Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The word which came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and all his army, and all the kingdoms of the earth of his dominion, and all the people, fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities thereof, saying,XXXIV.
(1) When Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon . . .—The prophecy that follows is probably a fuller statement of that in Jeremiah 32:3-4, and delivered shortly before it, being referred to there as the cause of his imprisonment. In the form of the name Nebuchadnezzar (n instead of r, as in Jeremiah 24:1; Jeremiah 25:1), we may probably trace the hand of a later transcriber. The same hand is, perhaps, traceable in the accumulation of substantives after the manner of Daniel 3:7; Daniel 5:19.
Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Go and speak to Zedekiah king of Judah, and tell him, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire:(2, 3) Go and speak to Zedekiah . . .—See Notes on Jeremiah 32:3-4.
Yet hear the word of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah; Thus saith the LORD of thee, Thou shalt not die by the sword:(4) Thou shalt not die by the sword.—The tone is one of comparative mildness, the motive apparently being the wish to persuade the king to abandon his useless resistance, and to court the favour of the conqueror. His going to Babylon would not necessarily shut him out from a life of comparative ease and an honourable burial. Jeconiah, it is true, had been thrown into prison (Jeremiah 51:31), and remained there during the whole reign of Nebuchadnezzar, but that was the result of his obstinate resistance, and Zedekiah might avert that doom by a timely submission.
But thou shalt die in peace: and with the burnings of thy fathers, the former kings which were before thee, so shall they burn odours for thee; and they will lament thee, saying, Ah lord! for I have pronounced the word, saith the LORD.(5) And with the burnings of thy fathers . . .—Spices and perfumes were burnt as a mark of honour at the burial of kings and persons of high rank, and this is the burning here referred to (2Chronicles 16:14; 2Chronicles 21:19). The Hebrews never adopted the practice of burial by cremation, and for the most part embalmed their dead after the manner of Egypt (comp. Genesis 50:2; John 19:39-40).
They will lament thee, saying, Ah lord! . . .—The words derive their full effect from their contrast with the prediction which the prophet had uttered (Jeremiah 22:18) as to the burial of Jehoiakim without any of the usual honours of the funeral dirges of the mourners. Here he comforts Zedekiah with the thought that no such shameful end was in store for him, leaving the place where he was to die uncertain.
When the king of Babylon's army fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish, and against Azekah: for these defenced cities remained of the cities of Judah.(7) Against Lachish, and against Azekah . . .—The two cities are named in this book for the first time. Lachish was one of the strongest towns of the Amorites in the time of Joshua (Joshua 10:3; Joshua 10:5), and was situated in the Shephelah, or lowland district (Joshua 15:39). It was restored or fortified by Rehoboam, as a defence against the northern kingdom (2Chronicles 11:9). Amaziah took refuge there on his flight from the conspiracy at Jerusalem (2 Chron. 14:19; 2Chronicles 25:27). It was taken by Sennacherib on his way from Assyria to Egypt, and made the monarch’s headquarters (2Chronicles 32:9; 2Kings 18:17). A slab at Kouyunjik (Layard’s Nineveh and Babylon, 149-152; Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd Series, Plates xxi, 24) represents the siege of Lakhisha by the armies of Sennacherib, and gives something like a ground-plan of the city. Its site has not been identified with certainty, but ruins still known as Um-lakis are found between Gaza and Eleutheropolis. It is mentioned here as being, next to Jerusalem, one of the strongest fortresses of the kingdom of Judah, which as yet had resisted the attack of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies. Azekah, less conspicuous in history, was also in the Shephelah region, and is named with other cities in Joshua 10:10-11; Joshua 15:35. The Philistines were encamped between it and Shochoh in the days of Saul (1Samuel 17:1). It also was fortified by Rehoboam (2Chronicles 11:9). Its site has not been ascertained, but Eusebius and Jerome speak of it as lying between Eleutheropolis and Jerusalem.
This is the word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them;(8) After that the king Zedekiah had made» a covenant . . .—The remainder of the chapter brings before us an historical episode of considerable interest. The law of Moses did not allow in the case of a free-born Hebrew more than a temporary bondage of seven years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12-18), extended (but under the form of serfage rather than slavery) in the later regulations of Leviticus 25:39-40 to the time that might intervene between the date of purchase and the commencement of the next year of jubilee. In 2Kings 4:1 we have an instance of the working of the law, as bringing even the sons of a prophet into this modified slavery. Only if the man preferred his state as a slave to the risks of freedom could his master retain him after the appointed limit (Exodus 21:5-6). The law had apparently fallen into disuse, and the nobles of Judah, like those of Athens before Solon, and Rome before the institution of the Tribunate, had used the law of debt to bring a large number of their fellow citizens into slavery, just as their successors did after the return from Babylon (Nehemiah 5:5). Under the pressure of the danger from the Chaldæan invasion, and that he might have the ready service of freemen instead of the forced work of slaves, perhaps also in consequence of the revival of the law, that followed on its discovery, probably in the form of the Book of Deuteronomy, in the days of Josiah (2Kings 22:8), Zedekiah had been led to promise freedom to all the slave population of this class that were within the walls of Jerusalem, either as a celebration of a Sabbatic year, or jubilee, or, irrespective of any such observance, as a reparation for past neglect. The step was probably not without its influence in giving fresh energy to the defenders of the city. The Chaldæans, threatened by the approach of an Egyptian army (Jeremiah 37:5), raised the siege (Jeremiah 34:21). When the danger was past, however, the princes who had agreed to the emancipation returned to their old policy of oppression (Jeremiah 34:11), and those who had been liberated were brought under a bondage all the more bitter for the temporary taste of freedom. Against this perfidious tyranny the prophet, stirred by “the word of the Lord,” bears his protests. His sympathies, like those of true prophets at all times, were with the poor and the oppressed. The phrase “proclaim liberty” was closely connected with the year of jubilee, as in Leviticus 25:10, Isaiah 61:1.
Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondmen, saying,(13) Thus saith the Lord . . .—The prophet takes as his text the law which had been so flagrantly broken (Exodus 21:2), reminding them under what circumstances that law had been given. Their fathers had then been delivered from the house of bondage, and this was part of the covenant which God had made with them—freedom and blessing being given by Him, obedience promised by them. They were never to forget the bitterness of the bondage they had known (comp. the form of the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy 5:15), and were to make it one of the fundamental laws of their national polity that no Israelite should ever pass, except by his own free choice, into a condition of hopeless life-long slavery.
At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother an Hebrew, which hath been sold unto thee; and when he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee: but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear.(14) At the end of seven years . . .—The immediate context, “when he hath served thee six years,” shows that the liberation was intended to take place at the beginning of the seventh year. The Sabbath-year was to bring its rest to the slave as well as to the land.
Your fathers hearkened not unto me . . .—The words imply the fact already stated, that there had been a long-continued violation of the law to which the prophet refers. In Isaiah 58:6; Isaiah 61:1 (assuming the earlier date of those prophecies) we may trace a protest against that violation.
And ye were now turned, and had done right in my sight, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbour; and ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name:(15) Ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name.—The words point to the solemnity with which the new engagements had been contracted. It was not merely that the king had issued an edict, or that judges had given their decisions in accordance with the old law, but princes and people had met together in the courts of the Temple, and there, in the presence of Jehovah, had entered into this covenant, as did their descendants afterwards in the days of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:12-13), with Him and with each other. Their sin in breaking their covenant was therefore a sin against Him as well as against their brethren.
But ye turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.(16) But ye turned and polluted my name . . .—The second verb is the same as that translated “profane the name of the Lord” in Leviticus 19:12, in close connexion with the sin of swearing falsely. The sin of which the princes and rich men had been guilty was not merely an act of injustice. They had broken the third commandment as well as the eighth, and were accordingly guilty of sacrilege.
Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbour: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the LORD, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.(17) Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you . . . The phrase “proclaim liberty,” prominent in connexion with the law which had been broken (Leviticus 25:10; Isaiah 61:1), is emphasised with an indignant irony. They had refused to act “as the servants of Jehovah” (Leviticus 25:55) under His protection, finding in that service their perfect freedom; and He, therefore, in His righteous wrath, would punish them by giving them the emancipation which they denied to others. He would set them free from His service, and therefore from His protection, and leave them to their fate—to the sword, to the famine, to exile. They had refused the obedience which was freedom: they should have the freedom which would be bondage.
And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof,(18) When they cut the calf in twain . . .—The passage is interesting, as showing the survival of one of the oldest rites of Patriarchal times. So, when Jehovah made a covenant with Abraham, the victims that had been slain were cut up and arranged opposite each other, and when the “burning lamp” passed between the pieces it was the token that Jehovah had completed the covenant, even as men complete it (Genesis 15:10-17). The implied thought thus symbolised was that the parties to the contract prayed, as in the analogous case of 1Samuel 11:7, that they might be torn limb from limb like the victims if they broke the covenant, The antiquity and wide extent of the symbolism is shown by its appearing in the ritual of Greece, as in the phrase ὅρκια τέμνον —to ratify (literally, to cut) oaths, in Homer (Iliad, ii. 124, Od. xxiv. 483, and elsewhere), and the Latin fœdus ferire. In Livy (i. 24) we have both the phrase, the act which it implied, and the prayer which accompanied it, that if the Roman people proved unfaithful to their covenant Jupiter would slay them as the priest slew the victim. “Tu illo die, Jupiter, populum Romanum sic ferito, ut ego hunc porcum hic hodie feriam, tantoque magis ferito, quanto magis potes pollesque.” (“Do thou, Jupiter, on that day so smite the Roman people [if they break the covenant] as I this day smite this swine—yea, so much the more smite them as thou art mightier and more prevailing.”)
The princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf;(19) The eunuchs.—See Note on Jeremiah 29:2. They were for the most part, if not always, of alien birth (comp. Isaiah 56:3), as in the case of Ebed-melech (Jeremiah 38:7), who had become proselytes on entering the king’s service. The prominence given to them indicates that in Judah as in Assyria, and we may add, in all Oriental monarchies, they held high position in the king’s court, and had probably, like the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, enriched themselves by lending money to the poorer Israelites, and then bringing them into bondage. It is significant that here they take precedence of the priests, as in Jeremiah 29:2 of the princes.
I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life: and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.(20) Their dead bodies shall be for meat . . .—As in Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 19:7, this takes its place as the extremest penalty of transgression. The sentence on Zedekiah and his princes—i.e., those who were more immediately connected with his policy—is as before (Jeremiah 34:5) somewhat milder, probably because he, though too weak and vacillating to stop the evil which the prophet condemned, had not been actively prominent in the transgression of the covenant, and showed more disposition, as in Jeremiah 37:17, to listen to his counsels.
And Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes will I give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon's army, which are gone up from you.(21) The king of Babylon’s army, which are gone up from you . . .—The words are important, as showing, as before stated, that the siege had actually been raised, and that the nobles of Judah were flattering themselves that the danger which had led them to a simulated, or, at best, transient repentance, had passed away altogether. They were reckoning once again on the help that they trusted was to come from Egypt (Jeremiah 37:7) They are warned, however, in the next verse that the Babylonian army shall return, as executing the judgment of Jehovah, and that then there will be no escape for them.