Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Exodus 34:10). But this covenant in all its amplitude, and with all the difficulties surrounding the observance of it, is nowhere set forth with greater solemnity and particularity than in Deuteronomy 27-30. There we find the curses and the blessings detailed and illustrated, and the provision made that between Ebal and Gerizim, in the very midst as it were of the land of promise, the covenant should receive a great national acceptance. "But," an Israelite might have said to Jeremiah, "these things happened so long ago." Men think they can easily set aside claims that rise out of the distant past. In the case of this particular claim, however, no such rejoinder was possible. In 2 Kings 22. we read of the discovery of the Book of the Law in the reign of Josiah, and in Jeremiah 23., we read of the decisive and comprehensive action which Josiah took upon making the discovery. The description in Ver. 2 of how he gathered in the house of the Lord all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, priests and prophets, and small and great, reminds us of the gathering long before, between Ebal and Gerizim (Joshua 8:35). All the people, we are further told, "stood to the covenant." Josiah was enabled to make a general overthrow of all the external visible instruments of idolatry, and what is of particular moment to be observed is the keeping of the Passover as arising out of this renewed covenant (2 Chronicles 35:1-19). It was like coming face to face with that great event in the early history of the people, their deliverance from the iron furnace. Thus when we bring into one view all these great transactions in relation to the covenant, we see how weighty and urgent is the message Jehovah here sends Jeremiah to deliver. His covenant was with a nation in the whole duration of its existence. Each generation as it died handed on its land, its possessions, its national customs, but in the midst of all it had to hand on this covenant. The land was Israel's only upon a certain condition. The owner of a piece of land may covenant with some one that he and his heirs and assigns shall have the use of the land in perpetuity, on the observance of certain conditions. If these conditions are willingly, perhaps eagerly, accepted, there is no just right to complain of forfeiture if the conditions are completely and carelessly set at naught. God's works, we are made to observe, go on to their completion through the service of many generations of his creatures. How many generations of insects have died in making the beautiful coral islands! We amid our spiritual light and advantages are the inheritors of many privileges, we have the use of an estate, which has been enriched by the toils and sufferings, the prayers and tears, of many ancestors. But we can inherit no privilege, no joy, no promise, no hope, without inheriting the responsibilities of a covenant. We may, indeed, neglect the covenant, but surely it requires great audacity to assert that we have even the faintest pretence of right to do it. - Y.
Jeremiah 11. is a continuation of the same sad monotone of denunciation and doom which goes on throughout well-nigh the whole of Jeremiah's prophecies. The curse pronounced here on the disobedient -
I. Is VERY TERRIBLE. The words, "Cursed," etc., are fearful words to come from the lips of the God of grace and mercy. And that which they threatened was terrible also. What a catalogue of woes, which were denounced against the guilty people, might be compiled from these chapters! And how exactly the event answered to the prediction! Read the history of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the sufferings of the people, which is given in the records of the times, for proof of this. It is a dismal story, heart-sickening, and one from which we should at once turn away were it possible for us to do so. But all this, which was written aforetime, was written for our learning, and therefore we cannot but give heed. For not only is the curse terrible -
II. IT IS ALTOGETHER JUST. What makes a sentence, such as is pronounced here, just? Is it not such considerations as these? -
1. That the Law which has been violated should have been altogether righteous. None can read over the moral Law given by God to his people without confessing its righteousness. "The Law was holy, just and good." Those who disobeyed it and were punished by it could not dispute its righteousness.
2. That it should have been fully known. If ignorance could have been pleaded the equity of the sentence might have been questioned. But amid all possible publicity and solemnity the Law was given at the first; and at a time (Ver. 4) when their hearts, by reason of God's exceeding goodness to them, were peculiarly susceptible to impression. And ever since then, by repeated, prolonged, and earnest appeal (Ver. 7) that obedience should be rendered.
3. When conscience consents to the Law that it is good. (Ver. 5.) They said "Amen" to it. The prophet is not giving his personal account only, but referring to the fact that all the people said "Amen" when the curse upon disobedience was pronounced from Mount Ebal; cf. also a more recent "standing to the covenant" to which probably Jeremiah alludes (2 Kings 23:3).
4. When the transgression has been notorious. (Ver. 8.) It was not simply that they would not obey, but they would not even listen, and they went on in their own way, utterly disregarding the covenant to which they had promised obedience (cf. also Vers. 9, 10).
5. When ingratitude has been added to disobedience. (Ver. 4.) What had not God done for them? How deep was the obligation to obey!
6. When forbearance has been exercised. For a thousand years and more they had been suffered to occupy the land of promise (Ver. 5, "As it is this day"). Wherever, then, was there or could there be a righteous doom if this were not?
III. AND AS NECESSARY AS RIGHTEOUS. Remember the purpose for which God had chosen Israel - that they might be the channels of his truth and righteousness to all other people. God was merciful to them and blessed them, "that his way," etc. (Psalm 67.). "In thee and in thy seed," said God to Abraham, "shall all the nations," etc. But if the men of the nation had rendered themselves incapable of this service, it was essential for the well-being of the world that they should make room for more faithful men. And this they had to do.
IV. AND CERTAIN OF ACCOMPLISHMENT IF THE DISOBEDIENCE BE NOT FORSAKEN. The judgment that came upon Judah and Jerusalem was not at all a solitary isolated fact. The like of it had happened before, has since, happens now, and will again whenever like provocation is given, as it all too often is. God's way of dealing with Israel is God's way of dealing with man everywhere and in all ages; therefore his way of dealing with us. God's Law, his demand for obedience, man's disobedience, and the consequent doom, are all facts with which we are familiar. The history of Israel is but an example of what is ever taking place. Even the gospel of the Lord Jesus, however much it may avert the eternal results of our transgressions, will not save us from the present temporal consequences in this world. "These all died in faith," so we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, of those "whose carcasses,' nevertheless, "fell in the wilderness." "The way of transgressors is," has been, must, and ever will be, "hard." - C.
