We continue our scattered reading of Jeremiah. I’ll be sequential this time.
Jeremiah 16 opens with several verses commanding Jeremiah’s celibacy. Not because there’s anything particularly holy to celibacy, but due to circumstance. Jesus said in Matthew 24, “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!” Why? Because the Romans were going to come raze the city, and it’s awfully hard to flee when pregnant or carrying a newborn. Similarly, Jeremiah is told to avoid marrying and having children, since they and others
4 shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth.
And what circumstances will cause this? Well, first the Egyptians, and then, primarily, the Babylonians, who will lock the city down, carry out several expulsions in response to rebellions, and eventually just raze the whole thing in 586 and haul off most of the Israelites left.
Jeremiah continues by focusing on the usual post-death traditions and rituals that wouldn’t be carried out.
5 For thus says the LORD: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament, or bemoan them; for I have taken away my peace from this people, says the LORD, my steadfast love and mercy. 6 Both great and small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried, and no one shall lament for them; there shall be no gashing, no shaving of the head for them. 7 No one shall break bread for the mourner, to offer comfort for the dead; nor shall anyone give them the cup of consolation to drink for their fathers or their mothers. 8 You shall not go into the house of feasting to sit with them, to eat and drink. 9 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to banish from this place, in your days and before your eyes, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.
What is the house of mourning? It was very mysterious, until some examples turned up in the cognate languages, shedding light on its probable meaning. They strongly suggest it was connected to ritual eating and drinking, perhaps in a cult of the dead.
The reference to a house of mourning (“bet marzeaḥ”) refers to Israel’s adoption of a pagan ritual of mourning coupled with feasting and drinking on behalf of the dead (cf. Isa. ch 28, in which Isaiah satirizes such practice)….The ritual is known from the Ugaritic texts, and was clearly part of broader Canaanite practices which Israel adopted, and to some extent adapted. –The Jewish Study Bible
The term used here (marzēaḥ) occurs in only one other place in the Hebrew Bible (Amos 6:7). However, its cognates in other ancient Near Eastern languages and cultures are well known. In an Ugaritic text that speaks of El’s divine feast, the term denotes a banquet where excess drinking and feasting were the norm. A text such as this one, along with others from Elephantine (Egypt),142 and inscriptions in Punic, Nabataean, and Palmyrene, though from different time periods, suggest that marzēaḥ describes an institution of sorts, or an association of members who periodically dedicate themselves to feasting and drinking either for a joyful moment or for the mourning of the dead.
We cannot be sure what all was involved in this Israelite practice. Yet, one observes that funerary rites tend to remain the same over centuries. We do know that God forbade Jeremiah to participate in these banquets as well as in other social activities, such as getting married or even participating in marriage ceremonies.- ZIBBCOT
Jeremiah goes on to discuss Israel’s wickedness as the cause for God’s anger. Verse 16 is quite familiar, as it used to be a Scripture Mastery passage when I was in early morning Seminary. “Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.” Contrary to my scripture mastery card, this was not a future prophecy about diligent missionary work. In context of the verses that follow, it’s clearly about the coming empire which will find them wherever they try to hide.
I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. (And why, asks Ben?) Because my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. 18 And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.
(Yes, missionaries can be like hunters and fishermen, and the previous verses do talk about Yahweh gathering the Israelites back from where they have been scattered… but there’s also a break in the text between that section and the hunter/fisher section.)
Jeremiah’s certainly let the Israelites have it. But he also attributes much of the blame to leadership. 23:1-4 talks about the shepherds who haven’t taken care of the sheep; consequently, they’ve been scattered (Assyria?), but God will eventually bring them back and provide new shepherds, which is the segue into talking about a Davidic king. This king will “deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” The next lesson includes Ezekiel 34, which develops the idea of shepherds more, and I’ll comment further there.
Jeremiah continues by castigating the priests (who are worse than the priests of Baal) and “the prophets.” Wait, what? There was no hierarchy in Israel, no corporate way to recognize or distinguish true prophets from false prophets except by evaluating their message. In Jer 28, for example, we find this competition between two “prophets” Jeremiah and Hananiah, and discussion of their message.
That year, early in the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, who was from Gibeon, spoke to me in the House of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people. He said:
2 “Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I hereby break the yoke of the king of Babylon.
3 In two years, I will restore to this place all the vessels of the House of the LORD which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took from this place and brought to Babylon.
4 And I will bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the Judean exiles who went to Babylon — declares the LORD. Yes, I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”
5 ¶ Then the prophet Jeremiah answered the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and of all the people who were standing in the House of the LORD.
6 The prophet Jeremiah said: “Amen! May the LORD do so! May the LORD fulfill what you have prophesied and bring back from Babylon to this place the vessels of the House of the LORD and all the exiles!
7 But just listen to this word which I address to you and to all the people:
8 The prophets who lived before you and me from ancient times prophesied war, disaster, and pestilence against many lands and great kingdoms.
9 So if a prophet prophesies good fortune, then only when the word of the prophet comes true can it be known that the LORD really sent him.”
10 ¶ But the prophet Hananiah removed the bar from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, and broke it;
11 and Hananiah said in the presence of all the people, “Thus said the LORD: So will I break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from off the necks of all the nations, in two years.” And the prophet Jeremiah went on his way.
12 ¶ After the prophet Hananiah had broken the bar from off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah:
13 “Go say to Hananiah: Thus said the LORD: You broke bars of wood, but you shall make bars of iron instead.
14 For thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke upon the necks of all those nations, that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon — and serve him they shall! I have even given the wild beasts to him.”
15 And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah! The LORD did not send you, and you have given this people lying assurances.
16 Assuredly, thus said the LORD: I am going to banish you from off the earth. This year you shall die, for you have urged disloyalty.
17 And the prophet Hananiah died that year, in the seventh month. – JPS Torah translation.
(Note esp. v. 9, where Jeremiah asks a philosophical question about how you know when prophesy is fulfilled, and the problem of prophets who are little more than sycophantic yes-men who prophesy “smooth things”.)
Returning to chapter 23, amongst his criticism, Jeremiah speaks of a defining characteristic between true and false prophets.
16 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
18 For who has stood in the council of the LORD
so as to see and to hear his word?
Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?…
21 I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
22 But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings.
Did you catch it? The KJV obscures it a bit with “counsel” instead of “council”, but for Jeremiah, a true prophet is one who has stood in God’s council and received his message. This “council” is the same sod or divine council that we discussed back with Amos 3:7, Isaiah 6, and Isaiah 40-49. Lehi records his similar calling, after standing in God’s throne room, amongst the council. While this objection to the other prophets may be true, it’s also not objective; those who hear have no way to discern who has and hasn’t stood in God’s council except by evaluating their message.
Things are somewhat the same today. Sure, we accept our prophets by faith, based on a position they are called to, but we still have to evaluate their message. Surely not everything Jeremiah or Isaiah ever said in public was thought to be divinely communicated. Jeremiah’s sermons, like all the prophetic sermons in the Bible, represent a careful edited passed-on selection of their words. We too are called upon by our leaders to do our own spiritual evaluation of their words.
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