Jeremiah 17 Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Jeremiah 17
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars;
XVII.

(1) A pen of iron.i.e., a stylus, or graving tool, as in Job 19:24, chiefly used for engraving in stone or metal. In Psalm 45:1 it seems to have been used of the instrument with which the scribe wrote on his tablets.

With the point of a diamond.—The word expresses the idea of the hardness rather than the brilliancy of the diamond, and is rendered “adamant” in Ezekiel 3:9; Zechariah 7:12. (For the diamond as a precious stone a different word is used in Exodus 28:18.) Strictly speaking, it was applied only to the diamond-point set in iron used by engravers. Such instruments were known to the Romans (Pliny, Hist. Nat. xxxvii. 15), and may have been in use in Phœnicia or Palestine. The words describe a note of infamy that could not be erased, and this was stamped in upon the tablets of the heart (comp. 2Corinthians 3:3), and blazoned upon the “horns of the altars” of their false worship, or of the true worship of Jehovah which they had polluted and rendered false. The plural “altars” points probably to the former.

Whilst their children remember their altars and their groves by the green trees upon the high hills.
(2) Whilst their children remember . . .—If we take “children” as referring to age, there may be a reference to the way in which the horrors of Molech worship were burnt in upon the minds of boys who were present at such a spectacle, so as never to be forgotten, but the general sense in which we speak of the “children” of Israel or Judah seems sufficient. The thought expressed is that every locality that could be used for idolatrous worship made them “remember” that worship, and set about reproducing it. By some interpreters the clause is rendered, as they remember their children so do they their altars and their groves; i.e., their idols are as dear to them as their offspring. The former construction is, however, the more natural, and is best supported by the versions.

Groves.i.e., as throughout the Old Testament, when connected with idolatry, the wooden columns that were the symbols of the Phœnician goddess Asherah, possibly the same as Astarte (Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 16:21; 1Kings 14:23). The “green trees” suggested the thought of this worship—for the Asherah, though not a grove, was generally connected with one—as the “high hills” did that of the altars. Commonly the worship is described as “under every green tree.” Here a different preposition is used, “on the green trees,” connecting them with the verb “remember.”

O my mountain in the field, I will give thy substance and all thy treasures to the spoil, and thy high places for sin, throughout all thy borders.
(3) My mountain in the field.—As in Jeremiah 21:13; Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:2, a poetic phrase for Jerusalem or Zion, its greatness consisting not in its material elevation above the “field” or surrounding country, but in being “my mountain,” i.e., the mountain of Jehovah. The words predict the plunder of the city, perhaps specially the plunder of the Temple.

Thy high places.—As having been from the time of Samuel onward the chief scene of the false worship of the people. The threat is repeated almost verbally from Jeremiah 15:13.

And thou, even thyself, shalt discontinue from thine heritage that I gave thee; and I will cause thee to serve thine enemies in the land which thou knowest not: for ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn for ever.
(4) Thou, even thyself.—Literally, in or by thyself, an emphatic form for expressing loneliness and abandonment.

Shalt discontinue . . .—The word was a half-technical one, used to describe the act of leaving lands untilled and releasing creditors in the sabbatical year (Exodus 23:11; Deuteronomy 15:2). The land would have its rest now, would “enjoy its Sabbaths” (Leviticus 26:34; 2Chronicles 36:21), though Judah had failed in obedience to the Law which prescribed them. For the rest of the verse, see Note on Jeremiah 15:14.

Thus saith the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD.
(5) Cursed be the man . . .—The words are vehement and abrupt, but they burst from the prophet’s lips as proclaiming the root evil that had eaten into the life of his people. Their trust in an arm of flesh had led them to Egyptian and Assyrian alliances, and these to “departing from the Lord.” The anathema has its counterpart in the beatitude of Jeremiah 17:7. The opening words, Thus saith the Lord, indicate, perhaps, a pause, followed as by a new message, which the prophet feels bound to deliver. It is significant that the prophet uses two words for the English “man.” the first implying strength, and the second weakness.

