The Waistband and the Wine Jugs
We turn back now to chapter 13 of Jeremiah, as most of what it describes—starting in verse 6 and continuing to the end of the chapter—appears to fall during the three-month reign of the 18-year-old Jeconiah, who was apparently heavily guided in his rule by his mother Nehushta (compare verse 18; Jeremiah 22:24-27; Jeremiah 29:2; 2 Kings 24:8, 12). The events of the first five verses of Jeremiah 13, however, likely happened during the reign of Jeconiah's father Jehoiakim, as we will see—perhaps soon after the events of chapters 11 and 12.
God starts out telling Jeremiah to obtain a linen "girdle" (13:1, KJV). There is a difference of opinion as to exactly what this piece of clothing was. Many say the Hebrew here should be translated belt. Some say sash. Others contend that a waistcloth, or loincloth, is meant. Still others argue for a skirt or kilt, or even shorts. It is not clear whether the girdle was decorative outerwear or an undergarment. What is clear is that it was worn around the waist (verses 2, 4, 11). This was to symbolize Israel and Judah, which God had bound to Himself by covenant—and which relied on clinging to God's very being to be "held up," so to speak (compare verse 11).
The waistband would also have been valuable. All of this was fitting symbolism for Israel and Judah. "Linen was a costly material (Isaiah 3:23-24), often imported from Egypt (Proverbs 7:16). The Israelites generally reserved its use for making exquisite furnishings, such as those in the sacred tent [the tabernacle] (Exodus 26:1, 31, 13), and fine garments, such as those worn by the priests (Exodus 28:39) or a favored person (Esther 8:15; Ezra 16:10-13)" ("A Waste of Fine Material," The Word in Life Bible, sidebar on Jeremiah 13:1-11). Israel, rescued from Egypt and supported by God, was to be a special treasure and chosen priesthood. The waistband was not supposed to get wet (verse 1), as this would cause it to begin deteriorating.
God then instructs Jeremiah to take the waistband to the River Euphrates (Hebrew Perath) far to the north and hide it in a hole. "This would have meant a round-trip journey of some seven hundred miles—a trip that would have taken two to three months" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 3-5). And Jeremiah ends up going twice. Not believing that the prophet would have left his responsibilities in Judah for so long, some commentators argue that Perath should in this instance be rendered Ephrathah (another name for Bethlehem) or Parah (a town of Benjamin, Joshua 18:23), both of which were quite near Jerusalem. Yet the Euphrates seems far more likely.
First of all, Perath normally denotes the Euphrates in Scripture. The objection that Jeremiah would not have left his duties for so long is improper reasoning since his duty would always be to go where God told him. Consider also that Jeremiah preached for many, many years in Judah—so an absence of a few months is not at all unreasonable. God could even have supernaturally sped up Jeremiah's journey if time was a factor.
Most important, however, is the symbolism of the Euphrates. The land promised to Israel actually extended all the way to the Euphrates (Exodus 23:31; Deuteronomy 11:24)—and reached as far in the days of David and Solomon (2 Samuel 8:3, 2 Samuel 8: 6; 1 Kings 4:21, 1 Kings 4:24). Beyond the Euphrates was the territory of the Mesopotamian powers—previously Assyria and now Babylon. The Euphrates itself was the crossing point. The "hiding" of the waistband there would seem to imply God's people seeking refuge and help from the powers of Mesopotamia. This was true of their national alliances. It was also true religiously, since the false gods the people worshiped originated in Babylon. The people of Israel were ultimately taken beyond the Euphrates themselves—in captivity. And the same would soon befall the people of Judah.
(Interestingly, the Euphrates continues to play a part in Bible prophecy right to the end of the age of mankind—see Revelation 16:12-14.)
The expression "after many days" in Jeremiah 13:6 could actually mean that Jeremiah didn't return to the Euphrates until years later. If a few months of travel were required for the journey, the events of the first part of the chapter must have happened prior to Jeconiah's three-month reign—thus sometime during his father's reign.
Spending years in a hole by a river—far away from its owner—there was no way the waistband would not get wet and dirty and thus suffer damage. Indeed, Jeremiah finds it rotted and worthless. This parallels what happened to Israel and Judah: "Rather than clinging to the Lord, the people chose to worship idols (Jeremiah 13:10). They became as useless to God as Jeremiah's rotten linen belt was to him. The processes in [the physical realm of] creation often parallel the realities of the spiritual realm. Spiritual decay may not be as obvious as the damage of moisture to buried cloth, but the results are even worse.... Jeremiah's ruined belt still paints a vivid picture of our ruined condition [when we fail to cling to God and His ways]" ("INDepth: Jeremiah's Symbolic Acts, Nelson Study Bible, sidebar on Jeremiah 13).
God then tells Jeremiah to say to the people, "Every wine jug is to be filled with wine"—to which the people basically respond, "Of course they are" (compare verse 12). Commentators believe the statement Jeremiah made was a proverb of the time. Some think it meant "good times ahead"—and that the complacent Jews were saying they already knew this (indeed, the false prophets had told them so). Yet it may also be that the statement was a proverb denoting a truism—that wine jugs were made to hold wine. Either way, the common understanding of this proverb was not what God meant by it. He meant that the people, as the wine jugs, were going to be filled with His wrath until they reeled as if drunk: "As wine intoxicates, so God's wrath and judgments shall reduce them to that state of helpless distraction that they shall rush on to their own ruin (Jeremiah 25:15; Jeremiah 49:12; Isaiah 51:17, 21, 22; Isaiah 63:6)" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on Jeremiah 13:12).
In verse 17, we again see Jeremiah's tremendous heart of feeling. As bold as his pronouncements have been, he knows he will deeply lament with weeping when his countrymen are carried away captive.
We then see a message for the king and queen mother (verse 18)—again, most likely Jeconiah and Nehushta. They would be exiled to Babylon very soon. The mention of the "cities of the South" in Judah (verse 19) is evidently to point out that even these—though located the farthest away from northern invasion (see verse 20)—will be shut up in a siege that no one will break. And all Judah—the whole land—will be taken captive.
The nation will be stripped of her people and violated (verses 20-22, 26). God depicts the sins of Jerusalem as a prostitute that has no shame—sentenced for adultery and immorality, having forgotten Him to whom they were bound by covenant and trusting in false idols (verses 25, 27).
God speaks a now-famous proverb in verse 23—concerning Ethiopian skin color and leopard spots—that implies people cannot change their character and live rightly. "Habit is second nature...it is morally impossible that the Jews can alter their inveterate habits of sin" (JFB, note on verse 23). Yet notice God's remarkable statement at the end of the chapter: "Woe to you, O Jerusalem! Will you still not be made clean?" (verse 27). The fact is, while the Jews were incapable of transforming themselves into people of right character, they actually could "be made clean"—through the miraculous power of God. Yet they had to respond to Him and cling to Him for this to happen. But alas, they did not.
The same situation remains true for everyone. While the normal human mind is hostile against God and cannot be subject to His law (Romans 8:7), through the transforming power of God we can be changed. Indeed, we must be changed. That is the message of the whole Bible.