Jeremiah 21
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

I. AN EXAMPLE TO BE IMITATED. Whatever might be said of the general behavior of the king, his conduct on this occasion appears at first highly sagacious and commendable.

1. For its acknowledgment of Jehovah as the only Deliverer. A tremendous danger threatened the state. Zedekiah "counted the cost" and sent to the representative of Jehovah. He did not waste his resources in useless expedients, but frankly accepted the calamity as sent from God, appealing through God's prophet for deliverance. Most men in similar circumstances lose themselves in secondary causes. "It is this unfortunate accident or that. In time circumstances will be better, and we shall right ourselves."

2. Its respect for God. Great officers of state sent to a poor prophet. Religion after all may be the chief concern; at least a very important matter, and worthy the attention of the highest in the land.


1. It was tardy. The warning of the prophet had been given long before, but it was not believed. Not until the visible proof of his veracity appeared before the city was Zedekiah eager to come to terms with the God he had offended. However great the alacrity of men to betake themselves to the offices of religion in times of calamity, their earnestness has not the spontaneous character to which it pretends. They are spurred on by fear.

2. The power instead of the grace of God was appealed to. A compliment to Jehovah's past achievements is delicately suggested. No potty business would bring him to ask a favor of God, but this trouble is great and urgent, and beyond human means of dealing with it; therefore God is called in. "It is worthy of his interference who always ' doeth wondrously.' "Now, there is no real humiliation here. Recognition of God's claims is grudgingly and of necessity made, but no word is mentioned of sin or repentance from it; no appeal is made to the forgiving love of God. Human nature is proud even in its necessities and prayers. "Help me now, at this juncture, and - afterwards I shall be able to help myself." God wilt not accept us unless we come humbly as well as prayerfully. Sin must be confessed.

3. It contained no promise of amendment. Jehovah is summoned as a Dens ex machina for the solution of a humanly impossible problem; but there is no indication that the "desperate resort" will grow into a course of constant waiting upon God.

4. The duty which ought to have been personal was delegated to others. Under the garb of respect religion is often really evaded. The Bible teaches the great doctrine of mediation, but it does not tell us how to perform our religious duties by proxy.

5. Certainty, the note of Divine faith, is conspicuous by its absence. "If so be that." The case is stated as a distant possibility. The language sounds respectful; it is so diffident, so unpresuming; but it really veils a profound skepticism. There ought to be, there is, no "perhaps" in believing prayer. The king was told that if he and his people repented, God would instantly avert the calamity or convert it into blessing. Perhapses like this are profanities. Besides, the suggestion is dishonoring to God, viz. that he should stay his judgments and the sinner nevertheless continue impenitent,

6. The whole tone of the message is false and unsatisfactory. It is that of one driven up into a corner by an unexpected exigency, but resolved that what he is obliged to do shall be barely done, and in such a manner as to give it quite another aspect to those who look on. A moral distance is observed, as of one who is unwilling to allow that religious duties are of personal as well as official and conventional obligation. It is the courtly language of diplomacy, and does not come hot-burning from a heart full of sorrow, faith, and love. What wonder it should not be answered save in scorn and added severity? The sarcasm is sublime. - M.

This chapter has been by some means put out of its proper place; for it treats of King Zedekiah, whilst in later chapters circumstances connected with the reigns of the kings who preceded him are given. But being placed here it serves to show how God's servants, despised at first, come to be honored at last. The stocks had been good enough for Jeremiah - so the last chapter tells-and his enemies had smitten him as if he were a common felon. Here we find the king and high officers of the court coming and beseeching his intercession and help to avert the calamity which was so fast coming upon them and the nation at large. "Give us of your oil," said the foolish virgins to the wise. And again and again has it been and will it be that the ungodly shall come to covet earnestly the place in God's favor which his servants only enjoy, but which, together with them who sought it when they did not, they have heretofore despised. Those who honor God he will honor, and will cause their enemies to come and confess that God is with them of a truth. Thus did the enemies of Jeremiah at this time acknowledge him as the true servant of God. But it was too late to secure what they desired. "The door was shut." But as the foolish virgins were bidden go to them that sell and buy for themselves, so the prophet of God has one counsel to give them whereby they might be "saved, yet so as by fire." "Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death" (ver. 8). But when we come to see what that way of life was, we see how far different it was from what the king and his people would have chosen for themselves. Note, therefore -


1. It was bare life - life only. They were to suffer defeat; their weapons to be of no avail, their strong fortress to be taken, their city and their temple in which they gloried to be burnt with fire, and they themselves led into captivity. That now was all that was possible for them. It was too late to avert their calamities, much less to gain victory, or honor, or glory in the war which they were waging. A glorious deliverance such as Hezekiah had known was out of the question.

