1 - 4 Call to True Repentance
1 “If you will return, O Israel”, declares the LORD,
“[Then] you should return to Me.
And if you will put away your detested things from My presence,
And will not waver,
2 And you will swear, ‘As the LORD lives,’
In truth, in justice and in righteousness;
Then the nations will bless themselves in Him,
And in Him they will glory.”
3 For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem,
“Break up your fallow ground,
And do not sow among thorns.
4 “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD
And remove the foreskins of your heart,
Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Or else My wrath will go forth like fire
And burn with none to quench it,
Because of the evil of your deeds.”
The LORD desires His people to return and to do so to Him (verse 1). Someone can repent of certain sins because he sees that they are harmful for his (spiritual) life or that certain sins do not bring the expected benefit. Then those sins are given up, but there is no real repentance. There is only true conversion when those sins are confessed to God and there is a return to Him.
The LORD holds up to His people what He expects of them when they return to Him. He can only accept their conversion as genuine if they put away the abominable idols from before Him and stop wandering restlessly from one idol to another. This means a thorough cleansing of the city and the land, so that not one idol and not one idolatrous place of sacrifice will be found anymore. It is not possible to walk with God and at the same time continue to sin or even allow a reason to sin to exist.
‘Waver’ means not finding rest anywhere. Cain, after the murder of his brother, went to “be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4:14). In this he is a picture of the Jewish people, who are “a wanderer on the earth” after the murder of the Lord Jesus. There is no stability, but they are, as it were, “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). Idolatry, which finds its culmination in the worship of the beast, to which they are brought by the demonic temptation of the antichrist, is therefore an extremely debilitating service.
If it turns out that their conversion is sincere, a matter of their heart, and they keep the oath they have sworn by His Name, it will be a testimony to the nations around them (verse 2). To swear by the Name LORD means that they acknowledge Him as LORD, the God with Whom they are in a covenant relationship. That alone brings them to do truth, justice and righteousness. They will then be sincere, honest and trustworthy. As a result, the nations will also long to be connected to the LORD. From this they will experience the blessing and give Him the glory. They will then no longer glory in themselves, but in Him.
Jeremiah demonstrates the need for spiritual renewal of the people. The men of Judah and especially those of Jerusalem are held accountable (verse 3). He exhorts them to work their fallow ground or unplowed hearts. The plow of repentance and obedience must go through the conscience to receive the seed of the Word. No farmer sows in unplowed land. Thus God does not sow the seed of His blessing in unconverted hearts.
Unplowed land is fallow ground. It is land where nothing is happening. The land lies dormant, but nothing grows there either. That land must be worked, effort must be made to make it fruitful land (cf. Hos 10:12). So it is also with gifts that every believer has received from the Lord. They must not remain unused, but must be used so that there may be fruit (cf. Col 4:17).
Anything that prevents that, the “thorns”, must be removed, or it must be prevented that which produces fruit ends up there. If it ends up among the thorns, it does not bring forth fruit (Mt 13:7,22). Thorns are closely tied to sin, they are the result of it (Gen 3:18a). Sin in the life of a believer prevents him from bearing fruit for God.
Once plowed and the land is no longer fallow, it is suitable for sowing. But then the thorns can also start to grow. They usually grow faster than the good seed. Therefore, “do not sow among thorns”, but out of reach of them. This is what the people are called to do. It holds the lesson for us that we must stay away from the cares of the world and the temptations of wealth (Mt 13:22).
To achieve the result of verse 3, the condition of verse 4 must be met. Now Jeremiah uses the picture of circumcision. Before we can work in a way that fruit comes out of our lives, something must happen in our hearts. Outward appearances must be replaced by inward reality (cf. Deu 10:16; Rom 2:28-29). This means self-judgment, of which circumcision is a picture. If that is not there, God will have to judge, because if there is no self-judgment, there will only be “the evil of your deeds” on which God’s judgment will come.
5 - 18 The Enemy Is on His Way
5 Declare in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say,
“Blow the trumpet in the land;
Cry aloud and say,
‘Assemble yourselves, and let us go
Into the fortified cities.’
6 “Lift up a standard toward Zion!
Seek refuge, do not stand [still],
For I am bringing evil from the north,
And great destruction.
7 “A lion has gone up from his thicket,
And a destroyer of nations has set out;
He has gone out from his place
To make your land a waste.
Your cities will be ruins
8 “For this, put on sackcloth,
Lament and wail;
For the fierce anger of the LORD
Has not turned back from us.”
