Jeremiah 34
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
It is a sad scene that these verses bring before us.

I. THE LORD SEEKING TO SAVE THE LOST. This was the intent of the prophet's being charged with his message to King Zedekiah. If it were possible to save him, the Lord would do so, and, therefore, sent his servant again and yet again. Not lightly will the Lord let any evil doer go his own way.


1. In itself. To have to be the bearer of such evil tidings, and to one unprepared and unwilling to give heed to them. How much pleasanter to prophesy smooth things than these evil ones!

2. To his influence as a prophet. Men would desire to disbelieve him, and at length would - as they had done - persuade themselves that they might do so. A whole atmosphere of unbelief and dislike would surround him and shut up men's ears and hearts against him.

3. To his personal safety. Of course nothing but enmity was to be expected from such messages as these, and the prophet reaped the harvest to the full. They sought his life again and again, and wrought him all the ill they could (cf. subsequent chapters). And yet the prophet of God faithfully went through with his commission. Here is the test of fidelity, not in speaking that which men expect of you and will praise you for, but in speaking, when needful, that which men hate to hear. Can we lay claim to aught of such fidelity as this?

III. THE KING INFATUATED BY EVIL COUNSELS. There is reason to believe that, left to himself, he would have hearkened to the prophet. But those around him persuaded him to disregard all that the prophet said. Hence this opportunity of salvation for himself and for his people was put away. For had he obeyed, the threatening would not have been carried out (cf. Jeremiah 18:8-12). But his heart was hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. In face of that, no fidelity, no evidence, no earnestness of appeal, no pleading, no voice of conscience, could prevail. He was joined to his idols. Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of man is set in him steadfastly to do evil. Pray that from all such hardness of heart and contempt of God's Word and commandment, the Lord would deliver us. - C.

Zedekiah, King of Judah. The life of this unhappy monarch is a piteous but powerful illustration of the misery of instability of character, the sorrows that dog the footsteps of the infirm will. What men need, in order to be happier and better than they are, is not more knowledge of what is right - they are amply supplied with that; or the presence of plentiful good purpose and desire to do the right - hell itself is paved with good intentions; but what is needed is strength of will, firmness and stability of character. It is for lack of that that men go so wrong and make such a miserable confusion of their own life and that of others. The history of Zedekiah illustrates all this. Therefore note -

I. HIS CHARACTER AS SHOWN BY HIS HISTORY. He was son of the good King Josiah, and may have been one of the "princes" carried off to Babylon in the days of Jehoiakim. He appears to have attracted the favourable notice of Nebuchadnezzar, probably on the ground of the hope that Jeremiah the prophet cherished concerning him. That hope was expressed in the name given him - Zedekiah, "the Lord our Righteousness," a name fulfilled only in One, but telling of the hopes that gathered round this young king. At twenty-one years of age he was placed on the throne of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, and then the extreme difficulties of his position became evident. In his own country and in those adjoining, a smouldering rebellion prevailed. This the great enemy of Babylon, Egypt, did not fail to fan and further to the utmost of her power. Only a leader was wanting, and the rebellion would at once break forth. The chief of Zedekiah's own people were eager for him to head the revolt. For a time he refused, and seems (cf. Jeremiah 51:59) to have taken a solemn oath of allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar. But keeping this oath was not easy. It was a cruel position for him, and he had not the strength which so critical a time and emergency demanded. The influence of Jeremiah and Ms fear of the Babylonian power drew him one way; the clamour of his princes, priests, and people, and the promised aid of Egypt drew him another. And so at length he yielded, and treated his oath as so many idle words. Loud and stern were the protests of the prophet of God against such shameless and senseless falsehood (cf. Ezekiel 17:14; ch. 28.). But the princes of his court, as he himself pathetically admits (ch. 38.), had him completely under their influence: "Against them," he complains, "it is not the king that can do anything." He was thus driven to disregard the counsels of the prophet, which, as the event proved, were perfectly sound; and "he who might have kept the fragments of the kingdom together, and maintained for some generations longer the worship of Jehovah, brought its final ruin on his country, destruction on the temple, death to his family, and a cruel torment and a miserable captivity on himself." And there are other recorded instances of his lack of moral strength. His allowing the rich men and all those who, contrary to the Law, had held their, brethren as bondslaves, to enslave them once more, notwithstanding that in the most solemn way they had covenanted with God not to do so; then his treatment of the Prophet Jeremiah, - all showed, not so much that he was wicked, as that he was weak. Cruelly imprisoned by his enemies, the king sent for the prophet and placed him in gentler captivity in the court of his own palace. But there assailed by the angry accusations of the prophet's foes, the king yielded, and let them cast him into a horrible pit, where, had he been long left, he must have miserably perished. Conscience, stirred up by the remonstrance of a faithful servant, led the king to interpose again for his relief, and to have him remitted to his prison in the king's court. There Zedekiah treated him kindly; when the famine was raging in the city, he procured bread for him; he asked his prayers, and held long and frequent converse with him, but was all the while in abject fear lest the nobles should discover what their conversation had been about, and ha prevailed upon the prophet to condescend to an evasion of the truth in order not to betray him, poor weak king that he was (ch. 38.). Altogether wise was the counsel the prophet gave, but the king would and he would not. He did not know his own mind. But events moved on. The city was captured. The king and his household endeavoured to escape, were caught, carried before Nebuchadnezzar; his children were crucified in his presence; then his eyes were put out; and, loaded with fetters, he was dragged across the weary desert to Babylon, where he lived in misery until the Lord visited him (Jeremiah 32:5) - that is, until the Lord mercifully sent death to put an end to all his woe. It is a pitiful story, but one that teaches much concerning this instability of character which was this poor monarch's ruin.


