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Jeremiah 34:8-17

8 This is the word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people which were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them;

8. Sermo qui factus est ad Jeremiam a Jehova, postquam percussit rex Zedechias foedus cum toto popalo, qui erant in Jerusalem, ad promulgandum ipsis (hoc est, inter ipsos) libertatem;

9. That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free; that none should serve himself of them, to wit, of a Jew his brother.

9. Ut dimitteret quisque servum suum, et quisque ancillam suam (vir, vir, ad verbum, sed significat quisque indefinite) Hebraeum vel Hebraeum liberos, ut ne ultra servirent ipsis (vel, transitive, ut alii malunt et bene quadrat, ut non haberent cos servos) inter Judaeos vir fratrem suum.

10. Now when all the princes, and all the people, which had entered into the covenant, heard that every one should let his manservant, and every one his maidservant, go free, that none should serve themselves of them any more; then they obeyed, and let them go.

10. Et audierunt omnes principes et torus populus, qui venerant ad foedus, ut dimitteret servum suum et ancillam suam liberos, ut ne servirent amplius ipsis (vel, ut ne dominarentur) et obedierunt et dimiserunt.

11. But afterward they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids.

11. Et reversi aunt (hoc est, mutarunt concilium) postea, et reduxerunt servos suos et ancillas suas quos dimiserant liberos et subegerunt cos in servos et ancillas.

12. Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,

12. Et fuit sermo Jehovae ad Jeremiam a Jehova, dicendo, (hoec necessario contexere oportet)

13. Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondmen, saying,

13. Sic dicit Jehova, Deus Israel, Ego percussi foedus cum pattibus vestris die quo eduxi ipsos e terra Egypti, e domo servorum, dicendo,

14. At the end of seven years let ye go every man his brother an Hebrew, which hath been sold unto thee; and when he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee: but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear.

14. A fine septem annorum dimittetis quisque fratrem suum Hebraeum, qui venditus tibi fuerit et serviret tibi sex annis, et dimittes liberum abesse tecum (hoc est, ut non sit amplius tecum, vel apud to) et non audierunt patres vestri me, et non inclinarunt aurem suam.

15. And ye were now turned, and had done right in my sight, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbour; and ye had made a covenant before me in the house which is called by my name:

15. Et conversi estis vos hodie, et fecistis quod rectum erat in oculis meis, promulgando libertatem quisque proximo suo, et pepigistis foedus coram facie mea in domo super quam invocatum est nomen meum:

16. But ye turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant, and every man his handmaid, whom ye had set at liberty at their pleasure, to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids.

16. Et reversi estis (hoc est, mutastis consilium) et profanastis nomen meum, et reduxistis quisque servum suum, et quisque ancillam suam, quos dimiseratis liberos animae suae, (hoc est, ad arbitrium suum) et subegistis ipsos ut essent vobis in servos et ancillas.

17. Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ye have not hearkened unto me, in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother, and every man to his neighbour: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the LORD, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and I will make you to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth.

17. Propterea sic dicit Jehova, Vos non audistis ad promulgandum libertatem quisque fratri suo, et quisque proximo suo, ecce ego pro-mulgo contra vos libertatem, dicit Jehova, gladio et pesti et fatal, et dabo vos in commotionum (vel, con-cussionem) cunctis regnis terrae.


Though we do not read that what the Prophet relates here was done by God’s command, yet we may easily gather that Zedekiah the king had been admonished to liberate the servants according to the Law, as written in Exodus 21:2. It was God’s will that some difference should be between the people he had adopted and other nations; for God had chosen the seed of Abraham as his peculiar treasure, and other nations were in this respect aliens. It was therefore his will to establish this law among the people of Israel, that servitude should not be perpetual, except one bound himself willingly, of his own accord, through his whole life, according to what we read in Deuteronomy 15:16, 17; for when one of an ignoble mind deprived himself of the benefit of this law, his master bored his ear with an awl; and having this mark, he could no longer become free, except, perhaps, he lived to the jubilee year. By the words of the Prophet we learn that this command of the Law had been disregarded, for at the end of the seventh year the servants were not made free. Hence the King Zedekiah, having been warned on the subject, called the people together, and by the consent of all, liberty was proclaimed, according to what God had commanded. But this was done in bad faith, for soon after the servants were remanded, and thus treachery was added to cruelty. They had before unjustly oppressed their brethren, but now perjury was heaped on wickedness. We hence see that they not only wronged their own brethren, by imposing on them perpetual servitude, but they also wickedly profaned the sacred name of God, having thus violated a solemn oath.

