Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1
Our text is a lament—”a type of liturgical song in which a nation bewails its fate following a calamity” (Sweeney, 565)—although “when prophets proclaimed a message of destruction, they often were so certain of the fulfillment of the word of the Lord that they lamented the future destruction as an integral part of their message” (Hartley, 64-65). That appears to be the case here. Yahweh/Jeremiah are lamenting the fate of Judah for the destruction that the Babylonians are preparing to visit on it.
Our text is part of a lengthy poem (with some prose breaks) that begins at 8:4 and ends at 10:25. The portion of the poem that precedes our text (8:4-17) lays the foundation for understanding our text. In those verses, Yahweh spells out the sins of the people of Judah—the sins for which they are about to receive judgment. They have been guilty of “perpetual backsliding” and have “held fast deceit,” and “they refuse to return” to the Lord (v. 5). They “don’t know Yahweh’s law” (v. 7). Even the scribes “have rejected the word of Yahweh” (v. 9) and “wise men…have rejected the word of Yahweh”, (v. 9). They act shamefully, and commit abomination—all without shame (v. 12). Therefore, Yahweh “will utterly consume them…. no grapes shall be on the vine, nor givs on the fig tree, and the leaf shall fade; and the things that I have given them shall pass away from them” (v. 13).
The people say, “Yahweh our God has put us to silence, and given us water of gall to drink, because we have sinned against Yahweh” (v. 14). They hear the war-horses of their adversaries—so many that the land quakes even though the horses are still far away in Dan, Israel’s northernmost city (v. 16). Yahweh says, “I will send serpents, adders, among you, which will not be charmed; and they shall bite you” (v. 17).
In our text, it is often difficult to determine who is speaking—Yahweh, Jeremiah, or the people of Judah. Keep in mind that there are no quotation marks in the original, so the quotation marks in any translation represent the translator’s best guess.
In many of the verses, the speaker could be either Yahweh or Jeremiah. Since Jeremiah is the spokesman for Yahweh, so we can rightfully consider a number of these verses to express the feelings both of Yahweh and Jeremiah. I consider the speakers to be as follows, and that is reflected in the way that I have divided the text below:
• Verses 18-19a: Jeremiah and/or Yahweh speaking through Jeremiah
• Verse 19b: The people
• Verse 19c: Yahweh
• Verse 20: The people
• Verses 21-22: Jeremiah and/or Yahweh speaking through Jeremiah
• Verse 9:1: Jeremiah and/or Yahweh speaking through Jeremiah
JEREMIAH 8:18-19a. OH THAT I COULD COMFORT MYSELF AGAINST SORROW
18“Oh that I could comfort myself against sorrow! My heart is faint within me. 19a Behold, the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people from a land that is very far off”:
This is either the voice of Jeremiah or Yahweh speaking through Jeremiah. Yahweh and Jeremiah have done everything possible to persuade the people of Judah to turn away from their sinful ways and toward God, but the people have ignored their pleas. Yahweh and Jeremiah know the devastation that is about to be visited on Judah, but the anticipation of seeing their warnings come to fruition brings them no pleasure. They are heartbroken for what is about to happen.
The person who can best understand these verses is the father or mother whose child has gone astray. As parents, we try to help our children partake of the good fruit and avoid the bad fruit. We advise them of the temptations that they can expect to face, and warn them of the consequences if they succumb. However, at some point they begin to set their own course. When they veer off into dangerous territory, we try to persuade them to return to the safer road. If they refuse our advice and run into problems, we quickly learn then that being able to say “I told you so” is a poor substitute for joy. There is no joy in seeing a loved one fail—only grief.
So it is with Yahweh and Judah! So it is with Jeremiah and Judah! What they have foretold is about to take place. Judah is about to be devastated by the Babylonians. But neither Yahweh nor Jeremiah can find any joy in that—only grief.
But, as Jesus will spell out in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), the fact that the Lord is grieving over the willful disobedience of the people of Judah will not spell the end of Judah. Once the people have suffered enough to see the error of their ways, the Lord will welcome them back. In between, though, there will be much suffering—the Lord’s suffering as well as Judah’s.
JEREMIAH 8:19b. ISN’T YAHWEH IN ZION?
