Jeremiah 34:8
This is the word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them;
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(8) After that the king Zedekiah had made» a covenant . . .—The remainder of the chapter brings before us an historical episode of considerable interest. The law of Moses did not allow in the case of a free-born Hebrew more than a temporary bondage of seven years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12-18), extended (but under the form of serfage rather than slavery) in the later regulations of Leviticus 25:39-40 to the time that might intervene between the date of purchase and the commencement of the next year of jubilee. In 2Kings 4:1 we have an instance of the working of the law, as bringing even the sons of a prophet into this modified slavery. Only if the man preferred his state as a slave to the risks of freedom could his master retain him after the appointed limit (Exodus 21:5-6). The law had apparently fallen into disuse, and the nobles of Judah, like those of Athens before Solon, and Rome before the institution of the Tribunate, had used the law of debt to bring a large number of their fellow citizens into slavery, just as their successors did after the return from Babylon (Nehemiah 5:5). Under the pressure of the danger from the Chaldæan invasion, and that he might have the ready service of freemen instead of the forced work of slaves, perhaps also in consequence of the revival of the law, that followed on its discovery, probably in the form of the Book of Deuteronomy, in the days of Josiah (2Kings 22:8), Zedekiah had been led to promise freedom to all the slave population of this class that were within the walls of Jerusalem, either as a celebration of a Sabbatic year, or jubilee, or, irrespective of any such observance, as a reparation for past neglect. The step was probably not without its influence in giving fresh energy to the defenders of the city. The Chaldæans, threatened by the approach of an Egyptian army (Jeremiah 37:5), raised the siege (Jeremiah 34:21). When the danger was past, however, the princes who had agreed to the emancipation returned to their old policy of oppression (Jeremiah 34:11), and those who had been liberated were brought under a bondage all the more bitter for the temporary taste of freedom. Against this perfidious tyranny the prophet, stirred by “the word of the Lord,” bears his protests. His sympathies, like those of true prophets at all times, were with the poor and the oppressed. The phrase “proclaim liberty” was closely connected with the year of jubilee, as in Leviticus 25:10, Isaiah 61:1.

34:8-22 A Jew should not be held in servitude above seven years. This law they and their fathers had broken. And when there was some hope that the siege was raised, they forced the servants they had released into their services again. Those who think to cheat God by dissembled repentance and partial reformation, put the greatest cheat upon their own souls. This shows that liberty to sin, is really only liberty to have the sorest judgments. It is just with God to disappoint expectations of mercy, when we disappoint the expectations of duty. And when reformation springs only from terror, it is seldom lasting. Solemn vows thus entered into, profane the ordinances of God; and the most forward to bind themselves by appeals to God, are commonly most ready to break them. Let us look to our hearts, that our repentance may be real, and take care that the law of God regulates our conduct.It is usual with commentators to say that, the laws dealing with the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves, as also that of the land resting during the sabbatical year, were not observed. The narrative teaches us the exact contrary. The manumission of the slaves on the present occasion was the spontaneous act of Zedekiah and the people. They knew of the law, and acknowledged its obligation. The observance of it was, no doubt, lax: the majority let their own selfish interests prevail; but the minority made might give way to right, and Zedekiah supported their efforts though only in a weak way.

Early in January, in the ninth year of Zedekiah, the Chaldaean army approached Jerusalem. The people made a covenant with the king, who appears as the abettor of the measure, to let their slaves go free. Possibly patriotism had its share in this: and as Jerusalem was strongly fortified, all classes possibly hoped that if the slaves were manumitted, they too would labor with a more hearty good-will in resisting the enemy. In the summer of the same year the Egyptians advanced to the rescue, and Nebuchadnezzar withdrew to meet their attack. The Jews with a strange levity, which sets them before us in a most despicable light, at once forced the manumitted slaves back into bondage. With noble indignation Jeremiah rebukes them for their treachery, assures them that the Chaldaean army will return, and warns them of the certainty of the punishment which they so richly merited.

