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Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles in Babylon


These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4Thus says the L ord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the L ord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8For thus says the L ord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the L ord.

10 For thus says the L ord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the L ord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the L ord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the L ord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

15 Because you have said, “The L ord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,”— 16Thus says the L ord concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who live in this city, your kinsfolk who did not go out with you into exile: 17Thus says the L ord of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them, 19because they did not heed my words, says the L ord, when I persistently sent to you my servants the prophets, but they would not listen, says the L ord. 20But now, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon, hear the word of the L ord: 21Thus says the L ord of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: I am going to deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes. 22And on account of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The L ord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” 23because they have perpetrated outrage in Israel and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them; I am the one who knows and bears witness, says the L ord.

The Letter of Shemaiah

24 To Shemaiah of Nehelam you shall say: 25Thus says the L ord of hosts, the God of Israel: In your own name you sent a letter to all the people who are in Jerusalem, and to the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, and to all the priests, saying, 26The L ord himself has made you priest instead of the priest Jehoiada, so that there may be officers in the house of the L ord to control any madman who plays the prophet, to put him in the stocks and the collar. 27So now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who plays the prophet for you? 28For he has actually sent to us in Babylon, saying, “It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce.”

29 The priest Zephaniah read this letter in the hearing of the prophet Jeremiah. 30Then the word of the L ord came to Jeremiah: 31Send to all the exiles, saying, Thus says the L ord concerning Shemaiah of Nehelam: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, though I did not send him, and has led you to trust in a lie, 32therefore thus says the L ord: I am going to punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants; he shall not have anyone living among this people to see the good that I am going to do to my people, says the L ord, for he has spoken rebellion against the L ord.


In order to expose the dreams by which the false prophets had inebriated the people, he again repeats what he had said, that the end of their exile could not be expected until the end of seventy years. And this way of teaching ought to be particularly observed, for the truth of God will ever avail to dissipate all the mists in which Satan never ceases to envelop the pure truth. As then we have before seen, that when the people are imbued with any error, it ought to be boldly resisted; so now we see with what weapons all God’s servants ought to fight, in order to expose all those fallacies by which pure doctrine is assailed, even by setting in opposition to them the word of God: for this is the way which Jeremiah points out to us by his own example. He had spoken of the false prophets, he warned the people not to believe them; but as the minds of many were still vacillating, he confirms what he had said that they were not sent by God, because God never varies in his purpose, and never changes, and is never inconsistent with himself: “Now he has prefixed seventy years for your exile; whoever, then, tries to impugn that truth, is a professed and an open enemy to God.” We now perceive the object of the Prophet; When seventy years then shall be fulfilled, etc 212212     The words literally are, “When at the mouth (or extremity) of fillings (or, of fulfilments) in Babylon shall be seventy years,” etc., that is, when seventy years shall be completed, the whole number or measure being filled up. Blayney’s version is, “Surely when seventy years have been completed at Babylon.” But כי here is not rendered “surely,” but “when,” by the Targ. and the ancient versions. — Ed

The Prophet here puts a restraint on the Jews, that they might not hasten before the time; and then he gives them the hope of a return, provided they quietly rested until the end fixed on by God. There are then two things in this verse, — that the people would ill consult their own good, if they hastened and promised to themselves a return before the end of seventy years, — and that when that time was completed, the hope of a return would be certain, for God had so promised.