19b “Isn’t Yahweh in Zion? Isn’t her King in her?”
This is the voice of the people. Zion, of course, is a synonym for Jerusalem—the home of the temple—the place where God dwells.
The people of Judah have assumed that, because the Lord is present with them in the temple, all will be well. They cannot imagine that the Lord will allow Jerusalem to be devastated and the temple to be razed. They consider their covenant relationship with the Lord as their ultimate protection—surely Yahweh will not desert his people.
But the Lord has pled with the people—and wheedled and coaxed. The Lord has laid out the people’s sins before them and warned of the consequences if they continued in that way. The Lord has sent Jeremiah to plead with the people, and Jeremiah has stood in the gate of the temple, proclaiming, “Don’t trust in lying words, saying, The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh” (7:4)
Jeremiah told the people that, if they amend their ways, Yahweh will dwell with them (7:7). He outlined their sins (7:8ff.) and warned that Yahweh would cast them out of his sight if they continued in their sins (7:15)—for “the children of Judah have done that which is evil in my sight, says Yahweh” (7:30).
So in this verse Yahweh/Jeremiah warn that the people should not assume that the presence of the temple will protect them. It will not. They have embraced false security.
JEREMIAH 8:19c. WHY HAVE THEY PROVOKED ME TO ANGER?
19c “Why have they provoked me to anger with their engraved images, and with foreign vanities?”
This is the voice of Yahweh, assuring the people of Judah that he is, indeed, present, but they should find no comfort in that, because he is angry with them.
JEREMIAH 8:20. AND WE ARE NOT SAVED
20“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
Thompson thinks that this verse is derived from a popular saying that is used to speak of a hopeless situation (Thompson, 306).
This is the voice of the people, who are coming to awareness (finally) that they are in trouble. There are two harvests—the grain harvest in early summer and the fruit and vegetable harvest later in the summer. If the people are to prosper, they need both harvests to be successful. If either harvest falters significantly, the people will face the prospect of hunger. If both harvests fail, they will face the prospect of starvation.
But the harvest of this verse is metaphorical. The people are being confronted by the fact that they are bankrupt spiritually, and that their spiritual bankruptcy will have consequences at least as serious as a failed harvest.
JEREMIAH 8:21-22. FOR THE HURT OF MY PEOPLE AM I HURT
21“For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt: I mourn; dismay has taken hold on me. 22 Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there? Why then isn’t the health of the daughter of my people recovered?”
This is either the voice of Jeremiah or Yahweh speaking through Jeremiah.
The people are about to experience punishment for their sins—punishment that will lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, the razing of the temple, and the exile of the people to Babylonia. Yahweh gave them ample warning, but they disregarded it. Yahweh gave them a way out, but they ignored it. They are about to get what they deserve.
But that gives no pleasure to Yahweh or Jeremiah. They are grieving as a parent grieves for a wayward child who is suffering. As noted above, there is no joy in being right when the beloved is suffering.
Gilead was a mountainous region on the east side of the Jordan River. It was known for a healing balm made from the resin of one of its trees.
Yes, there is balm in Gilead. Yes, there are physicians there. But the problems of the people of Judah are beyond the reach of those traditional remedies. They need someone who can bring healing that goes beyond skin-depth—healing that reaches to the core of their being. Only Yahweh can bring such healing. Yahweh has, in fact, tried. Yahweh has done everything possible to persuade them to turn from their evil ways, but they have refused. Therefore, they remain spiritually ill, and are about to enter into a time of terrible suffering.
JEREMIAH 9:1. OH THAT MY EYES WERE A SPRING OF TEARS
9:1“Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a spring of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!”
This is either the voice of Jeremiah or Yahweh speaking through Jeremiah. Both Yahweh and Jeremiah are grieving at the destruction about to befall Judah. Their grief is such at it occupies them day and night. “There are not enough tears to equal the disaster that lies ahead” (Miller, 648).
Most commentaries group this verse with verses 2 and 3, where Yahweh expresses his rage at this people and their sins. They are adulterers, treacherous men who “proceed from evil to evil” (v. 3).
Any parent of a wayward child will recognize this pairing of grief and rage.
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)
Holbert, John C., 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)
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)
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