2. And ever, this bare life on hard conditions. They must surrender themselves to their enemies when the summons came, and meanwhile they must reform their ways (ver. 12). On these terms they should be allowed to live. Refuse them, as many did, and they perished miserably. It was indeed a salvation "so as by fire."

II. ITS MOURNFULNESS. How full of this it was is seen by the plaintive psalms of the Captivity: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept," etc. And that which made it so mournful was the remembrance of how different their lot might have been. Had they but hearkened to the pleadings of those prophets of God, whose prayers when it was too late they importunately sought, how happy had it been with them then! Salvation in fullness, as their fathers had experienced and rejoiced in again and again, they too might have known. But now -

III. ITS PLAIN TEACHING FOR OURSELVES. Life may be retained, but made so wretched that only one thing could be worse - to have lost it altogether. This certainly true of the present life, it is probably true of the life after this. Beware of that false doctrine which encourages men to believe, that if only they can get within what they are pleased to call "the door of heaven," they need desire no more. This is not humility, but the evil desire to escape that faithful following of Christ which alone will win "the prize of our high calling." And since salvation in fullness is offered to us and God desires it to be ours, let us be content with nothing less, lest we be "ashamed before him at his coming," and have "with shame to take a lower place." To any now suffering under judgment of God this history says, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God.' Accept his terms, see in them your only hope." - C.

I. A KING'S ACKNOWLEDGMENT THAT HUMAN RESOURCES ARE UNAVAILING. The hour and the danger so long and often predicted, referred to all the more earnestly as the hour draws nigh, has come at last. No time is here taken up in narrating the attempts Zedekiah may have made himself to repel the invader. The Scriptures were not meant to give us details of sieges. The likelihood is, however, that it was long before Zedekiah reached anything like an extremity that he made this appeal to the prophet. When all unusual danger comes close at hand it is easy to exaggerate. The man who has been indifferent, imprudent, heedless of all hints that have been given him to make provision for the future, is the very man who, when peril comes, rushes into panic and becomes unable to use the resources he has.

II. A KING'S PRESUMPTUOUS ATTEMPT TO AVAIL HIMSELF OF DIVINE RESOURCES. Nothing is more beautiful than to see one who has found out the vanity of human help turning to God. Only he must come in a right spirit, having made a clear discovery of why it is that man could not help him. Anything of this sort was utterly lacking in Zedekiah's approach. There is no sign of repentance, no word of confession, no resolution of amendment. The only thing in the shape of acknowledgment is that Jehovah is the God who does wondrous works. This is an acknowledgment which we find often in the Old Testament, but it is acceptable to God only when accompanied with a sense of why it is that God does his wondrous works. The more we consider Zedekiah's request, the more will the blindness and audacity of it appear. Here is the king in Jerusalem, bound, if any man ever was, to know the significance of the history of Israel as a whole; and yet he can only see certain great manifestations of power which encourage him to hope that a similar manifestation may now come for his own deliverance. There is no real coming to God, unless we come for things that are according to his will. His power cannot wait upon our selfish needs. There is no telling what might have happened, even at this more than eleventh hour, if Zedekiah had only come with something of true penitence. God knew beforehand that this could not be expected; and thus there is no clearer evidence of the righteousness of Jerusalem's doom and of Israel's expatriation than is furnished from Zedekiah's own lips. He shows that he has lost all sense of the meaning and the necessity of God's great covenant with his people. If only they had been obedient they would never have lacked the benefit of many wondrous works.

III. THE PLAIN AND NECESSARY ANSWER OF JEHOVAH. We see through all that God here says a purpose to make plain that he is now full of activity against his apostate people. The object was not to be attained simply by leaving them, in their natural resources, to the natural resources of the Chaldeans. The contest is not of man against man, but of the man who has forsaken God against the man whom God has taken to be the instrument of his righteous indignation. God must specially intervene and make his presence manifest, to show that all this visitation of suffering is from him. If God has, for a time, to forsake his people, he must needs oppose them. If God be not for us, be is against us; and so here the defenders of Jerusalem are represented as having difficulties to deal with such as have arisen through God's own operation. Their weapons of war do not produce the usual effect. God turns them back upon those who wield them. This may be more than a mere general figure of speech. It is quite possible that either the arm wielding the heavy, sharp sword becomes as the arm of the little child, or else, that remaining strong, the weapon becomes but as the child's toy. Thus the Chaldeans themselves would learn that some mysterious power was at work, and that the glory of the victory was not theirs. Furthermore, God was to fight against these apostates with a weapon of his own. He can make the wicked and the ambitious his sword, but pestilence is of his own sending. Not all the might of the Chaldeans could bring a pestilence, nor take it away once it had come. Thus we see how all this dread combination of events was intended to impress on all, alike amongst besiegers and besieged, who had minds to understand that God himself was terribly at work. He was indeed dealing with the people according to his wondrous works; works necessitated in order to prevent his holy and reasonable wrath from being nothing more than empty wind. - Y.