9 “It shall come about in that day”, declares the LORD, “that the heart of the king and the heart of the princes will fail; and the priests will be appalled and the prophets will be astounded.” 10 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Surely You have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘You will have peace’; whereas a sword touches the throat.” 11 In that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A scorching wind from the bare heights in the wilderness in the direction of the daughter of My people—not to winnow and not to cleanse, 12 a wind too strong for this—will come at My command; now I will also pronounce judgments against them.
13 “Behold, he goes up like clouds,
And his chariots like the whirlwind;
His horses are swifter than eagles.
Woe to us, for we are ruined!”
14 Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem,
That you may be saved.
How long will your wicked thoughts
Lodge within you?
15 For a voice declares from Dan,
And proclaims wickedness from Mount Ephraim.
16 “Report [it] to the nations, now!
Proclaim over Jerusalem,
‘Besiegers come from a far country,
And lift their voices against the cities of Judah.
17 ‘Like watchmen of a field they are against her round about,
Because she has rebelled against Me,’ declares the LORD.
18 “Your ways and your deeds
Have brought these things to you.
This is your evil. How bitter!
How it has touched your heart!”
The LORD has to let judgment come, judgment is imminent. It will come from the north, where the Babylonians come from. The people have corrupted so much that God cannot delay judgment any longer. In His mercy, He has His people warned that calamity is coming. To that end, He calls for the blowing of the trumpet (verse 5; Hos 5:8; Joel 2:1; Amos 3:6). There is also to be a loud cry, indicating that there is a need for haste. Then the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem can gather and go together to the fortified cities.
A standard to be lifted up toward Zion (verse 6) seems to be intended primarily for the inhabitants of the landside. The standard serves to show them in what direction they must go to get to Zion. There they will be able to get to safety. They must quickly seek a safe haven there, without letting anything hold them up (cf. Gen 19:16-17; Mt 24:15-18). The evil that is coming is coming “from the north.” This indicates that the enemy will invade Israel from the north. But it is the LORD Himself Who brings this evil from the north. He is bringing this great destruction upon His people.
Haste is called for, for the enemy, that is Nebuchadnezzar, who is here compared to a lion, has already departed from “his place”, that is Babylon, against God’s people (verse 7; Jer 50:17). That he “has gone up from his thicket” indicates that he unexpectedly throws himself upon his prey with great force. The land, “your land”, will be made a waste by him, and the cities, “your cities”, will be ruins, no one will dwell in them. It does show how total the devastation and destruction will be.
The LORD also holds out to His people what He expects as the appropriate response from them when they learn that judgment is inevitable (verse 8). They are to put on sackcloth and to lament and wail. Jeremiah again makes himself one with the people when he says that the fierce anger of the LORD “has not turned back from us”. The cause of this is that the people do not turn away from idolatry. Jeremiah is well aware of this as well. He has announced the anger of the LORD, but cannot rejoice when it actually comes. He suffers together with the people.
When the anger of the LORD comes, it will deeply affect all the leaders of the people (verse 9). King Zedekiah and the princes, the political leaders, will lose all courage. The priests will be appalled and the prophets will be astounded. They have caused the people to believe in lies and to believe in them themselves. Now that they are confronted with reality, there is nothing left of their language of lies. They cannot offer the people any support.
The only reaction we hear is that of Jeremiah (verse 10). He interrupts his preaching to express his feelings. He is deeply affected by the message he has to deliver. His great love for his people, God’s people, even leads him to accuse God of lying by speaking of peace. It seems that Jeremiah blames the LORD for allowing the false prophets to speak of peace and security and for allowing the people to believe in them (cf. Jer 23:17). The opposite happens, for “a sword touches the throat”. This means that they are completely in the power of the enemy and have no way to go.
The LORD has heard Jeremiah’s accusation and had it written down. He appreciates his commitment and compassion, but does not respond to it. Jeremiah is similar to Moses and Paul who also made statements out of love for God’s people, but to which God did not respond (Exo 32:32; Rom 9:1-3). It tells us not to follow our emotions, but to follow God’s thoughts and feelings according to His Word and His Spirit.
The LORD continues His announcement of judgment on the people and especially on Jerusalem (verse 11). The enemy will come as “a scorching wind from the bare heights in the wilderness” that withers all vegetation. That wind is headed for God’s people, whom the LORD calls “the daughter of My people” to indicate His intimate relationship with them. The judgment He must send is also a grievous thing to Him.
His discipline is “not to winnow and not to cleanse”. Winnowing and cleansing are done to rid the good that is present of the wrong elements. However, there is nothing present among God’s people that is good, so there is nothing to be winnowed and cleansed. The totality falls under the judgment.