He adds, And I will raise up my good word towards you By good word he means what might bring joy to the Jews. Though God’s word is fatal to the unbelieving, yet it never changes its nature; it ever remains good. And hence Paul says that the Gospel is a fatal odor to many, but that it is, nevertheless, a sweet odor before God, (2 Corinthians 2:16;) for it ought to be imputed to the fault of those who perish, that they receive not the doctrine of the Gospel to their own salvation. The word of God is then always good: but this commendation is to be referred to experience, that is, when God really shews that he is propitious to us. And a shorter definition cannot be given, than that the good word denotes the promises, by which God testifies his paternal favor. But we have seen elsewhere that threatenings are called an evil word: why so? This character cannot, indeed, as it has been just said, be suitably applied to God’s word; yet God’s word which threatens destruction is called evil, as it is said,

“I am he who create good and evil,” (Isaiah 45:7)

but it is so according to our apprehension of its effects. And all this reasoning seems nearly superfluous, when we understand that God by the word of evil strikes the unbelieving with fear, but that the Prophet now means no other thing than to bear testimony to God’s favor to the Jews: and hence he says, that they would find by experience, that God had not in vain promised what he had before mentioned.

But he is said to rouse up 213213     The Vulg. is the same, “suscitabo — I will awaken,” etc.; and so the Sept. and the Targ.; but the Syr. is, “I will ratify,” or confirm. The primary meaning of קם is to rise, and in Hiphil, as here, to cause to rise, that is, to rouse, to awaken; its secondary meaning is, to stand, and in Hiphil, to cause to stand, that is, to ratify or confirm. The first idea is the most striking: the word of promise was as it were lying down and dormant for seventy years, and now it was to be roused up: “I will rouse up for you the very word of mine, the good.” This is the literal rendering, except we take the secondary meaning of the verb, which is also very suitable, “I will ratify for you,” etc. — Ed his good word, that is, when it produced its effects before their eyes; for when God only speaks, and the thing itself does not yet appear, his word seems in a manner to he dormant and to be useless. And for seventy years the Jews could perceive no other thing than that God was displeased with them, and thus they were continually in fear; for the promise continued as it were dormant, as its effects were not as yet visible. God then is said to rouse up his word, when he proves that he has not promised anything in vain. The meaning is, that the prophecy which Jeremiah had related would not be fruitless; but if the people did not soon know this, yet God, when the time came, would really prove that he deceives not his people, nor allures them when he promises anything, by vain hopes.

And the Prophet explains himself, for he says that God would restore them to their own country: for this was the good word, the promise of deliverance, as the word, according to what the people felt, was evil, and bitter, and bad, when God had threatened that he would cast away the reprobate. But it is an accidental thing, as I have said, that men find God’s word to be evil for them or adverse to them; for it proceeds from their own fault, and not from the nature of the word. It follows —

He confirms the same thing, and employs many words, because it was difficult to raise up minds wholly broken down. For the world labors under two extreme evils, — they sink in despair, or are too much exalted by foolish pride: nay, there is no moderation except when ruled by God’s Spirit we recumb on his word; for when they devise vain hopes for themselves, they are immediately rapt up above the clouds, fly here and there, and in short think that they can climb into heaven; this is the excess of vain and foolish confidence: but when they are dejected, then they fall down wholly frightened, nay, being astonished and lifeless they lose every feeling, receive no comfort, and cannot taste of anything which God promises. And both these evils prevailed evidently among the Jews. We have seen how much the Prophet labored to lay prostrate their pride and arrogance; for they laughed at all threatenings, and remained ever secure; though God, as it were, with an armed hand and a drawn sword menaced them with certain destruction, yet nothing moved them. And when they were driven into exile, they were extremely credulous when the false prophets promised them a quick return; while, in the meantime, God, by his servants, shewed to them that he would be gracious to them, and after seventy years would become their deliverer; but they were deaf to all these things, nay, they rejected with disdain all these promises, and said,

“What! will God, forsooth, raise up the dead!”
(Ezekiel 37:12)

This, then, is the reason why the Prophet now speaks so largely of their future redemption: it was difficult to persuade the Jews; for as they thought that they would soon return to their own country, they could not endure delay, nor exercise the patience which God commanded. They were at the same time, as we have said, quite confident, inasmuch as the false prophets filled their minds with vain hopes.

