Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 42-43

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Jeremiah 42-43

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Fleeing to Egypt

Fearing a new Babylonian rampage through the land, the Jewish remnant deems it important to have God on their side. So they ask Jeremiah to pray for God's will to be revealed (verses 1-2). Yet it becomes apparent that what they really want is confirmation of what they have already made up their minds to do—flee to Egypt (see Jeremiah 43:2). "It is an insult to God to ask for his will, when a decision has already been made before his answer comes. Whoever prays with a closed mind might just as well not pray at all" (Harper Study Bible, note on Jeremiah 42:10). The people hadn't fooled God or Jeremiah. God knew they were hypocritical and essentially deceitful when they asked Jeremiah to pray for them (verse 20).

The response from God didn't come immediately. God doesn't always answer us when we want answers, but when He chooses. They didn't get the response they wanted. Even today, many pray for God to bless something that they want, rather than seek His will and accept what He gives. Some go to God's ministers as if seeking counsel, yet having already made up their minds, expecting the minister to support their stand and vindicate their planned actions. When the advice doesn't agree, they sometimes then become angry with the minister, perhaps even disparaging him. So it was with the Jews and Jeremiah at this time. They did not recognize that their stubbornness was the problem, not an "uncooperative" or "insensitive" servant of God.

Jeremiah 42:10 recalls the prophet's original commission: "to root out and pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant" (Jeremiah 1:10). If the Jewish remnant would obey God, He would relent of the judgment of bringing the group down but would rebuild them as a people in the Promised Land. This was always God's will—to bless and give an inheritance. Human rebellion impeded that.

Verse 11 of chapter 42 recalls another statement God made at the beginning of Jeremiah's call. There God told him not to fear any who would seek to harm him for God would be with him to deliver him (Jeremiah 1:8). Now God through Jeremiah says the same will be true for the Jewish remnant if the people will do what He says and remain in the Promised Land. Mastering the Old Testament says: "Think of the memories that would have rushed into Jeremiah's thoughts as he delivered these words, the same words delivered to him at the time of his call (Jeremiah 1:8). Truly he had experienced deliverance: from Pashhur's stocks, from Hananiah's accusations, from prison, from the mire of the cistern, and from Babylonian anger, but most of all he had been delivered from the temptation to compromise. No wonder there was such a resonance of faith in the words themselves as they flow on" (Vol. 17: Jeremiah, Lamentations by John Guest, 1993, note on verse 11).

Sadly, Jeremiah's obedient and steadfast character was not shared by the Jewish leaders who were left. Faith in God cannot be given to others; all must learn and chose it over time and in their own life experiences. In rebellion they left Judah and went to Egypt, taking with them Jeremiah and Baruch—presumably against their will as God had forbidden going there. Once again, the "king's daughters" are listed in the company. The group travels to Tahpanhes in Egypt. "The location of Tahpahnes is known, for the later Hellenized form of the name, Daphne, survives to this day in Tell Deffeneh, west of el Kantara. A prominent mound among the ruins was called by the natives 'Palace of the daughter of the Jew.' Some excavations were conducted there by Sir Flinders Petrie, which showed this 'palace' to have been a strong fort. However, there must also have been a palace of the Pharaoh here, for Jeremiah performed a symbolic action at its entrance...Ezekiel speaks of the pride of Tahpanhes (Ezekiel 30:18), but like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 43:9 f.) foresees the disaster for the city" (Emil Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas, 1956, p. 318).

Biblical historian Walter Kaiser gives further information on the location and what happened there: "The migrants came to Tahpanhes (Tell Dafanneh) in the northeastern delta of Egypt (Jeremiah 43:1-7). There Jeremiah took stones, at Yahweh's instruction, and hid them at the entry of the royal palace, predicting that God would one day bring Nebuchadnezzar to conquer this place and set his pavilion on that very spot (Jeremiah 43:8-13)... This site is twenty-seven miles southwest of Port Said. Sir Flinders Petrie excavated this site in 1883-94 and discovered the foundations of the castle there—perhaps the one mentioned in Jeremiah's symbolic action" (A History of Israel, 1988, pp. 411).

After burying the rocks, Jeremiah gives the Jews another warning from God. In referring to Nebuchadnezzar as "My servant" (verse 10; see also 25:9; 27:6), God is not, as noted in regard to the earlier references, stating that the Babylonian king is a godly king or that he gets his orders by direct revelation from God. All rulers, whether good or evil, have their power through God's ultimate oversight and direction of human affairs (Romans 13:1-6). God uses such rulers to deal with His people and to teach them lessons just as He used the Babylonians and Assyrians in dealing with Judah and Israel.

God will eventually deal with all nations who refuse to follow Him, and Egypt was no exception. Nebuchadnezzar would invade and lay waste to that country, too—incorporating it then into the Babylonian Empire. (Recall other prophecies of Egypt's destruction in Jeremiah 46 and Ezekiel 29-32). "A fragmentary [Babylonian] text in the British Museum indicates that Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Egypt occurred in the thirty-seventh year of his reign (568-567 B.C.)" (Expositor's,note on 43:10-11).

Verse 13 of chapter 43 refers to the sacred pillars of Beth Shemesh ("House [or temple] of the Sun"). There were a number of pre-Israelite settlements in Canaan known by this name, the most well known being on the northern border of Judah. But the one referred to here is in Egypt, known as Heliopolis in Greek and called On by the Egyptians.

"Heliopolis was perhaps most splendid in the Middle and New Kingdoms...when many pharaohs adorned its temples with obelisks. These were tall shafts, capped with miniature pyramids that caught the first and last rays of the sun" ("Heliopolis," The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, 1983, p. 233).

Many nations have their symbols of pride—their monuments, palaces and grand edifices that they perceive as symbols of strength—and Egypt was no exception. The sacred pillars or obelisks were symbols of Egypt's pride, and God would hit the nation right at its heart. "Jeremiah likens the ease with which Nebuchadnezzar would do these things to the casual way in which a shepherd wraps himself in his garment... The king of Egypt at this time was Pharaoh Hophra (cf. 44:30) [who is also known by the Greek form of his name, Apries]. The Babylonian historian Berossus confirms the conquest of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar" (Expositor's, note on 43:12).

"Since Heliopolis was indeed the city of obelisks ('sacred pillars'), it is clear why Jeremiah predicts their demolition. Some obelisks originally at On have been carried off to Alexandria, Rome, Istanbul, London and New York. Only one has been left at On" (footnote on verse 13).

Rather than be a place of refuge for the fleeing Judeans, Egypt will prove eventually to be a place for them of judgment and death—just as Jeremiah warned in chapter 42. As the book of Proverbs says, "Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way to death" (16:25, NRSV).

In the next chapter we'll see more of what Jeremiah had to say to these immigrants.