For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited.
(6) Like the heath in the desert.—The word rendered heath is, literally, bare or naked, and as such is translated by “destitute” in Psalm 102:17. That meaning has accordingly been given to it here by some recent commentators. No picture of desolation could be more complete than that of a man utterly destitute, yet inhabiting the “parched places of the wilderness.” All the older versions, however, including the Targum, and some of the best modern (e.g. Ewald), take the word as describing the “heath” or other like shrubs standing alone in a barren land. A like word with the same meaning is found in Jeremiah 48:6, and stands in Arabic for the “juniper.” Both views are tenable, but the latter, as being a bolder similitude, and balancing the comparison to a “tree planted by the waters” in Jeremiah 17:8, is more after the manner of a poet-prophet. There is something weak in saying “A man shall be like a destitute man.” The word rendered “desert” (arabah) is applied specially to the Jordan valley (sometimes, indeed, to its more fertile parts), and its connection here with the “salt land” points to the wild, barren land of the Jordan as it flows into the Dead Sea (Deuteronomy 29:23).

Shall not see when good cometh.—The words describe the yearning that has been so often disappointed that at last, when the brighter day dawns, it is blind to the signs of its approach. It comes too late, as rain falls too late on the dead or withered heath.

Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is.
(7) Blessed is the man . . .—The words that follow in Jeremiah 17:8 are almost a paraphrase of Psalm 1:3. and, we may well believe, were suggested by them. The prophet has, as it were, his own Ebal and Gerizim: trust in God inheriting the blessing, and distrust the curse.

For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.
(8) Shall not see when heat cometh.—Another reading, followed by the LXX. and Vulgate, gives shall not fear; there is, however, more force in the repetition of the same word as in Jeremiah 17:6. The man who trusts is like the strong tree, clothed with foliage, that “does not see,” i.e., does not regard or feel, the presence of the heat. Technically the meaning is the same in both cases, but in the latter case with the emphasised contrast of a parallelism. Fed by the stream that never fails, it “shall not be careful” or anxious about the scorching heat of summer. As the blasted heath sees no good, so the tree, in this case, sees no evil.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
(9) The heart is deceitful . . .—The sequence of ideas seems as follows: If the blessing and the curse are thus so plainly marked, how is it that man chooses the curse and not the blessing, the portion of the “heath in the desert” rather than that of the “tree planted by the waters”? And the answer is found in the inscrutable self-deceit of his nature blinding his perceptions of good and evil.

Desperately wicked.—Rather, incurably diseased, as in Jeremiah 15:18; Jeremiah 30:12; Jeremiah 30:15; Isaiah 17:11, and elsewhere. Wickedness is, of course, implied, but it is regarded rather as a moral taint following on the deliberate choice, than as the choice itself.

I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.
(10) According to his ways.—The Hebrew word is in the singular, his way, and the interpolated conjunction “and” is better omitted, so as to leave the last words as an explanation of what is meant by it. Jehovah, who “searches the heart,” answers the question “who can know it?” He does know, and will, in the end, judge with a perfectly righteous judgment. Men should live as in the presence of One to whom all hearts are open.

As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool.
(11) As the partridge sitteth on eggs . . .—Better, following the LXX. and Vulg., and the marginal reading of the Authorised Version, heaps up eggs and hath not laid them. The words point to a popular belief among the Jews that the partridge steals the eggs of other birds and adds them to her own, with the result that when the eggs are hatched the broods desert her (see Bibl. Educ. iii. p. 73). It thus became a parable of the covetous man, whose avarice leads him to pile up riches which are not rightly his, and which after a while “make to themselves wings” and are seen no more. Modern naturalists have not observed this habit, but it is probable that the belief originated in the practice of the cuckoo laying its eggs in the nest of the partridge, as in that of other birds. The cuckoo (Leviticus 11:16; Deuteronomy 14:15) was and is a common bird in Palestine (Bibl. Educ. 2 p. 363).

Shall leave them in the midst of his days.—If we retain the rendering of the Authorised Version the words may refer to the practice of hunting the partridge by driving it from its nest and then striking it with a club (see Bibl. Educ. iii. p. 73). Many commentators, however, adopt the rendering, they (the riches) shall leave him. As covetousness was the besetting sin of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:17), the prediction may have pointed specially to him.

