Thus saith the Lord, Deceive not yourselves, saying, The Chaldeans shall surely depart from us: for they shall not depart.
I. WE MARK SOME ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE LAW OF RETRIBUTION FURNISHED BY THE HISTORY OF THE NATIONS. Very memorable was the retribution that Israel brought on Egypt. At the other end of their national history, Israel itself furnishes a most striking illustration of the working of the law of retribution through all improbabilities. When the Christ was crucified through weakness, the people cried, "His blood be upon us, and upon our children." How unlikely did it seem that the Victim of Calvary could ever be avenged upon an unjust nation! And yet that "wounded Man" rose up invested with strange powers, and burned their city with fire. And let us not think that these instances of retribution are to be placed in the category of the miraculous; they were the natural consequences of great denials of truth and justice. Men unjustly "pierced through" are terrible avengers in all ages and nations. For centuries did the kings and nobles of France oppress the peasantry; it is impossible for us to think adequately of the vast hopeless wretchedness of the people from the cradle to the grave. When Louis XVI. came to the throne it seemed incredible that the long-suffering people would ever avenge themselves upon the powerful classes by whom they were ground to the dust, and yet by a marvellous series of events the wounded men arose in awful wrath, burning palaces with fire and trampling greatness underfoot. "Pierced through" were those hungry hopeless millions; but the day of doom came, and every bleeding wretch arose invincible with torch and sword. For generations the African was wronged by the American; he was bought and sold as are the dumb driven cattle, and it seemed as if the fetters of a shameful degradation were riveted upon him for ever. "Was there a shied or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?" As late as 1854 Wendell Phillips wrote despairingly, "Indeed, the Government has fallen rote the hands of the slave power completely. So far as national politics are concerned, we are beaten — there's no hope The future seems to unfold a vast slave empire united with Brazil, and darkening the whole West. I hope I may be a false prophet, but the sky was never so dark." And yet immediately after this the "wounded men" arose, deluging the land with blood, and burning the cities of the great Republic with fire. Some of our writers argue that retribution does not follow on national wrong-doing, because territory gained by cruelty, treachery, bloodshed, is not as a matter of fact torn away from its guilty conquerors, but such ill-acquired territory remains a permanent portion of their splendid empire. But there are other ways of inflicting retribution upon a nation than by immediately depriving it of provinces. There is something very like irony in the government of God, and He sometimes punishes the victors through the spoil. Our Indian Empire is said to have been ill-gotten, and yet we retain it, that country being to Britain what the tail is to the peacock — our glory and pride. But the gilded train, it will be remembered, has been already splashed with blood, and the end is not yet. Retribution may not come in the form of specially inflicted judgments, but it will come. No pestilence, war, earthquake, or famine marks the Divine displeasure, but the retribution arises out of the iniquity. With great injustice and cruelty the French drove out the Huguenot, but in expelling these sons of faith, genius, industry, virtue, the French fatally impoverished their national life, and they are suffering to-day from these missing, elements which none may restore. Retribution may not be revealed in material disaster, but it will come. As Mommsen, one of the greatest of historians, declares, "History has a Nemesis for every sin !" It may seem that all might and majesty are with an unjust nation and that "wounded men" only are on the other side; but at God's call wounded men are Michaels wielding flaming swords. The foolishness of God is wiser than men." Sometimes we are greatly amazed and perplexed at the way in which history unfolds itself — it would seem as if the diplomacy of evil were too much for the Ruler of the world, as if Providence made hesitating moves, weak moves, fatal moves; but we have only to wait a while to know that God's foolishness is wiser than men. "He taketh the wise in their own craftiness"; "The Lord shall have them in derision." "The weakness of God is stronger than men." The sun is sometimes weak, but its earliest ray in the dawn is more than all our electric lights, the first faint beam of the spring is infinitely more than all the sparks of our kindling; the sea is sometimes weak — it is a mill-pond, we say — but in its softest ripple is a suggestion of power that fills us with awe; the wind is sometimes weak, but in the gentlest zephyr is hinted the majesty of infinite strength. Nature shows how the weakness of God is immeasurably stronger than men; so does history with equal clearness. The oft-quoted saying, "Providence is always on the side of the big battalions," is one with an imposing sound, but it is disproved by history over and over again. The world's Ruler defeated Pharaoh with frogs and flies; He humbled Israel with the grasshopper; He smeared the splendour of Herod with worms; on the plains of Russia He broke the power of Napoleon with a snowflake. God has no need to despatch an archangel; when once He is angry, a microbe will do.