He therefore says, I know the thoughts which I think towards you Some think that God claims here, as what peculiarly belongs to him, the foreknowledge of future things; but this is foreign to the Prophet’s meaning. There is here, on the contrary, an implied contrast between the certain counsel of God, and the vain imaginations in which the Jews indulged themselves. The same thing is meant when Isaiah says,

“As far as the heavens are from the earth, so far are my thoughts from your thoughts,” (Isaiah 55:9)

for they were wont absurdly to measure God by their own ideas. When anything was promised, they reasoned about its validity, and looked on all surrounding circumstances; and thus they consulted only their own brains. Hence God reproved them, and shewed how preposterously they acted, and said, that his thoughts were as remote from their thoughts as heaven is from the earth. So also in this place, though the two parts are not here expressed; the Prophet’s object was no other than to shew, that the Jews ought to have surrendered themselves to God, and not to seek to be so acute as to understand how this or that would be done, but to feel convinced that what God had decreed could not be changed.

It must yet be remarked, that he speaks not here of his hidden and incomprehensible counsel. What then are the thoughts of which Jeremiah now speaks? They were those respecting the people’s deliverance, after the time was completed, for God had promised that he would then be propitious to his Church. We hence see that the question here is not about the hidden counsels of God, but that the reference is simply to the word which was well known to the Jews, even to the prophecy of Jeremiah, by which he had predicted that the Jews would be exiles for seventy years, and would at last find that their punishment would be only a small chastisement, as it would only be for a time: I know then my thoughts But still he indirectly condemns the Jews, because they entertained no hope of deliverance except from what came within the reach of their senses. He then teaches us that true wisdom is to obey God, and to surrender ourselves to him; and that when we understand not his counsel, we ought resignedly to wait until the due time shall come.

He says that they were thoughts of peace, 214214     The word for “thoughts” might often be rendered “purposes,” as it is sometimes in our version. The thoughts of God are his purposes. So here: “For I — I know the very purposes which I am purposing respecting you, saith Jehovah, — purposes of peace and not for evil, to restore you to this place.” God, in saying, “to this place,” represented himself as dwelling at Jerusalem, in the temple, where he had promised his presence.
   In mentioning purposes and not purpose, the intention probably was to shew its firmness and certainty. The Hebrews sometimes used the plural number in order to enhance the meaning, as “wisdoms” for perfect wisdom, in Proverbs 9:1. Then the meaning of the word would be, “the very sure purpose;” and in a version, the meaning, and not the word literally, ought to be given. — Ed.
that is, of benevolence. Peace, as it has been often said, is taken for felicity, as in Jeremiah 29:7,

“For the peace of Babylon shall be your peace;”

that is, if Babylon be prosperous, you shall be partakers of the same happiness. So now, in this place, God declares that his thoughts were those of peace, for he designed really to shew by the effect his paternal kindness towards his people.

He afterwards adds, that 1 may give you the end and the expectation By אחרית, achrit, which means in Hebrew the last thing, we are to understand here the end, as though he had said, that it was to be deemed as final ruin, when people had been driven away to a foreign land. For it was no small trial when the Jews were deprived of that land which was the rest and habitation of God; it was the same as though they had been cut off from every hope: it was then a sort of repudiation, and repudiation was a kind of death. But here God declares that he would put an end to their exile, as it was to be only for a time. It is hence to be inferred, that the people did not perish when they were led into exile, but that they were only chastised by God’s hand.

He adds expectation, which Jerome has rendered “patience,” but in a very forced manner. There is, indeed, no doubt but that by this second word the Prophet more fully and clearly expressed what he meant by the first word, אחרית, achrit, even the end that was wished or desired, I will then give you the end, even that ye may enjoy the promises, as ye wish and expect, and ought to hope for, since God has made them. 215215     These two words are omitted in the Sept.; “the end and patience,” is the Vulg.; “the end and hope,” the Targ.; “the hope,” only, the Syr. It is better to retain the words apart than to unite them, as many have done: “the end” was that of their troubles and exile, and “the expectation” was that of a return to their own country, — two things completely distinct though cotemporaneous: “To give you the end (of your exile) and the expectation (of a return,)” that is, the fulfillment of it. It is a metonymy, expectation is put for its object, or the thing expected. — Ed. Here I will make an end.

