Apostasy and Exile: An Exegesis of Jeremiah 5:10-17

By: Felipe Diez III

jeremiah-1

As a brilliant, scintillating, yet woeful classical prophet, Jeremiah’s collection of oracles stands as a grand picturesque monument of a literary work. Such a wonderful anthology pertaining to the excruciating moral and socio-cultural descent of the nation of Judah certainly calls for a book-length treatment. However, in this essay, I will attempt an honest yet lively exegesis of chapter 5:10-17. There is a very consistent desire throughout the book for the type of thought that would constitute “returning to the Law of the Lord” yet the only difference in Jeremiah is that there really is no law to return to in order for God to act because due to the people’s decisive bent toward utter rebellion, it is too late. God has already acted and condemned His disowned people to destruction – but not in totality. At any rate, Jeremiah’s ministry, by any standards, is a disaster, but this is certainly not because God has failed in some manner, for while Jeremiah began uttering his oracles, God was in the midst of stirring up a great and distant power. This essay will answer the questions pertaining to what this power is and why the Lord has stirred it up. Since the whole of the book is by no means chronological, biographical, or purely descriptive, I will bring in themes from other passages in the Prophets to give evidence that the pericope itself possesses these same themes. Since the issues of covenant lawsuit, captivity and exile, and religious indifference are major prophetic themes themselves not unique to Jeremiah, there will be noted a few similarities to other books peppered throughout the essay. The following quote is a solid start:

“From the beginning of the book the oracles are typically expressions of distress at what is happening and is about to happen in his country… Jeremiah’s oracles put less emphasis on predicting the end of the kingdom of Judah and more emphasis on lamenting its desecration and desolation. A pall of death hangs over the entire book.”[1]

After a chapter on Jeremiah’s call and mission, the next few chapters quickly indict the people in poetic form. Metaphors of healthy relationships (husband / wife, parents / children) are used to portray God’s past relationship to the people which has now crumbled. This forms the beginning of a retribution theology, as if the documents in a covenant lawsuit were being read in a court. God summons the people to repentance while at the same time intimating that the breach in the relationship cannot simply be healed overnight in one stroke. Chapter 5 begins in first person poetic artistry as God explains through Jeremiah that lack of repentance is a great issue and that punishment is at hand. A repentant heart is one who acknowledges moral failure and turns from it while the opposite is the case with the people. Therefore, God must be true to His own sense of justice and not relent in His punishment. “Shall I not punish them for these things, declares the Lord?” (5:9). this rhetorical question brings about disturbing consequences.

God disowns His People

“Go through her vineyards and ravage them, but do not destroy them completely. Strip off her branches, for these people do not belong to the Lord.” (5:10). in this verse, some sort of unidentified abstract destroyer is summoned to cause serious destruction to “her vineyards” just short of annihilation. In biblical imagery and metaphor (also used in Isaiah 5:7) “vineyard” refers to Israel, God’s people. God has called a nation to “ravage” Judah yet not unto death. It is the sin of the people listed throughout the lawsuit that provokes God to anger and to take action against the people. The term “branches” is disputed, however. If the vineyard represents a group of people in a land, then a “branch” from the vineyard would represent a person. In the plural, “branches” would represent many people. The term may also designate “battlements” or a type of fortification surrounding the city which gave it protection. If we synthesize the interpretations, we may state that the Lord is calling a nation to harm the people of Judah and their land, except for a few. Could it be possible that God is going to preserve a remnant of which Jeremiah will speak about in 31:31-34? Because of the repeated breach of contract and moral failure, God has let the people know through Jeremiah that He has disowned them into the hands of an aggressor. “The people of Israel and the people of Judah have been utterly unfaithful to me, declares the Lord.” (v.11). the reason for Yahweh’s move to call the Destroyer is that Israel and Judah, like wayward wives, have been unfaithful to Him. Their unfaithfulness aroused His Holy jealousy. This was not simply a small list of sins at some point in time that Jeremiah is referring to, but a perpetual and serious backsliding. Although the specific sins are not mentioned in this pericope, there is reference in 5:7 to “swearing by false gods.” The chapters before this pericope record spiritual adultery (2:20-23) with the Baals. Unlike the content in the Minor Prophets, at least in this section of Jeremiah, one cannot spot different types of sins present in the lawsuit – yet this is not to underscore the severity or superfluity of the adultery that has already been committed and that will be shortly and justly punished. There is also evidence of hard-heartedness (2:35) in a reaction to a previous prophetic utterance. The people did not believe they have sinned against the Lord in great measure, or at all. They will not accept Jeremiah’s divine testimony as a faithful oracle of the Lord that they had broken the covenant. The hard-heartedness is expressed in v.12: “They have lied about the Lord; they said, “He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine.” These are the people that God has placed Jeremiah in relationship to in order for the pitied prophet to contend with. How did the people lie? They contradicted His message to and about them. It is one thing to do something which is morally reprehensible and then to seek repentance out of fear of God, but it is quite another to do something evil and loudly claim that no harm will come from God. Since the people were given the law to obey (Deuteronomy) which prohibited idolatry, and if in fact they were lusting after other idols, then to declare that God would not act on His promises would have constituted blasphemy. In their minds, the covenant curses in Deut.28:45 including “famine” and “sword” did not apply to them.

