Jeremiah 13:23
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
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(23) Can the Ethiopian . . .?—Literally, the Cushite. The meaning of the question is obvious. The evil of Judah was too deep-ingrained to be capable of spontaneous reformation. There remained nothing but the sharp discipline of the exile. The invasion of Tirhakah and Pharaoh-nechoh, the presence of Ethiopians among the servants of the royal household (Jeremiah 38:10), the intercourse with the upper valley of the Nile implied in Zephaniah 3:10 and Psalm 68:31; Psalm 87:4, had made the swarthy forms of Africa familiar objects. Possibly the use of leopard-skins by Ethiopian princes and warriors, as seen on Egyptian monuments and described by Herodotus (vii. 69), had associated the two thoughts together in the prophet’s mind. If the king’s household were present (as in Jeremiah 13:18), he may have pointed to such an one, Ebedmelech (Jeremiah 38:10), or another so arrayed, in illustration of his words.



Jeremiah 13:23
. - 2 Corinthians 5:17. - Revelation 21:5.

Put these three texts together. The first is a despairing question to which experience gives only too sad and decisive a negative answer. It is the answer of many people who tell us that character must be eternal, and of many a baffled man who says, ‘It is of no use-I have tried and can do nothing.’ The second text is the grand Christian answer, full of confidence. It was spoken by one who had no superficial estimate of the evil, but who had known in himself the power of Christ to revolutionise a life, and make a man love all he had hated, and hate all he had loved, and fling away all he had treasured. The last text predicts the completion of the renovating process lying far ahead, but as certain as sunrise.

I. The unchangeableness of character, especially of faults.

We note the picturesque rhetorical question here. They were occasionally accustomed to see the dark-skinned, Ethiopian, whether we suppose that these were true from Southern Egypt or dark Arabs, and now and then leopards came up from the thickets on the Jordan, or from the hills of the southern wilderness about the Dead Sea. The black hue of the man, the dark spots that starred the skin of the fierce beast, are fitting emblems of the evil that dyes and speckles the soul. Whether it wraps the whole character in black, or whether it only spots it here and there with tawny yellow, it is ineradicable; and a man can no more change his character once formed than a can cast his skin, or a leopard whiten out the spots on his hide.

Now we do not need to assert that a man has no power of self-improvement or reformation. The exhortations of the prophet to repentance and to cleansing imply that he has. If he has not, then it is no blame to him that he does not mend. Experience shows that we have a very considerable power of such a kind. It is a pity that some Christian teachers speak in exaggerated terms about the impossibility of such self-improvement.

But it is very difficult.

Note the great antagonist as set forth here-Habit, that solemn and mystical power. We do not know all the ways in which it operates, but one chief way is through physical cravings set up. It is strange how much easier a second time is than a first, especially in regard to evil acts. The hedge once broken down, it is very easy to get through it again. If one drop of water has percolated through the dyke, there will be a roaring torrent soon. There is all the difference between once and never; there is small difference between once and twice. By habit we come to do things mechanically and without effort, and we all like that. One solitary footfall across the snow soon becomes a beaten way. As in the banyan-tree, each branch becomes a root. All life is held together by cords of custom which enable us to reserve conscious effort and intelligence for greater moments. Habit tends to weigh upon us with a pressure ‘heavy as frost, and deep almost as life.’ But also it is the ally of good.

The change to good is further made difficult because liking too often goes with evil, and good is only won by effort. It is a proof of man’s corruption that if left alone, evil in some form or other springs spontaneously, and that the opposite good is hard to win. Uncultivated soil bears thistles and weeds. Anything can roll downhill. It is always the least trouble to go on as we have been going.

Further, the change is made difficult because custom blinds judgment and conscience. People accustomed to a vitiated atmosphere are not aware of its foulness.

How long it takes a nation, for instance, to awake to consciousness of some national crime, even when the nation is ‘Christian’! And how men get perfectly sophisticated as to their own sins, and have all manner of euphemisms for them!

Further, how hard it is to put energy into a will that has been enfeebled by long compliance. Like prisoners brought out of the Bastille.

So if we put all these reasons together, no wonder that such reformation is rare.

I do not dwell on the point that it must necessarily be confined within very narrow limits. I appeal to experience. You have tried to cure some trivial habit. You know what a task that has been-how often you thought that you had conquered, and then found that all had to be done over again. How much more is this the case in this greater work! Often the efforts to break off evil habits have the same effect as the struggles of cattle mired in a bog, who sink the deeper for plunging. The sad cry of many a foiled wrestler with his own evil is, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ We do not wish to exaggerate, but simply to put it that experience shows that for men in general, custom and inclination and indolence and the lack of adequate motive weigh so heavily that a thorough abandonment of evil, much more a hearty practice of good, are not to be looked for when once a character has been formed. So you young people, take care. And all of us listen to-

II. The great hope for individual renewal.

The second text sets forth a possibility of entire individual renewal, and does so by a strong metaphor.