Now, Jeremiah says that he was sent at the time when, by a wicked perjury, the people began to oppress again their servants and their maids. He therefore says, that the word of Jehovah came to him after the covenant was made. A covenant he calls that solemn agreement when God’s Law was revived, that servitude should not be perpetual among the people of Israel. And he expresses the same thing when he says, that a covenant was made with all the people who were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty to them Some take “to them,” להם, laem, as referring to the servants and maids, but we may take it as meaning among them, so that the Law should be in force, not only for the present, but perpetually. Then follows what sort of liberty it was to be, even that every one should let free his servant, and every one should let free his maid, a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, so that they should not serve Some take the verb עבר ober, in an intransitive, and others in a transitive sense, as we say in French, Qu’ils ne leur fussent plus serfs, ou, Qu’ils ne se servissent plus d’eux. As to the main point there is not much difference. If we take עבר ober, in the sense of serving, we must read thus, “That they may not serve,” or, “That they may not be their servants.” But if we take עבר ober, in the sense of ruling, it must be read thus, That no man, that is, that no one may rule over them, that is, over his Jewish brother, or, That no man among them should serve, that is, his Jewish brother. 9393     The Tarq. and the versions, except the Sept., give the idea of domineering or ruling; and this is the meaning of the verb everywhere when followed by ב
   To send away, a man his servant, and a man his maid, The Hebrew and the Hebrewess, free; So as not to domineer over them, A man over a Jew his brother.

   This is a literal rendering of the verse. But perhaps it would be better to render “servant,” bondman; and “maid,” bondwoman, as they were the married as well as the unmarried. — Ed.

Here a question arises, Is perpetual servitude so displeasing to God, that it ought not to be deemed lawful? To this the answer is easy, — Abraham and other fathers had servants or slaves according to the common and prevailing custom, and it was not deemed wrong in them. Before the Law was given, there was nothing to forbid one who had servants or maids to exercise power over them through life; and then the Law, mentioned here, was not given indiscriminately and generally, but it was a peculiar privilege in favor of the chosen people. Hence it is without reason that any one infers that it is not lawful to exercise power over servants and maids; for, on the contrary, we may reason thus, That since God permitted the fathers to remain servants and maids, it is a thing lawful; and further, as God permitted the Jews also, under the Law, to bear rule over aliens, and to keep them perpetually as servants, it follows that this cannot be disapproved. And still a clearer evidence may be adduced; for since the Gentiles have been called to the hope of salvation, no change has in this respect been made. For the Apostles did not constrain masters to liberate their servants, but only exhorted them to use kindness towards them, and to treat them humanely as their fellow-servants. (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1) If, then, servitude were unlawful, the Apostles would have never tolerated it; but they would have boldly denounced such a profane practice had it been so. Now, as they commanded masters only to be humane towards their servants, and not to treat them violently and reproachfully, it follows that what was not denied was permitted, that is, to retain their own servants. We also see that Paul sent back Onesimus to Philemon. (Philemon 1:12) Philemon was not only one of the faithful, but a pastor of the Church. He ought, then, to have been an example to others. His servant had fled away from him; Paul sent him back, and commended him to his master, and besought his master to forgive his theft. We hence see that the thing in itself is not unlawful.

Our servitudes have been abolished, that is, that miserable condition when one had no right of his own, but when the master had power over life and death; that custom has ceased, and the abolition cannot be blamed. Some superstition might have been at the beginning; and I certainly think that the commencement of the change arose from superstition. It is, however, by no means to be wished that there should be slaves among us, as there were formerly among all nations, and as there are now among barbarians. The Spaniards know what servitude is, for they are near neighbors to the Africans and the Turks; and then those they take in war they sell; and as one evil proceeds from another, so they retain miserable men as slaves throughout life. But as no necessity constrains us, our condition, as I have said, is better, that is, in having hired servants and not slaves; for those called servants at this day are only hired servants.

When heathens commended humanity and kindness towards servants, they said, Let them not be treated as servants, but as those who are hired. So also Cicero said. (Off. 1) he distinguished between servants and such as were hired, he calls the first slaves, that is, those who were under the power of another, and those hired servants who undertook to work for hire, as the case is with us.