False Prophets Deceive the People

Jeremiah encountered stiff opposition to His message of doom and destruction. Since the message was so unpopular and severe that anyone who would be inclined to disbelieve it would no doubt be delighted by false teachers declaring teaching of another nature. Isaiah faced a very similar problem (44:25). What does Jeremiah have to say about these prophets? “The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them.” (v.13) this patent dismissal of the false prophets who were no doubt speaking in the name of the Lord has its reason. The content of the information being preached to the people was in stark contrast. Jeremiah was teaching that God would not relent from His destruction of Judah all because of an appeal to His own sense of justice against the sins of the people, while the other prophets were teaching that God’s destruction was far off, or else that there was true peace between them and Yahweh. Perhaps the people should have remembered the sayings in Deuteronomy 18:22 regarding the criterion of truth concerning any prophecy. But how could they know which of the oracles was correct unless something comes to pass?

The second part of verse 13 invites an image of coming destruction for the ones who prophesy lies. As for the first part, there is a play on words that the prophet uses concerning the Hebrew word “ruahk.” It could mean either “spirit” or “wind.” It would be read: “The prophets are but “ruahk” and the word is not in them.” Wind, then, refers to the inverse of what “spirit” should be. “Wind” carries a pejorative connotation as “a useless thing.” As one interpretation of this scenario tells, Spirit (also “ruahk”) refers to the Lord’s anointing to preach the truth, something that the “windy” prophets were not doing. So the contrast, in this interpretation, would be between Jeremiah the spiritual prophet and the false prophets (such as Hananiah) who are called “windbags” since they do not have anything substantive or true to offer. Another interpretation has the people insulting Jeremiah the “ruahk” (Spirit), stating that his words are “ruahk” (wind), also in a pejorative sense, but this second interpretation does not have the false prophets in view. It is also quite common in both former and latter prophetic tradition for false prophets to contend with the true ones who speak the word of God. For all intent and purposes, it seems to be a universal occurrence. At any rate, if we synthesize both interpretations, these “windbags” were promising the people “peace” when clearly they had been disowned and were in danger of attack from an international aggressor. Therefore this is what the Lord God Almighty says: “Because the people have spoken these words, I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes.” (v.14). There is a pattern here: 1). the people break the covenant by lusting after idols, 2). God enacts a covenant lawsuit 3). God sends Jeremiah to tell the people 4). The people reject Jeremiah’s message 5). Jeremiah complains to God 6). In other translations (ESV), the regal term “Almighty” is supplanted by “Lord of Hosts.” While the former is surely applicable, the latter conjures up a stronger image that it is God who is in charge of His creation in a providential and sovereign manner, and as such, His word will come true effectually. God ensures Jeremiah that He will not only honor His words, causing them to be a scandal among the people who will be “consumed” by its scathing content. The people will continue in their unbelief and hard-heartedness. God has vindicated Jeremiah’s words and will continue to uphold his promise to destroy Judah, and the truth will be a reproach among the people who are no longer God’s.

Enter the Appointed Destroyer

“People of Israel,” declares the Lord, “I am bringing a distant nation against you—an ancient and enduring nation, a people whose language you do not know, whose speech you do not understand.” (v.15). this utterance causes verse 10 to become more explicit. More information is given as to who this previously unnamed and mysterious destroyer is. It is, as the verse says, a particular type of people who speak a different language and who adhere to different customs (and different gods) who happen to be very powerful. If we employ a bit of logic, it is evident that this is the means through which God will devastate Judah. The vineyard will be ravished through this nation, yet not to absolute and total ruin. One of the main psychological factors against a people, when they are taken over by a powerful enemy, is the intelligibility of their speech. Gentiles were generally known for their different language (in more modern times they would be called “barbarians”). This difference presented a difficulty when interacting with an aggressor since, if one does not understand one who sieges their city, it makes for a more frightening and confusing occasion. Jeremiah adds this fact to his utterance to make the threat more vivid. The fact that this nation is “enduring” brings about images of the ancient. If that nation was well-established, then what could it to the Judeans? Antiquity was a symbol of power, and worse if this antiquity was also unintelligible and violent. During this campaign, the march against Judah would be long, thus furthering the conqueror’s desire for a more permanent stay. The Lord would offer no protection for Judah since it is He who brought this nation against them for their sins. If Judah is to be ravished, this would mean the plundering of the land, the destruction of battlements and high walls, the killing of all who may resist, and the capturing of women, children, and livestock. Nothing would be left untouched, if this conquering nation is as enduring as Jeremiah warns it is, but who is this nation? Since in this particular oracle, it is unnamed, we may assume that the utterance itself predated the rule of Babylon by Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, who would then rise to power to carry out the divinely ordained plan. It is an anti-revelatory assumption, then, to date the utterance of this oracle until after the events occurred, and to only designate its use as a “religious teaching tool” as some liberal scholars have done. Although the date of utterance and the date of its writing are obviously not the same, this is an issue of naturalistic versus revelatory presuppositions.

