On the consideration of the second of the four great prophets we purpose to enter. Here we are not in presence of the comprehensive scope of divine purpose such as we have seen in Isaiah; but we are about to deepen our acquaintance with one who yields to none in pathos. The sublime strains of his inimitable predecessor are not more suited to the magnificent visions which he was inspired to see and communicate then is the plaintive style of Hilkiah's son to his own solemn and touching commission.
Jeremiah began his prophetic ministry, as he intimates, in the thirteenth year of Josiah, the last king of Judah. It was the year which followed the first effort to purge the capital and the country from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images. The fairness of the promise but added to the poignancy of his grief when the reformation turned out altogether superficial, and the ruin impending was only stayed, under God, so to speak, by the life of Josiah, who died at the age of 39. Then followed the deplorable reigns of Jehoahaz (= Shallum), whom Pharaoh-Necho deposed, setting up Eliakim (= Jehoiakim); who was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin (= Jeconiah or Coniah), for whom Nebuchadnezzar soon substituted "his brother" (or, as we would say, his father's brother) Zedekiah (= Mattaniah). Under these kings the closing disasters of Jerusalem, were mixed up with the struggle between Egypt and Babylon, which ended in the indisputable world-sovereignty of the latter and the various stages of Judah's captivity. What juncture so suited to call out the exercises of such a heart as Jeremiah's? These soul-trials, which the Holy Ghost wrought in, were, as far as circumstances and persons could be, the mould in which the various parts of the prophecy were cast.
As to form, no such book of Scripture perhaps has more perplexed the critics, one of whom (Dr. Blayney) has dared to characterize it as a "preposterous jumbling together" of incoherent materials. Apparently from very early times the arrangement was found difficult, as we may gather from the strikingly different disposal of a large part that is exhibited in the Septuagint. They have been compared thus:-
25: 14-18 49: 34-39
27, 28 50, 51
29: 1-7 47: 1-7
29: 7-22 47: 7-22
30: 1-5 49: 1-6
30: 6-11 49: 28-33
30: 12-16 49: 23-27
32 25: 15-39
33, 51 26, 45
Dr. Blayney has sought to arrange the whole chronologically. Any such scheme will make it evident that neither the Hebrew original nor the version of the Seventy adheres throughout to the order of time.
I do not doubt that the Hebrew (as followed by the Authorized Version) was the order in which the book was left by the inspired editor (whether Ezra or Baruch matters little) who added the last chapter, which fitly terminates the prophecy, and serves as a preface for the appendix of the prophet's Lamentations. In short, it appears that the disregard of mere historical sequence subserves a moral order, which, as usual in Scripture, has eluded the notice of those who look to no more then external points which lie on the surface.
Jeremiah 25 is a sort of link of transition between the first and last halves of the book. The early chapters were no doubt among the first utterances of the prophet, and are for the most part occupied with appeals to the conscience of the Jews, and warnings of the inevitable judgment of God just impending, though far from exhausted then. In that central chapter, the judgment is clearly predicted; and this judgment falls first on the land of Judah and all its neighbours; next, after seventy years' servitude to the king of Babylon, the day of divine visitation comes for the king of Babylon and the land of the Chaldeans. "And I will bring upon that land all my words which I have pronounced against it, even all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah hath prophesied against all nations. For many nations and great kings shall serve themselves of them also: and I will recompense them according to their deeds, and according to the works of their own hands. For thus saith the Lord God of Israel unto me; Take the wine cup of this fury at my hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it. And they shall drink, and be moved, and be mad, because of the sword that I will send among them. Then took I the cup at the Lord's hand, and made all the nations to drink, unto whom the Lord hath sent me: To wit, Jerusalem, and the cities of Judah, and the kings thereof, to make them a desolation, an astonishment, an hissing, and a curse; as it is this day; Pharaoh king of Egypt, and his servants, and his princes, and all his people." (Jer_25:13-19.)
Thus evidently the chosen people are merged in the ruin and judgment of the nations, and only possess a title to come first in order to be chastised of God for their iniquities, so much the more guilty because of His favour and their privileges. This casts much light on the expression in the chapter that Jeremiah was ordained or made "a prophet unto the nations." Whatever the secret counsels of divine grace, in the public government of God the moment was come for Judah to be Lo-Ammi ("not my people"). Surely God will in His mercy restore them for the latter-day blessing and glory; but meanwhile they fell through idolatry, after the most perfect patience on God's part, from their distinctive place as God's people in the earth - not for ever indeed (for His gifts and call are without repentance), but for a time still in progress. "The times of the Gentiles," and the dispersion of Israel are the evident proofs of it.
Hence we may regard the Book of Jeremiah as divisible into two great and nearly equal parts: the first, up to Jeremiah 25, consisting of moral appeals to the people; and the second, from that chapter, bringing in the particulars of the judgments on Israel and the nations among which they as it were disappeared, and in the midst of judicial dealing God remembering mercy and restoring them in virtue of the new covenant through His own unfailing grace.
