AGAINST ALIEN NATIONS Jeremiah 46–52
“That day belongs to the Lord, the Lord Almighty—a day of vengeance, for vengeance on His foes” (Jer. 46:10).If judgment truly begins at the house of God, as Hebrews suggests, how will God’s enemies escape? In these chapters Jeremiah directed his message of impending judgment to the nations that had mistreated God’s covenant people.
A collection of oracles condemning foreign enemies concludes the book. Jeremiah described judgment about to fall on Egypt (46:1–28), Philistia (47:1–7), Moab (48:1–47), Ammon (49:1–6), Edom (vv. 7–22), Damascus [Syria] and others (vv. 23–39), but especially on Babylon (50:1–51:64). The book concludes by recapping Jerusalem’s fall (52:1–34).
Understanding the Text
“Concerning Egypt” Jer. 46:1–28.
For over a thousand years Egypt had tried to extend its sphere of influence to include Canaan—and had often succeeded. Godly King Josiah fell in 605 G.p. fighting Pharaoh Neco, and Judah’s last kings had been encouraged to rebel against Babylon by empty promises of Egyptian aid. Egypt had proven herself a brutal overlord and a deceptive ally. Thus Jeremiah portrayed Egypt as a warlike nation intent on conquest (vv. 1–9). But the day of battle belongs to the Lord. Pharaoh was only a “loudmouth” (v. 17): the sword will “devour till it is satisfied” (v. 10). There is irony in verses 11 and 12. From the third millennium G.p. Egypt was renowned for her physicians, medicines, and books on healing. But now for Egypt herself “there is no healing.” While verse 28 makes it clear that Jeremiah is speaking of a contemporary defeat of Egypt by the Babylonians, the Lord intends events to convey a timeless message. God is in charge of history. The defeat of Egypt is evidence that the Lord can—and one day will-deliver His people and return them to their land (vv. 27–28). History still witnesses to the moral nature of our universe and conveys a message of hope. Nations built on evil, as was Nazi Germany, carry the seeds of their own destruction. God values righteousness and peace, and one day will give His people both. “Concerning the Philistines before Pharaoh attacked Gaza” Jer. 47:1–7. The chronological note is obscure but suggests that Jeremiah focused on current events. The Egyptians were about to crush the remnants of Judah’s ancient enemies, so terrifying them that fathers would not even turn back to help their own children (v. 3). Note that God used the agency of one of His people’s enemies to bring ruin to another. You and I don’t need to take revenge on those who mistreat or harm us. Such people have plenty of other enemies God can and will use to repay them! “Concerning Moab” Jer. 48:1–47. The Moabites originally occupied the high plains east of the Jordan River. Moab had tried to seduce the Israelites into immorality and idolatry on their journey from Egypt (Num. 25:1–3), and the two peoples were generally hostile to each other after that time. The prophecies in this chapter seem to summarize the oracles other Old Testament prophets directed against this people (cf. Isa. 15–16; Ezek. 25:8–11; Amos 2:1–3; Zeph. 2:8–11). The destruction described here is merited, for in her complacency (Jer. 48:11–15) and conceit (vv. 26–34) Moab “defied the Lord” (v. 42). Despite this the Lord lamented over Moab (v. 36), and in the future will “restore [her] fortunes” (v. 47). One of the most significant features of biblical prophecies of judgment is that they typically conclude just like the oracle against Moab. Sins are exposed, judgment is decreed, and yet, always, God expresses His love and promises that after necessary discipline His people will be restored. Even foreign nations, with no claim to a covenant relationship with the Lord, are to be justly punished for their sins but, in the end, their fortunes too will be restored. We can understand such promises made to Israel and Judah. After all, God by a formal, legal covenant committed Himself to bless Abraham’s children. But He has no such obligation to foreign nations that not only fail to know Him, but are even enemies of His chosen people. Yet again and again we see that God intends to bless all peoples—not because He has to, but simply because He cares. Theologians speak of a doctrine called “common grace.” Somehow God has chosen to bless all human beings in many ways, whether they know and trust Him or not. Reading the oracle against Moab we sense, despite its theme of judgment, a strong current of very uncommon grace! God’s love will leap over every obstacle. He will find a way to redeem His enemies as well as His own. “Concerning” others Jer. 49:1–39. Several hostile