Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Chapter 1 records the call of Jeremiah by the Lord to serve as a prophet, which the Lord summarized as follows: “Behold, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10).
In chapters 2 and 3, Jeremiah recounts something of Israel’s history with the Lord—to include Israel’s unfaithfulness —and pleads with Israel to repent.
This plea for repentance continues through the first three verses of chapter 4. But then the tone changes dramatically as the Lord (through Jeremiah) says, “I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction” (4:6). He warns that the people will lament. Kings, priests, and prophets will be astounded at the coming destruction, because they thought that the Lord had promised that it would be well with them (4:8-10).
“These addresses may come from very early in the prophet’s career, but most likely they stem from the time just before the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchchadnezzar in 597 B.C.” (Tucker, 403)
JEREMIAH 4:11-12. NOW I WILL UTTER JUDGMENTS AGAINST THEM
11At that time shall it be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the wilderness toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow, nor to cleanse; 12 a full wind from these shall come for me. Now I will also utter judgments against them.”
“At that time shall it be said to this people and to Jerusalem” (v. 11a). This defines the audience for this speech. It is the people of Judah and Jerusalem, Judah’s capitol, who will experience these things.
“A hot wind from the bare heights in the wilderness toward the daughter of my people” (v. 11b). The image here is of a sirocco wind blowing in from the desert. For the most part, the breezes in Israel come from the Mediterranean and are pleasant and cool. But the sirocco winds from the desert are neither pleasant nor cool. They are hot and destructive.
I have talked with people who live east of Los Angeles at the edge of the desert. They told of sirocco winds that come in occasionally from the desert. Those winds blow so hard that they tear shingles from roofs—even heavy tiled roofs are not immune. The hot dry wind blows sand that damages paint on automobiles. It sucks moisture from plants and animals alike. It dries the nostrils and skin so that people become miserable. Sometimes the wind blows for days on end. People’s tempers grow short because of the constant irritation to their persons and the damage to their homes and cars. There is nothing beneficial about those sirocco winds. They add nothing to life, but only subtract from it.
“not to winnow, nor to cleanse; a full wind from these shall come for me” (v. 11c-12a). The people are accustomed to winnowing grain (separating good grain from useless chaff) by tossing it in the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the lighter chaff while the heavier grain falls back to the ground. For people needing to process a grain harvest, a light wind is a blessing—a gift from God. The people of Israel could usually count on a gentle breeze coming in from the sea that would not only be useful for winnowing the chaff from the grain, but would also keep them comfortable while they tossed the grain in the air time after time.
But a strong wind would scatter the grain as well as the chaff. A strong wind would help no one.
The wind in this verse serves as a metaphor for the invading army that will soon arrive from the north.
“Now I will also utter judgments against them” (v. 12b). It is the Lord who is speaking, albeit through the voice of the prophet. The message is one of judgment—condemnation.
JEREMIAH 4:13-21. ANGUISH AND DESTRUCTION
While these verses are not part of the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. They tell of chariots as the whirlwind and “horses…swifter than eagles” (v. 13a). They tell of people saying “Woe to us! For we are ruined” (v. 13b). They tell of people from the city of Dan in the far north and Mount Ephraim in the near north warning of the armies coming from the north (v. 15). They tell of anguish and utter disaster (vv. 19-20).
This is not just some sort of literary device. These things will actually happen. The Babylonian army will besiege Jerusalem, level the city, kill many of its inhabitants, and take most of the remainder into a long exile.
JEREMIAH 4:22. FOR MY PEOPLE ARE FOOLISH
22“For my people are foolish, they don’t know me. They are foolish children, and they have no understanding. They are skillful (Hebrew: haka·mim) in doing evil, but to do good they have no knowledge.”
“For my people are foolish, they don’t know me. They are foolish children, and they have no understanding” (v. 22a). Note “my people.” The speaker is the Lord, and in the midst of his wrath he still continues to speak of these people as “my people.” This is a very harsh passage in which the Lord tells these people of the disaster that is about to befall them because of their sin, but this use of “my people” softens the passage just a bit. The Lord might be angry (and is angry), but has not totally disowned these people. There is a note of grace here, which we will also find in verse 27b.
Note the repetition: “Foolish” and “no understanding.” The picture that the Lord is painting here is the opposite of wisdom. Wisdom is the kind of understanding that makes it possible for people to make good decisions and to avoid bad consequences. In the Old Testament, wisdom is the kind of understanding that helps people to choose the good and to avoid the evil.