Within these two main divisions there are, of course, lesser, though connected, sections. Thus Jeremiah 1 is the prophet's call; Jeremiah 2-6 go together, his first grave expostulation with the people. Jeremiah 7-10 begin with the house of God as the witness of the people's sin and the starting-point of His judgment; declare that Israel might take a lesson, in their inattention to the Lord, from the birds of heaven which observe their movements and seasons; and insist, though with the deepest grief on the prophet's part, that divine judgments must fall both on them and on the nations around them. Jeremiah 11-13 remind them of their fathers' covenant broken, so that intercession was vain, yet of restoring mercy at last, and close with a solemn denunciation of the proud iniquity of Judah. Jeremiah 14, 15 mingle an acknowledgement of God's chastening in famine with the prophet's tears and confession for the people; but the Lord's assurance, that not Moses nor Samuel could turn Him towards those whom He had made up His mind to abandon and disperse. Jeremiah 16, 17 separate the prophet from the people now, but assure of final blessing show the value of trusting the Lord and call to repentance. Jeremiah 18-20 give a startling picture of religious hardness toward God, and hatred of the prophet who called them by the testimony of judgment as well as of his own deep conflict withal. Jeremiah 21-24 are remarkable in this way, that the Spirit takes occasion, by the overwhelming answer of the prophet to Zedekiah, to collect the various sentences on the successors of Josiah-Shallum, Jehoiakim, [Je]coniah. Woe on these destructive pastors is followed by Jehovah's promise of a righteous Branch to David. This, however, does not hinder present sternness of rebuke, but with discrimination of the righteous and the wicked, as set forth in the two baskets of figs. Jeremiah 25, though in fact an earlier message, winds up, as we saw, the first division, by declaring the intent of God to give all up to the king of Babylon, who in turn should be punished himself.
The second part consists far more of detached portions which give details. Thus, Jeremiah 26, in the beginning of Jehoiakim's reign, shows the effect of Jeremiah's calling them to repent of their sins that God might turn from the evil otherwise inevitable, the lay element, if one may so say, shielding their monitor from the priestly power. Jeremiah 27, 28 bring us to the beginning of (not "Jehoiakim's," which is an error of the copyists, but) Zedekiah's reign (of ver. 3, 12, 20 and Jer_28:1). God had acted sovereignly in the government of the world and warns, not the king of Judah only, but those round about, of the necessity of subjection to the king of Babylon. This was sealed in the death of Hananiah the false prophet. Jeremiah 29 declares the blessing of God on those who accepted the humiliation from His hand in the dominion of Babylon such should find peace while there. Those who prophesied otherwise were not divinely sent, and must be judged for their rebellion against the Lord. Jeremiah 30, 31 prove that the Spirit does not limit the return from captivity to the remnant who went up from Babylon in the days of Cyrus, but looks onward to the unparalleled days of trouble, the time of Jacob's trouble which precedes his deliverance, when they shall serve not only Jehovah, but "David their king whom I will raise up unto them." The day of the lord is contemplated, without doubt. Hence all the families of Israel enter the blessing, instead of a remnant according to the election of grace, as now, or before Christ. These will be the days when all Israel shall be saved, and be placed under Messiah and the new covenant.
Jeremiah 32 sets forth a present act on the prophet's part in evidence of their restoration - yea, of an everlasting covenant with them. Jeremiah 33 teaches that, when the Lord causes the captivity of Judah and of Israel to return, not only will there be unexampled prosperity, but Messiah, the Branch of Righteousness, shall execute judgment and righteousness in the land, and Jerusalem itself be called Jehovah-tzidkenu; and as the king, so the priesthood; and all this for ever. Jeremiah 34 renews the assurance of the imminent ruin of Jerusalem and Judah, and in detail. Jeremiah 35 contrasts the Rechabites, faithful to their father, with Judah's disobedience. Jeremiah 36 sets forth God's faithfulness in testimony spite of Jeremiah's imprisonment and Jehoiakim's destructive madness. Jeremiah 37 - 39 form another testimony to this in a different shape under Zedekiah. Appearances of good do not weaken God's word, nor do trifling circumstances impart security where He is not trusted. Jeremiah 40 - 44 testify similarly among those left behind when the final blow of the Chaldeans had fallen on Jerusalem: the people were as unbelieving and rebellious as the kings, and reap the due fruit of their sowing, whether in the land or in Egypt. Jeremiah 45 assures Baruch in his sorrow and shrinking, of God's sure judgments but of his own preservation meanwhile. Jeremiah 46 - 49 give the details of His dealings with the Gentiles in the land; as Jeremiah 50, 51 show us the imperial power of Babylon itself judged, the occasion and type of that which makes the way for Israel's return to the land and the Lord their God.
Jeremiah 52, though not the prophet's writing, fitly closes the book, furnishing the connection of the Chaldean with the king, the capital, and the temple. The spoliation of the city and sanctuary was complete, and so was the captivity of the people. God had not failed in aught He had predicted of Babylon's supremacy, nor of the value of subjection to Babylon, the scourge of Judah's sin.