II. WE NOTE THE LAW OF RETRIBUTION AS EXEMPLIFIED IN THE INDIVIDUAL LIFE. The great law works infallibly in the personal history as it does in the national life. God has wonderful ways of confounding us, and we may be sure that our sins will find us out.
1. Let us not permit ourselves to be deceived by flattering prophets. Loudly does revelation declare the obligation of righteousness, and grievous are the judgments that it pronounces against transgressors, but this in our age has been accepted in quite a modified sense. Men will now hardly allow such a word as, "wrath"; they will not permit a man to suffer simply as a punishment for his sin; the violation of laws human and divine must be condoned and passed over with the ]east reprobation and vengeance. Let us rejoice in the growth of the sentiment of humanity, but we must shut our ears to the effeminate and sentimental teaching which will inevitably relax and destroy a noble morality. God is merciful, but fire does not forget to burn, teeth to tear, water to drown, and no transgression of the law can pass without detection and punishment. "And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay." God's complex system of retribution permits not the cleverest sinner to slip through.
2. Let us not deceive ourselves because appearances seem to promise immunity. Our modern knowledge of science, of the unity and interdependence of all things, of the continuity and persistence of force and "motion, of the inviolable integrity of all organisms, ought to make it easy to us to believe that whatsoever a man soweth that shall he reap, however appearances may promise otherwise. Let us not be beguiled by the immediate aspects of life and circumstance. God's blind men watch us; His lame men run us down; His deaf men filch our secrets; His dumb men impeach us; His wounded men arise, every man a messenger of revenge.
3. Let us not deceive ourselves because judgment is delayed. In contending with God we are plotting against a Wisdom that seems sometimes to hesitate and fail; but never is that Wisdom more profound than in the moments of seeming perplexity, and if we yield to flattering hopes of victory, our final overthrow will only be the more complete and irreparable for these protractions of the conflict. In contending with God we are warring with a Power that ever and anon seems baffled and beaten; it seems to retreat, it allows us to win skirmishes here and there — only the more conspicuously to crush us in the decisive battle, if we persist to fight it out to the bitter end. In contending with God we are provoking a Justice which sometimes seems in. capable of asserting itself; but inveterate perversity discovers in the event that all such hesitations and delays were the whettings of a sword which needs not to smite twice. Slowly it may be, but surely, do we ripen for judgment; and when once ripe, how little a thing is necessary to precipitate the calamity! As the Hindoos say, "When men are ripe for slaughter, even straws turn into thunderbolts."
4. Let us improve the gracious respite. Many rebel altogether against the doctrine of grace, sternly insisting on inexorable law, justice, retribution; they utterly reprobate the ideas of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation. But mercy is a fact as much as justice is. Within that great system of severities we call nature there are ameliorative arrangements softening the rigours of broken law; in human life and government, too, which is nature still, only on a higher plane, mercy and forgiveness assert themselves, and society greatly prizes the gracious quality; and it is therefore a mistake, judged by the light of nature, to make an antithesis of equity and grace, as if these qualities were mutually antagonistic and eternally irreconcilable — they both exist side by side in this tangible human world with which we are so familiar. Now, the grand burden of the Gospel is to bring into fullest light that doctrine of mercy hinted by nature, and to show us that grace is not arbitrariness, the negation of law, the neglect of justice, but that the fullest and most splendid revelation of grace may take place on the basis of eternal truth and justice.
(W. L. Watkinson.)
And it came to pass, that when the army of the Chaldeans was broken up from Jerusalem.
I. JEREMIAH IMPRISONED. The advent of the Egyptian allies had compelled the Chaldeans to raise the siege; and the gates of the city were opened so that the people could go in and out again at will. This opportunity was seized on by Jeremiah to leave the city for the country, which action led to his arrest and imprisonment.
