envoys from the king. The embassy was probably prior to the personal visit of Zechariah recorded in Jeremiah 51:59.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon;(4) Thus saith the Lord of hosts . . .—We have here the nearest parallel in the Old Testament to the Epistles which make up so large a portion of the New, the very text of a written letter sent to those with whom the teacher was no longer able to hold personal communication. It obviously furnished the type which was followed by the writer of the apocryphal letter from Jeremiah in Baruch 6.
Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them;(5) Build ye houses, and dwell in them.—The command had a two-fold bearing. It counselled a patient acceptance of the present state of things. It announced, as the next verse does yet more emphatically, that their exile would last for at least two generations. It indicates, also, the comparative leniency with which the exiles were treated. They were allowed to become possessors both of lands and houses. The favour shown to Daniel and his friends would, of course, tend to make their condition more tolerable.
And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.(7) And seek the peace of the city . . .—This was, we may believe, the hardest command of all. To refrain from all curses and imprecations, even from such as came from the lips of those who hung their harps on the willows by the waters of Babylon (Psalms 137), to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city where they were eating the bread of captivity—this surely required an almost superhuman patience. Yet this was the prophet’s counsel. It seems almost to follow—unless we apply Augustine’s rule, Distingue tempora, and refer the psalm to a time prior to Jeremiah’s letter, or nearer the day of vengeance—that those imprecations, natural as they seem, belonged to a lower stage of spiritual progress than that represented by the prophet. He was, to those impatient exiles, as our Lord was to the impatient disciples who sought to call down fire on the village of the Samaritans (Luke 9:54-56). So, we may remember, Christians living under Nero were told to pray for the Emperor (1Timothy 2:2).
For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed.(8) Let not your prophets and your diviners . . .—The words are significant as showing that the same agencies which were counteracting the prophet’s teaching in Jerusalem were at work also in Babylon. There, too, “prophets and diviners,” whom the Lord had not sent, were prophesying of a speedy deliverance, and it was necessary to reiterate for those who would listen to the prophet’s warnings, that the exile would run its appointed course of seventy years, as Jeremiah had announced to the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah 25:12; Jeremiah 27:22. The “dreams which ye cause to be dreamed” (an altogether exceptional phrase) indicates that the supply was created by a demand for visions of this nature.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.(11) For I know the thoughts . . .—The word used for “saith the Lord” implies that the gracious promise came to the prophet’s soul as an oracle from heaven. In the “thoughts” of God there is, perhaps, a reference to what had been said before of the Babylonian exiles in Jeremiah 24:6.
To give you an expected end.—Better, to give you a future (that which is to be hereafter) and a hope. This is the literal rendering of the words, and it is far more expressive than that of the English version. An “expected end” may be one from which we shrink in fear or dislike. Each word, in the amended translation, has its full meaning. The “future” tells them that their history as a people is not yet over; the “hope” that there is a better time in store for them. To wait for that future, instead of trusting in delusive assurances of immediate release, was the true wisdom of the exiles.
Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.(12, 13) Then shall ye call upon me . . .—The words need no comment, but they cannot be passed over without dwelling on the infinite tenderness which they manifest in the prophet’s soul, the reflex of a like tenderness in the mind of God, from whom he gives the message. It is the anticipation of the like message from the lips of Christ, “He that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:8). As they stand, the words are an echo of Deuteronomy 4:29-30, as Jeremiah 29:14 is of Deuteronomy 30:3-5.
And I will be found of you, saith the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.(14) I will turn away your captivity . . .—On the substance and fulfilment of the prediction, see Notes on Jeremiah 23:3-8.
Because ye have said, The LORD hath raised us up prophets in Babylon;(15) Because ye have said, The Lord hath raised us up prophets . . .—The words point to the boast of some of the exiles, that they, too, had the guidance of prophets whom, as in Jeremiah 29:20; Jeremiah 29:24, they were inclined to follow in preference to Jeremiah. In answer to that boast, he emphasises the contrast between the exiles in whom the prophet sees the future hope of his nation and the worthless king (Zedekiah) and people who had been left in Jerusalem, and for whom he foretells yet sharper sufferings. The symbolism of the “vile figs” is reproduced in Jeremiah 29:17 from Jeremiah 24:1-2. The word for “vile” is, however, not the same as in that passage, and has the stronger force of “horrible” or “loathsome.”
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, of Ahab the son of Kolaiah, and of Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, which prophesy a lie unto you in my name; Behold, I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall slay them before your eyes;(21, 22) Ahab the son of Kolaiah . . .—We know nothing, beyond what is here recorded, of either of these prophets. They would seem to have been the leaders of the party of revolt, and to have been conspicuous, like their brethren at Jerusalem (Jeremiah 23:14), for base and profligate lives. The record of the prediction of their fate implies its fulfilment. They were punished by the Chaldæan king as traitors and rebels, and were burnt alive. The history of the “three children” in Daniel 3:6; Daniel 3:20, shows that this was a sufficiently familiar punishment. A strange legend in the Targum of Rabbi Joseph on 2Chronicles 28:3 records that the future high-priest Joshua, the son of Jozedek, was thrown into the furnace with them, and came out uninjured (Smith’s Dict, of the Bible, Art. “Zedekiah”). We may, perhaps, trace the source of the legend in the figurative language of Zechariah 3:2, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” The name Kolaiah (which admits of being derived from a verb meaning “roasting”) possibly suggested the cruel mockery of a punishment which turned it into an omen of the false prophet’s fate.