The wind of judgment is sent by the LORD Himself (verse 12). He sends a whirlwind (verse 13) that takes everything it encounters. He is the Judge Who pronounces the judgment and executes the sentence. This happens because sin has been demonstrated with every conceivable evidence. There is no rebuttal to be made. There are no mitigating circumstances.
Therefore, the enemy comes up like clouds that darken the sky (verse 13; cf. Eze 38:16a). The enemy comes with chariots that have the speed of a whirlwind. The horses that pull them are even faster than eagles. This describes the arrival of the armies of Babylon, with chariots and war horses. The arrival of the enemy happens so quickly that the overrun is complete and the people can only cry out, “Woe to us, for we are ruined!”
The threat of the coming of the enemy should cause the people to wash the evil from their hearts (verse 14). It is in the heart that the plotting of evil takes place. From it come the “evil thoughts” (Mt 15:19). This evil can only be washed off by confession and repentance. If they do, they will be redeemed. That is the LORD’s desire. But He knows their hearts. He knows that sinful thoughts dwell in their innermost being, that they spend the night there and have a resting place there, and that they will not be removed from it.
Therefore, the announcement of judgment continues and the LORD does not call a halt to the enemy (verse 15). Word comes that the enemy has already invaded the land and is in Dan. The tribe of Dan is in the far north of Israel. The prophet presents it as if it is already happening. The tribe of Dan first has to deal with the invading armies of Babylon and lets hear the news of it in Jerusalem. That message is underscored by a subsequent tiding of calamity that comes from Ephraim. Ephraim is already much closer to Judah and Jerusalem. It shows the rapid advance of the armies of Babylon to Jerusalem.
The approach of the enemy is to be reported to “the nations” (verse 16). By this may be meant the tribes of Israel (Deu 33:3). It may also mean the surrounding nations, who will also have to deal with the advancing king of Babylon. The “besiegers … from a far country” are the Babylonians (Isa 39:3). Jeremiah suggests that they are already so close that the voice of the enemy is heard in the cities of Judah.
Once again, the occasion of this attack from the north is clearly stated (verse 17). The besiegers have surrounded the city – Jeremiah presents it as if it were already there – just as watchmen surround fields to prevent the wild beasts from coming upon it to eat the field bare. Watchmen hermetically seal a field. That’s what the besiegers are doing to Jerusalem. The tactic of the enemy is to first occupy the land and the villages and towns around Jerusalem so that the supply to the city is cut off and the siege can be laid for it.
This situation resulted from their disobedience to the LORD. Had there been faith, a single man could have stopped the enemy (2Sam 23:11-12). But sin makes weak. The people have been disobedient to the LORD in their ways and actions (verse 18). These have not been superficial deviations, but are deep in the heart. Therefore, the judgments must strike the heart.
19 - 22 The Soul Struggle of Jeremiah
19 My soul, my soul! I am in anguish! Oh, my heart!
My heart is pounding in me;
I cannot be silent,
Because you have heard, O my soul,
The sound of the trumpet,
The alarm of war.
20 Disaster on disaster is proclaimed,
For the whole land is devastated;
Suddenly my tents are devastated,
My curtains in an instant.
21 How long must I see the standard
And hear the sound of the trumpet?
22 “For My people are foolish,
They know Me not;
They are stupid children
And have no understanding.
They are shrewd to do evil,
But to do good they do not know.”
Jeremiah is fully involved in his message (verse 19). He experiences what he preaches. He experiences the weight of it and is weighed down by it. It touches him deep inside. His bowels get upset and his heart is restless at the sight of the misery that is coming. It is impossible for him to remain silent about it. He must pass it on to warn. He hears the trumpet call and the shouts of the enemy armies. In this way he makes himself one with the people, the remnant in which the Spirit of Christ is. He is weighed down by the wicked condition of the people and experiences God’s anger over it. He represents the voice of the faithful remnant. It is the language of the book of Psalms.
In the spirit, he sees how disaster on disaster occurs (verse 20). There are reports of one calamity after another, just like the messengers who come to Job. One hasn’t finished telling him about the calamity or the next one is already arriving with a new message of doom (Job 1:13-19). The whole land is destroyed by the enemy. In an instant, any family life in tents has become impossible because the tents have been destroyed. Jeremiah speaks of “my tents”, so much concerned is he with the people. He empathizes completely with the approaching horrors.
He asks the LORD how long he has to watch the enemy has the say (verse 21). The question “how long” is also common in Psalms. His suffering shows a deep patriotism that no one feels as he does. Fellowship with God and obedience to His service always deepen the servant’s sensitivity. How can this man, so deeply concerned with the fate of his people, later be accused of treason?