Babylon indeed invaded Judah[2]. This world power was not only known for its penchant for warfare and conquest, but as a major intellectual foundation for literature, the arts, some forms of ancient science, mystical religion, etc. In any case, the technological advancements present in this culture far outweighed anything Judah could ever have mustered, also aligning with the fact that the Lord Himself was causing the nation to stir up and attack His “disowned” people (Hosea 1:9). “Their quivers are like an open grave; all of them are mighty warriors.” (v.16). this piece of information is only important if one desires more information about the attackers. Let us suppose that some of the people do listen to Jeremiah and begin to fortify their city against some far-off attacker. It would help to know whether, in general, they are brave warriors or just your average hill-people. Part of the idea of a threatening prophecy is to go into detail, and if the enemy are indeed mighty. The “quiver” metaphor indicates not only the use of arrows, but the fact that all of the weapons at their disposal are there to bring swift death and destruction, in the vein of an open grave. “They will devour your harvests and food, devour your sons and daughters; they will devour your flocks and herds, devour your vines and fig trees.” (v.16). This even more threatening information covers the type of people who will suffer and how they will, instead of simply at whose hands they will receive oppression. Children and livestock are appealed to first (not a reference to cannibalism, but most likely to slave labor or conscription) – both very important and valuable things for a culture to possess. Some Judeans had little cattle and an only son or daughter. It is important to note that the word “eat” is used four times not only in one pericope, but just in one verse. Jeremiah wanted to let them know what the enemy would do. No wonder the prophecies of the false teachers attracted attention. If Jeremiah was speaking the truth, there was much to lose. It is one thing to forfeit your goods, a house, and some important plants to an invader, and quite another to lose children. Jeremiah is now going into more painful detail concerning the future. “With the sword they will destroy the fortified cities in which you trust.” (v.17). Concentrating again on the Assyrian attackers, Jeremiah now turns from their possessions and children to their first line of defense – the high walls and fortifications of Judah. These will not only fail to prevail against Babylon, but they will prove utterly useless in the defense of the city. These high walls offered psychological balsam for any injury that might inquire as to the safety of the city. It was Judah’s pride and joy, but even these trusted buildings would not hold under the weight of the Assyrian sword. Jeremiah, the masterful spiritual surgeon, has lashed out against Judah’s personal and collective sins. That presents an internal critique of a people. Then he describes how Yahweh has summoned the attackers from afar where they will do away with personal possessions, family, and the prized safety-net of the city. It will not pose a problem for the Babylonians precisely because Judah and her sister Israel would not be defended by Yahweh. After all, if in times past it was Yahweh who placed His chosen people in a land and drove out the nations, it is Him who could and would also drive the nations against his covenant-breaking people.

