Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah concerning the dearth.XIV.
(1) Concerning the dearth.—Literally, on the word or tidings of the drought. This is clearly the opening of a new discourse, which continues to Jeremiah 17:18; but as no special calamity of this kind is mentioned in the historical account of Jeremiah’s life, its date cannot be fixed with certainty. As Jeremiah 15:15 -implies that he had already suffered scorn or persecution for his prophetic work, we may reasonably assume some period not earlier than the reign of Jehoiakim.
Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are black unto the ground; and the cry of Jerusalem is gone up.(2) The gates thereof languish.—The “gates” of the cities, as the chief places of concourse, like the agora of Greek cities, are taken figuratively for the inhabitants, who in the “black” garments of sorrow and with the pallor of the famine, in which all faces gather blackness, are crouching upon the ground in their despair.
And their nobles have sent their little ones to the waters: they came to the pits, and found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads.(3) Their little ones.—Not their children, but their menial servants. The word is peculiar to Jeremiah, and occurs only here and in Jeremiah 48:4. The vivid picture of the messengers running hither and thither to all wells, and springs, and tanks, reminds us of Ahab’s search for wells or springs in the time of the great drought of his reign (1Kings 18:5), of the “two or three cities wandering” to the one city that was yet supplied with water of Amos 4:8.
The pits.—The tanks or reservoirs where, if anywhere, water might be looked for.
Covered their heads.—The extremest sign of a grief too great to utter itself to others, craving to be alone in its wretchedness (2Samuel 15:30; 2Samuel 19:4). The student will recollect it as occurring also in the account of the painting of Agamemnon at the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, ascribed to Timanthes.
Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth, the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads.(4) The ground is chapt.—The word is so vivid as describing the long fissures of the soil in a time of drought that one admits with reluctance that no such meaning is found in the Hebrew word, which simply means is struck with terror. The translators apparently followed Luther, who gives lechzet—“languishes for thirst,” “gapes open with exhaustion,” and so applied to the earth, “is cracked or chapt.”
As the “gates” in Jeremiah 14:2 stood for the people of the city, so the “ground” stands here as in visible sympathy with the tillers of the soil, the “plowmen” of the next clause.
They covered their heads.—There is a singular, almost awful, pathos in the iteration of this description. Cities and country alike are plunged into the utter blackness of despair.
Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it, because there was no grass.(5) Yea.—Better, For, as the Hebrew is usually translated. What follows gives the reason of the terror which has come upon the people. Each region has its representative instance of misery. The hind of the field (the female of the common stag—the Cervus elaphus of zoologists), noted for its tenderness to its young, abandons it, and turns away to seek pasture for itself, and fails to find any.
And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail, because there was no grass.(6) The wild asses.—From the field the prophet’s eye turns to the bare hill-tops of the “high places,” and sees a scene of like distress. The “wild asses” seem turned to beasts of prey, and stand gaping for thirst, as the jackals (not “dragons”—comp. Jeremiah 9:11) stand panting for their prey. By some scholars the word is taken as meaning, like a kindred word in Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2, “crocodiles,” with their wide gaping jaws.
There was no grass.—The word is not the same as that in Jeremiah 14:5, and implies a larger and ranker herbage than that on which the hind fed.
O LORD, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou it for thy name's sake: for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against thee.(7) O Lord . . .—From the picture of suffering the prophet turns to a prayer for pardon and a confession of sins. He is sure that the drought has not come without cause, and that it calls men to repentance.
Do thou it.—Better, more generally, act thou, not according to the rigour of inexorable justice, but according to the Name which witnesses of mercy and long-suffering (Exodus 34:6).
O the hope of Israel, the saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night?(8) As a wayfaring man . . .—No image could paint more vividly the sense of abandonment which weighed on the prophet’s heart. Israel had looked to Jehovah as its help and stay, its watchful guardian. Now he seemed as indifferent to it as the passing traveller is to the interests of the city in the inn or khan of which he lodges for a single night.
Why shouldest thou be as a man astonied, as a mighty man that cannot save? yet thou, O LORD, art in the midst of us, and we are called by thy name; leave us not.(9) As a man astonied.—The word so rendered is not found elsewhere, but cognate words in Arabic have the meaning of being startled and perplexed.
Thou, O Lord, art in the midst of us.—After all, then, so the prophet’s reviving faith tells him, Jehovah is more than the passing guest. He abides still among His people. He is as a mighty man, strong to save, though as yet He refrains from action.
Thus saith the LORD unto this people, Thus have they loved to wander, they have not refrained their feet, therefore the LORD doth not accept them; he will now remember their iniquity, and visit their sins.(10) Thus have they loved to wander.—The prophet has to tell the people that Jehovah’s answer to his prayer is one of seeming refusal. The time of pardon has not yet come. The prophet is told that now (the adverb is emphasised) is the time for remembering iniquity and visiting sins. The latter half of the verse is a verbal quotation from Hosea 8:13. The opening word “thus” appears to point back to the “many backslidings” of Jeremiah 14:7.
Then said the LORD unto me, Pray not for this people for their good.(11) Pray not . . .—As before, in Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14, the saddest, sternest part of the prophet’s work is to feel that even prayer—the prayer that punishment may be averted—is unavailing and unaccepted.
When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and an oblation, I will not accept them: but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence.(12) An oblation.—The minchah or meat-offering of Leviticus 2:1. We need not assume that the fast and the sacrifice were necessarily hypocritical, though doubtless much of this mingled itself with the worship of Israel now as it had done in the days of Isaiah, and met with a like rejection (Isaiah 1:15). The lesson here is rather that they came too late to stay the discipline of chastisement.
