Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At that time, saith the LORD, they shall bring out the bones of the kings of Judah, and the bones of his princes, and the bones of the priests, and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, out of their graves:VIII.
(1) At that time.—There is, it is obvious, no break in the discourse, and the time is therefore that of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldæans, and of the burial of the slain. Not even the dead should sleep in peace. With an awful re-iteration of the word, so as to give the emphasis as of the toll of a funeral bell, the prophet heaps clause upon clause, “the bones of the kings,” “the bones of the princes,” and so on. The motives of this desecration of the sepulchres might be either the wanton ferocity of barbarian conquerors, bent, after the manner of savage warfare, on the mutilation of the dead, or the greed of gain and the expectation of finding concealed treasures. So Hyrcanus, to the great scandal of the Jews, broke open the sepulchre of David (Joseph., Ant. vii. 15).
And they shall spread them before the sun, and the moon, and all the host of heaven, whom they have loved, and whom they have served, and after whom they have walked, and whom they have sought, and whom they have worshipped: they shall not be gathered, nor be buried; they shall be for dung upon the face of the earth.(2) Whom they have loved . . .—Here, again, there is a peculiar characteristic emphasis in the piling up, one upon another, of verbs more or less synonymous. So far as there is a traceable order, it is from the first inward impulse prompting to idolatry to the full development of that feeling in ritual. The sun, moon, and stars shall look, not on crowds of adoring worshippers, but on the carcases of those whose love and worship, transferred from Jehovah to the host of heaven, have brought on them that terrible doom.
And death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family, which remain in all the places whither I have driven them, saith the LORD of hosts.(3) The residue of them that remain.—Once more the emphasis of re-iteration, “the remnant of a remnant.” The “evil family” is the whole house of Israel, but the words contemplate specially the exile of Judah and Benjamin, rather than that of the ten tribes.
Moreover thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the LORD; Shall they fall, and not arise? shall he turn away, and not return?(4) Shall he turn.—Better, as both clauses arc indefinite, Shall men fall and not arise? Shall one turn away and not return? The appeal is made to the common practice of men. Those who fall struggle to their feet again. One who finds that he has lost his way retraces his steps. In its spiritual aspect the words assert the possibility of repentance in all but every case, however desperate it may seem. St. Paul’s question, “Have they stumbled that they should fall?” (Romans 11:11), expresses something of the same belief in the ultimate triumph of the Divine purpose of good. As yet, that purpose, as the next verse shows, seemed to be thwarted.
Why then is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they hold fast deceit, they refuse to return.(5) Slidden back . . . backsliding.—The English fails to give the full emphasis of the re-iteration of the same word as in the previous verse. Why doth this people of Jerusalem turn away with a perpetual turning? Here, so far, there was no retracing the evil path which they had chosen.
I hearkened and heard.—Jehovah himself is introduced here, as probably in the question of the previous verse, as speaking, listening for cries of penitence, and hearing only the words of the evildoers.
Rusheth.—The word is primarily used of the rushing of a torrent (Isaiah 8:8; Isaiah 10:22; Isaiah 28:17), and is applied to the frantic impetuosity with which Israel was rushing into evil, and therefore into the misery that followed it.
Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people know not the judgment of the LORD.(7) The stork in the heaven.—The eye of the prophet looked on nature at once with the quick observation of one who is alive to all her changes, and with the profound thought of a poet finding inner meanings in all phenomena. The birds of the air obey their instincts as the law of their nature. Israel, with its fatal gift of freedom, resists that which is its law of life. The stork arrives in Palestine in March, and leaves for the north of Europe in April or May. The Hebrew name, chasideh (literally, the pious bird), indicating its care for its young, is suggestive, as also is the phrase “in the heavens,” as applied to its characteristic mode of flight. The turtle-dove appears at the approach of spring (Song Song of Solomon 2:12).
The crane and the swallow.—In the judgment of Tristram and other modern naturalists, the words should change places, and perhaps “swift” take the place of swallow. The word for “swallow” in Psalm 84:3 is different. The same combination meets us in Isaiah 38:14.
Judgment.—Better, perhaps, ordinance, the appointed rule of life which brute creatures obey and man transgresses.