And of them shall be taken up a curse by all the captivity of Judah which are in Babylon, saying, The LORD make thee like Zedekiah and like Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire;(22) Of them shall be taken up a curse . . .—We note the characteristic tendency of Hebrew thought to fix on individual cases of highest blessedness, as in Ruth 4:11, or of deepest shame, as here, and to bring them into formulae of blessing and of cursing.
Because they have committed villany in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbours' wives, and have spoken lying words in my name, which I have not commanded them; even I know, and am a witness, saith the LORD.(23) Because they have committed villany . . .—The Hebrew noun is almost always used for sins of impurity. It is more commonly rendered “folly” (comp. Genesis 34:7; Deuteronomy 22:21; Judges 19:23-24). The English word “villainy” is used definitely with this meaning by Bishop Hall (Sat. i. 9).
Even I know, and am a witness, saith the Lord.—The words find an echo in Malachi 3:5. We are left to conjecture whether the prophet refers his own knowledge of the facts to a direct supernatural source, or had received private information from his friends at Babylon. The special stress laid on the Lord’s knowledge of their guilt suggests the thought that the false prophets with their restricted ideas of God had persuaded themselves that Jehovah the God of Israel hardly exercised his attributes of power in a distant place like Babylon. There they might sin without fear of detection or of punishment. They thought of him as a God not nigh at hand, but far off (Jeremiah 23:23).
Thus shalt thou also speak to Shemaiah the Nehelamite, saying,(24) Thus shalt thou also speak to Shemaiah the Nehelamite.—It is clear that this section (Jeremiah 29:24-32) is of the nature of a fragment attached to the Epistle to Babylon on account of its associations with it, but not forming part of it. It gives, in fact (as Jeremiah 29:28 shows), the sequence of events, and so far stands in the same relation to it as the Second Epistle to the Corinthians does to the First. Jeremiah’s letter had naturally roused the indignation of the rival prophets at Babylon, and they organised a movement, of which Shemaiah was the chief instigator, for his destruction. Of Shemaiah himself we know nothing more than is here recorded. The description “Nehelamite” gives us no information, as the name Nehelam does not appear as belonging to any person or place in the Old Testament. It is just possible, as in the marginal reading, that there may be a play upon the Hebrew word (Halam) for “dreamer.”
Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, Because thou hast sent letters in thy name unto all the people that are at Jerusalem, and to Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, and to all the priests, saying,(25) Because thou hast sent letters in thy name . . .—The letters were probably sent through the envoys named in Jeremiah 29:3 on their return from Babylon. Their object was to urge Zephaniah, who appears in 2Kings 25:18 as the Sagan, or second priest, to exercise his authority to restrain Jeremiah from prophesying, and to punish him as a false prophet. It was an attempt to turn the tables on him for the manner in which he had thwarted the plans of the party of revolt at Babylon. The part taken by Zephaniah in acting for the king when he wished to consult Jeremiah (Jeremiah 21:1), and imploring his intercession (Jeremiah 37:3), makes it probable that he endeavoured to maintain a neutral Gamaliel-like position between the two parties, and had seemed so lukewarm and temporising that he was open to the influence of threats. On the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuzaradan he was taken prisoner and slain (Jeremiah 52:24-27).
The LORD hath made thee priest in the stead of Jehoiada the priest, that ye should be officers in the house of the LORD, for every man that is mad, and maketh himself a prophet, that thou shouldest put him in prison, and in the stocks.(26) The Lord hath made thee priest in the stead of Jehoiada . . .—The priest so named had apparently been deposed, as not favouring the stringent policy of the party of revolt. As Sagan, it was probably his special duty to maintain order in the Temple, and punish pretenders to the gift of prophecy, and the letter reproaches him for his lukewarm timidity in discharging that duty. In the word “mad,” as in 2Kings 9:11, Hosea 9:7, we have the habitual term of scorn applied to such pretenders. On the punishment of the stocks, see Note on Jeremiah 20:2. The word translated “prison” is probably another form of punishment like that of the stocks.
For therefore he sent unto us in Babylon, saying, This captivity is long: build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them.(28) This captivity is long . . .—As the italics show, there is no word corresponding to “captivity” in the Hebrew, and some commentators render the words, It is far off . . . as though Jeremiah had counted on the distance of Babylon as enabling him to write the letter with impunity, or possibly in all the emphasis of abruptness. “All is a long way off—the end of your exile, your present distance from your native land, and haste, therefore, is but folly.”
And Zephaniah the priest read this letter in the ears of Jeremiah the prophet.(29) And Zephaniah the priest . . .—The fact thus related agrees with what has been said as to the character of Zephaniah. He does not act as Shemaiah wished him. At the most he only uses the letters as a threat, possibly to put the prophet on his guard against the machinations of his enemies, possibly also to induce him to moderate his tone. We are reminded of the like conduct of the Pharisees who reported Herod’s threats to our Lord, in Luke 13:31.
Send to all them of the captivity, saying, Thus saith the LORD concerning Shemaiah the Nehelamite; Because that Shemaiah hath prophesied unto you, and I sent him not, and he caused you to trust in a lie:(31) Send to all them of the captivity.—The words imply something in the nature of another epistle to the exiles, sent, probably, like the previous one, by the hands of envoys from one government to the other. We have no record of the fulfilment of the prediction but its insertion implies its fulfilment. This frequent intercourse between Jerusalem and Babylon is noticeable (1) as confirming the literal interpretation of the journey to Euphrates in Jeremiah 13:4, and (2) as accounting for the special instructions given to Nebuzaradan by Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah 39:11.