I. THESE PROMISES.
1. "Ye shall be my people." Now, by this is meant, amongst other blessings, that they shall be the object of his care. How many are the proofs that this is a constituent part of the heritage of his people I Were not Israel so? Did he not watch over them continuously? "He suffered no man to do them harm; yea, he reproved kings for their sakes." "He gave his angels charge over them to keep them in all their ways." The race of Pharaoh, the cruel thirst of the hot, waterless sands, the threatened famine of the breadless desert, the marauding Amalekite, the pestilence that walked in darkness, and the destruction that wasted at noonday, - not one of these was suffered to harm them. How full are the Law, the prophets, and the psalms with sweet assurances of the tender care of God over his people! Nor does the New Testament come behind the Old in like gracious declarations. And the experience of all God's people swells the volume of testimony to his loving solicitude and watchfulness over us. "And such honor have all his saints." And to be of his people means also to be the abode of his Spirit. That Spirit should dwell in them, rule and mould them after the Divine will. True, God's ancient people do once and again seem to have been utterly abandoned of that Holy Spirit. But there was ever a faithful remnant, ever a godly few, of whom the Lord was wont to say, "They shall be mine in that day when I make up my jewels." And we must remember that there were long periods in Israel's history when, as a nation, they lived under the blessed guidance of that Spirit. These more happy periods are passed over in silence, as all such in the records of nations are, so that the saying has passed into a proverb, "Happy the nation that has no history." It is of the sad, troubled times that history tells, not of the long, eventless, peaceful times. When at rest, they walk in the fear of the Lord, and possess the comfort of the Holy Ghost, and are multiplied." Oh the joy of this possession of his Spirit! The thought of losing it made the contrite psalmist cry out m his agony, Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me." "I will put my Spirit within you" was ever one of the choicest promises of God to his people, and one of the surest tokens that they were his people. And it is so still. To be his is to be guided and governed of that good Spirit, to have our understandings purified, our affections wisely controlled, our hearts, our wills, under his direction always, so that we turn away from what is evil and cleave to that which is good. And it includes, furthermore, the being made the channels of his grace. Others shall be blessed through us, as it was said to Abraham, "In thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." God's people are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. How unspeakably great and blessed is the influence of the true people of God! In their presence impurity, profanity, selfishness, sin in all its forms, hide their shameful heads and slink away, whilst all things lovely and of good report flock around them and attend upon them continually. And finally they become the inmates of the home of God. The heavenly inheritance, of which the earthly Canaan, the land promised to the fathers of Israel, was the type and symbol, becomes theirs. They enter it through the gates of death, and these gates once passed, they are in his presence, where "there is fullness of joy, and at his right hand there is," etc. Such are some of the elements of this great joy of God taking us for his people, a joy which, of his infinite mercy, may he make us all to know.
2. "I will be your God." This cannot mean less than that he will be known to them as their God. They shall be able to realize his existence, Ms presence, his constant nearness to them. True, the God of Israel, whose promise this is, was not known by any organ of sense; he was no material God that their hands could handle; he spake with no human voice that their ears could hear; he appeared to them in no visible form that their eyes could see; he was manifested then, as now, only to their spirits. But when they worshipped him in spirit they felt that he was at their right hand, so that they could not be moved. Hence they went about their daily work and engaged in all the occupations of their lives, consciously realizing the presence of God; so that they constantly spoke of him "as their God, our God," my God, - so near, so real, so present was he to them. They could not if they would, and they would not if they could, escape from his presence or withdraw from the observation of his eye, or from the guidance and guardianship of his hand. In such manifestation of himself to them did he fulfill his word, "I will be your God." Nor was this all. Not only was he realized by them but rejoiced in. "I will go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy," was the delighted declaration of the saints of old and is so of the saints today. Such joy had they in him that, when all earthly affairs were disastrous for them, when the fig tree did not blossom, and when there was no fruit in the vine, and the labor of the olive failed, and the fields yielded no meat, when the flock was cut off from the fold and there were no herds in the stall, - when, that is, ruin stared them in the face and met them on every side, nevertheless they could rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of their salvation. "My soul shall make her boast in the Lord," was their perpetual song; and it is the song still of all those to whom God has said, "I will be your God." And his word came true yet further by their coming to resemble him. It is ever the result of worship to conform the worshipper to the deity he worships. Hence it was said of the worshippers of idols, "They that make them are like unto them, so is every one that trusteth in them." Accordingly it has ever Been found that they who bowed down to gods impure, cruel, and treacherous, became them selves impure, cruel, and treacherous. But, on the other hand, they who have worshipped the God of Israel have become like him, righteous, just, and true, merciful, and pure, and good. "I will be your God" meant, therefore, "I will make you like myself," and this promise God ever fulfils. And it means also, "I will be your rest." The soul whose God the Lord is, reposes on him. The storms of life may rage, its tempests beat, but "firm and unmoved are they who rest their souls on God." Everything may appear to be slipping away from a man, and he may seem to be like one gliding down a steep, smooth slope, ever faster and faster to the precipice over which he will be hurled into destruction, unable to grasp any friendly rock or branch, or to find foothold anywhere - and men's circumstances are like that sometimes; but they to whom this word, "I will be your God," is fulfilled, do find foothold in God and can stay themselves upon him. Hence, when heart and flesh fail, God is the Strength of their heart and their Portion forevermore.
II. THE CONDITION OF THEIR FULFILMENT. They were faithfully to do the commandments which he had made known to them: "Obey my voice, so," etc. And this condition is not abrogated; it is in as full force today as it was in the days of old. But when it is complied with, then, not merely by the gracious appointment of God, but also in the way of natural result, there follows the enjoyment of the promised blessings. For:
1. Obedience tends to such enjoyment of God, inasmuch as it prevents the rising of those mists whereby the sight of God is shut out from the soul. Travelers along the Rhine or over the mountains of Switzerland know to their cost how often the most glorious scenery the world contains is completely hidden from their view by the uprising of some wretched mist, wrapping in cold, dark, impenetrable fog all that upon which their eyes would have so delightedly rested. They want to gaze upon all that loveliness; they have come for that very purpose; but they cannot for those thick clouds. And oh, what a beautiful vision is the face of God! How good it is to gaze upon him, and to behold the shining of his countenance! And this we should do were it not for those mists with which disobedience to God's will ever blots out all that otherwise we should so delightedly see. "If our hearts condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God;" but when they do condemn us, confidence vanishes, and, as by a veil of impenetrable cloud, the face of God is hidden from our view. We have lost him; we cannot realize him; he is as if he were not, and the soul is forlorn and wretched and exposed to all manner of ill. Now, this sad experience, which is as common as it is sad, shows how the obeying of the voice of God must tend to the enjoyment of him, inasmuch as it prevents all that which hides God from our souls.