The surrender of a part to save the whole. This was the "way of life" the prophet put before the people. The way of death would be their refusal "If they would submit to the irresistible pressure of the Babylonian power, then whatever blessings were bound up in the preservation of the house of David and of the holy city would remain intact" (cf. Stanley, 'Lectures on the Jewish Church,' Lect. 11. vol. 2. p. 533). But to resist would not merely be useless, but mischievous in the extreme. It would rouse the rage of their conquerors and involve the destruction of all they held most precious. It would be "a way of death." At the final siege of Jerusalem the Christians retired, but the Zealots drew down upon themselves the rage of the armies of Vespasian and Titus, and so hurried on the ruin of the whole Jewish state. Stanley says of Jeremiah, "It was not indifference to his country, but attachment to its permanent interests, with the yet larger consequences wrapped up in them, which induced him to counsel submission. It was his sense of the inestimable importance of that sacred spot, with its sacred institutions, which caused him to advise every sacrifice for the sake of retaining it. He had the courage, so rare in political leaders, to surrender a part for the sake of preserving the whole-to embrace in his view the complete relations of the great scheme of the world, rather than fix his attention exclusively on the one pressing question of the moment. As there are times when the constitution must be broken to save the commonwealth, when the interests of particular nations or doctrines must give way to the preponderating claims of mankind or of truth at large, so Jeremiah staked the eternal value of the truths which Jerusalem represented against the temporary evils of the Chaldean dominion. It was a bitter pang, but the result seemed to him worth the cost,"

"To steel his melting heart,
To act the martyr's sternest part;
To watch with firm, unshrinking eye
His darling visions as they die;
Too happy if, that dreadful day,
His life be given him for a prey."


I. THIS DREAD NECESSITY IS ONE WHICH MAY BE SEEN CONTINUALLY PRESSING ON MEN. Illustrations are numerous: the throwing over the cargo in storm at sea; the abandonment of outposts to concentrate strength on the key of the position; the cutting off a limb to save the life; the giving up a less important branch of trade to safeguard one more so. And in the religious life we are perpetually summoned to such sacrifice. "Whoso loveth his life shall lose it, but he that loveth his life for my sake shall find it;" "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die," etc. All ventures of faith. And death - " for corruption cannot inherit incorruption," and therefore that the true life may be ours, the fleshly life must die. And our Lord represents the awful doom of the wicked to be a "cutting off of a diseased part," a κολλασις, that - so it should seem - entire destruction may not be needed. It is an awful process, but sternly necessary. God save us from it! And what is the submission of our will to God, the self-surrender for which he ever asks, but the prudent conduct of that king who feels that with his puny force of ten thousand he cannot meet the king who comes against him with twenty thousand, and therefore straightway sends an embassage desiring conditions of peace? But -

II. MEN SHRINK FROM IT. Those before whom Jeremiah placed this "way of life" shrank from it. They would not listen to him. They cruelly persecuted their farseeing and God-inspired prophet. And it is so still. In common life the proverbial saying, "Nothing venture, nothing have," implies that men are loath to venture. Many a craft hugs the shore, thinking to find safety there, and is driven on the rocks and wrecked, when by putting boldly out to sea the storm might have been safely weathered. The historian of the Crimean War finds fault, once and again, with our generals for their timid policy, which he maintains brought so great sufferings and losses on our army, whilst had a more daring strategy been adopted - as in our recent Egyptian campaign at Tel-el-Kebir - the war might have been speedily and gloriously ended. And in the religious life, how men shrink from this self-surrender! What frantic but futile efforts there are to serve God and mammon, notwithstanding our Savior has said, "There is no man that hath left house, or lands," etc. (Mark 10:29)! But men cannot be-persuaded to believe this. The young ruler who had great possessions (Matthew 19.) went away sorrowful, because he could not make the great venture. And the feeble religious life of so many, the absence of all joy in God's service, is owing to this same cause. Men are ever trying to find a via media between the "way of life" and "way of death." The husbandman does not refuse to cast into the earth all he has left of last year's corn, in the trust that it will yield him a bounteous harvest. But we are slow to believe in the wisdom of such sowing in spiritual things.