By the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence,—The history of the world shows how constantly the latter plagues have followed in the wake of the former, and the union of the three has become proverbial (Leviticus 26:25-26; Ezekiel 5:12). In Ezekiel 14:21 the “noisome beast” is added to make up the list of the four sore judgments of God.
Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, the prophets say unto them, Ye shall not see the sword, neither shall ye have famine; but I will give you assured peace in this place.(13) Ah, Lord God!—Literally, as in Jeremiah 1:6, Alas, my Lord (Adonaï) Jehovah! We have had in Jeremiah 5:31 a glimpse of the evil influence of the great body of the prophetic order; and now the true prophet feels more bitterly than ever the misery of having to contend against it. The colleges or schools of the prophets had rapidly degenerated from their first ideal, and had become (as the Mendicant Orders did in the history of mediæval Christendom) corrupt, ambitious, seekers after popularity. So Micah (Micah 3:8-11), whose words were yet fresh in the memories of men (see Jeremiah 26:18), had spoken sharp words of the growing evil. So Ezekiel through one whole chapter (Jeremiah 13) inveighs against the guilt of the prophets, male or female, who followed their own spirit, and had seen no true vision.
Ye shall not see . . .—To the eye of Jeremiah the future was clear. The sins of the people must lead to shame, defeat, and exile. Out of that discipline, but only through that, they might return with a better mind to better days. The false prophets took the easier and more popular line of predicting victory and “assured peace” (literally, peace of truth, i.e., true peace) for the people and their city.
Then the LORD said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart.(14) They prophesy unto you . . .—The four forms of the evil are carefully enumerated: (1) the false vision, false as being but the dream of a disordered fancy; (2) divination, by signs and auguries, as, e.g., by arrows (Ezekiel 21:21) or cups (Genesis 44:5); (3) by “a thing of nought,” or, more accurately, the “idol” or small image of a god, used as the Teraphim were used (Ezekiel 21:21; Zechariah 10:2), as in some way forecasting the future; (4) the deceit of their heart, i.e., an imposture pure and simple, the fraud of a deliberately counterfeit inspiration.
Therefore thus saith the LORD concerning the prophets that prophesy in my name, and I sent them not, yet they say, Sword and famine shall not be in this land; By sword and famine shall those prophets be consumed.(15) Therefore thus saith the Lord.—To the mind of a true prophet, feeling that he was taught of God, nothing could be more hateful than the acts of those who, for selfish ends, were leading the people to their destruction. For them there was therefore the righteous retribution that they should perish in the very calamities which they had asserted would never come.
Therefore thou shalt say this word unto them; Let mine eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease: for the virgin daughter of my people is broken with a great breach, with a very grievous blow.(17) Thou shalt say this word.—Though not in form a prediction, no words could express more emphatically the terrible nature of the judgments implied in the preceding verse. The language (in part a reproduction of Jeremiah 13:17) is all but identical with that which recurs again and again in the Lamentations (Jeremiah 1:16; Jeremiah 2:11; Jeremiah 2:18), and may be looked upon as the germ of which those elegies of woe were the development.
If I go forth into the field, then behold the slain with the sword! and if I enter into the city, then behold them that are sick with famine! yea, both the prophet and the priest go about into a land that they know not.(18) Them that are sick with famine.—Literally, with even a more awful force, as summing all individual sufferings in one collective unity, the sickness of famine—the pestilence that follows on starvation.
Go about into a land that they know not.—Literally, go about (as in Genesis 34:10, where the Authorised version has “trade”) in a land and know not, i.e., whither they go—are in a land of exile, and know not where to find a home, or where they may be dragged next, or, perhaps, with some commentators. learn no wisdom from their bitter experience. There is no adequate ground for the rendering in the margin, which, besides, gives no satisfactory meaning.
Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul lothed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us? we looked for peace, and there is no good; and for the time of healing, and behold trouble!(19) Hast thou utterly rejected Judah?—The heart of the patriot overpowers even the conviction of the prophet, and, though bidden not to pray, he bursts forth, in spite of the command, with a prayer of passionate intercession.
Hath thy soul lothed Zion?—The Hebrew implies the act of rejection as well as the feeling which leads to it.
We acknowledge, O LORD, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.(20) And the iniquity.—The insertion of the conjunction weakens the force of the original. The wickedness which Israel confesses is the iniquity of its fathers, inherited, accepted, on the way to be perpetuated.
Do not abhor us, for thy name's sake, do not disgrace the throne of thy glory: remember, break not thy covenant with us.(21) Do not abhor us . . .—Even in the English, and yet more in the Hebrew, we seem to hear the broken accents, words and sobs intermingled, of the agony of the prayer. “Abhor us not . . . disgrace not . . . remember, break not.” The prophet can make no plea of extenuation, but he can appeal to the character of God, and urge, with a bold anthropomorphism, that mercy is truer to that character than rigorous justice, and that His covenant with Israel pledges Him to that mercy.
The throne of thy glory.—This is, of course, the Temple (see Jeremiah 17:12). Shall that become a bye-word of reproach, scorned (so the word means) as a fool is scorned?
Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers? art not thou he, O LORD our God? therefore we will wait upon thee: for thou hast made all these things.(22) Vanities.—sc., as in Jeremiah 10:8, the idols of the heathen, powerless and perishable.
Are there any . . . that can cause rain?—The question is asked with a special reference to the drought which had called forth the prophet’s utterance (Jeremiah 14:1). Israel remembers at last that it is Jehovah alone who gives the rain from heaven and the fruitful seasons, and turns to Him in patient waiting for His gifts. The words contain an implied appeal to the history of Elijah (1Kings 18:41) and that of Joel 2:23).