Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And king Zedekiah the son of Josiah reigned instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, whom Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah.XXXVII.
(1) And king Zedekiah the son of Josiah . . .—The eight chapters that follow form a continuous narrative of the later work and fortunes of the prophet. They open with recording the accession of Zedekiah, following on the deposition of Coniah or Jeconiah. Here, as in Jeremiah 22:24, we have the shortened form of the name of the latter. The relative pronoun “whom Nebuchadrezzar . . . made king” refers to Zedekiah.
But neither he, nor his servants, nor the people of the land, did hearken unto the words of the LORD, which he spake by the prophet Jeremiah.(2) But neither he, nor his servants . . .—The verse gives a general survey of the character of Zedekiah’s reign preparatory to the actual history that follows, which falls towards its close, probably in the seventh or eighth year of his reign. It will be noted that the “servants” here, as in Jeremiah 36:24, are the personal attendants of the king, his courtiers, as distinct from the “princes” of Judah and the “people of the land,” that is, the great body of unofficial laymen.
And Zedekiah the king sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah and Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest to the prophet Jeremiah, saying, Pray now unto the LORD our God for us.(3) And Zedekiah the king sent Jehucal . . .—The time and, probably, occasion of the mission is given in Jeremiah 37:5. The Chaldæans had raised the siege of Jerusalem on hearing of the approach of the Egyptian army under Pharaoh-Hophra, the Apries of Herodotus (Herod. ii. 161-169. Ezekiel 17:15, Ezekiel 29:1-16, Ezekiel 30-32.), and the king seems to have thought that an opportunity presented itself for asserting his independence, and wished to gain the sanction and the prayers of the prophet for this policy. Of the two officers who are here named, Jehucal appears as accusing the prophets in Jeremiah 38:1, Zephaniah in Jeremiah 21:1; Jeremiah 29:25. They clearly belonged to the anti-Chaldæan party, and were therefore, for the most part, openly hostile to the prophet. Their application to him was either simply an official act in obedience to the king’s commands, or sprang from the hope, as before in Jeremiah 21:1, that they might, by a show of religious zeal for Jehovah, win him over to their cause. The stress which they lay on his praying to “the Lord our God” indicates the latter alternative as probable.
Now Jeremiah came in and went out among the people: for they had not put him into prison.(4) Jeremiah came in and went out among the people.—The statement is made in reference to the event narrated in Jeremiah 37:15. He was free when the king’s message came to him: it was his answer to that message that led to his imprisonment.
Then Pharaoh's army was come forth out of Egypt: and when the Chaldeans that besieged Jerusalem heard tidings of them, they departed from Jerusalem.(5) Then Pharaoh’s army was come forth out of Egypt.—The despatch of the Egyptian army was the result of negotiations which Zedekiah had opened with Pharaoh-Hophra, with a view to resisting the power of Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 17:15). Like the Egyptian armies in general, it was strong in chariots and horses (Ezekiel 17:15; Isaiah 31:1; Isaiah 36:9), and able to carry out the operations of a siege (Ezekiel 17:17). In Jeremiah 44:30 we have the full name of the Egyptian king.
Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Thus shall ye say to the king of Judah, that sent you unto me to inquire of me; Behold, Pharaoh's army, which is come forth to help you, shall return to Egypt into their own land.(7) Behold, Pharaoh’s army, which is come forth to help you, shall return to Egypt.—A like prediction as to the fate of the Egyptian army is found in Ezekiel 17:17, and is there connected with the fact that Zedekiah’s application to Egypt was a distinct breach of the compact which he had made with the Chaldæans. Their arrival, like that of Tirhakah in the Assyrian invasion (2Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9), caused only a temporary suspension of hostilities, and led finally to the conquest and subjugation of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar.
Thus saith the LORD; Deceive not yourselves, saying, The Chaldeans shall surely depart from us: for they shall not depart.(9, 10) Deceive not yourselves . . .—Literally, Deceive not your souls. The words indicate that the king and his counsellors had buoyed themselves up with expectations of deliverance. The chariots and horses of Egypt were, they thought, certain to defeat the Chaldæans in a pitched battle. The prophet tells them, in the language of a bold hyperbole, reminding us of Isaiah 30:17, that even the wounded remnant of the Chaldæan army should be strong enough to accomplish the purpose of Jehovah in the destruction of Jerusalem.
Then Jeremiah went forth out of Jerusalem to go into the land of Benjamin, to separate himself thence in the midst of the people.(12) Then Jeremiah went forth out of Jerusalem . . .—The prophet’s motive in leaving the city may well have been his apprehension that the answer he had sent would move the king’s anger, and lead, as it actually led, to an order for his arrest. The fact that the Chaldæans had raised the siege gave him free egress.
To separate himself thence in the midst of the people.—More accurately, to take a share from thence in the midst of the people. This gives probably the ostensible reason of his journey. As a priest belonging to Anathoth, he had property (like that which he afterwards bought of his uncle, Jeremiah 32) in the land of Benjamin, and he now went to look after it, either in the way of ploughing and sowing, or to receive his share of its produce during his sojourn in Jerusalem. If, as seems probable from Jeremiah 34:8-16, this was a Sabbatical year, the former, assuming the siege to have been raised when the year was over, would be the more probable alternative, and would better explain, as in Ruth 4:2; Ruth 4:9, the addition of the clause “in the midst of the people,” as showing that there was nothing clandestine in his proceedings. Other meanings that have been given to the words, “to buy bread,” “to till a field,” “to separate a field,” “to conciliate,” “to divide the spoil,” are less satisfactory. At such a time all the owners of land would be eager to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the departure of the Chaldæan army to transact any business connected with it.