III. BUT THE REFUSAL TO SUBMIT IS FATAL. It was so in case of those to whom Jeremiah preached, and it has been so a thousand times since. A ship was sinking. A man leaped from her deck into the sea. He was a good swimmer, but he had fastened round him a belt containing gold, which he could not bring himself to abandon, and its weight sank him ere he could reach the beat for which he was making. Our Lord bade him who should be on the housetops when Jerusalem was besieged "not go down to fetch his clothes." Such carefulness might cost him his life. Our Lord tells of many of the Pharisees who believed on him, but were afraid to confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue. And perhaps there are few of the worldly and irreligious amongst us who have not sunk down to where they are now, and will sink down to lower depths still, through this same refusal to give up all for Christ. It may be humiliating and involve present loss, and therefore men let go the eternal gain. To refuse such sacrifice is the way of death. But -

IV. To CONSENT TO IT IS LIFE. Take our Lord as the supreme example, who, not for himself but for us, threw away that infinite glory, that equality with God, which, being in "the form of God," was ever his; but St. Paul tells us (Philippians 2:6) he counted it not a thing to be grasped at, a prize which he should cling to with eagerness and retain with tenacity, but "emptied himself of it, and made himself of no reputation." Thus for the time of his incarnation submitting himself to the cruel might of sin and Satan, he gained thereby that infinite exaltation, that salvation of mankind upon which his loving heart was set. "Let this mind," therefore, "be in us which was also in Christ Jesus." And whenever it is found, God rewards it. Self-sacrifice, the cross, is the way to supreme reward. The shepherds were told, at the Nativity, that there was born to them "a Savior, Christ the Lord." And when they came to Bethlehem they found a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. What correspondence was there between that saying of the angels and that sight of the infant Jesus? To the outward eye none, but to the eye instructed by God's Word and God's providence, there is every correspondence. For those outward signs of poverty and humiliation which were the characteristic of his life, have formed his title-deeds, his royal right, to the homage of every human heart. "Blessed are the meek," etc.; "He that humbleth himself shall," etc. It is ever so; and especially when we humble ourselves before God, giving up self and sin, giving up and losing, as the world would say, our very life, - then it is we find it, as God grant we may. - C.

Even amid all the thick, impending horrors indicated in the previous passage, a clear and immediate way of escape is indicated for the individual. Every one going over promptly and resolutely to the Chaldeans would be at least safe. What might be reserved for him in the future it was not proper to say. Enough for him to know that he had security for the present. He who is made safe may expect further communications of positive blessing in due time. We are not, indeed, to suppose that every one who remained in the city, exposed to sword, famine, and pestilence, would assuredly perish. That can hardly have been the case. But this certainly is meant, that every one so remaining would have to take a tremendous risk. Whereas every one who took the suggestion as to what is here called the way of life, found that the great Preserver of life had thereby entered into a special covenant with him.

I. THE PLACE LEFT FOR INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY. God is dealing with a whole nation. His representative and the representative of this nation's king have just been in conference. His dreadful, necessary decision as to the nation's fate is communicated. But now each individual is impressively informed that God is thinking also of him. The individual must, to some extent, share in the suffering of his people. How far he shall share depends, however, on his own choice. We cannot be dragged into the worst experiences of human life merely as sufferers from the wrong-doing of others. The worst pains, the gloomiest hours of life, can only come from our own wrong-doing. Whatever faithful remnant there might now be in Jerusalem had a great chance given to them. Complete exemption from suffering was not possible; but they were offered a kind of shelter, where the great storm of God's wrath would leave them untouched, however much it might affect their temporal belongings.

II. ALL THAT THE BEST OF MEN MUST EXPECT FOR THE PRESENT IS A MITIGATION OF SUFFERING. Whatever advantages come from our connection with the temporal body politic must be accepted with the risk of corresponding disadvantages. Even while Israel was in this doomed degenerated state it was the medium of benefits to those who could use it aright. No Israelite needed to regret that he had belonged to Israel; if only he had the wisdom to accept all uncomfortable experiences as part of a discipline that would work out unmixed and abiding good in the end. Those here addressed had much reason to Be thankful that at such a terrible crisis God did so much to make their position safe. He who has got safe to land from the sinking ship would be reckoned a monster of ingratitude if he did nothing but grumble because all his property was lost. He may still have the opportunity of a prosperity as great as he had in the past, or even greater.