But as I have already said, the practice among the chosen people was peculiar. For it was the Lord’s will that those whom he had redeemed should remain free and enjoy in this respect the benefits of freedom. That there might then be a memorial of God’s favor among the people of Israel, it was the Lord’s will that servitude among them should be temporary, even for six years only. And as the law had been disregarded, Zedekiah exhorted the people to set free their servants. But there is no doubt but that God at the same time made it known, that external enemies justly exercised cruelty towards the people, because they themselves shewed no commiseration towards their own brethren. For when they ruled over their servants according to their own wantonness, they in vain complained of the Chaldeans or of the Assyrians, they in vain proclaimed that they were unjustly oppressed, or that the people of God were harassed by the violence of a tyrannical power; for the first originators of cruelty were themselves, and not the Chaldeans or the Assyrians. It was then on this account that Zedekiah was induced to call the people together, and that by a public act all the servants were set free.

He says, that all the princes and all the people heard, who had come to the covenant, that every one should let his servant free, etc.; and then he adds, And they obeyed The verb שמע, shemo, is to be taken in a twofold sense; at the beginning of the verse it refers to the simple act of hearing, and at the end of the verse, to obedience. Then he says that they obeyed, and that every one set free his servant. By saying that the princes, as well as all the people, heard, he took away every pretense as to ignorance; so that they could not make an excuse, that they relapsed through want of knowledge or through inconsideration. How so? because they had heard; nor is it to be doubted, but that the Law of God to which we have referred, had been set before them, that they might be ashamed of the iniquity and tyrannical violence which they had exercised towards their servants. The hearing then mentioned here, proves that the Jews were wholly inexcusable, for they saw that God’s Law had been long disregarded by them. And hence we learn, that each of them had sinned the more grievously, as he had been taught what was right, and had, as it were, designedly cast off the yoke. So also Christ teaches us, that the servant who knows his master’s will and does it not, shall be more severely punished than one who offends through ignorance. (Luke 12:47)

He then adds, And they afterwards turned, that is, after they had heard and obeyed. The turning refers to a change of purpose, for they immediately repented of what they had done. They had felt some fear of God, and then equity and kindness prevailed; but they soon turned or changed. The word is taken sometimes in a good, and sometimes in a bad sense. He says that they turned, or returned, because they receded or turned back after having commenced a right course. And they remanded; there is a correspondence between the verbs ישובו ishibu, they turned, and ישיבו ishibu, they remanded, or made to return the servants and maids whom they let go free, and brought them under as servants and maids There is no doubt but that the Jews alleged some excuse when they thus remanded their servants, and robbed them of the privilege of freedom: but God designed that they should act in sincerity and without disguise. Whatever, then, subtle men may contrive as an excuse for oppressing the miserable, and however they may disguise things before men, yet God, who requires integrity, does not allow such disguises, for he would have us to deal honestly with our neighbors, for all craftiness is condemned by him.

Now follows the message: The Prophet had, indeed, said that the word of God had been committed to him, but he interposed this narrative, that we might know for what reason God had sent this message to the Jews. For if he had thus begun, “The word came to Jeremiah from Jehovah,” and then added, “Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, I have made a covenant,” etc., the passage would have been more obscure. It was therefore necessary that the narrative should come first, and with this the Prophet’s message was connected, even that the Jews had added perjury to cruelty, and thus had committed a heinous iniquity. The Prophet now then comes to close quarters with them, and introduces God as the speaker, I made a covenant with your fathers the day I brought them up from the land of Egypt, from the house of servants

