Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!IX.
(1) Oh, that my head were waters . . .!—Literally, Who will give my head waters . . .? The form of a question was, in Hebrew idiom as in Latin, the natural utterance of desire. In the Hebrew text this verse comes as the last in Jeremiah 8. It is, of course, very closely connected with what precedes; but, on the other hand, it is even more closely connected with what follows. Strictly speaking, there ought to be no break at all, and the discourse should flow on continuously.
Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them! for they be all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men.(2) Oh, that I had . . .!—Literally, as before, Who will give . . .?
A lodging place of wayfaring men.—i.e., a place of shelter, a khan or caravanserai, such as were built for travellers, such, e.g., as the “inn” of Genesis 42:27, the “habitation” of Chimham (Jeremiah 41:17), which the son of Barzillai had erected near Bethlehem, as an act of munificent gratitude to his adopted country (2Samuel 19:40). In some such shelter, far from the cities of Judah, the prophet, with a feeling like that of the Psalmist (Psalm 55:6-8) would fain find refuge from his treacherous enemies—“adulterers,” alike spiritually and literally (Jeremiah 5:8).
And they bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me, saith the LORD.(3) Like their bow for lies.—The inserted words turn the boldness of the metaphor into a comparatively tame simile. They bend their tongue to be their bow of lies. The same figure meets us in Psalm 57:4; Psalm 58:7; Psalm 64:3.
They are not valiant for the truth upon the earth.—Better, they are not mighty for truth, i.e., faithfulness, in the land—i.e., they do not rule faithfully. It is not without some regret that we part with a phrase which has gained something of a proverbial character as applied to the champions of speculative truth or abstract right, but the above gives the true meaning of the Hebrew.
Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, and trust ye not in any brother: for every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbour will walk with slanders.(4) Take ye heed . . .—The extreme bitterness of the prophet’s words is explained in part by what we read afterwards of his personal history (Jeremiah 12:6; Jeremiah 18:18). Then, as at other times, a man’s foes were those of his own household (Matthew 10:36).
Every brother will utterly supplant.—The word is that which gave the patriarch his significant name of Jacob, the supplanter (Genesis 25:26; Genesis 27:36). Jeremiah seems to say that the people have forfeited their claims to the name of the true Israel. Every brother Israelite is found to be a thorough-paced Jacob. The adverb “utterly” expresses the force of the Hebrew reduplication of the verb.
Will walk with slanders.—Better, walketh a slanderer.
And they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.(5) Deceive.—The word is commonly translated, as in the margin, mock. (So in 1Kings 18:27; Judges 16:10; Judges 16:13; Judges 16:15.) The context here shows, however, that the kind of mockery is that which at once deludes and derides; and as the former meaning is predominant, the text of the English version had better stand as it is.
To commit iniquity.—Literally, to go crookedly, or, in the strict sense of the word, to do wrong.
Thine habitation is in the midst of deceit; through deceit they refuse to know me, saith the LORD.(6) Thine habitation . . .—The words may be an individualised, and therefore more emphatic, reproduction of the general warning of Jeremiah 9:4. It is, however, better to take them as spoken by Jehovah to the prophet individually. The LXX., following a different reading and punctuation, translates “usury upon usury, deceit upon deceit; they refuse to know Me, saith the Lord.” And this has been adopted by Ewald, among recent commentators.
Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, Behold, I will melt them, and try them; for how shall I do for the daughter of my people?(7) I will melt them, and try them.—The prophet, speaking in the name of Jehovah, falls back upon the imagery of Jeremiah 6:28-30; Isaiah 48:10. The evil has come to such a pass that nothing is left but the melting of the fiery furnace of affliction. How else could He act for the daughter of His people? The phrase throws us back upon Jeremiah 8:21-22. The balm of Gilead had proved ineffectual. The disease required a severer remedy.
Their tongue is as an arrow shot out; it speaketh deceit: one speaketh peaceably to his neighbour with his mouth, but in heart he layeth his wait.(8) An arrow shot out.—Better, an arrow that pierceth, or slayeth.
In heart.—More literally, inwardly.
Shall I not visit them for these things? saith the LORD: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?(9) Shall I not visit . . .?—The previous use of the same warning in Jeremiah 5:9; Jeremiah 5:29 gives these words also the emphasis of iteration.