A glorious high throne from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary.
(12) A glorious high throne . . .—The verse is better taken in connection with the following, and not, as the interpolated “is” makes it, as a separate sentence, the nouns being all in the vocative. Thou throne of glory on high from the beginning, the place of our sanctuary, the hope of Israel, Jehovah . . . The thoughts of the prophet rise from the visible to the eternal temple, and that temple is one with the presence of Jehovah. The term “throne” is applied to Jerusalem in Jeremiah 3:17; practically, to the ark of the covenant in Psalm 80:2; Psalm 99:1; to the throne in heaven in Ezekiel 1:26; Daniel 7:9; Psalm 9:4; Psalm 11:4.

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.
(13) They that depart from me.—The rapid change of person from second to first and first to third is eminently Hebrew.

Written in the earth.—In implied contrast with the name graven on the rock for ever (Job 19:24) are those written on the dust or sand. The Eastern habit of writing on the ground (of which John 8:6 supplies one memorable instance, and which was the common practice in Jewish schools) gave a vividness to the similitude which we have almost lost. For “the fountain of living waters,” compare Note on Jeremiah 2:13.

Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise.
(14) Heal me.—The prophet, consciously or unconsciously, contrasts himself with the deserters from Jehovah. He needs “healing” and “salvation,” but he knows where to seek for them, and is sure that his Lord will not leave the work incomplete. The prayer of the prophet is like that of the Psalmist (Psalm 6:2; Psalm 30:2). In “thou art my praise” we have an echo of Deuteronomy 10:21; Psalm 71:6.

Behold, they say unto me, Where is the word of the LORD? let it come now.
(15) Behold, they say unto me.—The speakers are not named or defined, but they are clearly the mockers who questioned Jeremiah’s prophetic character, on the ground (comp. Deuteronomy 18:22) that his threats had received no fulfilment. Presumably, therefore, the words were written before the death of Jehoiakim and the capture of Jerusalem.

Let it come now.—The last word is the usual formula of request, and implies a mocking tone in the speakers: “Let it come, if you please.

As for me, I have not hastened from being a pastor to follow thee: neither have I desired the woeful day; thou knowest: that which came out of my lips was right before thee.
(16) I have not hastened . . .—The words of the English Version are somewhat obscure, and a better rendering would perhaps be, I have not been quick to withdraw from my work in following thee, as a shepherd and guide of the people. A possible meaning, adopted by some commentators, would be, “I have not hastened from my work as a shepherd (in the literal sense) to follow thee,” as presenting a parallel to the words of Amos (Amos 7:14-15); and, though we cannot get beyond conjecture, it is quite possible that Jeremiah, in his youth, before the call of Jeremiah 1:4, may have been employed in the pasture grounds that belonged to Anathoth as a city of the priests (Numbers 35:4; Joshua 21:4; Joshua 21:18; 1Chronicles 6:60). It is to some extent in favour of this view, that throughout the book the work of the shepherd, when used figuratively, answers to the work of the ruler, and not to that of the prophet. What he means, if we keep the version given above, is that he had not been too slack in his obedience, but neither had he been over eager. He had no desire to see the woful day that would fulfil his predictions. What had come from his lips was just what he had been bidden to say and no more (Jeremiah 15:16-19), and thus he had spoken as in the sight of God. The interpolated word “right” mars rather than mends the meaning,

Be not a terror unto me: thou art my hope in the day of evil.
(17) Be not a terror . . .—i.e., a cause of terror or dismay. The words are explained by what follows. The prophet had put his hope in Jehovah, but if he were left to himself, his message unfulfilled, himself a by-word and a jest, what a contrast would all this be to what he had been led to hope! Would not his work as a prophet be more terrible than ever? The feeling expressed is like that of Jeremiah 15:10.

Let them be confounded that persecute me, but let not me be confounded: let them be dismayed, but let not me be dismayed: bring upon them the day of evil, and destroy them with double destruction.
(18) Let them be confounded . . .—The prayer reminds us of that of the Psalmist (Psalm 35:4; Psalm 40:14).

Double destruction.—Literally, break them with a two-fold breakingi.e., the “double recompense” of Jeremiah 16:18. (See Note there.)