1. Its nature. That it is a halting perpetually between two opinions - a condition of perpetual indecision! You never know where to find such men, or can be sure as to what they will do. They promise so well; they turn out so ill. Like a chip on a stream, driven, tossed, turned hither and thither, entangled, engulfed at last - so is such a man. In secular matters it is ruin, in spiritual it is more disastrous still.

2. Its results. What a miserable man this Zedekiah must have been! And so are all such. The debtor's pillow is proverbially a restless one, because of its wretchedness. Yet more so is that of the man who has no will of his own. And what Sorrow he brings upon others! He drags them down into the same vortex in which he is himself swallowed up. What ruin is wrought by such men in all the circles to which they belong!

3. Its cause. Want of a guiding principle in life. Without this, having no fixed rules, secular life is ruined. But in things spiritual this endeavour to serve God and mammon, this divided heart, is absolutely fatal. In such men the surrender to Christ has never been thorough and complete. They are as the seed on the stony ground.

4. Its cure. Living under the abiding realization of the presence of Christ. In armies that have begun to waver, the approach, the word, the eye of their leader has rallied them again and won them victory. So if, when tempted to waver, we feel the eye of Christ on us, we shall be firm. Therefore let him be the Lord of your souls. - C.

An incident of the siege of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans. At the first alarm the liberation of the Hebrew slaves was declared and solemnly ratified, according to the sabbatic law, which had long sunk into desuetude. The aim of this was a purely military one, viz. the advantage to be derived from the services of the freedmen in the army, and the removal of disabilities that might occasion disaffection within the walls. Yet an appearance of religion was given to it by the form it was made to assume as connected with the Law, and the solemn rites which were observed. That it was really only a time-serving expedient was shown by the restoration of the state of slavery directly it upreared as if the Chaldeans were going to desist from their purpose.

I. WHEREIN IT DIFFERS FROM TRUE OBEDIENCE. This will consist in the essence of the action, which, being moral, must have to do with motives. The form of the action was religions, but the real aim of it was one of selfish policy. Good people and bad are frequently found doing the same good and proper actions, but events frequently prove that they have acted from the most opposite motives. It was not to glorify God or to benefit the bondmen that the edict was put forth, but simply to advance their own interests and to "serve themselves" in a more effective way of their brethren. When righteousness is immediately and evidently advantageous, there are many who will become formally righteous; and when religion is fashionable, there are many who will be religious. When misdeeds are rectified it is so far a good thing; but that the reform may be real and permanent it must proceed from true repentance, and an earnest desire to serve God and the interests of our fellow men.

II. CONSIDERATIONS DETERMINING THE REAL NATURE OF REPUTED OBEDIENCE. In discovering the true character of reputed obedience it is well to study:

1. The circumstances. Here there were immediate pressure and distress, the existence of a dangerous element in the state, and the possibility of advantages from the military service of the freedmen. The greatest care is requisite in judging of the professions of persons in straitened or perilous circumstances, and to whom religion presents pecuniary, social, or other advantages. The existence of such circumstances affords a presumption against the genuineness of their conversion; and yet it is not of itself conclusive. A better criterion is to be found in:

2. Subsequent conduct. The speedy consignment of the freedmen back again to a state of slavery showed that the observance of the Law was unreal. Actions are ever more eloquent than words. So, when ardent and apparently enthusiastic professions rapidly cool down, and give place to calculating and selfish conduct, we see that the religious movement has had no deep root or has been unreal from its commencement. Death bed repentances are proverbially doubtful, because of the impossibility in most cases of applying this test; nevertheless we are justified in believing that in some cases these are genuine. Prisoners frequently belie their declarations when set at liberty. The subject of false repentance may deceive himself, the emotion being genuine, but the nature not being radically changed. Hence the necessity of insisting upon continued obedience from all who are under the influence of conviction, or who appear to be so.