And when he was in the gate of Benjamin, a captain of the ward was there, whose name was Irijah, the son of Shelemiah, the son of Hananiah; and he took Jeremiah the prophet, saying, Thou fallest away to the Chaldeans.(13) And when he was in the gate of Benjamin . . .—The prophet’s fears were not groundless. He had to leave the city by the entrance known as the gate of Benjamin (Jeremiah 38:7), on the north side (Zechariah 14:10). The officer in command, Irijah, the son of Shelemiah (probably, therefore, the brother of Jehucal, who is named in Jeremiah 37:3, and so probably acquainted with Jeremiah’s last prophetic utterance), charged him with treachery. He was “falling away to the Chaldæans.” It was assumed that, though the Chaldæans had gone, the prophet was about to make his way to their encampment to incite them to return, and so work out the fulfilment of his own prediction. The very phrase “thou fallest away” may have been an allusive reference to Jeremiah’s own words in Jeremiah 21:9, if, with the best critics, we refer those words to an earlier date than the raising of the siege.
Then said Jeremiah, It is false; I fall not away to the Chaldeans. But he hearkened not to him: so Irijah took Jeremiah, and brought him to the princes.(14) Irijah took Jeremiah, and brought him to the princes.—These were probably, as a body, identical with those named in Jeremiah 36:12, but the party opposed to the prophet were now apparently stronger than they had been. Neither they nor Irijah would listen to the prophet’s denial of the accusation. The fact that the siege had been raised by the Chaldæans may have given fresh strength to the party of resistance. Possibly also many of the prophet’s friends had shared the captivity of Jehoiakim.
Wherefore the princes were wroth with Jeremiah, and smote him, and put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe: for they had made that the prison.(15) The princes . . . put him in prison in the house of Jonathan the scribe.—The house was probably chosen as being under the direct control of one who, as scribe, exercised functions like those of a minister of police. It had not only the subterranean dungeon and pit common to all Eastern prisons, but separate “cabins” or cells (the Hebrew word does not occur elsewhere) for the confinement of individual prisoners (Jeremiah 37:16). Of the severity with which the prophet was treated there, we may judge from his entreaty not to be taken back there after his release (Jeremiah 38:26). We have fairly adequate data for measuring the duration of the “many days” of his imprisonment. It began before the second siege of Jerusalem, which lasted for nearly two years (2Kings 25:1-3), and when the city was taken he was still in the court of the prison. The incidents of Jeremiah 32-34 belong to this period.
Then Zedekiah the king sent, and took him out: and the king asked him secretly in his house, and said, Is there any word from the LORD? And Jeremiah said, There is: for, said he, thou shalt be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon.(17) Then Zedekiah the king sent, and took him out . . .—The king seems to have been at once better than his counsellors, and afraid of them. He regrets the severity of the prophet’s treatment, and hopes that there may yet be “a word of the Lord” less harsh than before, and with this view summons him to his palace, as before he had sent asking for his intercession. The prophet is, however, true to his calling, and not even the hope of gaining protection against his persecutors will lead him to change one jot or tittle of his message. He answers with a stern abruptness, and adds the new prediction, that the king himself shall be taken prisoner,—what is now reported being earlier than Jeremiah 32:4-5.
Moreover Jeremiah said unto king Zedekiah, What have I offended against thee, or against thy servants, or against this people, that ye have put me in prison?(18) What have I offended against thee . . .?—The cruelty of his treatment draws from the prophet an indignant protest. Of what crime had he been guilty, but that of speaking the word which the Lord had given him to speak, and was this a crime in the eyes of any true Israelite? No act of treachery or desertion could be proved against him.
Where are now your prophets which prophesied unto you, saying, The king of Babylon shall not come against you, nor against this land?(19) Where are now your prophets . . .?—The failure of the past predictions of the false prophets is urged on the king as a reason why he should not trust them in the present crisis. They had assured him (Jeremiah 28:3) that within two years the city should be delivered, and the result had been that it had been besieged. The temporary departure of the Chaldæans had again raised their hopes, and they were now tempting the king with the assurance that the Egyptian army would make short work of them.
Therefore hear now, I pray thee, O my lord the king: let my supplication, I pray thee, be accepted before thee; that thou cause me not to return to the house of Jonathan the scribe, lest I die there.(20) That thou cause me not to return to the house of Jonathan the scribe . . .—The petition shows the cruelty with which the prophet had been treated. Half-starved, and thrust into a foul and fœtid dungeon, he felt that to return to it would be death.
Then Zedekiah the king commanded that they should commit Jeremiah into the court of the prison, and that they should give him daily a piece of bread out of the bakers' street, until all the bread in the city were spent. Thus Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.(21) Into the court of the prison . . .—This was obviously a concession to Jeremiah’s request, and here he remained (see Jeremiah 32:2; Jeremiah 33:1), with one brief exception (Jeremiah 38:6), till the capture of the city. It was “in the king’s house,” above ground, with free access for light and air, and it was therefore in his power to see that the prophet was treated with respect, and not left to starve.
A piece of bread out of the bakers’ street.—The locality is not mentioned elsewhere, but Jerusalem, like other Eastern cities, seems to have had distinct localities assigned as bazaars to special trades. Thus, one of the broad streets running through the city was known, in New Testament times, as the valley of Tyropceon (= cheesemakers). Merchants and goldsmiths appear in Nehemiah 3:32 as having their separate quarters, and apothecaries in Nehemiah 3:8. The “street of the bakers” was probably connected with “the tower of the furnaces” in Nehemiah 3:11. The order given by the king indicates that the city was already blockaded, and that the supply of provisions was falling short.