Thus said the LORD unto me; Go and stand in the gate of the children of the people, whereby the kings of Judah come in, and by the which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem;
(19) Thus said the Lord unto me . . .—We enter here on an entirely fresh series of messages, arranged probably in chronological order, but having no immediate connection with what precedes, and narrated with a much fuller account of the circumstances connected with them. This, which begins the series, would appear from Jeremiah 17:25 to have been delivered before the sins of the people had assumed the hopeless, irremediable character which is implied in the two previous chapters; and the first part of this may probably be referred therefore to the early years of the reign of Jehoiakim. In its circumstances and mode of delivery it is parallel with the discourse of Jeremiah 22:1-5.

The gate of the children of the people . . .No gate so described is mentioned in the great topographical record of Nehemiah 3 or elsewhere, and we are therefore left to conjecture where it was. The context shows that it was a place of concourse, a gate of the Temple rather than of the city, perhaps the special gate by which the kings and people of Judah entered into the enclosure of the Temple. The name may indicate, as in Jeremiah 26:23, that it was that “of the common people,” or “laity,” as in 2Chronicles 35:5, as dis tinguished from that used by the priests and Levites; and it would appear, from the nature of the warning proclaimed there, to have been the scene of some open desecration of the Sabbath—possibly of the sale of sheep or doves for sacrifice, like that of John 2:14; Matthew 21:12, or of the more common articles of the market, as in Nehemiah 13:15. By some writers it has been identified with the “gate of Benjamin” (Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 38:7), but this would seem to have been more conspicuous as a place of judgment than of trade; nor is there any reason why it should be described by a different name here. Some, indeed. have conjectured that we should read “gate of Benjamin “instead of “gate of Beni-am,” which gives the meaning “children of the people.” It is noticeable that the message was to be delivered at the other gates as well, as being a protest against a prevalent sin.

Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
(22) Neither carry forth a burden.—Interpreted by the parallel passage in Nehemiah 13:15-22, the burden would be the baskets of fruit, vegetables, or fish which were brought in from the country by the villagers who came to the Temple services, and the wares of the city which were taken to the gates to be sold in turn to them. The Sabbath was observed after a fashion, but, as Sunday has been for many centuries and in many parts of Christendom, it was turned into a market-day, and so, though men abstained probably from manual labour, the quiet sanctity which of right belonged to it was lost. Passages like Isaiah 56:2-6; Isaiah 58:13 show that the evil was one of some standing, and the practice of the time of Jehoiakim was not likely to be more rigorous than it had been in the time of Isaiah, or was, at a later period, after the return from the Captivity.

Then shall there enter into the gates of this city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their princes, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: and this city shall remain for ever.
(25) Kings and princes.—The plural is obviously used to give greater vividness and grandeur to the picture of revived majesty which would be the reward of faithfulness, perhaps also to express the idea that the majesty would be enduring.

And they shall come from the cities of Judah, and from the places about Jerusalem, and from the land of Benjamin, and from the plain, and from the mountains, and from the south, bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise, unto the house of the LORD.
(26) They shall come . . .—The verse has a special interest (1) as a topographical description of the country about Jerusalem, and (2) as a summary of the chief forms of sacrifice under the Mosaic Law. (1) The “plain” (Shephelah) is the lowland country of Philistia, stretching to the Mediterranean; the “mountain” the hill-country of Judah; the “south” (Negeb) the region lying to the south of Hebron, and including Beersheba (comp. Joshua 15:21; Joshua 15:28). Each name, though descriptive in meaning, was used in almost as definite a sense as that in which we speak of the “Campagna” of Rome or the “Weald” of Kent. (2) The list includes the burnt offerings,” in which the flesh of the victim was consumed entirely on the altar; the “sacrifices,” in which the flesh of the victim was eaten partly by the priest and partly by the worshipper; the “meat offerings,” which were of meal and salt, not of flesh, and were always accompanied by incense (Leviticus 2:1); and, lastly, praise—the word “sacrifice” not being found in the Hebrew—the utterance of prayer and psalm, which the Psalmist had named as more acceptable than the flesh of bulls and goats (Psalm 50:14).

But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.
(27) Then will I kindle a fire . . .—The fire is figurative rather than literal: the “fierce anger” of the Lord which man cannot quench, and which brings destruction in its train, of which an actual conflagration may have been the instrument (Hosea 8:14; Amos 1:14). Compare Jeremiah 7:20; Jeremiah 21:14.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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