How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain.(8) How do ye say . . .?—The question is put to priests and prophets, who were the recognised expounders of the Law, but not to them only. The order of scribes, which became so dominant during the exile, was already rising into notice. Shaphan, to whom Hilkiah gave the re-found Book of the Law, belonged to it (2Chronicles 34:15), and the discovery of that book would naturally give a fresh impetus to their work. They were boasting of their position as the recognised instructors of the people.
Lo, certainly . . .—Better, Verily, lo! the lying pen of the scribes hath made it (i.e., the Law) as a lie. The pen was the iron stylus made for engraving on stone or metal. The meaning of the clause is clear. The sophistry of men was turning the truth of God into a lie, and emptying it of its noblest meaning. Already, as in other things, so here, in his protest against the teaching of the scribes, with their traditional and misleading casuistry, Jeremiah appears as foreshadowing the prophet of Nazareth (Matthew 5:20-48; Matthew 23:2-26).
The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the LORD; and what wisdom is in them?(9) They have rejected the word of the Lord.—The “wise men” are apparently distinguished from the scribes, probably as students of the ethical or sapiential books of Israel, such as the Proverbs of Solomon, as distinct from the Law. The reign of Hezekiah, it will be remembered, had been memorable for such studies (Proverbs 25:1). They, too, kept within the range of traditional maxims and precepts, perhaps with stress on ceremonial rather than moral obligations; and when the word of Jehovah came to them straight from the lips of the prophets, they refused to listen to it, and with that refusal, what wisdom could they claim?
Therefore will I give their wives unto others, and their fields to them that shall inherit them: for every one from the least even unto the greatest is given to covetousness, from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.(10-12) Every one from the least . . .—The prophet reproduces, though not verbally, what he had already said in Jeremiah 6:12-15. (Comp. Notes there.) It is as though that emphatic condemnation of the sins of the false teachers were burnt into his soul, and could not but find utterance whenever he addressed the people.
I will surely consume them, saith the LORD: there shall be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things that I have given them shall pass away from them.(13) I will surely consume.—Literally, Gathering, I will sweep away—i.e., I will gather and sweep away, the two verbs being all but identical in sound and spelling, so that the construction has almost the force of the emphatic Hebrew reduplication.
There shall be.—These words are not in the Hebrew, and the verse describes, not the judgment of Jehovah on the state of Israel, but that state itself. There are no grapes on the vine, no figs on the fig-tree, the leaf fadeth. The words are figurative rather than literal, after the manner of Jeremiah 2:21; Isaiah 5:2. Israel is a degenerate vine, a barren fig-tree. Here, again, we find an echo of the teaching of Jeremiah in that of Jesus (Matthew 21:19; Luke 13:6-9). In Micah 7:1 we have another example of the same figurative language.
The things that I have given them . . .—The words have been differently rendered, (1) I gave them that which they transgress—i.e., the divine law of righteousness; and (2) therefore I will appoint those that shall pass over them—i.e., the invaders who shall overrun their country. The former seems on the whole best suited to the context.
Why do we sit still? assemble yourselves, and let us enter into the defenced cities, and let us be silent there: for the LORD our God hath put us to silence, and given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against the LORD.(14) Why do we sit still? . . .—The cry of the people in answer to the threatening of Jehovah is brought in by the prophet with a startling dramatic vividness. They are ready to flee into the defenced cities, as the prophet had told them in Jeremiah 4:5, but it is without hope. They are going into the silence as of death, for to that silence Jehovah himself has brought them.
Water of gall.—The idea implied is that of poison as well as bitterness. It is uncertain what the “gall-plant” was; possibly, from its connection with “grapes” or “clusters,” as in Deuteronomy 32:32, belladonna or colocynth is meant. Others have suggested the poppy, and this is in part confirmed by the narcotic properties implied in Matthew 27:34. In Deuteronomy 29:18 it is joined with “wormwood.”
We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!(15) A time of health . . .—Better, healing, or, following another etymology, a time of quietness, and behold alarm. “Peace,” in the first clause, is used in its wider sense as including all forms of good.
The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan: the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land, and all that is in it; the city, and those that dwell therein.(16) Heard from Dan.—As in Jeremiah 4:13, the invasion by an army of which cavalry and war chariots formed the most terrible contingent was a special terror to Israelites. Even at Dan, the northern boundary of Palestine (see Note on Jeremiah 4:15), there was a sound of terror in the very snortings of the horses. The patristic interpretation that the prophet indicates the coming of Antichrist from the tribe deserves a passing notice as one of the eccentricities of exegesis.