Jeremiah pursues the same subject, even that the Jews, after having undergone the punishment allotted to them by God, would at length return to their own country and find God merciful, and hence learn that their chastisement in exile would prove useful to them. He had indeed in the last verse explained this with sufficient clearness, but he now expresses the manner; and that would be by calling on God. he uses two words, Ye shall call on me, he says, and pray. The verb put between these two הלכתם, elcatem, is regarded almost by all as referring to a right course of life, as though the Prophet had said, that those who before wandered after their own lusts would now walk in the way of God, that is, in his Law; but this seems to me to be too forced an explanation. I doubt not then, but that the Prophet here indirectly reproves the indifference of the people in not immediately acknowledging that they were chastised by God’s hand, that they ought in due time to repent. To go then or to walk is the same thing, in my judgment, as though he had said, “After having suffered the exile, not of one year, but of seventy years, ye shall then begin to be wise.”

It was not only sloth but stupidity, that they were not subdued by God’s scourges so as to call on him; but as they were of a disposition so rude and refractory the Prophet here briefly reminds them that many years had been necessary to subdue them, as twenty or thirty years were not sufficient. We now then understand the design of the word הלק, elek, to walk. 216216     The two first verbs are wanting in the Sept. and the Targ., and the second in the Syr. The Vulg. is according to our version, which is literally the Hebrew: and there are no various readings. It is difficult to understand the meaning here of the second verb, go, or proceed. Some give this meaning, “And ye shall call upon me and shall go to your country; and ye shall pray to me, and I will hearken to you.” But the sense most suitable appears to be the following, — “And ye shall call on me, and ye shall go on and intercede with me, and I will hearken to you.” The verb הלך is used in the sense of advancing or of going on in a course that is begun. See Genesis 26:13; Exodus 19:19. To “intercede for themselves and others, was more than to call upon God. From calling they would go on to intercede, earnestly to plead for themselves and others, and then the promise is that God would hear them. — Ed The meaning then is, that after having profited under the scourges of God, they would become humble so as to deprecate his wrath.

But there is added a promise, that God would hear them. It may however appear, that God promised conversion even in the first clause; and, no doubt, prayer is the fruit of repentance, for it proceeds from faith; and repentance is the gift of God. And further, we cannot call on God rightly and sincerely except by the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit; for he it is who not only dictates our words, but also creates groanings in our hearts. And thus Augustin, writing against the Pelagians, understands the passage, and proves that it is not in the power of man either to convert himself or to pray; “for God,” he says, “would in vain promise what is in the power of man to do; and this is the promise, ye shall pray; it then follows, that we do not pray through the impulse of our own flesh, but when the Holy Spirit directs our hearts, and in a manner prays in us.” I do not, however, know whether the Prophet intended to speak in so refined a manner. From other passages of Scripture it is easy to prove, that we cannot pray to God, except he anticipates us by his own Spirit. But as to this passage, I prefer to take a simpler meaning, that God would hear, when they began to pray; but yet he shews that it would not be after a short space of time, because they were almost untameable, and would not repent until after many years. It follows, —

He confirms in other words the same thing; and yet the repetition, as we said yesterday, is not useless; for as the Jews perversely despised all threatenings, so it was difficult for them to receive any taste of God’s goodness from his promises. This then is the reason why the Prophet employs many words on this subject. By the word seek, he means prayers and supplications, as mentioned in the last verse. And Christ also, exhorting his disciples to pray, says, “Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.” There is no doubt but that he speaks there of prayer; he yet adopted various modes of speaking, derived from the common habits of men. But to seek, when we feel the need of God’s grace, is nothing else than to pray. Hence the Prophet says, ye shall seek me and ye shall find me And though he addresses here the Israelites, yet this doctrine ought to be extended to the whole Church; for God testifies that he will be propitious to all who flee to him.