1. Jeremiah goes forth. The question of what was the object for which the prophet left the city, has given rise to much discussion. The reading of the authorised version simply is that "he went" (or purposed) "to go into the land of Benjamin, to separate himself thence in the midst of the people." This is not very intelligible. It has been supposed that there was a new allotment of land in the tribe of Benjamin, and that Jeremiah had gone up to secure his portion. The simple fact is that, having left the city or been observed in the act of so doing, suspicions as to his purpose were aroused in the mind of the keeper of the gate, and so he was arrested. Jeremiah was perfectly free and within his rights as a citizen to depart from the city if he chose, and to go up into the land of Benjamin, where he belonged; but whether he was wise under the existing circumstances is a question
2. Accused and arrested. As the prophet was departing from the city by the gate of Benjamin, a captain of the guard being there and recognising him, either suspected him of desertion to the enemy, or hating him for his prophecies against Jerusalem, feigned suspicion, charged him with the treason of intending to desert the city and go over to the Chaldeans, and arrested him. The times were critical, and suspicions were rife on every hand. Jeremiah had persistently declared that the city would fall into the hand of the Chaldeans; had advised the king and the people quietly to accept the situation and surrender; had warned them again and again that resistance was not only useless, but would bring worse calamities upon them. All this, of course, irritated the people, and made Jeremiah very unpopular. Though he was free in the city, he was the object of universal execration and hatred. Under these circumstances it would have been wiser for Jeremiah to have remained in the city and taken his part with the inhabitants; certainly it was unwise to lay himself open to a suspicion of desertion by leaving the city at such a time, just after the delivery of his last message to the king. Possibly he did not think that his visit to the country would be misconstrued. Innocent men are not always men of prudence. Jeremiah's visit to the country may have been perfectly justifiable and harmless, yet it had She appearance of evil to those who were of suspicious inclinations. It is not always wise to do the lawful things which lie before us, even though there be no actual harm in the action. The prophet's business to the country seems to have been entirely of a private character. Perhaps he was disgusted with the king and people, and just left the city in that state of mind. In any case he should have taken counsel of God and considered the circumstances before exposing himself to the suspicions and malice of his enemies. In times of excitement and contention between God and an evil-thinking generation, His servants have need to walk with the greatest circumspection. On the other hand, the action of the captain of the guard was most reprehensible, and illustrates the injustice with which unbelieving and wicked men are commonly disposed to treat God's people. He had no real ground for suspecting Jeremiah of treachery and desertion to the enemy. But enemies who wish to find an occasion against God's people can readily do so. Unbelievers are apt to judge the actions of God's people by their own method of procedure. I heard an officer in the English army say last autumn that all missionaries in India were the merest mercenaries; that their only motive in coming out here was salary. I asked him why, and on what ground he made such a charge. His reply was that he could conceive of no other motive, and admitted that nothing would induce him to devote his life to trying to convert heathen but a good round salary. I immediately denounced him as a mere mercenary soldier and not a patriot.
3. Jeremiah's denial. Upon being charged with treasonable intentions m leaving the city, Jeremiah indignantly denied that he had any such purpose. He met the charge with a simple sharp word. "It is false"; or, as the margin has it: "A lie; I fall not away to the Chaldeans." He was both indignant at his arrest, and, perhaps, from the heat of his denial, more so still at the charge of treachery. To defame a man's good name is often more intolerable than the prospect of endurance of any amount of physical suffering. Joseph in Egypt thus suffered, being innocent; Moses suffered in like manner; David seemed to care more that Saul could think him capable of conspiring against his life than for the persecution with which he was pursued, and sought more earnestly to clear his name than to save his life. The first question that arises out of this part of the story is: How should we meet such false charges as this, under which Jeremiah was arrested? That must depend on circumstances. Paul defended himself by an elaborate argument. Jesus adopted more than one method. Oftentimes He refuted the charges which the Jews brought against Him, by showing them how absurd their statements were, as in the case when they charged Him with being the agent of the devil. Again, when He was under the cruel and awful charge of blasphemy, when death was hanging over Him, He met the judge and false witnesses with perfect silence. Silence does not always give consent. There are circumstances when it is better to suffer both in reputation and body rather than attempt a defence. There may be higher interests involved even than the preservation of a good name and life itself. While it is perfectly right to assert innocence if one be innocent, sometimes silence is a more effectual answer than denial. Time often proves the best vindicator. I once heard Mr. Spurgeon say that he never attempted to brush off mud that was thrown at him, for he was sure that to attempt to do so would only result in smearing himself with the filth; but that he always waited till it was dry, and then he could deal with it as dust, and get rid of it without a stain being left behind. It has been truly said that if we only take care of our characters, God will in the end vindicate our reputations (Matthew 5:11, 12). Though Jeremiah indignantly denied the charge, the denial did him no good. It was not the truth which his enemies were seeking, but only an occasion to persecute him. So we are told that the captain "hearkened not to him," but carried him to the princes.
