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187

CHAPTER XIV

THE DESCENT INTO EGYPT

xlii., xliii.

"They came into the land of Egypt, for they obeyed not the voice of Jehovah."—Jer. xliii. 7.

Thus within a few days Jeremiah had experienced one of those sudden and extreme changes of fortune which are as common in his career as in a sensational novel. Yesterday the guide, philosopher, and friend of the governor of Judah, to-day sees him once more a helpless prisoner in the hands of his old enemies. To-morrow he is restored to liberty and authority, and appealed to by the remnant of Israel as the mouthpiece of Jehovah. Johanan ben Kareah and all the captains of the forces, "from the least even unto the greatest, came near" and besought Jeremiah to pray unto "Jehovah thy God," "that Jehovah thy God may show us the way wherein we may walk, and the thing we may do." Jeremiah promised to make intercession and to declare faithfully unto them whatsoever Jehovah should reveal unto him.

And they on their part said unto Jeremiah: "Jehovah be a true and faithful witness against us, if we do not according to every word that Jehovah thy God shall send unto us by thee. We will obey the voice of Jehovah our God, to whom we send thee, whether188 it be good or evil, that it may be well with us, when we obey the voice of Jehovah our God."

The prophet returned no hasty answer to this solemn appeal. As in his controversy with Hananiah, he refrained from at once announcing his own judgment as the Divine decision, but waited for the express confirmation of the Spirit. For ten days prophet and people were alike kept in suspense. The patience of Johanan and his followers is striking testimony to their sincere reverence for Jeremiah.

On the tenth day the message came, and Jeremiah called the people together to hear God's answer to their question, and to learn that Divine will to which they had promised unreserved obedience. It ran thus:—

"If you will still abide in this land,

I will build you and not pull you down,

I will plant you and not pluck you up."

The words of Jeremiah's original commission seem ever present to his mind:—

"For I repent Me of the evil I have done unto you."

They need not flee from Judah as an accursed land; Jehovah had a new and gracious purpose concerning them, and therefore:—

"Be not afraid of the king of Babylon,

Of whom ye are afraid;

Be not afraid of him—it is the utterance of Jehovah—

For I am with you,

To save you and deliver you out of his hand.

I will put kindness in his heart toward you,

And he shall deal kindly with you,

And restore you to your lands."

It was premature to conclude that Ishmael's crime189 finally disposed of the attempt to shape the remnant into the nucleus of a new Israel. Hitherto Nebuchadnezzar had shown himself willing to discriminate; when he condemned the princes, he spared and honoured Jeremiah, and the Chaldeans might still be trusted to deal fairly and even generously with the prophet's friends and deliverers. Moreover the heart of Nebuchadnezzar, like that of all earthly potentates, was in the hands of the King of Kings.

But Jeremiah knew too well what mingled hopes and fears drew his hearers towards the fertile valley and rich cities of the Nile. He sets before them the reverse of the picture: they might refuse to obey God's command to remain in Judah; they might say, "No, we will go into the land of Egypt, where we shall see no war, nor hear the sound of the trumpet, nor hunger for bread, and there will we dwell." As of old, they craved for the flesh-pots of Egypt; and with more excuse than their forefathers. They were worn out with suffering and toil, some of them had wives and children; the childless prophet was inviting them to make sacrifices and incur risks which he could neither share nor understand. Can we wonder if they fell short of his inspired heroism, and hesitated to forego the ease and plenty of Egypt in order to try social experiments in Judah?

"Let what is broken so remain.

The Gods are hard to reconcile:

'Tis hard to settle order once again.


Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars."

But Jeremiah had neither sympathy nor patience with such weakness. Moreover, now as often, valour was the better part of discretion, and the boldest190 course was the safest. The peace and security of Egypt had been broken in upon again and again by Asiatic invaders; only recently it had been tributary to Nineveh, till the failing strength of Assyria enabled the Pharaohs to recover their independence. Now that Palestine had ceased to be the seat of war the sound of Chaldean trumpets would soon be heard in the valley of the Nile. By going down into Egypt, they were leaving Judah where they might be safe under the broad shield of Babylonian power, for a country that would soon be afflicted by the very evils they sought to escape:—

"If ye finally determine to go to Egypt to sojourn there,

The sword, which ye fear, shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt,

The famine, whereof ye are afraid, shall follow hard after you there in Egypt,

And there shall ye die."