But as hypocrites are abundantly noisy, and seem to surpass the very saints in the ardor of their zeal, when the external profession is only regarded, the Prophet adds, Because 217217     The כי here is rendered “when” in our version, and in the ancient versions, except the Sept., where it is; ὅτι, “for,” or because. The most usual meaning of the particle is “because;” and it may be so rendered here; for sincerity may be justly assigned as a reason why prayers are heard, without the implication of any merit. Indeed, in the very nature of things, prayer without sincerity cannot possibly be accepted.
   In our version the meaning of the two verbs is reversed; the first ought rather to be rendered as meaning “to search for,” and the latter to “seek.” With the first is connected “finding,” and this implies searching, and the verb בקש means sometimes to search for what is lost. The verse should be, — “And ye shall search for me and ye shall find me, because ye shall seek me with all your heart.” To seek God means to seek his favor. They would search for him whom they had, as it were, lost, and they would find him because they would seek his favor with all sincerity; it would not be for a mercenary purpose, but for the sake of enjoying God’s favor. — Ed
ye shall seek me with your whole heart There is no doubt but that the Jews groaned a thousand times every year when oppressed by the Chaldeans; for they had to bear all kind of reproaches, and then they had nothing safe or secure. They were therefore under the necessity, except they were harder than iron, to offer some prayers. But God shews that the seasonable time would not come, until their prayers proceeded from a right feeling; this he means by the whole heart. It is indeed certain that men never turn to God with their whole heart, nor is the whole heart ever so much engaged in prayer as it ought to be; but the Prophet sets the whole heart in opposition to a double heart. Perfection, then, is not what is to be understood here, which can never be found in men, but integrity or sincerity.

We now then perceive the meaning of the Prophet’s words, — that the Jews, when they began in earnest to flee to God, would find him propitious, provided only they did this in sincerity of heart and not in dissimulation; and also that this would not take place soon, for their hardness and obstinacy were greater than that they could be brought to repent in a short time. Therefore God reminds them that there was need of many evils, so that they might at length turn and divest themselves of that perverseness to which they had wholly surrendered themselves.

Now the whole of this, as I have already observed, ought to be applied to the benefit of the Church; for this promise is to be extended to all the godly, — that when they call on God in their miseries, he will hear them. And Jeremiah seems to have taken this sentence from Isaiah,

“As soon as thou callest on me, I will hear thee; before thou speakest, I will stretch forth my hand.” (Isaiah 58:9)

And this circumstance also ought to be noticed, that the Prophet addressed the Jews who were miserably oppressed. Let us then know that this sentence is rightly addressed to those in distress, who seem to have God against them and displeased with them; and this is the seasonable time which is mentioned by David in Psalm 32:6.

This passage also teaches us, that it is no wonder that the Lord doubles his scourges and does not immediately pardon us, because we are not so ready to bend as to return to him on the first day. He is therefore constrained by our perverseness to chastise us for a longer time; and yet this promise is still to be held valid, that if we even late repent, God will be still propitious to us, only that the reprobate are not under this pretext to indulge in their vices; for we see that profane men trifle with God, and wickedly abuse his paternal indulgence. Let the sinner then beware lest he should lay up for himself a store of vengeance, if he waits till the end of life. But there is still a hope set before those who have been long torpid in their sins, that if they at length come, though late, they shall still come in time, for God will hear them. But the exception ought to be carefully observed, that God will not be intreated, except he is sought with the whole heart, that is, in sincerity. So there is no reason for us to wonder that his ears are often closed to our prayers, because we only pretend to seek him, and that we are endued with no sincerity appears from our life. It now follows, —

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