The LORD answers him that the cause of all this misery is with “My people” (verse 22). Here we also hear the pain in the heart of the LORD. Although they are His people, they do not know Him. ‘Knowing’ here implies living in fellowship with Him and interacting with Him in love and trust. He must say of them that they are “stupid children”, living without understanding Who He is and who they themselves are (cf. Pro 1:7). They know well how to do evil, they are even “shrewd” in that, but they are ignorant of doing good, of that they “do not know”.
23 - 26 The Cosmic Disaster
23 I looked on the earth, and behold, [it was] formless and void;
And to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
And all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I looked, and behold, there was no man,
And all the birds of the heavens had fled.
26 I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness,
And all its cities were pulled down
Before the LORD, before His fierce anger.
Jeremiah sees in the spirit the consequences of the enemy’s coming. He sees God’s judgment as a cosmic catastrophe that will make the land “formless and void” (verse 23), as the earth was before God began to form and fill it (Gen 1:2). The heavens lack light. What stands for firmness and stability, “mountains” and “all the hills”, is moved to and fro (verse 24). There is no longer a living creature to be seen (verse 25). Nor is there any life to be seen further, for the fertile land has become a wilderness, and the gathering places of people, the cities, have been pulled down (verse 26).
The description is vivid, simple, direct, wide in references, and earnest in content. These are unique verses. The prophet is led by the Spirit to witness this cosmic disaster. Four times it says “I looked”. It applies to the coming day of the LORD. All of nature will be upended and no element of it will be left untouched.
And if then we expect this to be because of the work of the enemy, we suddenly hear that it happened “Before the LORD, before His fierce anger”. Behind the work of the enemy is the hand of the LORD. He is the Causer of the devastation.
27 - 31 The Desolation of the Land
27 For thus says the LORD,
“The whole land shall be a desolation,
Yet I will not execute a complete destruction.
28 “For this the earth shall mourn
And the heavens above be dark,
Because I have spoken, I have purposed,
And I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it.”
29 At the sound of the horseman and bowman every city flees;
They go into the thickets and climb among the rocks;
Every city is forsaken,
And no man dwells in them.
30 And you, O desolate one, what will you do?
Although you dress in scarlet,
Although you decorate [yourself with] ornaments of gold,
Although you enlarge your eyes with paint,
In vain you make yourself beautiful.
[Your] lovers despise you;
They seek your life.
31 For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
The anguish as of one giving birth to her first child,
The cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
Stretching out her hands, [saying],
“Ah, woe is me, for I faint before murderers.”
Because the LORD Himself executes this judgment, that is at the same time the guarantee that He will determine its limit which will not be crossed (verse 27). This offers the prospect of some hope, the hope of a remnant. The enemy will not want to leave anything of God’s people, but the LORD will make sure that there is no complete destruction of the land.
However, the earth will grieve because of the disasters that will come upon it (verse 28). And it will come. The LORD confirms this in the strongest terms with a fourfold incantation:
1. “I have spoken,
2. I have purposed,
3. and I will not change My mind,
4. nor will I turn from it.”
When the cries of the oncoming horsemen and bowman are heard, every city will flee (verse 29). They all seek refuge outside the city, into the thickets or on the rocks. In this way they want to try to hide from the anger of God (cf. Rev 6:15-16). When the enemy comes to Jerusalem, all the other cities of Judah are already a wilderness, no one lives in them anymore.
Then the LORD turns to the ruined city and, with irony in His voice, asks what she now intends to do (verse 30). He can tell her that anything she does to make herself beautiful to be attractive to the enemies of His people will have no effect. She wants to look like a harlot and thinks she can avert judgment that way. Her provocative clothing, her attractive jewelry, and her ogling eyes – literally it says that she magnifies her eyes with paint – will work the opposite (cf. 2Kgs 9:30; Eze 16:26-29; 23:40-41).
Her lovers will reject her and make her life impossible. She has lost all attractiveness and is cast aside as worthless. So it goes with everyone who is full of self-importance and thinks to be attractive to others, but does not ask themselves how God sees them.
Jeremiah hears the sound of a woman in labor with her first child (verse 31). The distress this causes is a picture of what judgment brings. Labor pains simultaneously hold the promise of new life. Jeremiah hears here how Zion gasps for breath and stretches out her hands to receive help. The faithless woman, the harlot, must become a woman in labor. The murderers who come upon her must drive her out to the LORD with repentance for her sins in order to receive new life. The exclamation “woe is me!” is the beginning of this.