God reminded the Jews of their own law; and though he might have justly required whatever he pleased, yet he proved that the Israelites were bound to him, because he brought then, out of the house of servants Who can dare to arrogate to himself dominion over others, who is himself a servant? for there cannot be dominion where there is no liberty. Any one may be free, though without a servant; but no one can be a master except he be free. So God declares that the Israelites were not once free, for they were in a miserable state of servitude, when he stretched out his hand to them. Whence then came liberty to the Israelites? even from the gratuitous mercy of God, who made them free, who brought them forth from tyranny in Egypt. It hence follows, that they could not be masters over others, since they themselves were servants. This is the reason why he says that he made a covenant the day he brought them up from the house of servants, as though he had said, that they came forth from their prisons, because he had been pleased to draw them out, not that they might domineer for ever over their brethren, but only for a time. He relates here the law given by Moses in Exodus 21, as we have stated. At the end of seven, years 9494     It is said afterwards that for six years was the servitude to be, and yet the statement here is, “at the end of seven years.” Were it not for two other places, (Deuteronomy 15:1; 31:10,) where we find the same words, we might follow the Sept. and the Arab., and read six instead of seven. The Rabbins remove the difficulty by saying that the word, קף, means the commencing, as well as the terminating end or extremity; so the meaning then would be, “at the beginning of seven years;” and this would agree with the six years afterwards mentioned. And this is the best explanation of the passage. — Ed. every one shall set free his brother, a Hebrew, who had been sold to him, and him who has served him six years he shall let free from him, that is, that he should not be with him; but your fathers hearkened not to me, nor inclined their ear The Israelites at first, no doubt, submitted to what God had commanded, but shortly after the law was disregarded. When, therefore, he complains here that his voice was not hearkened to, it ought not to be so generally understood, as that the Law had been at all times disregarded; but it is the same as though he had said, “Your fathers formerly were disobedient, because they did not set free their servants within the prescribed time, at the end of the sixth year.”

This passage, as many others, clearly shews the great perverseness of the people. Certainly the Law spoken of here ought to have been well approved by the Jews, for they found that they were by a privilege exempted from the common lot of men, and had been preferred before all nations. As, then, they saw that it was a signal evidence of God’s bounty towards the seed of Abraham, this ought to have allured them to observe the Law, inasmuch as they found in it what was especially suitable to them; but as every one became addicted to his own private advantage, the poor were oppressed, and a temporary servitude was changed into what was perpetual. There is no wonder then that men soon forgot what was right, though they seemed to have hearkened for a short time to God. It has been the common vice of all ages that the laws of God became soon forgotten and disregarded; so the law of freedom, though especially excellent, became, as we see, neglected.

He adds, Nor inclined their ear We have stated elsewhere that this phrase is emphatic, when added to the expression of not hearkening; for it is a proof of deliberate wickedness, when men close up their ears, and listen not to what is right. It is possible for one to neglect what is said, or not to understand it; but when one intentionally closes his ears, it is a proof of hopeless obstinacy. God, then, is wont to express by this mode of speaking, the perverseness and hardness that prevailed in the ancient people, through which they rejected all sound doctrine. And this ought to be carefully noticed; for where the word of God is made clearly known, in vain we excuse ourselves for not following what he commands, for he speaks not obscurely, as he says by Isaiah. (Isaiah 45:19) How comes it, then, that doctrine does not produce fruit in us? even because we wilfully reject it, closing our cars and disregarding God himself when he speaks. Now the reason why God brings a charge against the fathers is, that the comparison might enhance the wickedness of their children, who, after having professed that they had some regard for religion and some feeling of mercy, soon returned to their old ways, according to what follows —

And ye now turned, and did what was right in my eyes, by proclaiming liberty every one to his neighbor: God seems at first to commend the people; and no doubt it ought to have been deemed praiseworthy, that the people, after having been reminded that they had perversely disregarded God’s law, willingly engaged in doing their duty; but as they gave but a false proof of repentance, and did not really perform what they had promised, it was, as I have said, a great aggravation of their crime. So then God commended the repentance of the people, in order to shew how detestable is hypocrisy; for they shewed for a short time some feeling of humanity, but soon after proved that it was nothing but dissimulation. He therefore says, that they did what was right by proclaiming liberty And hence it also appears that they had not gone astray through ignorance, for God had required this kindness from them, that is, to restore what had been wickedly taken away from servants and maids, and to let them free again: except they had been constrained by the clear testimony of the Law, they would have never thus given up their private advantages. But after having made a pretense that they wished to obey God, they again soon remanded their servants and their maids. It hence appears evident that they trifled with God, and that it was a mere fraud to set free their servant only for a short time.

He says that they made a covenant in the house on which his name had been called, and also, that they had profaned his name All this added to their wickedness; for not only liberty had been proclaimed and confirmed by an oath, but this had also been done in the Temple. Hence he aggravates the sin of the people by this circumstance, — that they had made the covenant which they afterwards violated in the presence of God. For though the eyes of God penetrate into the most hidden recesses, yet the wickedness of the people became greater, and it was an evidence of men lost to all shame, that they dared to violate their pledged faith, and thus to shew no regard for the Temple, as though they had lost all reverence for God and all fear. It is hence evident how profane they were become, that they dared to come to the Temple and to make an oath before God, and then immediately to forfeit their faith.

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