III. THE PECULIAR OFFENSIVENESS OF FALSE OBEDIENCE. It is not a simple act of transgression, but complex and supremely self-conscious. As on this occasion the Jews were manifoldly sinful in

(1) their breach of faith with God and their fellow countrymen;

(2) in the dishonour they showed to God by lightly regarding the most solemn oath and ordinance; and

(3) in the hypocrisy by which the whole proceeding was characterized; so the false saint is a sinner of the deepest dye. Nor is he at liberty to confine his transgression within definite and foreseen limits; once committed to the false attitude, a repetition and intricate complexity of sin is inevitable. It is, therefore, often a culminating sin.

IV. THE PUNISHMENT OF FALSE OBEDIENCE. (Vers. 17-22.) The penalty inflicted is very terrible and thorough; as if there were no hope for such men to be spiritually renewed again.

1. Exemplary. A curious and instructive parallelism between their crime and its punishment is to be observed: "Behold, I proclaim a liberty for you," and "Their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth." This is in harmony with the didactic and symbolical character of the old dispensation.

2. Thorough and unmitigated. No word of hope or compassion is uttered. An end is to be made of such transgressions.

3. An element of scorn and contempt is discoverable. There is a terrible irony in the words, "I proclaim a liberty for you," etc., which reveal the depth and absoluteness of their curse. The gospel dispensation, as it offers greater privileges and blessings to the truly penitent, is also accompanied with more awful penalties (Hebrews 4:11, 12; Hebrews 6:4-8; Hebrews 10:29; Proverbs 1:26). - M.

See the history. Under fear occasioned by the prophet's earnest appeals and the obvious fact that the judgment of God was drawing near - for the Chaldeans were at the gates - the king and his people solemnly vow to release their slaves. They had no right to retain them; they were sinning against God and them in so doing. Hence they let them go. But the fear departs, they think their danger has disappeared, and they enslave their brethren again. It was an abominable wickedness, and the prophet denounces awful doom upon them for it. Now, concerning such playing fast and loose with God, note that -

I. THIS IS A VERY FREQUENT SIN. Illustrations are Pharaoh, Balaam, Israel's whole career. And there are many such instances now. All insincere repentances are such. They may be:

1. Very general. This was so. All the people joined, high and low. Like the professed repentance of the people at John's baptism.

2. Very solemnly entered upon. How deeply moved these people seemed! What vows they uttered!

3. And some fruits meet for repentance may be produced. These people did for a while set free their slaves. There was a real reformation for the time. The evil spirit went out of the man.

4. But yet it is all worthless, for the evil spirit returns, and with increased power. The repentance was so short-lived that it was as if it had never been. Yea, worse: "The last end of that man was worse than the first."

II. ITS ORIGIN AND CAUSE ARE THE UNCHANGED HEART. Underneath the superficial soil there is, in spite of all the seeming repentance, the hard layer of rock. The motive was not the conviction of sin wrought by the Holy Spirit, but a craven fear and a desire, therefore, to buy off God's anger. And in this ease it was a cheap way, for liberating their slaves was the best means of securing a strong addition to the forces by which they would defend their city and themselves. Hence, when danger ceased, as they thought, their repentance ceased along with it. What need we all have to be on our guard against the semblances of real religion which our evil hearts are so prone to take up with! And what need to pray that the Lord would show us if we be now self-deceived, and that he would perfectly renew our hearts within us!

III. ITS GUILT VERY GREAT. What an outrage it is to God! We would not bear the like conduct from our fellow men. What awful presumption it manifests! what hardness of heart! And its guilt is the more aggravated because such conduct so plainly shows that we clearly know and understand God's will, though we only make pretence of obeying it.

IV. ITS DOOM IS VERY TERRIBLE. See the burning words of the prophet here (vers. 17-22). And we have portents of that future doom in the hardening of the heart, the searing of the conscience, the being "given over to a reprobate mind," the audacity in wickedness which such conduct produces. How hard to bring such men to repentance! or, if conviction of sin do come, into what depths of despair does it plunge the sinner! All these are indications of the holy displeasure of God which rests on such sin. May he keep us from it. - C.

I. CONSIDER THE ACT ITSELF. It was emphatically a right act in itself. It did not become right or necessary merely by becoming a covenanted thing. It was an act that meant the attainment of liberty to a very considerable number of people who were not their own masters. God is always on the side of liberty, for only to the free individual is full opportunity given of serving God. And yet this must be said with qualification. External liberty is only of use when it is accompanied with deliverance from inward bondage. Hence, in the New Testament, no great stress is laid upon civil liberty; that would come in due time, and, irresistibly, by the growth and conquering power of Christian principle. The stress in the New Testament is on the maintenance by the individual of liberty within himself. But in ancient Israel there was a God-governed nation as well as God-governed individuals, and civil liberty had to be sought as far as possible by Divine provisions and commands.