2. And before obedience that wall of the rebellious will, which more than aught else displeases and dishonors God and keeps him out from the soul, "falls down flat," as did the walls of Jericho before the obedient tribes of Israel. That will must be subdued, that stronghold of evil must be pulled down, and obedience is the strong hand that accomplishes this much-needed work. That strong fortress cast down, the soul becomes the possession of God, and the hitherto rebellious forces of the soul own him as their God. Or, to take another similitude, obedience unbars that fastened door before which the Lord Jesus has stood so long and knocked, but in vain, for admission. He desires to enter and to make us the glad partakers of his grace. But till that door be unbarred all this cannot be.
3. Obedience, furthermore, keeps us in those paths along which alone God is to be met. Full well we know that there are paths innumerable along which men go, along which we have gone ourselves; but God is never to be met with in them. But along the path by which obedience leads us, there we do meet with him, and are blessed by him.
4. And without this obedience God cannot carry out his purposes of grace. This is what we are told in the verse that follows our text. God asks for obedience, "that I may perform the oath which I have sworn unto," etc. Therefore without this he is held back from what he earnestly desires, and he cannot do the things that he would, God cannot admit the ungodly and the disobedient into the blessed land of promise. To do that would be to perpetuate forever the sins and sorrows of time. Therefore -
"Those holy gates forever bar
Deuteronomy 27:15. There it expresses the agreement of the whole congregation of Israel: here it is the word of one mouth. The adoption by the prophet, at this juncture, of words so solemnly significant is very impressive. One stands sponsor for many; a righteous and earnest man for a nation of callous transgressors. And is it not often so. What, indeed, would our poor, erring, depraved humanity do with itself were it not for these individual, mediatorial spirits, whom God raises up from time to time through the ages to interpret his will and to keep it in reverent obedience and spiritual trust for them who as yet are ignorant and alienated from his life? The service such men render is of vast importance and but imperfectly understood.
I. ONLY THOSE WHO ARE IN COMMUNION WITH GOD CAN TRULY UNDERSTAND AND APPROVE HIS JUDGMENTS. The commandment is intelligently alluded to, and its penalty stated. The correspondence of Judah's condition with that anticipated in the original passage is pregnantly suggested. All the more so that the transgressors did not feel or admit the correspondence. The prophet alone could say, "Amen;" but he said it emphatically and representatively. How many of God's people find a similar difficulty in acquiescing in his dispensations? They do not examine themselves, or their conscience is not sufficiently awakened, and consequently they fail to recognize his judgments and to profit by them as was intended.
II. GOD RAISES UP THOSE WHO SHALL RESPOND TO HIS VOICE AND MAINTAIN PROVISIONALLY HIS COVENANT RELATIONS WITH THE WORLD. The prophets were not only mouthpieces of Divine truth; they were saints whose consecration was essential to their spiritual discernment and the due exercise of their functions. The people were for the most part spiritually asleep or dead. In their spiritual and moral constitution a medium was provided sensitive enough for the perception and transmission of Divine communications. It was no exaggeration to speak of these messengers as "prepared, ordained, and sent." They were specially raised up for this duty of sustaining the conscious relations of God with his people. This was a dim foreshadowing of the Messiah-consciousness. In a certain sense the prophet repented, believed, obeyed, for the whole people, even as the high priest made solemn offering once a year for the sins of the whole people. Not that this spiritual condition of the inspired seer and saint could be effectual for individual salvation of others; but that it exercised a certain representative and general influence. The prophet held the truth as it were in trust for others, continually and energetically sought to mediate between Jehovah and Israel, and urged the people to acts of repentance and obedience. With each prophet it might be said that a new opportunity was given, a new day of grace afforded, for the return of the apostate nation to its primitive covenant relations with God. And in the succession of the prophets a guarantee was given of the enduring character of those relations, even when the covenant itself was flagrantly broken and practically set aside by those whom it chiefly concerned. The essential point was that there should be no age without some person or persons who should sustain a conscious spiritual connection with Jehovah for themselves and their race.
II. THAT WHICH THE FEW HAVE UNDERSTOOD AND ACCEPTED SHALL BECOME THE COMMON INHERITANCE OF ALL. The prophet was for the most part a solitary and a lonely man. This isolation of his lot was his grief, but the persistence of the succession of the prophets proved the unswerving purpose of God ultimately to save, not only Israel, but the world. There might be from time to time but one or two who could say "Amen" to his judgments, but some day the people as a whole would themselves endorse and approve them. And soon in the "fullness of the time" Christ would come, who is the faithful and true Witness, the "Amen" of all the Divine Law and promise. In his world-wide reign as our Representative, Prophet, Priest, and King, through faith in him, the race will be constituted into a new Israel, to keep the word of God. In this transfer of influence the law is that the communication shall proceed from the higher consciousness and consecration to the lower; the travail for souls, etc., being but a detailed sponsorship, one day to be done away with, when "all should know him, from the least even to the greatest." - M.
is, with St. Paul, an argument for the probability and even certainty of its unity in the grace of salvation. The doctrine of original sin is treated in Scripture as antecedent to the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ. In connection with this subject, notice -
I. THE INFLUENCE OF HEREDITY. In modern times the laws of heredity have been scientifically investigated, and startling results brought to light. Tendency can be traced from parent to child in gradually deepening lines and more confirmed manifestations. Spirit as well as body acknowledges this law, and, whether in health or disease, its operation is now placed beyond all dispute. But another law or modification of this law is perceived working alongside of it, namely, the law of atavism, in which not the general tendency towards improvement or degeneration is observed, but an apparently arbitrary and capricious recurrence of ancestral peculiarities that had long disappeared from the race. Of this nature seems to have been the present sin of Israel. It was not in the line of continuous succession, but a recurrent phase after intervals of normal and religious life. Thus it showed that the power of evil had only been "scotched," not killed; and that it was ready on the slightest provocation to assert itself in the rankest forms. How much that is mysterious in the conduct of individuals can be traced to the influence of such a principle! The two selves of every man represent influences that have been at work in his progenitors from remotest time.