Jeremiah 34:8

As the Chaldaean army swept over the country the wealthier classes would all flee to Jerusalem, taking with them their households. And as the Mosaic Law was probably more carefully kept there than in the country, the presence in these families of slaves who had grown grey in service may have given offence to the stricter classes at the capital.

To proclaim liberty unto them - The words are those of the proclamation of the year of jubile to the people, whereupon it became their duty to set their slaves free.

8. By the law a Hebrew, after having been a bond-servant for six years, on the seventh was to be let go free (Ex 21:22; De 15:12).

Zedekiah made a covenant—with solemn ceremonial in the temple (Jer 34:15, 18, 19).

them—bond-servants (Jer 34:9).

This verse plainly beginneth a new prophecy, but at what particular time this revelation or the publication of it was we are not told, only the occasion of it is recorded. God had made a particular law respecting the Jewish nation, that if any had bought an Hebrew servant, he should serve but six years, and in the seventh should go out free, Exodus 21:2 Deu 15:12. It came into Zedekiah’s mind to make a proclamation for the execution of this law; what moved him to it we have not recorded. The learned author of the English Annotations observeth well, that it was their usual course when they were in some great straits to make some partial reformation, Judges 10:15,16 Psa 78:34,35 Ho 6 1.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord,.... Here begins a new prophecy, which was delivered some time after the former; that was given out while the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem; this after he had quitted the siege for a while, and was gone to meet the king of Egypt, who was coming to the relief of the city, as appears from Jeremiah 34:21; though the Jews (k) say this was delivered in the seventh year of Zedekiah, in the first month, and tenth day of the month; at the same time that the elders of Israel came to Ezekiel, to inquire of the Lord by him, Ezekiel 20:1; which was two years before the king of Babylon came against Jerusalem; but this seems not likely. It is said to be

after that the King Zedekiah made a covenant with all the people that were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them; not unto the people, or to themselves, the king and the people; unless the sense is, that the king and the people entered into an agreement among themselves to make proclamation, that liberty would be granted by them to their servants; for the liberty proclaimed was to the servants, and not to them. This seems to confirm it, that it was while the city was besieged that this covenant was made; since it was made only with the people at Jerusalem, which were pent up in it; for otherwise it would in all probability have been made with all the people of the land; and seems to have been done with this view, to obtain this favour of the Lord, that they might gain their freedom from the enemy, and come not under the yoke and into the servitude of the king of Babylon: and very probable it is that they did not do this of their own accord, but were exhorted to it by Jeremiah; who perhaps, among other sins, had reproved them for the breach of the law respecting the liberty of servants.

(k) Seder Olam Rabba, c. 26. p. 74.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem, {d} to proclaim liberty to them;

(d) When the enemy was at hand and they saw themselves in danger, they would seem holy, and so began some kind of reformation: but soon after they uttered their hypocrisy.

8. had made a covenant] According to Exodus 21:2 [E] a Hebrew male slave was to be set free after six years’ service, and by Deuteronomy 15:12 this was extended to female slaves. The conscience-quickening power of impending danger, in meeting which the slaves, if enfranchised, would be more ready to co-operate with their former masters, seems to have induced Zedekiah, naturally too weak-minded a man to have displayed much vigour in urging any such conduct upon his subjects, to make the agreement with them here spoken of. This view of the motive is to be preferred to Du.’s theory that the slaves were turned out of the city during the siege because of the burden of feeding persons whose normal occupation of tillage, etc. was necessarily in abeyance. The narrative on the contrary implies that the action was to the slaves’ advantage (see Jeremiah 34:16), and that it was from motives of selfishness that the edict, though sanctioned by the solemnity of an oath, was cancelled on the temporary withdrawal of the besiegers to meet the approaching army of Pharaoh (Jeremiah 34:21).

to proclaim liberty unto them] The same phrase is used of the proclamation made in the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:10). “Unto them,” if it be not an insertion, refers to the slaves.