‘If any man be in Christ he is a new creature,’ or as the words might be rendered, ‘there is a new creation,’ and not only is he renewed, but all things are become new. He is a new Adam in a new world.

Now {a} let us beware of exaggeration about this matter. There are often things said about the effects of conversion which are very far in advance of reality, and give a handle to caricature. The great law of continuity runs on through the change of conversion. Take a man who has been the slave of some sin. The evil will not cease to tempt, nor will the effects of the past on character be annihilated. ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,’ remains true. In many ways there will be permanent consequences. There will remain the scars of old wounds; old sores will be ready to burst forth afresh. The great outlines of character do remain.

{b} What is the condition of renewal?

‘If any man be in Christ’-how distinctly that implies something more than human in Paul’s conception of Christ. It implies personal union with Him, so that He is the very element or atmosphere in which we live. And that union is brought about by faith in Him.

{c} How does such a state of union with Christ make a man over again?

It gives a new aim and centre for our lives. Then we live not unto ourselves; then everything is different and looks so, for the centre is shifted. That union introduces a constant reference to Him and contemplation of His death for us, it leads to self-abnegation.

It puts all life under the influence of a new love. ‘The love of Christ constraineth.’ As is a man’s love, so is his life. The mightiest devolution is to excite a new love, by which old loves and tastes are expelled. ‘A new affection’ has ‘expulsive power,’ as the new sap rising in the springtime pushes off the lingering withered leaves. So union with Him meets the difficulty arising from inclination still hankering after evil. It lifts life into a higher level where the noxious creatures that were proper to the swamps cannot live. The new love gives a new and mighty motive for obedience.

That union breaks the terrible chain that binds us to the past. ‘All died.’ The past is broken as much as if we were dead. It is broken by the great act of forgiveness. Sin holds men by making them feel as if what has been must be-an awful entail of evil. In Christ we die to former self.

That union brings a new divine power to work in us. ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’

It sets us in a new world which yet is the old. All things are changed if we are changed. They are the same old things, but seen in a new light, used for new purposes, disclosing new relations and powers. Earth becomes a school and discipline for heaven. The world is different to a blind man when cured, or to a deaf one,-there are new sights for the one, new sounds for the other.

All this is true in the measure in which we live in union with Christ.

So no man need despair, nor think, ‘I cannot mend now.’ You may have tried and been defeated a thousand times. But still victory is possible, not without effort and sore conflict, but still possible. There is hope for all, and hope for ME.

III. The completion in a perfectly renewed creation.

The renovation here is only partial. Its very incompleteness is prophetic. If there be this new life in us, it obviously has not reached its fulness here, and it is obviously not manifested here for all that even here it is.

It is like some exotic that does not show its true beauty in our greenhouses. The life of a Christian on earth is a prophecy by both its greatness and its smallness, by both its glory and its shame, by both its brightness and its spots. It cannot be that there is always to be this disproportion between aspiration and performance, between willing and doing. Here the most perfect career is like a half-lighted street, with long gaps between the lamps.

The surroundings here are uncongenial to the new creatures. ‘Foxes have holes’-all creatures are fitted for their environment; only man, and eminently renewed man, wanders as a pilgrim, not in his home. The present frame of things is for discipline. The schooling over, we burn the rod. So we look for an external order in full correspondence with the new nature.

And Christ throned ‘makes all things new.’ How far the old is renewed we cannot tell, and we need not ask. Enough that there shall be a universe in perfect harmony with the completely renewed nature, that we shall find a home where all things will serve and help and gladden and further us, where the outward will no more distract and clog the spirit.

Brethren, let that mighty love constrain you; and look to Christ to renew you. Whatever your old self may have been, you may bury it deep in His grave, and rise with Him to newness of life. Then you may walk in this old world, new creatures in Christ Jesus, looking for the blessed hope of entire renewal into the perfect likeness of Him, the perfect man, in a perfect world, where all old sorrows and sins have passed away and He has made all things new. Through eternity, new joys, new knowledge, new progress, new likeness, new service will be ours- and not one leaf shall ever wither in the amaranthine crown, nor ‘the cup of blessing’ ever become empty or flat and stale. Eternity will be but a continual renewal and a progressive increase of ever fresh and ever familiar treasures. The new and the old will be one.