II. HOW SOLEMN THE RESPONSIBILITY OF PARENTS. No care can be too great in relation to those we bring into the world. Our own nature and character should be diligently cultivated, and the utmost attention paid to parental example, family influence, and educative circumstance in their upbringing. It will not do to ignore the fact that, from generation to generation, there are transmitted both physical and spiritual tendencies which have largely to do with the formation of character and the determining of destiny. For good or for evil, the parent exercises a despotic influence upon all whom he brings into the world.
III. YET THE ACCOUNTABILITY OF THE CHILDREN REMAINS. In the sad entail of evil there are many bright instances of bold and pronounced departure from ancestral sin. The individual is not wholly subject to predetermining influences. If so, moral freedom would be but an illusion. A power is required to break the tyranny of inherited sin, and this is provided in the grace of God. The gospel is the development of this grace as an effectual and adequate means of salvation. - M.
I. WHILST SIN IS PERSISTED IS THERE CAN BE NO REMOVAL OF DIVINE JUDGMENTS. The righteousness of God has, after long-suffering mercy, brought these upon his people. The wisdom of their imposition is infallible; and they spring from the depths of an inscrutable, infinite love. Whilst, therefore, the condition which involved their imposition is unchanged, it would be presumption to suggest their removal. It is rather for the righteous conscience of saints sorrowfully to approve the action of the Supreme Magistrate, as he draws his cordon round the transgressor and compels him to capitulate. The real calamity in connection with these judgments is the spiritual wrongness which necessitates them, and not the physical conditions through which they are executed. Most men suppose that if the pain or inconvenience is removed the evil is at an end, and the question between them and God settled. They still go on to sin. Impunity confirms and hardens them in their transgression. We have not learned the real lesson of calamity until we have detected its moral sources or occasions, and sought to rectify them before God.
II. DIVINE JUDGMENTS MAY IN CERTAIN INSTANCES BE GREATER MERCIES THAN THE REMOVAL OF THEM WOULD BE. When judgment continues to rest upon the transgressor, it is not mere vengeance which is represented, but mercy working on the lines of severity. It is God's emphasis upon his commandment which must be heeded. The blessing that is latent in it waits the appearance of a repentance not to be repented of. Like pent-up waters, it will flow in an overwhelming stream when once the barriers of law have been removed by the sinner's return to God. - M.
Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 14:11; 15:1. It was evidently meant that the prophet should feel how unavailing all intercession was.
I. WE HAVE HERE A VERY PAINFUL EXCEPTION TO A VERY IMPORTANT RULE. The rule is to pray, to pray continually, and to pray with not the least fervency and devotion when our prayers are intercessions. God delights in the dependent and confiding approaches of his people; and intercession must be specially a joy to him because it looks away from individual good, and exemplifies most effectively the loving of one's neighbor as one's self. Moses, Job, Samuel, Daniel, are all found interceding for transgressors. Hence the very forbidding here makes continual remembrance of the needs of others all the more a duty. We have to pray for those who lack the faith or the disposition to pray for themselves. And especially we have to bear in mind him "who ever liveth to make intercession" for the spiritually needy. It is worth noting that, while God here forbids Jeremiah to intercede for the people, he is represented in Romans 11:2-4 as reproving and enlightening Elijah when he interceded against the people. We must give special pains to say for sinners all that we can. And in order to do this, we must be observant and pitiful; for as a general rule we have a quick eye for faults, and become censorious by a kind of second nature. It wonderfully suits the inclinations of fallen man in be an accuser of his brethren.
II. WHY THE EXCEPTION IS HERE MADE. There are two considerations here.
1. The petition, as to its literal aim, could not be granted. It was evidently a petition for the delivery of Judah and Jerusalem from the special calamity now so near. That calamity had become necessary. There was no choice for the people but to drink the waters of the full cup now wrung out for them. God, in refusing to hear Jeremiah, had really the same end in view as the prophet himself; but the prophet, in his keen sensitiveness, wished the end to come by some less painful way than through desolated Jerusalem. But God knew that this was the right way - just because it was the way of humiliation and loss, and thus, in refusing the special supplication of the prophet, God was really taking the best way of answering it - paradox though it may seem to say so.
2. Jeremiah's own position had to be considered. We may conclude that it was reckoned one of the distinctions of a prophet that he could act as intercessor. Jeremiah, we know, was asked to pray to God for the people (Jeremiah 37:3; Jeremiah 42:2); and just at the times when the refusal was most emphatic, the appeal for intercession may have been most urgent. Welt, then, was it that Jehovah should, as it were, stop the mouth of his servant in his supplication, so that no one could take up a reproach and say, "If thou weft indeed a prophet, thy petition for us would immediately avail." The honor of Jeremiah as a faithful servant was dear to his Divine Master. This is brought out very clearly by the reference to Moses and Samuel in Jeremiah 15:1. It was no shame to him to fail where Moses and Samuel could not have succeeded.
III. OBSERVE WHAT LAY BEYOND THE PRESENT REFUSAL. Though all is so stern and forbidding here, we look further on in the book, and there is brightness again. Jeremiah 29:1-14 is a beautiful contrast to the word we have been considering. Desolation and exile were a cheap price to pay for such a restoration into favor as God there provides. He has shut the gates of mercy for a while; but only for a little while - seventy years, two generations of men! The permanent command, only to be set aside by a special interference, is that which says, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee" (Psalm 122:6). - Y.
Matthew 11., "Woe unto thee, Bethsaida!" etc.). And in ordinary life, as well as in the records of the Bible, may we learn how frequently, not the strong and mighty, but "the lame take the prey." The first are last and the last first. Now, of such sad and shameful failures these verses supply a notable instance. Under the imagery of a green olive tree, fair and of goodly fruit, the prophet pictures the condition and prospects of the people of God when he first planted them. No similitude could more strikingly convey to the mind of the inhabitant of Judah and Jerusalem the idea of happy and sure prosperity. But, next, the prophet portrays a far different scene - that same tree, but black and charred, its trunk riven, its fruit and foliage all gone, and its branches broken down; for the thunderbolt and the scathing lightning, the wild tempest and the fierce wind, have all done their deadly work upon it, and now it stands a mere blackened stump, instead of the beauteous and fruitful tree it once was. From that height of favor to that depth of disaster were Judah and Jerusalem to fall. They who had been first should be last.