Prophecy From the Existential Sphere

Some commentary ought to be made concerning the situation from an existential point of view, now that the occasion behind the invasion has been supplied. One of the dangers of a simple propositional exegesis is that we may simply “tell it like it is” in a one-dimensional manner and thus remain in the dark with regard to the sphere of human experience. It has been stated a few times in this essay that it is God who aroused the Assyrians to attack His people. At once, questions involving God’s character and promises come into this realm. Jeremiah, more than anyone else, knows that God is just and at the same time merciful. He is a God who will act to indict and to reward, just as He had promised in Deuteronomy. We also imagine the prophet’s psychological pressure at being rejected by His people even to the point of physical abuse and subsequent isolation. If it is true that nobody in the land heeded to his message, then the logical thing to ask is “why was it even necessary to utter the oracles if nobody was ordained to listen and repent?” Did God love His people? During one of Jeremiah’s tirades, he cries thus: “You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.” (20:7). Even in the midst of turmoil, Jeremiah was not going to jettison God’s omnipotence, was he? If he had been another theologian, maybe he would have concluded that God is indeed good, very good, but not omnipotent (as the pieces of the “problem of evil” puzzle are moved around accordingly). Maybe God tried His best – His very best – to get the people to obey, wooing them with Deuteronomistic promises and persuading them with material blessings as an aid, but He could not, because this would, as some theologians postulate, impinge on the alleged autonomous freedom of individuals and of the chaotic mutability of the space-time universe. Is this Jeremiah’s God? No, for Jeremiah’s reaction to his failed oracles was to, in a moment of pain, cry out against God (although not really charging Him with genuine wrongdoing). God sent Jeremiah to a stiff-necked people, not only knowing, but decreeing that they would not listen, and afterward, him complaining that he, the weeping prophet, was mocked all day long by his compatriots. Perhaps the fact that God had put a “fire” in the mouth of Jeremiah, an unquenchable Spirit of truth, had given him the confidence that maybe the word would not fall on spiritually deaf ears. Jeremiah would do well to remember that inspiration is not a guarantee of the receptivity of a message, especially a universal receptivity of a message with such scornful content. But what if God is in fact omnipotent, but not good? (We move the puzzle pieces again). What if God was simply indifferent to the plight of His people and could not care less about the effects of Jeremiah’s message. They would be ravished, after all.  This move would be a violation of the vast amounts of biblical references to God’s perfect goodness. There is one truth about God that never changes – His justice. He had given the people a law to follow and consequences that would occur, and God, being omnipotent and omnibenevolent, had to uphold the good law that flows from the depths of His being.

Hope for a Future Covenant

The pattern is set. An all-out attack is to be expected In Judah. The people have been told why Yahweh is doing this and who He will use to carry out this inevitable mission. Whether they listen or not is not going to change any aspect of this attack. The attack will be carried out ruthlessly, curtailing not only the comfort of Judah or its goods and decency, but its soul. If Jeremiah would have left it at that, we would have the account of one of the saddest and most pitiful works of antiquity – of history. Of Jeremiah, Donald E. Gowen records: “Only the latter years of his life are recorded, and this is very likely because they were also the last years of Judah. He was the prophet who experienced personally the failures of leadership during those years and the horror of the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath.”[3]

The latter chapters of the book of Jeremiah do not leave the people hanging, and the book is not only devoted to destruction. Yahweh expresses a desire to preserve a remnant and to utter one of the most beautiful covenant promises that would be used in the NT book of Hebrews to signify a pact with Christ. Jeremiah 31:31-34 reads:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt,

because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Even if the heavy hand of God’s punishment permeates almost an entire book, the Lord of Hosts has a plan of redeeming this remnant of people and giving them hope by an atonement that will perfectly forgive sins so that the people may not stray persistently as they did in times past. This covenant would be mediated by God’s Suffering Servant, Christ Himself. This is some ray of hope that the exiles would have after God had chastened them with the Assyrians. Punishment is a temporal thing for the people of God, but the eternal reward is much greater than any temporal suffering we may endure in this life.

 

Endnotes:


[1] Gowan, Donald E. Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Philadelphia:

Westminster John Knox, 1998), p.101

[2] The death of king Josiah marked a frightening turn of events for Judah and coincided somewhat with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah (627 B.C.E) “reported these happenings from an insider point of view…the end of the seventh century was a tumultuous time throughout the Ancient Near East and a perilous time for Judah.” (Leclerc, Thomas L. Introduction to the Prophets: Their Stories, Sayings and Scrolls (New Jersey: Paulist

Press, 2007), p.236)

[3] Ibid., p.100

Sources:

Edwin Yamauchi. NIV Study Bible. Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 2008

Gowan, Donald E. Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1998)

Kaiser, Walter. NKJV Study Bible. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2001

Leclerc, Thomas L. Introduction to the Prophets: Their Stories, Sayings and Scrolls (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2007)

Longman, Tremper. Old Testament Commentary Survey. Baker Academics, Ada, MI, 2007

Pfeiffer Charles F. and Harrison Everett. F. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1962

Unger, Merrill. Unger’s Commentary of the Old Testament. AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN, 2003

Walton, John. Matthews, Victor. Chavalas, Mark: The IVP Bible Background Commentary. IVP Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2000

Webb, Barry G. ESV Study Bible. Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, IL, 2008

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5 Responses to Apostasy and Exile: An Exegesis of Jeremiah 5:10-17

  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup: Everything Else That We Didn’t Get Around To Posting | The Confessing Baptist

  2. Pingback: Day 224: Jeremiah 18-21; The Unpopular Message | Overisel Reformed Church

  3. Pingback: Day 227: Jeremiah 27-29; Give the People what They Want? | Overisel Reformed Church

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  5. Pingback: Day 236: Jeremiah 51-52; Babylon and Jerusalem Fall, God is Faithful | Overisel Reformed Church

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