The old familiar curses, so often uttered against Jerusalem and its inhabitants, are pronounced against any of his hearers who should take refuge in Egypt:—

"As Mine anger and fury hath been poured forth upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem,

So shall My fury be poured forth upon you, when ye shall enter in Egypt."

They would die "by the sword, the famine, and the pestilence"; they would be "an execration and an astonishment, a curse and a reproach."

He had set before them two alternative courses, and the Divine judgment upon each: he had known beforehand that, contrary to his own choice and judgment, their hearts were set upon going down into Egypt; hence, as when confronted and contradicted by Hananiah, he had been careful to secure divine191 confirmation before he gave his decision. Already he could see the faces of his hearers hardening into obstinate resistance or kindling into hot defiance; probably they broke out into interruptions which left no doubt as to their purpose. With his usual promptness, he turned upon them with fierce reproof and denunciation:—

"Ye have been traitors to yourselves.

Ye sent me unto Jehovah your God, saying,

Pray for us unto Jehovah our God;

According unto all that Jehovah our God shall say,

Declare unto us, and we will do it.

I have this day declared it unto you,

But ye have in no wise obeyed the voice of Jehovah your God.


Ye shall die by the sword, the famine, and the pestilence,

In the place whither ye desire to go to sojourn."

His hearers were equally prompt with their rejoinder; Johanan ben Kareah and "all the proud men" answered him:—

"Thou liest! It is not Jehovah our God who hath sent thee to say, Ye shall not go into Egypt to sojourn there; but Baruch ben Neriah setteth thee on against us, to deliver us into the hand of the Chaldeans, that they may slay us or carry us away captive to Babylon."

Jeremiah had experienced many strange vicissitudes, but this was not the least striking. Ten days ago the people and their leaders had approached him in reverent submission, and had solemnly promised to accept and obey his decision as the word of God. Now they called him a liar; they asserted that he did not speak by any Divine inspiration, but was a feeble impostor, an oracular puppet, whose strings were pulled by his own disciple.167167   Cf. chapter on "Baruch."

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Such scenes are, unfortunately, only too common in Church history. Religious professors are still ready to abuse and to impute unworthy motives to prophets whose messages they dislike, in a spirit not less secular than that which is shown when some modern football team tries to mob the referee who has given a decision against its hopes.

Moreover we must not unduly emphasise the solemn engagement given by the Jews to abide Jeremiah's decision. They were probably sincere, but not very much in earnest. The proceedings and the strong formulæ used were largely conventional. Ancient kings and generals regularly sought the approval of their prophets or augurs before taking any important step, but they did not always act upon their advice. The final breach between Saul and the prophet Samuel seems to have been due to the fact that the king did not wait for his presence and counsel before engaging the Philistines.168168   1 Sam. xiii. Before the disastrous expedition to Ramoth Gilead, Jehoshaphat insisted on consulting a prophet of Jehovah, and then acted in the teeth of his inspired warning.169169   1 Kings xxii.

Johanan and his company felt it essential to consult some divine oracle; and Jeremiah was not only the greatest prophet of Jehovah, he was also the only prophet available. They must have known from his consistent denunciation of all alliance with Egypt that his views were likely to be at variance with their own. But they were consulting Jehovah—Jeremiah was only His mouthpiece; hitherto He had set His face against any dealings with Egypt, but circumstances were entirely changed, and Jehovah's purpose might change193 with them, He might "repent." They promised to obey, because there was at any rate a chance that God's commands would coincide with their own intentions. Butler's remark that men may be expected to act "not only upon an even chance, but upon much less," specially applies to such promises as the Jews made to Jeremiah. Certain tacit conditions may always be considered attached to a profession of willingness to be guided by a friend's advice. Our newspapers frequently record breaches of engagements that should be as binding as that entered into by Johanan and his friends, and they do so without any special comment. For instance, the verdicts of arbitrators in trade disputes have been too often ignored by the unsuccessful parties; and—to take a very different illustration—the most unlimited professions of faith in the infallibility of the Bible have sometimes gone along with a denial of its plain teaching and a disregard of its imperative commands. While Shylock expected a favourable decision, Portia was "a Daniel come to judgment": his subsequent opinion of her judicial qualities has not been recorded. Those who have never refused or evaded unwelcome demands made by an authority whom they have promised to obey may cast the first stone at Johanan.