I. THEY WERE FIRST. The imagery employed by the prophet tells in what respects.
1. In the favor of God. The olive was a favorite tree, held in highest esteem by the people of the lands where it grew; hence it is used here and elsewhere as an emblem of those whom God favors and has pleasure in (cf. "I am like a green olive tree in the house of my God," Psalm 52:8). The Bible seems to love the tree. It is the first named of any known tree (Genesis 8:11), and is the subject of the first parable (Judges 9:8). It is everywhere spoken of as precious; hence, when Judah and Jerusalem are thus named, we regard it as a name of endearment, telling how precious they were in God's sight. This is borne out by direct statements and by the recorded deeds of God, which show the esteem in which he held them.
2. In beauty. No doubt the beauty of the olive tree exists partly in the eyes of the beholder, who looks upon it with affection for all the service it renders him. But to others also there is unquestionable beauty in the olive which, with its "noble groves, covered with foliage the whole year round, spreading like a silver sea along the base of the hills and climbing their ascending terraces, speaks loudly of peace and plenty, food and gladness" (see Ruskin,' Stones of Venice,' vol. 3. pp. 175-177). And without doubt it was beautiful in the eyes of those to whom the prophet wrote. But there is a moral beauty as well as that which is material, and of which the material is a fit symbol. And, compared with the disorder, the violence, the foulness, the wickedness of all kinds, in which the rest of the world was sunk, Israel was as a garden of the Lord - a green olive tree, "fair and comely to look upon. In them that which was lovely and of good report, that which had virtue and praise, were found as nowhere else. Love to God and love to man, justice, truth, and piety were held in esteem amongst them as amongst none others.
3. In usefulness. The olive tree was not merely fair, but of goodly fruit." From that fruit came one of the commonest and most essential articles of the Eastern's food. Its oil was employed in connection with almost everything that they ate. Its berries gave flavor to the peasant's bread. The evening lamp was kindled with the oil pressed from it. And that same oil was used to anoint their priests and kings, for the lamp in the holy place, and to mingle with many of their sacrifices. To "anoint the head with oil" was deemed most delightful and refreshing (Psalm 42). Wounds were dressed with it (Luke 10:34), and the sick were anointed with it (Mark 6:13; James 5:4). The wood of the tree was employed in the sacred furniture of the temple, and there seemed to be no part of the tree which did not in some way render service to man. Now, such was the purpose of God in regard to his people, that in them "should all the nations of the earth be blest." They were to be the channel of blessing to all people. Through them God's "saving health" should be known "amongst all nations."
4. And in permanence. Their blessedness was to abide. The "greenness" of the tree spoken of here refers to its perpetuity and strength. The olive is known to live to a great age. It is not improbable (see Kitto) that some of the olive trees now on the Mount of Olives are contemporaneous with our Lord. The tax paid on them is that which was assigned to such trees when first the Turks became masters of Palestine. All trees planted since are taxed far more heavily. But of the great age to which the olive tree attains there can be no doubt. It brings forth fruit in old age, and its leaf doth not wither (Psalm 50.). It was, therefore, a fit emblem of permanent prosperity and strength. Such was the Divine intent in regard to his people. Their blessedness was to abide. Thus in all these and yet other ways were they first. But -
II. THEY BECAME LAST. See the terrible similitude employed - the charred and shattered tree. But not more terrible than true. The smoldering ruins, the devastated city, the desolate land, which a few years afterwards the prophet looked upon, showed how true his word had been. They had become last indeed. Exalted to heaven, they had been thrust down to hell. None can avoid inquiring -
III. THE CAUSE OF ALL THIS. It is declared to be threefold.
1. The evil of the people themselves. (Ver. 17.) Their persistence in idolatry in spite of all remonstrance, warning, and every inducement which should have withdrawn them from their sin. "Do not the abominable thing which I hate" had in every variety of manner been said to them by God, but in vain. He hated it because it was the root of so many other sins, and the destroyer of all the good he had purposed both for and through them.
2. Their evil returning upon themselves. Ver. 17, "The evil.., which they have done against themselves." This is ever the way of sin (Proverbs 8:36). It wrongs our entire nature. What a man sows he reaps. The reason is debased, conscience trampled on, the power of will prostrated, the soul imprisoned, the affections perverted, the imagination defiled, the body often diseased, character ruined, substance wasted, all the true springs of happiness poisoned or stopped. He has sown to the flesh, and of the flesh he has reaped corruption. Yes, sin is ever done against ourselves.
3. The woe which comes from the provoked anger of God. Besides these natural results of sin - the reaping which is according to the sowing, and which are terrible enough in themselves - there come the punitive inflictions of the wrath of God. History as well as the Bible is full of proofs of this on a large scale, and so are the experiences of individual transgressors, though in more limited form. And wherever sin, the primary cause, is found, there sooner or later will come these other causes which together work so dread a doom. CONCLUSION. What effect should the contemplation of facts like these - and they are written and wrought for our learning - have upon us? Should they not cause us to reject at once and forever all those suggestions which Satan is ever plying us with - that sin will not be punished, and the transgressor may, after all, go free? In view of facts like these, how can that be believed? And should they not lead us to offer as our daily prayer the petition, "Give us a heart to love and dread thee, and diligently to live after thy commandments"? And not only to dread and deprecate the wrath which sin provokes, but to desire and seek after that preoccupation of the heart with the love of God which will bar out sin.