4. He is imprisoned. Irijah took the prophet to the princes. These were not the same who befriended him in the previous reign and took measures to conceal him from the wrath of Jehoiakim, but another cabinet who were in authority under Zedekiah. They were as willing to believe the charge of treason against Jeremiah as was the captain to prefer it. We have, however, learned that to suffer for Christ's sake is a part of the privilege which is accorded to every disciple. There seems to be a double necessity for this. First we must ourselves, even as did Jesus Himself, learn obedience by the things which we suffer, and so to be "perfected through suffering" (Hebrews 5:8; Hebrews 2:10; comp. 1 Peter 2:21, 23; 1 Peter 5:10). Besides, it is a matter of clear demonstration that suffering for the truth has always been the most powerful testimony thereto.
II. THE KING AND JEREMIAH. After the prophet had been many days in prison, the weak king sent for him secretly, and brought him out of prison to make inquiry of him. This was a triumph for Jeremiah and a humiliation for the king. In the long-run, the highest and haughtiest enemies of God will have to bow to the lowliest of His friends. There are many instances where men who have scoffed at religion and mocked at His messengers have, in moments of great fear and extremity, sought out the very people whom they have despised and persecuted to beg for intercession with God on their behalf. The city was apparently re-invested by the Chaldeans, and in great straits for food (ver. 21), and the king hoped that at last the prophet would relent and secure some favourable word from the Lord. He seems, like all unbelievers, to have had the curious idea of God, that He might be brought round to favour if only the prophets could be won over first (Numbers 22., 23.).
1. Is there any word from the Lord! This was the king's question put to Jeremiah. The Lord had previously given to the king a very sure word (ver. 10), but he still vainly clung to the hope that the word of God would be altered, though there was not the least evidence that the king or the people had altered their lives. There are many persons in our day expecting that in the end, notwithstanding that the word of God, finally communicated to us in the Bible, is God's last word to this world, the Almighty will change His mind and not punish persistent sinners. Yet there was a word from the Lord. It was very brief, and exactly to the point. "And Jeremiah said, There is: for, said He, thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon." Now this was a very brave and courageous action on the part of Jeremiah. If ever a man might have been tempted to temporise and prophesy smooth things, this was the time. There is nothing more sublime in this world than a clear and undisguised declaration of the truth under any and all circumstances.
2. Jeremiah pleads his own cause. Having first delivered the message from the Lord, wholly regardless of what might be the effect upon the mind and disposition of the king, he now ventures to plead for his own release from prison. It is a great testimony to Jeremiah's loyalty to God that he suffered his own private and personal interests to be in the background until he had delivered the Lord's message. He put his plea on two grounds: First, his absolute innocence of any wrong done to either the king or the people. Why had he been cast into prison? The only thing that could be said against him was that he had delivered the Lord's word as he had received it. Could he do less than that? (Acts 4:19.) Would the king have had him speak lies to please the princes and the people, which must ultimately have brought them much damage? Secondly, he appeals to the truth of his predictions, and asks the king to produce the false prophets who had flattered him and the people with pleasant lies (Jeremiah 28:1, &c., 29:27-32). Had their false prophecies done the king any good? Was it not now manifest that they were false friends as well as false prophets? He therefore pleaded with the king not to add to his already heavy account of iniquity by keeping him unjustly in prison.
3. The prophet's sufferings mitigated. The king was evidently moved by the prophet's plea; but he was afraid of his princes, and did not dare to grant the full petition of the prophet, but he so far ordered a mitigation of his imprisonment, that he was taken out of the stocks and the dungeon and simply confined in the gaol court. Jeremiah was, as we have said, a shrinking and retiring man by nature, and keenly sensitive to physical pain. His imprisonment was very severe, though there was worse in store for him (see the next chapter). He felt that to stay in that dungeon and in the "cabins" would end in his death. The king softened his imprisonment and ordered the prophet to be fed with a piece of bread from the baker's street as long as there was bread to be had in the besieged city. In this incident we see how God tempers the severity of suffering even when He does not entirely deliver us from it.
(G. F. Pentecost, D. D.)
Is there any word from the Lord?... There is.
(James Paterson, M. A.).