peoples are dealt with in this chapter. Again the focus is on the contemporary historical setting rather than the “last days.” Babylon, the agent God will use to discipline His people, will also strike the Jews’ enemies. In one act God will both discipline His own people, and punish those historically hostile to them. The message of these chapters must have been encouraging to the exiles once they were in Babylon. When they struggled to understand why, as we all do when tragedy strikes, the revelation of God’s purpose to punish the nations as well as Judah would help His people sense the consistency and fairness of the Lord. God is a moral judge, who will punish all sin. Yes, He disciplines us. But He is evenhanded in His acts. He disciplines us. And He punishes those who are not His own. And, most wonderful of all, He offers pardon to all. “Concerning Babylon and the land of the Babylonians” Jer. 50:1–51:64. Jeremiah’s major oracle against foreign nations was reserved for Babylon. The spectacular rise of this Chaldean power would be matched by a sudden fall (50:1–20). God would call other nations against her, for “the Lord has opened His arsenal and brought out the weapons of His wrath” (vv. 21–27). The exiles of Judah would return triumphantly to their homeland (vv. 28–40) after God called up an army from the north to crush Judah’s conqueror (vv. 41–46). Amid further descriptions of Babylon’s doom (51:1–5, 11–19), the prophet added a warning to the people of Judah. Babylon was beyond healing. When the time came to return home, the people of Judah should “flee from Babylon.” This lengthy prophecy carries a postscript. Seraiah, an official who accompanied Zedekiah to Babylon in 594/3 G.p. (cf. v. 59), was to read these prophecies against Babylon to the captives already there, and then sink his copy in the river, to symbolize the impossibility of Babylon arising again. “All this happened to Jerusalem and Judah” Jer. 52:1–34. Jeremiah had written in most passionate language about Judah’s sins, and about impending judgment. But now, in a brief appendix, there is only a blunt, straightforward account of Jerusalem’s fall. It is almost as if all emotion has been exhausted, all passion drained. There is hardly even a capacity to feel horror, for the terrible has become commonplace. Zedekiah rebelled. The Babylonians finally took the city from starving defenders. The king’s children were executed and he was blinded. The temple was burned and its holy vessels cut up for transportation to Babylon. Key spiritual and military leaders left alive were executed. The few thousand survivors were then transported to Babylon. It’s left for us to read between the lines, if we wish. To feel the hunger and fear; the anguish of watching loved ones die. To sense the anger and hatred that surged—often against Jeremiah—as the futility of resistance became more and more clear. But all that was past now. It was over. And, in Babylon, the remnant of the people of Judah would be given a fresh start. Judgment never is pleasant. But the historical accounts of Scripture remind us that judgment is sure.
Babylon Must Fall(Jer. 50–51)
The awesome specter of Babylon dominates many chapters of the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament. The impression made on God’s people by this ancient kingdom is so great that the name has been transformed into a symbol. The symbol is seen most clearly in Revelation 17 and 18, where Babylon stands first for humanistic religion, and then for materialistic human society. All man’s achievements, all that human beings strive and hope for in this world, is summed up in that one word, Babylon. I’m not an exponent of allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Or of spiritualizing the Old Testament. Yet in these chapters describing the coming destruction of historic Babylon, something more than history is at stake. The prophet says, “Babylon must fall because of Israel’s slain, just as the slain in all the earth have fallen because of Babylon” (Jer. 51:49). And somehow, in those words, I hear a message for me today. Babylon, with its worldly hopes and worldly ways, with its focus on wealth and power, with its pride in human achievement, is responsible for so much spiritual deadness. The excitement of hitching a ride to Babylon, of making it big in the Big City, has made God’s priorities and His ways seem dull and even foolish to many. Yes, Babylon must fall, because so many are slain by her superficial attractiveness. And the very first place Babylon must fall is from my heart.
Only a heart fixed on God will have no room for love of the world.