For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the LORD.(17) Serpents, cockatrices.—There is a sudden change of figure, one new image of terror starting from the history of the fiery serpents of Numbers 21:6, or, possibly, from the connection of Dan with the “serpent” and “adder” in Genesis 49:17. It is not easy to identify the genus and species of the serpents of the Bible. Here the two words are in apposition. “Cockatrice,” however, cannot be right, that name belonging, as an English word, to legendary zoology. The Vulg. gives “basilisk.” In Proverbs 23:32 it is translated by “adder.” In any case it implies a hissing venomous snake (probably the cerastes or serpens regulus), and the symbolism which identified it with the Assyrian or Chaldæan power had already appeared in Isaiah 14:29.
Which will not be charmed.—The figure is that of Psalm 58:4-5. The “deaf adder” that “refuseth to hear the voice of the charmer” represents an implacable enemy waging a pitiless war. Serpent-charming, as in the case of the Egyptian sorcerers (Exodus 7:11), seems to have been from a very early time, as it is now, both in Egypt and India, one of the most prominent features of the natural magic of the East.
When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.(18) When I would comfort myself . . .—The word translated comfort is not found elsewhere, and has been very differently understood. Taking the words as spoken after a pause, they come as a cry of sorrow following the proclamation of the judgment of Jehovah, Ah, my comfort against sorrow! (mourning for it as dead and gone); my heart is sick within me. The latter phrase is the same as in Isaiah 1:5.
Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: Is not the LORD in Zion? is not her king in her? Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities?(19) Because of them that dwell . . .—The verse should read thus: Behold, the voice of the cry for help of the daughter of my people from the land of those that are far off. The prophet, dramatising the future, as before, in Jeremiah 8:14, hears the cry of the exiles in a far-off land, and that which they ask is this—“Is not Jehovah in Zion? Is not her king in her?” That question is asked half in despair, and half in murmuring complaint. But Jehovah himself returns the answer, and it comes in the form of another question, “Why have they provoked me to anger . . .?” They had forsaken Him before. He forsook them now and left them, for a time, to their own ways.
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.(20) The harvest is past . . .—The question of Jehovah, admitting of no answer but a confession of guilt, is met by another cry of despair from the sufferers of the future. They are as men in a year of famine—“The harvest is past,” and there has been no crop for men to reap.
Summer.—In Isaiah 16:9; Jeremiah 40:10, and elsewhere, the word is rendered by “summer fruits.” “The summer” (better, the fruit-gathering) is ended, and yet they are not saved from misery and death. All has failed alike. The whole formula had probably become proverbial for extremest misery. It is well to remember that the barley-harvest coincided with the Passover, the wheat-harvest with Pentecost, the fruit-gathering with the autumn Feast of Tabernacles.
For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.(21) For the hurt . . .—Now the prophet again speaks in his own person. He is crushed in that crushing of his people. His face is darkened, as one that mourns. (Comp. Psalm 38:6; Joshua 5:11.)
Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?(22) Is there no balm in Gilead . . .?—The resinous gums of Gilead, identified by some naturalists with those of the terebinth, by others with mastich, the gum of the Pistaccia lentiscus, were prominent in the pharmacopœia of Israel, and were exported to Egypt for the embalmment of the dead (Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11; Jeremiah 46:11; Jeremiah 51:8). A plaister of such gums was the received prescription for healing a wound. The question of the prophet is therefore a parable. “Are there no means of healing, no healer to apply them, for the spiritual wounds of Israel? The prophets were her physicians, repentance and righteousness were her balm of Gilead. Why has no balsam-plaister been laid on the daughter of my people? Why so little result from the means which Jehovah has provided?” The imagery re-appears in Jeremiah 46:11; Jeremiah 51:8. The balm which was grown at Jericho under the Roman Empire (Tac, Hist. v. 6; Plin., Nat. Hist. xii. 25), and was traditionally reported to have been brought by the Queen of Sheba, was probably the Amyris Opobalsamum, now cultivated at Mecca, which requires a more tropical climate than that of Gilead. Wyclif’s version, “Is there no triacle in Gilead?” may be noted as illustrating the history of a word now obsolete. “Triacle” was the English form of theriacum, the mediæval panacea for all wounds, and specially for the bites of serpents and venomous beasts.