"Guard my first springs of thought and will,
I. GOD'S COMPARISON OF HIS PEOPLE TO THE OLIVE TREE. There would have been force in the comparison if applied to any flourishing and fruitful tree, but there was peculiar propriety in directing the thoughts of the people to the olive. The olive was already associated in sacred history with the return of hope after the Flood, and doubtless, in the times of Jeremiah, it was one of the most valuable of trees, as it still is, for the richness of its produce, and the variety of ways in which that produce meets the common wants of men. The extensive olive, groves, composed of trees that reach no great height, and unattractive to a mere casual glance, were yet more to the people than all the cedars of Lebanon. And as the people were led to consider these olive trees, full of vigor, abounding in blossoms, many of which never came to fruit, and yet, after all, left abundance of fruit behind, as they recollected all the use of the olive, for food, for light, for anointing, for soap making; - the thoughtful among them would feel that God could have employed no better figure to suggest how full Israel was of productivity of the most practical sort. Mention is made in Hosea (Hosea 14:6), as well as here, of the beauty of the olive tree. In one sense the olive was not beautiful. As far as the picturesque was concerned, many trees excelled it. But, after all, the deepest beauty, the only beauty that will bear inspection, is that which comes from pleasant experiences and associations; and those who were rich in profits from the labor of the olive would see in it a beauty absent from many trees otherwise more attractive. The olive, to one seeing it for the first time, might seem a tree of small practical use. But experience proved that its performance was great, and so it became more and more a name of honor. And this tree, having in it such capabilities, God had planted. The olive tree needs a special soil to bring out all its capabilities. Dr. Thomson says, speaking of a certain plain full of olive-orchards, The substratum of these plains is chalky marl, abounding in flint In such soil the tree flourishes best, both in the plains and upon the mountains. It delights to insinuate its roots into the clefts of the rocks and crevices of this flinty marl; and from thence it draws its richest stores of oil. If the overlying mould is so deep that its roots cannot reach the rock beneath, I am told that the tree languishes, and its berries are small and sapless.' And so God planted his people, being such as they were in his eye, in a land promised and duly prepared. Nay, in a certain sense, they were planted even before they reached the land of promise. They were planted and became fruitful as soon as ever God took them in hand, fruitful even amid the pains of Egypt and the desolations of the wilderness.
II. THE DESTRUCTION OF THIS OLIVE TREE. All the wealth that came from this olive tree was being used for bad purposes. The fatness of the soil went into the olive, but the fatness Of the olive did not come back to God in grateful and proportionate service. Nay, rather, it was used against him; and the harm it did was to some extent measurable by the good it might have done. The axe is laid, not only at the root of the tree that brings forth no fruit, but also at the root of the tree that brings forth its fruit to be used in hostility against him who planted the tree. Israel might say, Is it not plain that God favors us, for are we not as the green, fair, fruitful olive? Why, then, should we believe threatenings that seem contradicted by these signs of favor?" These were signs of favor indeed, but they were also grounds of expectation. And when the expectation was utterly disappointed, and when the fruit of Jehovah's gracious dealings was used to prop up the abominations of idolatry, it was time for him to work in all the severity of righteous judgment. - Y.
I. GOD'S DEALINGS WITH HIS ANCIENT PEOPLE WERE THOSE OF LOVE. That he should have chosen them and brought them into covenant with himself; that he should have taken such precautions to preserve them in that covenant. See the time selected for its establishment (cf. Ver. 4) - when their hearts were susceptible and softened by his great goodness to them, and therefore the more ready to receive and keep the impression of his will. And how forbearing he had been! For more than a thousand years they had been in possession of the land, though they had so often sinned. See, too, the mighty motives to which he appeals - fear of the curse pronounced on the disobedient, hope of the precious recompenses promised to such as should obey. And he enlists conscience on his side. They all said "Amen" to the covenant of God (Ver. 5). And perpetually he had been reminding them of his covenant (Ver. 7). All this - and it is paralleled by God's dealings with men now - proves the loving solicitude with which God regarded his people.
II. AND THAT LOVE WAS LONG-SUFFERING. It was not alone that he had allowed them so long possession of the land promised to their fathers, though they had often forfeited it; but now, not till his forbearance had (Vers. 8-10) manifestly failed in its purpose and was being even perverted into an occasion for fresh sin, did he "change his way" toward them. And even then, many years' respite was given in which repentance and so forgiveness and restoration were possible. And to further this end Jeremiah was sent to them. And all this is like God's dealings still. Take the history of ancient and of all nations that have fallen, and the several steps of Israel's career will be found to have been trodden by them also: a time of great favor; disobedience; warning, repeated, earnest, continued; respite even at the last; sin persisted in notwithstanding all; then the long-threatened destruction. And it is true of families, Churches, individuals, today as of old.
III. BUT THAT LOVE HAD ITS LIMITS. The ruin that came upon Israel, upon Judah, and has so often come upon those like them, proves this.
IV. WHEN THESE LIMITS WERE REACHED, NOTHING COULD THEN AVERT THE THREATENED PUNISHMENT. (Cf. Vers. 11-17.) Not:
1. The piteous "cry of distress (Ver. 11).
2. Still less (Ver. 12) any appeal to their idol-gods. They shall not save them at all," no, although (ver. 13) throughout the whole land, "in every city," and in every street of every city these idol-gods had their altars, their incense and their worship.
3. Nor even the acceptable prayer of the righteous. (Ver. 14 and Jeremiah 7:16.) How dreadful this!
4. Multiplied sacrifices. (Ver. 15; cf. Exposition.) The prophet's meaning, which is quite obscured in our translation, seems to be to protest against their flocking to the house of God, seeing how guilty they had been - it could do them no good: and also against their thinking that "the holy flesh" of sacrifices would turn away wrath from a people who "rejoiced when they did evil."
5. Nor the fact of past privilege and favor. (Ver. 16.) No, although God had made them as a green olive tree (Ver. 16). Himself "planted thee," yet he will himself kindle the fire that shall rage and devour it.
V. FROM ALL WHICH MEN EVERYWHERE ARE TO LEARN:
1. To dread eyeful sin. For we cannot tell when and where those limits of God's long-suffering are reached. That sin to which a man is tempted may be the overstepping of them so far as he is concerned. If he do that, the word may go forth, "Let him alone" (cf. Revelation 22:11). We are apt to think that any time will do to turn to God. It will not. It is not universally nor commonly true "That while the lamp holds out to burn, The vilest sinner may return." It is untrue; for the probability of a man then, at the very last, turning his heart to God, when up till then he has ever turned his heart away from God, is small indeed. The limit was passed when the Spirit of God left him, and that may be long before death comes. Probably death has nothing whatever to do with it either way. We should then say to ourselves, when drawn to any sin against which God's Holy Spirit is protesting and pleading, "If I disobey him now he may leave me altogether."