8–22. Condemnation of the perjury involved in the treatment of the Hebrew slaves

The subsection may be summarized as follows. (i) Jeremiah 34:8-11. Zedekiah induces the people solemnly to bind themselves to release their slaves. They do so, but presently cancel their agreement. (ii) Jeremiah 34:12-16. Jeremiah is bidden to remind the people of the terms of the Law on the subject, and to charge them with perjury in the violation of the covenant they had recently made under solemn sanctions. (iii) Jeremiah 34:17-22. They shall in consequence fall victims to the sword. Their bodies after death shall suffer indignities. The king and his princes shall be taken captive, Jerusalem captured and burnt, and the cities laid waste.

Verse 8. - A covenant. The scene of this "covenant" was the temple (veto. 15, 18). Solemn agreements of this kind were not uncommon (comp. 2 Chronicles 15:12; 2 Kings 11:17; 2 Kings 23:3; Nehemiah 10.). To proclaim liberty unto them. The phrase, a very peculiar one, is taken from the law of jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), though the prescription on which the covenant was based refers exclusively to the seventh year of the slave's servitude. Jeremiah 34:8Threatening because of the Re-enslavement of the Liberated Hebrew Men-and Maid-servants. - Jeremiah 34:8-11 describe the occasion of the word of the Lord, which follows in Jeremiah 34:12-22. It came to Jeremiah "after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty to them, that every one should send away his man-servant, or his maid-servant, being a Hebrew or Hebrewess, so that none should impose servitude on any one of them who was a Jew, his brother. Jeremiah 34:10. And all the princes and all the people who entered into the covenant obeyed, each one setting free his man-servant and his maid-servant, and not imposing servitude on them any more: they obeyed and each one set them free. Jeremiah 34:11. But they turned round afterwards, and brought back the servants and the handmaids whom they had set free, and brought them under subjection, for servants and for handmaids." The covenant which Zedekiah concluded with all the people at Jerusalem, according to what follows, consisted in a solemn vow made before the Lord in the temple, probably confirmed by sacrifices, to set free the male and female slaves of Hebrew descent, in conformity with the law, Exodus 21:1-4; Deuteronomy 15:12.

The law required the gratuitous manumission of these after seven years of service. This time, indeed, is not mentioned in our verses, but it is assumed as well known through the law. But, in the general departure of the people from the Lord and His commandments, the observance of this law had probably long been intermitted, so that, in consequence of the solemn engagement to obey it once more, a great number of Hebrew male and female slaves received their freedom, inasmuch as very many had served longer than seven years; however, we need not suppose that all bond men and women were liberated at once. The resolution, Jeremiah 34:9, that every one should liberate his Hebrew man-or maid-servant, and that no one should continue to impose servitude on a Jew, his brother, i.e., compel him any longer to serve as a slave, is conditioned by the law, which is assumed as well known: this also accords with the expression לבלתּי עבד־בּם, which is used in a general way of the treatment of Hebrew men-and maid-servants, Leviticus 25:39. However, it is also possible that a liberation of all bond men and women took place without regard to the duration of their servitude, partly for the purpose of averting, by such obedience to the law, the calamity now threatening the city, and partly also to employ the liberated slaves in the defence of the city; for, according to Jeremiah 34:21., the emancipation took place during the siege of Jerusalem, and after the departure of the Chaldeans the solemn promise was revoked. The expression קתא דרור, "to proclaim liberty," is taken from Leviticus 25:10, but it does not prove that the manumission took place on a sabbath-or jubilee-year. להם refers ad sensum to those who were bondmen and had a right to be set free. The general expression is explained by שׁלּח חפשׁים, and this again is more closely defined by לבלתּי עבד־בּם (cf. Leviticus 25:39). אישׁ בּיהוּדי אחיהוּ, (that no one should labour) "though a Jew, who is his brother," i.e., a fellow-countryman; i.e., that no one should impose servitude on a Jew, as being a compatriot. "To enter into a covenant" is to assume its obligation; cf. 2 Chronicles 15:12; Ezekiel 16:8. The Kethib יכבישׁום receives, in the Qeri, the vowels of the Kal, since the Hiphil of this verb does not occur elsewhere, only the Kal, cf. 2 Chronicles 28:10; but the alteration is unnecessary - the Hiphil may intensify the active meaning.

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