For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation, because they are burned up, so that none can pass through them; neither can men hear the voice of the cattle; both the fowl of the heavens and the beast are fled; they are gone.(10) For the mountains . . .—The Hebrew preposition means both “upon” and “on account of,” and probably both meanings were implied. The prophet sees himself upon the mountains, taking up the lamentation for them because they are “burned up.”
The habitations.—Better, as in the margin, pastures. The wilderness is simply the wild open country.
So that none can pass . . . neither can men hear.—Better, with none to pass through them . . . neither do men hear.
Both the fowl . . .—The Hebrew is more emphatic; from the fowl of the heavens to the beast . . . they are fled.
And I will make Jerusalem heaps, and a den of dragons; and I will make the cities of Judah desolate, without an inhabitant.(11) A den of dragons.—Better, here and in Jeremiah 10:22; Isaiah 13:22, jackals. The word means, literally, a howler. The English version follows the LXX. and Vulgate versions; but even taking “dragons” in its non-mythical sense as applied to some species of serpent, there is nothing in the word to lead us to assign this meaning. The mistake has probably arisen from the likeness of the word to those translated “serpent” in Exodus 7:9-10; Exodus 7:12, “whale” in Genesis 1:21 and Job 7:12, and “dragons” in Psalm 74:13; Psalm 91:13.
Who is the wise man, that may understand this? and who is he to whom the mouth of the LORD hath spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land perisheth and is burned up like a wilderness, that none passeth through?(12) Who is the wise man . . .?—Sage (comp. Jeremiah 8:9) and prophet are alike called on to state why the misery of which Jeremiah speaks is to come upon the people. But they are asked in vain, and Jehovah, through the prophet, makes answer to Himself.
That none passeth through.—The English is ambiguous. “That” stands either for a relative with “wilderness” as its antecedent, or as a conjunction equivalent to “so that.” Better, and none there is that passeth through.
But have walked after the imagination of their own heart, and after Baalim, which their fathers taught them:(14) Imagination.—Stubbornness, as in Jeremiah 3:17.
Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.(15) Wormwood.—As a plant, probably a species of Artemisia, four species of which are found in Palestine. In Deuteronomy 29:18 it appears as the symbol of moral evil, here of the bitterness of calamity.
Water of gall.—See Note on Jeremiah 8:14.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, Consider ye, and call for the mourning women, that they may come; and send for cunning women, that they may come:(17) Mourning women . . . cunning women.—Eastern funerals were, and are, attended by mourners, chiefly women, hired for the purpose. Wailing was reduced to an art, and they who practised it were cunning. There are the “mourners” that “go about the streets” (Ecclesiastes 12:5), those that “are skilful of lamentation” (Amos 5:16), those that mourned for Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:18), those that “wept and wailed greatly” in the house of Jairus (Mark 5:38). They are summoned as to the funeral, not of a friend or neighbour, but of the nation.
And let them make haste, and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush out with waters.(18) Take up a wailing for us.—There is in all such figures of speech an inevitable blending of metaphors. The mourners wail for the dead nation, and yet the members of the nation are sharers in the obsequies, and their eyes run down with tears.
For a voice of wailing is heard out of Zion, How are we spoiled! we are greatly confounded, because we have forsaken the land, because our dwellings have cast us out.(19) We have forsaken.—Better, we have left. The English version suggests a voluntary abandonment, which is not involved in the Hebrew.
Yet hear the word of the LORD, O ye women, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth, and teach your daughters wailing, and every one her neighbour lamentation.(20) Teach your daughters wailing.—The thought of Jeremiah 9:9 is continued. The words rest upon the idea that wailing was an art, its cries and tones skilfully adapted to the special sorrows of which it was in theory the expression. They perhaps imply also that death would do its work so terribly that the demand for mourners would be greater than the supply, and that supernumeraries must be trained to meet it. Looking to the many other coincidences between our Lord’s teaching and that of Jeremiah, it is not too much to see in His words to the daughter of Jerusalem, “Weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:27-28), a parallel to what we read here.
For death is come up into our windows, and is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets.(21) Death is come up into our windows.—“Death” stands here, as in Jeremiah 15:2, specifically for the pestilence, which is to add its horrors to those of the famine and the sword, and which creeps in with its fatal taint at the windows, even though the invader is for a time kept at bay, and cuts off the children who else would play “without,” sc., in the court-yard of the house, and the “young men” who else would gather, as were their wont, in the streets or the open places of the city. The Hebrew word rehoboth (comp. Genesis 26:22) answers to “piazza,” “square,” “market-place,” rather than to our street.