After the scene we have been describing, the refugees set out for Egypt, carrying with them the princesses and Jeremiah and Baruch. They were following in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Jeroboam and many another Jew who had sought protection under the shadow of Pharaoh. They were the forerunners of that later Israel in Egypt which, through Philo and his disciples, exercised so powerful an influence on the doctrine, criticism, and exegesis of the early Christian Church.

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Yet this exodus in the wrong direction was by no means complete. Four years later Nebuzaradan could still find seven hundred and forty-five Jews to carry away to Babylon.170170   lii. 30. Johanan's movements had been too hurried to admit of his gathering in the inhabitants of outlying districts.

When Johanan's company reached the frontier, they would find the Egyptian officials prepared to receive them. During the last few months there must have been constant arrivals of Jewish refugees, and rumour must have announced the approach of so large a company, consisting of almost all the Jews left in Palestine. The very circumstances that made them dread the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar would ensure them a hearty welcome in Egypt. Their presence was an unmistakable proof of the entire failure of the attempt to create in Judah a docile and contented dependency and outpost of the Chaldean Empire. They were accordingly settled at Tahpanhes and in the surrounding district.

But no welcome could conciliate Jeremiah's implacable temper, nor could all the splendour of Egypt tame his indomitable spirit. Amongst his fellow-countrymen at Bethlehem, he had foretold the coming tribulations of Egypt. He now renewed his predictions within the very precincts of Pharaoh's palace, and enforced them by a striking symbol. At Tahpanhes—the modern Tell Defenneh—which was the ancient Egyptian frontier fortress and settlement on the more westerly route from Syria, "the word of Jehovah came to Jeremiah, saying, Take great stones in thine hand, and hide them in mortar in the brick pavement, at the entry of Pharaoh's palace in Tahpanhes, in the presence of195 the men of Judah; and say unto them, Thus saith Jehovah Sabaoth, the God of Israel:—

"Behold, I will send and take My servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon:

I will set his throne upon these stones which I have hid,

And he shall spread his state pavilion over them."

He would set up his royal tribunal, and decide the fate of the conquered city and its inhabitants.

"He shall come and smite the land of Egypt;

Such as are for death shall be put to death,

Such as are for captivity shall be sent into captivity,

Such as are for the sword shall be slain by the sword.

I will kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt;

He shall burn their temples, and carry them away captive:

He shall array himself with the land of Egypt,

As a shepherd putteth on his garment."

The whole country would become a mere mantle for his dignity, a comparatively insignificant part of his vast possessions.

"He shall go forth from thence in peace."

A campaign that promised well at the beginning has often ended in despair, like Sennacherib's attack on Judah, and Pharaoh Necho's expedition to Carchemish. The invading army has been exhausted by its victories, or wasted by disease and compelled to beat an inglorious retreat. No such misfortunes should overtake the Chaldean king. He would depart with all his spoil, leaving Egypt behind him subdued into a loyal province of his empire.

Then the prophet adds, apparently as a kind of afterthought:—

"He also shall break the obelisks of Heliopolis, in the land of Egypt."

(so styled to distinguish this Beth-Shemesh from Beth-Shemesh in Palestine),

"And shall burn with fire the temples of the gods of Egypt."

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The performance of this symbolic act and the delivery of its accompanying message are not recorded, but Jeremiah would not fail to make known the divine word to his fellow-countrymen. It is difficult to understand how the exiled prophet would be allowed to assemble the Jews in front of the main entrance of the palace, and hide "great stones" in the pavement. Possibly the palace was being repaired,171171   So Orelli, in loco. or the stones might be inserted under the front or side of a raised platform, or possibly the symbolic act was only to be described and not performed. Mr. Flinders Petrie recently discovered at Tell Defenneh a large brickwork pavement, with great stones buried underneath, which he supposed might be those mentioned in our narrative. He also found there another possible relic of these Jewish émigrés in the shape of the ruins of a large brick building of the twenty-sixth dynasty—to which Pharaoh Hophra belonged—still known as the "Palace of the Jew's Daughter." It is a natural and attractive conjecture that this was the residence assigned to the Jewish princesses whom Johanan carried with him into Egypt.

But while the ruined palace may testify to Pharaoh's generosity to the Royal House that had suffered through its alliance with him, the "great stones" remind us that, after a brief interval of sympathy and co-operation, Jeremiah again found himself in bitter antagonism to his fellow-countrymen. In our next chapter we shall describe one final scene of mutual recrimination.172172   For the prophecy against Egypt and its fulfilment see further chapter XVII.


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