III. THIS REQUIREMENT GAVE A SEARCHING TRIAL TO THE FAITH OF THE BELIEVING. If any good was to come out of the proposition it must be by acting on it at once. And such action could not but have some appearance of cowardice and desertion. Indeed, under certain circumstances, it would have been cowardice and desertion. If Israel could have been looked on as a human state and nothing more, if the Chaldeans had been a human enemy and nothing more, then such a departure, self-prompted, would have been nothing less than apostasy from national duty. The sentiment is a noble one: better to die a freeman than to live a slave. This aspect of things vanishes, however, when we recollect that Jerusalem was divinely doomed. This Chaldean army was nothing less than the sword of God, and a timely surrender to the Chaldean was really a timely surrender to him. To go over to them might look questionable enough on a mere hasty, superficial glance; but time would show that it was the right, trustful, obedient course. The real bravery is to withstand the taunts and misrepresentations of unbelieving men; enduring "as seeing him who is invisible." Some, indeed, who escaped to the Chaldeans did so, we doubt not, in a really cowardly spirit. But the Lord knows who are his; and their motives would be revealed in the end. A bravo heart cannot be forever misrepresented; and a mere outward appearance of obedience will have to pass through that fire which tries every man's work, of what sort it is. - Y.

The indifference and callousness of Judah and her king would appear to have reached a climax. Ignorance could not be alleged in excuse of it. It had become ingrained systematic unrighteousness; and had added this to itself, that it had rejected the warning counsels of God's prophet. How was it to be dealt with?


1. The long-suffering mercy that had already been shown had been misunderstood. To delay longer was therefore impossible.

2. For all sin is a contradiction of the Divine Spirit and rule in the earth. It is a direct challenge to Heaven. Especially is this the case when a positive law has been revealed, and a direct intimation of God's will made by a living representative. God's honor is therefore involved in the issue.

3. The interests of truth and the kingdom of God on earth would suffer. The transgression of one child of God is a stumbling-block to many, and those who enjoy Divine privileges should be especially careful as to how they behave. The world of heathenism witnessing the behavior of Judah would be confirmed in its unbelief, or would misinterpret the genius of the religion of Jehovah. It might suppose that Jehovah was but a likeness of one of its own gods, full of partiality. This impression must be dissipated, and it could only be so by firm and prompt dealing with the offence.

II. A FINAL PEREMPTORY SUMMONS TO REFORMATION IS GIVEN. It might be supposed enough to have dealt silent and summary punishments upon the guilty land anti its king. But this would not consist with:

1. God's revelation of righteousness. In blessings as well as in punishments a rational connection had to be shown with the behavior and deserts of their subjects. The sinner's own conscience had to be addressed ere he was cast off forever; and the indictment was of world-wide concern. A warning and an example were required for the general guidance of men, and for their apprehension of the justice of Heaven in punishing those upon whom the calamity came.

2. God's mercy. The scheme of redemption does not exclude the possibility of the sinner himself being saved. On the contrary, this is its chief aim. Just as it would not be consistent with God's character to suffer unrighteous practices to continue unrebuked, so "God would not be God" were the penalty to be unannounced and without alternative of salvation. With many sinners of today he deals in like fashion. The warning is given with gentle, repeated, and terrible emphasis, and the way of escape is pointed out so plainly that "the wayfaring man, though a fool, may not err therein,"

III. HE HIMSELF WILL BE THE ANTAGONIST. "I am against thee" (cf. ver. 5).

1. This was a reversal of his normal relation to Israel. It would be hard for people of their habits of thought to realize; and it is stated boldly in order to emphasis. Not mere neutrality, He is to be a belligerent - the belligerent with whom they have to do. They must have felt foredoomed to failure. They knew his power and resources, for had they not been employed on their own behalf in the past? Is not this the present consciousness of many? They know that God is against them. Are they prepared to carry the war on to the end?

2. It represented the utter wrongness and hopelessness of their cause. The "rock of the plain' would be of little avail against him. The forces of the world were at his command; and their own hearts would fail them for fear against this ghostly combatant. Against the righteous one the sense of an evil cause would be the parent of discomfiture.

IV. YET THE PUNISHMENT WAS TO COME FROM WITHIN THEMSELVES, "I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings;" "I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof." It is not easy to gather from these vague statements the precise form the punishment would assume. But the description agrees best with the circumstances of Jehoiakim's reign, who built palaces of cedar, and ruled with despotic violence. A literal rendering of the terms of the judgment is scarcely permissible. Is civil war meant? Or court intrigues that may issue even more disastrously? In any case it would be the result of a reaction against the tyranny and wrongdoing of the court.

1. The elements of destruction are within the sinner himself. Many already know something of what hell is in themselves.

2. The results of sin will be its punish-men. - M.

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