Begin with trusting to Him to help you to change a deeper blackness than that of the Ethiopian’s skin, and to erase firier spots than stain the tawny leopard’s hide, and He will make you a new man, and set you in His own time in a ‘new heaven and earth, where dwelleth righteousness.’

Jeremiah 13:23. Can the Ethiopian change his skin, &c. — The word Cushi, here rendered Ethiopian, often signifies Arabian, in the Scriptures; Ethiopia being, by ancient writers, distinguished into Eastern (the same with Arabia) and Western Ethiopia. But here an inhabitant of the latter, that is, of Ethiopia properly so called, seems evidently to be meant, the people of that country, which lay south of Egypt, being much more remarkable than the Arabians for their black colour. It seems hardly necessary to observe to the reader, that Jeremiah does not intend to express here the absolute impossibility of a change taking place in the principles and practices of the ignorant and wicked. “To suppose this, would be to contradict the whole tenor of his writings, and to render insignificant and absurd all his invitations to repentance. Nay, it appears from the last verse of this chapter that he did not suppose the reformation even of this people to be an absolute impossibility. We are therefore to understand this as a proverbial expression, which, like many others in Scripture, is not to be taken in the strictness of the letter; the prophet designing only to express the extreme difficulty of a moral change in habitual sinners, and particularly in those presumptuous and obstinate sinners of Israel to whom his discourse is directed.” — Dodd.

13:18-27 Here is a message sent to king Jehoiakim, and his queen. Their sorrows would be great indeed. Do they ask, Wherefore come these things upon us? Let them know, it is for their obstinacy in sin. We cannot alter the natural colour of the skin; and so is it morally impossible to reclaim and reform these people. Sin is the blackness of the soul; it is the discolouring of it; we were shapen in it, so that we cannot get clear of it by any power of our own. But Almighty grace is able to change the Ethiopian's skin. Neither natural depravity, nor strong habits of sin, form an obstacle to the working of God, the new-creating Spirit. The Lord asks of Jerusalem, whether she is determined not be made clean. If any poor slave of sin feels that he could as soon change his nature as master his headstrong lusts, let him not despair; for things impossible to men are possible with God. Let us then seek help from Him who is mighty to save.This verse answers the question, May not Judah avert this calamity by repentance? No: because her sins are too inveterate.23. Ethiopian—the Cushite of Abyssinia. Habit is second nature; as therefore it is morally impossible that the Jews can alter their inveterate habits of sin, nothing remains but the infliction of the extremest punishment, their expatriation (Jer 13:24). In the Hebrew it is,

Can the Cushite, & c.? from whence it is well concluded, as learned men judge, that the Ethiopians are of the posterity of Cush the son of Ham, brother to Mizraim, the father of the Egyptians, Genesis 10:6. For these were the only people of old noted for their black colour in Scripture, as the Ethiopians are now. God showeth that the Jews by their continued customary sinning had so inured themselves to wicked practices, that it was as much labour in vain to endeavour to reclaim them, as to go about to wash a blackamoor, or to take out the natural spots of the beasts called leopards.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin?.... Or, "the Cushite"; either, as the Arabic version, the "Abyssine", the inhabitant of the eastern Ethiopia; properly an Ethiopian, as the Septuagint and Vulgate Latin versions render it; or, the "Chusean Arabian"; the inhabitant of Arabia Chusea, which was nearer Judea than the other Ethiopia, and better known, and which were of a dark complexion. The Targum renders it, the Indian; and so does the Syriac version. In the Misna (i) mention is made of Indian garments, with which the high priest was clothed on the day of atonement; upon which the gloss (k) is, that they were of linen of the country of India; and which is the land of Cush (or Ethiopia), as Jonathan Ben Uzziel interprets Jeremiah 13:23.

"can the Cushite, the Indian, change his skin?''

and it is highly probable, that, in the time of Jeremiah, no other India was known by the Jews but Ethiopia, or Arabia Chusea, and no other black people but the inhabitants thereof, or any other than the Arabians; and, as Braunius (l) observes, it need not be wondered at, that with the Jews, in those times, Ethiopia and India should be reckoned the same country; when with the ancients, whatever was beyond the Mediterranean sea, as Arabia, Ethiopia, and even Judea itself, was called India; so Joppa, a city of Phoenicia, from whence Andromeda was fetched by Perseus, is by Ovid (m) said to be in India; so Bochart (n) interprets the words of the Saracens or Arabians, who are of a swarthy colour, and some black; and indeed have their name from the same word the raven has, which is black; and particularly the inhabitants of Kedar were black, one part of Arabia, to which the allusion is in Sol 1:5. Jarchi interprets the word here by "the moor", the blackamoor, whose skin is naturally black, and cannot be changed by himself or others; hence to wash the blackamoor white is a proverbial expression for labour in vain, or attempting to do that which is not to be done:

or the leopard his spots? a creature full of spots, and whose spots are natural to it; and therefore cannot be removed by any means. Some think a creature called "the ounce", or "cat-a-mountain" is meant, whose spots are many, and of a blackish colour; but the description well agrees with the leopard, which is a creature full of spots, and has its name in the eastern languages, particularly the Chaldee and Arabic, from a word (o) which signifies "spotted", "variegated", as this creature is; so the female is called "varia" by Pliny (p), because, of its various spots; and these spots are black, as the Arabic writers in Bochart (q). The word here used signifies such marks as are made in a body beat and bruised, which we call black and blue; hence some render it "livid", or black and blue spots (r); and these marks are in the skin and hair of this creature, and are natural to it, and cannot be changed; and it is usual with other writers (s) to call them spots, as well as the Scripture:

then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil; signifying that they were naturally sinners, as blackness is natural to the Ethiopian, and spots to the leopard; and were from their birth and infancy such, and had been so long habituated to sin, by custom founded upon nature, that there was no hope of them; they were obstinate in sin, bent upon it, and incorrigible in it; and this is another reason given why the above calamities came upon them. The metaphors used in this text fitly express the state and condition of men by nature; they are like the Ethiopian or blackamoor; very black, both with original and actual sin; very guilty, and very uncomely; and their blackness is natural to them; they have it from their parents, and by birth; it is with them from their infancy, and youth upwards; and very hard and difficult to be removed; it cannot be washed off by ceremonial ablutions, moral duties, evangelical ordinances, or outward humiliations; yea, it is impossible to be removed but by the grace of God and blood of Christ. Their sins are aptly compared to the leopard's spots, which are many and natural, and difficult to get clear off. What is figuratively expressed in the above metaphors is more plainly signified by being "accustomed" or "taught to do evil" (t); which denotes a series and course of sinning; a settled habit and custom in it, founded on nature, and arising from it; which a man learns and acquires naturally, and of himself, whereby he becomes void of fear and shame; and there is a good deal of difficulty, and indeed a moral impossibility, that such persons should "do good": nothing short of the powerful and efficacious grace of God can put a man into a state and capacity of doing good aright, from right principles to right ends, and of continuing in it; for there is no good in such men; nor have they any true notion of doing good, nor inclination to it, nor any ability to perform it: in order to it, it is absolutely necessary that they should first be made good men by the grace of God; that they should be regenerated and quickened by the Spirit of God; that they should be created in Christ Jesus unto good works, and have faith in him; all which is by the grace of God, and not of themselves.

(i) Yoma, c. 3. sect 7. (k) In T. Bab. Yoma, fol. 34. 2.((l) De Vestitu Sacerdot. Heb. l. 1. c. 7. sect. 9. p. 150, 151. (m) "Andromedam Perseus nigris portarat ab Indis". De Arte Atnandi, l. 1.((n) Phaleg. l. 4. c. 2. col. 215, 216. (o) Vid. Golium, col. 2459, 2460. Castel. col. 2321, 2322. (p) Nat. Hist. l. 8. c. 17. (q) Hierozoic. par 1. l. 3. c. 7. col. 786, 787. (r) "liventee maculas suas", Junius & Tremellius. (s) Vid. Plin. Nat. Hist. l. 8. c. 19. Juvenal. Satyr. 15. (t) "docti malefacere", Montanus; "edocti malefacere", Junius & Tremellius, Piscator; "qui edocti estis malum", Schmidt.

Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
23. The v. need not mean that Judah’s sin was innate (see on Jeremiah 6:7), but that habits of evil preclude a return to righteousness.

the Ethiopian] Through the Jews’ intercourse with Egypt the Ethiopians were familiar to them. See Jeremiah 38:7. They were acquainted with the “merchandise of Ethiopia” (Isaiah 45:14), which consisted of gold, ebony, and elephants’ tusks (Herod. III. 97, 114), and jewels (Job 28:19).

the leopard] See ch. Jeremiah 5:6.

Jeremiah 13:23Judah will not escape this ignominious lot, since wickedness has so grown to be its nature, that it can as little cease therefrom and do good, as an Ethiopian can wash out the blackness of his skin, or a panther change it spots. The consequential clause introduced by גּם אתּם connects with the possibility suggested in, but denied by, the preceding question: if that could happen, then might even ye do good. The one thing is as impossible as the other. And so the Lord must scatter Judah among the heathen, like stubble swept away by the desert wind, lit., passing by with the desert wind. The desert wind is the strong east wind that blows from the Arabian Desert; see on Jeremiah 4:11.
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