Disaster From the North (4:1–31)
1–2 These first two verses are a continuation of the previous chapter; the northern Israelites have confessed their sins (Jeremiah 3:23–25), and now the Lord tells them that if their repentance is genuine—if they swear on oath27 that they will remove their idols and obey Him—then the promise God made to ABRAHAM will be fulfilled (Genesis 12:3; 22:18): an obedient Israel will be a source of blessing to the nations (verse 2).
3–4 Here the Lord turns to the people of Judah and Jerusalem particularly; in contrast to the northern kingdom, whose punishment had already occurred, Judah’s punishment was yet to come. But it could still be averted if Judah’s people repented. Using three figures of speech, the Lord tells them what they must do. They must break up their unplowed ground—that is, they must soften their hardened hearts. They must avoid sowing among thorns (verse 3)—that is, they must avoid entanglement in the cares of the world (Matthew 13:7,22). And they must circumcise their hearts (verse 4)—they must purify their hearts and consecrate them to the Lord28 (see Deuteronomy 10:16; Romans 2:28–29). In effect, the Lord was saying to the people of Judah: “You need new hearts.”
5–9 The remainder of the chapter deals with God’s impending judgment against unrepentant Judah: the Lord is bringing disaster from the north (verse 6)—namely, a Babylonian invasion. The Lord’s word to Jeremiah is so certain that the prophet speaks as if the invasion has already started: a lion (Babylon) has come out of his lair (verse 7). Jeremiah tells the people to put on sackcloth (a sign of repentance and mourning) in order to turn away the Lord’s fierce anger (verse 8). In that day (verse 9)—in the “day of the Lord”29—the judgment on Judah will be terrible if its people do not repent.
10–12 Jeremiah then says to the Lord: “Ah . . . how completely you have deceived this people” (verse 10). The Lord hadn’t deceived them; the false prophets had deceived them by saying, “You will have peace” (see Jeremiah 6:13–14; 14:13–14). However, the Lord had allowed the false prophets to say this, and so indirectly He was responsible.30 The Lord responds in verse 11 by saying, in effect, that Judah will have no PEACE. Instead, a scorching wind of judgment will come; it will be too strong a wind for winnowing (separating chaff from the grain) because it will blow everything away—the good along with the bad.31
13–18 In his vision, Jeremiah sees the enemy coming (verse 13); but still the people have a chance to repent and be saved (verse 14). However, time is running out (verse 15); already word of this invasion is being relayed from Dan (the northernmost tribe of Israel) and from Ephraim (the tribe just north of Judah). The enemy forces surround Judah (verse 17). And Judah has brought this upon itself because of its rebellion against God (verse 18).
19–26 In this section (except for verse 22), Jeremiah is the speaker.32 First, in verses 19–21, Jeremiah reveals his personal anguish as he envisions the disaster that is falling on Judah, on his people. He asks: How long must I see the battle standard of the enemy? (verse 21). And in verse 22, the Lord answers, in effect: “As long as your people keep sinning.” The Lord says the people are fools . . . skilled in doing evil.33 It appears that there is little hope for them.
Notice Jeremiah’s deep love for his people and also his faithfulness in conveying God’s stern message to them. In a sense, Jeremiah was standing between God and the people, suffering on behalf of both. In this, Jeremiah was a forerunner of Jesus, who became the Mediator between God and men, and who suffered in order to bring salvation to the world (1 Timothy 2:5).
In verses 23–26, Jeremiah has a vision of the earth returning to its most primitive state, formless and empty and without light (see Genesis 1:2). It is as if the Lord had “uncreated” the earth! The fruitful land that God had given His people existed no more (verse 26).
27–28 But all is not lost! God in His mercy will spare part of the land—just as He will spare a “remnant” of His people (see Isaiah 10:20–23; Jeremiah 3:14). However, most of the land will be destroyed; God will not relent (verse 28)—unless the people repent.
29–31 Here again Jeremiah envisions the final days of Judah. He is shocked to see many in Judah resorting to the tricks of a prostitute; since they can’t beat the Babylonians, they try to entice them to become their lovers (verse 30). But it does not work.
Instead, the people of Judah have become like a woman dying in childbirth (verse 31). She is called the Daughter of Zion, a personification of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Such is the fate of Judah and Jerusalem revealed in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision.
We should note again the cause of Judah’s fall: it was the sin of its people followed by God’s inevitable judgment upon them. This same cause continues to play a major role in the rise and fall of nations today. The fundamental reason for the deterioration and fall of any nation is always this: its people have turned away from God. It’s true that wicked nations may last a long time and righteous people may suffer unjustly; but in the end God will even the scales, and eternal justice will be done.
Let us note one other thing: there may come a time when we are required, like Jeremiah, to warn someone concerning his or her sin and its inevitable consequences. If that time comes, let us give our warning with agony of heart (verse 19), without a hint of pleasure or pride. We need to remember that God’s desire is not to punish people but to heal them, not to condemn people but to save them. That same desire must be ours as well.