2. To desire God. The clearing of the heart of sin is not sufficient, the heart must be occupied. The house to which the evil spirit came back bringing others worse than himself, was swept and garnished, but it was "empty." So if men's hearts be "swept from ill deeds, yet if they be not occupied, evil will come back. It is when the love of God possesses our heart that there is no fear of our even approaching, still less of overstepping, the limits of his long-suffering love. This is our sure, our only safeguard. - C.
I. THE PERILS OF THE PROPHET arose from:
1. A hatred of the truth in his hearers. There was something unpalatable in the continual denunciations of their wickedness. Their spiritual and patriotic pride was wounded. The demands made upon them by the righteousness of Jehovah they did not care to yield to; and the dislike of the prophet arose from his association with his message. No vengeance, therefore, could be too great. It is not imprisonment they seek to inflict, but death itself, and death in such an obscure and ignominious way that "his name may be no more remembered."
2. Their fear of the consequences of his prophecies. The future which he described as inevitable was not pleasant to contemplate. The words he spoke threatened to overturn their most cherished designs and to rob them of their precious things.
3. Ignorance as to how thee might be averted. By an easy process of association they came to look upon Jeremiah as not simply declaring, but in a sense causing, the evils of which he prophesied. They reasoned, therefore, to the foolish conclusion that if they could destroy him they would free themselves from the dangers which he threatened. The preacher has often to incur dislike of this sort from his hearers. It is of the nature of the carnal mind so to misapprehend the things of God and the things that make for peace. At certain times stern denunciation and declaring of the true consequences of evil action are not to be regarded as enmity, but friendship. The word spoken by an inspired mind is to be distinguished from the expression of mere bitterness and dislike. Paul had to entreat his converts not to count him their enemy when he sharply reproved them.
II. THESE PERILS ARE WARDED OFF by:
1. Direct revelation. This is an advantage which the ordinary servants of God may not count upon. It was vouchsafed occasionally to prophets and apostles, but there is something in the spiritual mind which enables it to detect more quickly than others the symptoms of hatred to the truth. Promptings and suggestions to certain action in the midst of circumstances to ordinarily human eyes unsuspicious, have been too frequent in the history of the Church to be doubted. And even where no direct information may be given as to the mason of certain courses of action, which God's saints may be moved to observe, the results clearly prove the presence of a careful and ever-watchful Providence.
2. Faith in God. Jeremiah said, "Unto thee have I revealed my cause" (better, "Upon thee have I devolved my cause"). He evidently felt that his duty was to commit the whole matter into the hands of God. And this is ever the safest way. The judgment, the prevision of man, are to be distrusted. The soul should cast itself by faith upon God, who is able to save.
3. Greater boldness in the course of action assumed. This was a distinct moral advantage. The men whose action was inspired by fear were certain to be influenced by it. Superstitions dread of the effects of his words would produce a reaction from their cowardly plans. And they would feel themselves more and more helpless as they saw how they aggravated their own punishment. So the preachers of the gospel and the servants of Christ generally must not consult with flesh and blood, but be bold in proclaiming the whole will of God, in preaching the Word, being "instant in season and out of season." There are allies and reinforcements latent in the constitution even of the worst enemies of the cross of Christ. - M.
Mark 5:21, etc.), so this account of the plot against Jeremiah's life comes in here, breaking the thread of his discourse, which is not renewed again till Jeremiah 12:7. Scripture has many instances of similar plots contrived against the servants of the Lord; they are found in the histories of Joseph, David, Nehemiah, Elisha, Paul, of our Lord, and of others. In this one, note -
I. ITS CIRCUMSTANCES. Jeremiah had given dire offence to the men of Anathoth, his own city, men who, like himself probably, were associated with the priestly office. "Between the priesthood and the prophets there had hitherto been more or less of conflict, but now that conflict was exchanged for a fatal union ' A wonderful and horrible thing was committed in the land-; the prophets prophesied falsely, and the priests bore rule by their means; and he who by each of his callings was naturally led to sympathize with both, was the doomed antagonist of both - victim of one of the strongest passions, the hatred of priests against a priest who attacks his own order, the hatred of prophets against a prophet who ventures to have a voice and will of his own. His own village, occupied by members of the sacred tribe, was for him a nest of conspirators against his life. Of him first in the sacred history was the saying literally fulfilled, ' A prophet hath no honor in his own birthplace' (Ἐν τῇ πατρίδι, αὐτοῦ, Luke 4:24)" (Stanley). They objected not so much to his prophesying, for there were plenty of them who did this, but to his strenuous assertion - an assertion that their own consciences assented to, that he spoke in the Name of the Lord (Ver. 21). Warnings so faithful but yet so terrible were little liked, as they ever are by those who so much needed them. And since they could not silence him in any other way, they determined to take away his life. Secretly and craftily they laid their plot. Jeremiah had not the least suspicion of it. "I was," says he (Ver. 19), "like a lamb," that is, a pot or house lamb, such as the Orientals often keep (see Exposition). He went in and out amongst his brethren, trusting them, and thinking no ill, whilst all the time this dark and deadly plot was being devised against him. And it would have been successful, we can hardly doubt, had he not been warned of the Lord (Ver. 18). The shock, the dread revulsion of feeling, which the tidings caused him is evident in the almost unmeasured grief and indignation which the following verses express. His first utterance is a cry for vengeance (Ver. 20) on them, an appeal to the righteous God to uphold his cause. Then comes a denunciation of the Divine doom upon them, then an aggrieved remonstrance (Jeremiah 12:1) and complaint addressed to God himself in view of the prosperity of these ungodly and wicked men, followed by a fierce demand for revenge (Jeremiah 12:3); all which is replied to (Jeremiah 12:5) by a sharp but loving rebuke, a revelation of yet further treachery, and that on the part, not of mere acquaintances and neighbors, but of his own brethren, the inmates of the same home: children of the same father; and finally (Jeremiah 12:6) God, who had already baffled their first plottings against him, now puts him on his guard against all that they should afterwards devise, bidding him "believe them not though" etc (Jeremiah 12:6) Of the manner in which they purposed to carry out their deadly scheme, or how God revealed to his servant what was going on, we are not told; only the above noted facts are stated. But these are full of interest and instruction. Note, therefore, some of -
II. THE SUGGESTED LESSONS. They are such as these.
1. "Having the form of godliness but denying the power thereof, means subjection to the power of all ungodliness though denying the form thereof." See these would-be murderers of the prophet; they were consecrated priests.