Speak, Thus saith the LORD, Even the carcases of men shall fall as dung upon the open field, and as the handful after the harvestman, and none shall gather them.(22) Speak, Thus saith the Lord.—The abrupt opening indicates a new prediction, coming to him unbidden, which he is constrained to utter as a message from Jehovah.
As the handful.—The reaper gathered into swathes, or small sheaves, what he could hold in his left hand, as he went on cutting with his sickle. These he threw down as they became too big to hold, and they were left strewn on the field till he returned to gather them up into larger sheaves. So should the bodies of the dead be strewn, the prophet says, on the open field, but there should be none to take them up and bury them.
Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches:(23) Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom.—The long prophecy of judgment had reached its climax. Now there comes the conclusion of the whole matter—that the one way of salvation is to renounce all reliance on the wisdom, greatness, wealth of the world, and to glory only in knowing Jehovah. The “wise man” is, as before in Jeremiah 8:9, and Jeremiah 9:12, the scribe, or recognised teacher of the people
But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.(24) Let him that glorieth glory in this . . .—The passage is interesting as having clearly been present to the mind of St. Paul in writing 1Corinthians 1:31; 2Corinthians 10:17. He had learnt from it to estimate the wisdom and the greatness on which the Corinthians prided themselves at their true value. We may find a parallel even in the higher words which teach us that “eternal life is to know God” (John 17:3), to understand those attributes, love, judgment, righteousness, which we associate with our thoughts of Him, as indeed they are in their infinite perfection, and which when we know them as we ought to know, we must needs strive to reproduce.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised;(25) I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised.—The passage is difficult, but the English verse is misleading. Better, I will punish all those that are circumcised in uncircumcision—all, i.e., who have the outward sign, but not the inward purity of which it was the symbol. In the day of God’s judgments (this being the connecting link with the preceding verse) there would be no difference between the Jew and other races who like him practised circumcision on the one hand, and the outlying heathen world on the other. Here, again, Jeremiah anticipated St. Paul, “To the Jew first, and also to the Gentile; for there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:9). The true circumcision is that which is “in the spirit, not in the letter” (Romans 2:29).
Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all that are in the utmost corners, that dwell in the wilderness: for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.(26) Egypt, and Judah . . .—The nations enumerated were all alike, the Egyptians certainly (Herod. ii. 36, 37), and the others, as belonging to the same race as Judah, probably, in the fact of circumcision, and are apparently brought together not without some touch of scornful humour. How could Israel pride itself in that which it had in common with some of the nations that it most abhorred. The later Idumaeans seem to have abandoned the practice till it was forced upon them by John Hyrcanus (Joseph., Ant. xi. 9, 15:7). Jerome (in loc.) affirms that the nations named practised circumcision in his time, and its adoption by Islam indicates its prevalence among the Arabs in that of Mahomet.
All that are in the utmost corners.—Better, all that have the corners (of their temples) shorn. The epithet, like our “cross-eared” or “round-head,” was obviously one of scorn, and was applied (as again in Jeremiah 25:23; Jeremiah 49:32) to a wild Arabian tribe who, as described by Herodotus (3:8), shaved their temples and let their hair grow long behind. The “wilderness” is the Arabian desert to the east of Palestine, inhabited by the Ishmaelites and other kindred races. As if to complete the contempt which he pours on circumcision, the prophet speaks of the barbarous people, whose customs were specially forbidden to Israel (Leviticus 19:27), as in this respect standing on the same level with Israel. If circumcision by itself were enough to secure immunity from judgment, they too, as practising a rite analogous though not identical, might claim it.
All these nations are uncircumcised.—The English Version makes the prophet say exactly the opposite of what he really said. All the heathen (not “these nations”) are in God’s sight as uncircumcised, whether they practise the outward rite or not—and the state of Israel was not a whit better than theirs, for she too was uncircumcised in heart. Once again Jeremiah is the forerunner of St. Paul’s Romans 2:25-29. It may be noted that the same nations are enumerated afterwards as coming under Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests (Jeremiah 25:23).