II. THE CAUSE OF THE LIBERATION SO FAR AS IT WAS ACCOMPLISHED. There is some obscurity as to the origin of the covenant and act. Some unmentioned motive seems to have combined king and people to resolve on the liberation of all slaves; but it could only have been a motive of fear and worldly prudence. The same sort of forces must have been in operation as we observe in Pharaoh. A plague drags him a little in the direction of letting Israel go; then the plague ceases, and he draws back again. External force, then, or a shallow repentance, or perhaps something of both, led the people into making this covenant. It was not a deep pity for the oppressed that moved them. The covenant did not come from a deep and perfect insight into the golden rule. Thus there is a revelation of the moral attainments of the people. It is already shown to us how little the better they were for all their opportunities of knowing God's Law and will.

III. THE RESULT OF A RIGHT ACT DONE IN A WRONG SPIRIT. The result is just what might have been expected. Inconvenience, awkwardness, daily, almost hourly, irritation, must have come at once. Just try to estimate some of the results. Only when the slaves had become free would the masters understand how dependent they had been upon them. The work of the covenant was not done when the slave was liberated. Really, it was only begun. The master bad then to set to work for himself. His former servant is now given opportunity to become his rival. Moreover, the liberated slave himself does not all at once get the spirit of a free man. When things have been going wrong for generations, they cannot be got right by some magical swiftness. Hence, many potent considerations tempted the masters in forcing a return to the former state of things. They had not counted the cost in beginning, and thus, it seems, they were able to take only a very few steps in the right course.

IV. THE PUNISHMENT. This is specially attached to the breaking of the covenant. The people had really no excuse to offer for breaking it, save the inconvenience and the temporal loss occasioned by keeping it. As far as we can see, this particular covenant was a voluntary one on their part. It recognized a law that had been made in the very coming out from the land of bondage, and it was a covenant to perform a certain outward act. The punishment was just enough; the real wonder would have been if something of the kind had failed to fall on those breaking such a covenant. - Y.

Ye have not hearkened unto me, etc. The Jews had become shamefully guilty of this sin of enslaving their brethren. They who had once been slaves themselves, but redeemed by God; they whose whole Law was a protest against it in its real forms of permanence and cruelty; they who were on no higher level than those they enslaved, all being on the same equality with God, members of the same race, worshippers of the same God; - the slavery they were now practising was abhorrent indeed. Concerning slavery - the permanent and absolute possession of a fellow man, to buy and sell and do with him as he please - this is ever a great sin.


1. We have a moral nature, a conscience, and this plainly condemns the degradation of a human being to a mere chattel,

2. Think of ourselves as slatted, and then how prompt we are to condemn. But if one man may be so held, then every man may.

3. All are on an equality before God, and have equal rights and responsibilities.

4. And chiefly because man is made in the imagine of God. Dare we make a chattel of him who bears the image and superscription of Deity? At once our heart condemns.


1. Not by direct prohibition. Enough is known in the circumstances of the ages of the Bible to show abundant reason wherefore the servants of God were not commissioned to go and everywhere denounce this practice.

2. Nor by the absence of examples of good men who kept slaves. It was the universal practice.

3. Nor by absence of implied sanctions of this relationship. These facts have been urged in its favour, but we may urge:

(1) That if everything not distinctly prohibited in the Bible be right, then many very wrong things would be justified. For very few detailed rules for definite acts are given, but principles from which the mind of God may be easily inferred and his Law applied to all the minutiae of daily life.

(2) Paul no more sanctioned slavery than he did the vilest despotism, for if he told slaves to obey their masters, he bade all men be subject to the higher powers. Now, Nero was on the throne at that time. What the Word of God and experience alike teach is that the violent subversion of evil almost always inflicts greater evil than it removes.

(3) And the sacred writers had faith in the sure, even if silent, spread of the great principles of Christ which taught "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

(4) And as to the Old Testament slavery and the Mosaic laws in regard to it, it is to be noted that it was a far milder and more genial thing than aught that modern times have known; and next, that the laws of Moses were given on this matter "for the hardness of men's hearts," so that, as with the law of divorce, what could not wisely be at once put down should be so limited and controlled as to be divested of its greater evils. But no greater slander or falsehood can be maintained than to say that the Bible upholds slavery. Its tone and teaching and its universal influence have been to put an end everywhere to the accursed thing.

III. EXPERIENCE CONDEMNS IT. Its influence on the slave, on the master, on the nation, the Church; its moral, domestic, political influence, - all are disastrous and deadly. It is the prolific parent of the worst vices - selfishness, cruelty, licentiousness, tyranny. It has sealed the doom of all nations that have adhered to it, and must ever do so; whilst justice and freedom have ever had resting on them the manifest blessing of God. Christ came to preach liberty to the captives; his gospel is the Magna Charta of the human race. - C.

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