2. He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep." The plotters against the prophet's life were discovered and declared by him to whom "the darkness and the light are both alike," and so his servant was forewarned and saved. Therefore, "They that trust in the Lord shall be," etc.
3. "The servant will often have to be as his Master, and the disciple as his Lord." Like the Lord Jesus, Jeremiah was hated of his countrymen and brethren (cf. Homily on Jeremiah 1:1-3, p. 10, for more of these resemblances). Several of them are recorded in these verses. The hatred felt towards him by his countrymen and in his father's house. The cause of that hatred. The deadly plots which were devised against him. The innocence and gentleness - "like a lamb," etc. - which characterized the hated one. And such fellowship with Christ is the law of his service.
4. "Resemblance between the Master and his servant may be often close but is never complete." However natural Jeremiah's outburst of rage and indignation, we cannot help noticing how far short in moral elevation he falls of him who prayed, "Father, forgive them," etc., and of the first Christian martyr, who was taught of Christ to pray, "Lord, lay not this sin," etc. The perfect Example is Christ; we can "call none good but One," that is, him.
5. Wrongs that God will suffer against himself he will not suffer against his people." Jeremiah was avenged within a very little time and in ample manner, but the wrongs God had suffered from the same people he had borne for centuries, and even then there was a reserve of mercy - he made not "a full end."
6. "Let our eyes be ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck our feet out of every net" - Satan's, Sin's, Sorrow's, Doubt's, Death's. - C.
I. A PECULIAR PERIL TO JEREMIAH. His life was full of perils - " perils from his own countrymen" in many ways, perils from the palace with its great men, from priests and false prophets, from every devotee of idolatry, from every one, in short, whose vices and iniquities he lashed with the scourge of his Heaven-inspired tongue. He would expect to make enemies in these directions. But here is peril from an unexpected source. He was not at all prepared for it, and when the knowledge of it in all its hideous reality came upon him, he was correspondingly excited. Yet, though the peril was unexpected, it was by no means to be marveled at. As soon as we lock at the position of Jeremiah and the consequent feeling of his kindred, we cease to wonder. Much may be said, and justly, of the strength of natural affection; but the selfishness so deeply settled in every human breast, and so potent, is stronger than any tie of nature. Perhaps a mother's love may be trusted to stand out against it, but Scripture shows, in more than one instance, to what lengths a brother's jealousy will go. Think of Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brethren, Moses and Miriam, and David and his elder brethren. Christ said that "a man's foes should be they of his own household;" but this was not a new thing. It was but the continuing of an old and sad difficulty in the way of regenerating the world. If things had gone as they ought to have gone, it was in the comparative retirement of Anathoth that Jeremiah should have found some slight opportunities of rest in the midst of his arduous public labors. That he had some quiet place of rest and of converse with like-minded spirits is very probable, but he would find it as Jesus did. Jesus, we know, found his nearest approaches to home life in Capernaum and Bethany, and not at all in Nazareth. We may surmise that he never had as much as one quiet day there after his public ministry began. The relatives of Jesus said that he was beside himself, and probably they feared that the strange things he did and the ever-increasing hostility he provoked would bring suspicion on themselves. And so it was very awkward for these kinsfolk of Jeremiah in Anathoth. Every one ran the risk of being pointed at as brother, or uncle, or cousin of that madman the prophet. Further, this peril, being from an unsuspected source, went on to its height without suspicion. The prophet puts his position very touchingly and forcibly by the figure of the tame lamb. As the lamb goes along with those to whose company it has been accustomed, all. unconscious of their slaughtering, designs so the prophet meets his brethren, those with whom he played as a child, those whose faces were among the first he could remember. Why should he suspect them? True, he knows that far too often brother has been the sworn and relentless enemy of brother; but let this be the experience of others. He cannot believe it till by actual taste he finds the bitterness in his own cup. Jeremiah's experience stands here to teach us, not to be suspicious, not to let caution and wariness degenerate into a cynical putting on of armor against everybody, but to let both our safety, and our peace of mind lie in our nearness to God. The nearest of brother men is too weak, too uncertain, to he made an object of trust.
IX. THERE WAS A PECULIAR PERIL TO THE CONSPIRATORS. Though there was a danger where Jeremiah never thought of looking, it was precisely upon that danger that Jehovah had his observant eye (Jeremiah 17:9, 10). What the conspirators would reckon one of their greatest helps, namely, that the proposed victim did not in the least suspect their designs, doubtless proved in the end a very material help to the faith and endurance of the prophet. Had not God made a sure provision for him where he did not even suspect that there was anything needing to he provided? Let the wicked know this, that whatever they reckon to be their peculiar advantage will assuredly turn out to be their peculiar weakness, difficulty, and, indeed, weapon of decisive overthrow. The prophet's kinsfolk made the not uncommon blunder of thinking that they would get rid of difficulties in getting rid of one peculiarly awkward and irritating difficulty that lay close to them. There is one great difficulty we never can get rid of, and that is the omniscience of God. Let there be a warning, then, to all those who belong to the πατριά of a prophet. Let them be careful how they set themselves against anything strange and peculiar in any one belonging to them. Self-delusion, of course, is possible, and a man may mistake some "Will-o' the-wisp" for the steady prophetic illumination. But he is not likely to be converted by threatening and repression. It is only by Gamaliel's policy that either impostors or victims of delusion can be truly exposed. The men of Anathoth, kinsfolk and neighbors alike, were not required to believe in Jeremiah on his first appearance, but they were required to wait and see whereto this thing might grow. What a pity they had not some shrewd and commanding Gamaliel to keep them in the path of prudence! - Y.