The Hebrew Scriptures talk a lot about wisdom. “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10a). Yahweh gave the people of Israel “statutes and ordinances… that you should do so in the midst of the land where you go in to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6). Joshua became wise when Moses laid his hands on him (Deuteronomy 34:9). Solomon, noted for his wisdom, received that wisdom as a gift of God (1 Kings 4:29; 5:12). “Yahweh gives wisdom” (Proverbs 2:6a).
But these people have no wisdom, because they have failed to observe the law. They have failed to maintain a strong relationship with the Lord. They have worshiped the Baals—false gods. And so they are foolish, stupid, and have no understanding.
“They are skillful (haka·mim) in doing evil, but to do good they have no knowledge“ (v. 22b). “In a fine use of irony, Jeremiah employs the adjectival form of the very word that means wisdom, hakmah, to describe the inventiveness of the people’s evil” (Newsome, 508). The idea here is that the only wisdom or understanding or “street-smarts” that these people possess is knowing how to do evil.
JEREMIAH 4:23-26. THE EARTH WAS WASTE AND VOID
23I saw the earth, and, behold, it was waste and void (Hebrew: to·hu wa·bo·hu); and the heavens, and they had no light. 24I saw the mountains, and behold, they trembled, and all the hills moved back and forth. 25I saw, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the sky had fled. 26 I saw, and behold, the fruitful field was a wilderness, and all its cities were broken down at the presence of Yahweh, before his fierce anger.
This is the prophet’s voice once again. He portrays an undoing of creation—Carl Holladay calls it a “de-creation” (Huey, 84). The Lord, in his anger, intends to take things back to the beginning, before creation when there was only chaos.
“I saw the earth, and, behold, it was waste and void” (to·hu wa·bo·hu) (v. 23a). The earth has returned to its original state—”waste and void”—”to·hu wa·bo·hu“—just as it was before the first act of creation (Genesis 1:2). These two verses (Genesis 1:2 and Jeremiah 4:23) are the only places where the Hebrew scriptures include this phrase, to·hu wa·bo·hu.
“and the heavens, and they had no light” (v. 23b). The first creative act took place when God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3-4). But now, because of the evil that Israel has done, there will be no light in the heavens. This is metaphorical, of course. The sun will continue to shine. But these people will suffer in the absence of the light of God’s presence—in the absence of the light of good deeds—in the absence of the light of neighborly love. Their deeds have been dark, and now they will live in darkness.
“I saw the mountains, and behold, they trembled, and all the hills moved back and forth” (v. 24). Mountains and hills are symbols of strength and stability. While earthquakes and volcanoes shake mountains and hills, they are unusual and quite frightening. If mountains are quaking and hills are moving, nothing is exempt—nothing is safe.
“I saw, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the sky had fled“ (v. 25). The earth is devoid of life, both human and animal. Even the birds, sensing disaster, have fled.
“I saw, and behold, the fruitful field was a wilderness, and all its cities were broken down” (v. 26a). These people know the difference between fertile land and desert. They lived in the desert wilderness for forty years—but only by the grace of God, who sustained them in a land that is quite inhospitable to human life. Then they lived in the Promised Land, a land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:8; Leviticus 20:24). Now they will see their fruit-and-honey paradise turned back to desert. They will see their cities, built with great effort and cost, lying in ruins.
“at the presence of Yahweh, before his fierce anger” (v. 26b). The reason for this de-creation is the Lord’s fierce anger—anger at these people who have proven so faithless. The prophet makes that clear here. The people won’t have to wonder why disaster is befalling them. The disaster is God’s punishment for their sins.
JEREMIAH 4:27-28. THE WHOLE LAND SHALL BE A DESOLATION
27For thus says Yahweh, “The whole land shall be a desolation (Hebrew: sema·mah); yet will I not make a full end. 28For this the earth will mourn, and the heavens above be black; because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and I have not repented, neither will I turn back from it.”
“For thus says Yahweh, “The whole land shall be a desolation” (sema·mah) (v. 27a). “Thus says the Lord” adds authority to the statement that follows. “The whole land shall be a desolation”—sema·mah conveys the picture of utter destruction—a wasteland.
“yet will I not make a full end” (v. 27b). This is a grace note in the midst of this very bleak passage. Its suggestion of a remnant accords with what will finally happen at the end of the Babylonian Exile. Babylonia will not be dominant forever. When Persia succeeds them, King Cyrus will not only allow the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem, but will also provide funds and support to make it possible for them to do so.
“For this the earth will mourn, and the heavens above be black; because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and I have not repented, neither will I turn back from it” (v. 28). “A sort of cosmic funeral is envisaged with the whole earth in mourning and the heavens in black” (Pilkington, 413).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Craigie, Peter C.; Kelley, Page H.; and Drinkard, Joel F. Jr., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 1–25 (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Pilkington, Christine E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan