The Battle of Carchemish
Jeremiah 46:1 introduces a section of prophecies against other nations (Jeremiah 46-51), starting with Egypt. Though grouped together, these various prophecies were actually delivered at different times, as some of them are clearly dated. Jeremiah 46 contains two prophecies against Egypt, but we are reading only the first one, relating to the battle of Carchemish. (The second prophecy appears to have been given in a later context.)
Recall that in 609 B.C., just after the death of Josiah, Babylonian-led forces under King Nabopolassar "repelled the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies [under Pharaoh Necho] who attempted to recapture Haran, and drove them west across the Euphrates River. For the next three years the Babylonians were preoccupied with the task of dealing with Urartu [Armenia] in order to open trade routes and secure the northern frontiers. [It was during this time that Syria and Judah became Egyptian-controlled territories, Jehoiakim of Judah serving as a vassal king under Necho.] At last Nabopolassar turned to the only remaining Assyrian stronghold, Carchemish, and in 605 defeated Assyria once and for all and forced Egypt to withdraw from north Syria. This major blow at Carchemish was struck not by Nabopolassar personally, but by his young son and commander in chief, Nebuchadnezzar [who would very shortly become king of Babylon]. Not satisfied with the defeat of Neco and his Egyptian hosts, the energetic prince pursued them across the Euphrates and all the way to Hamath" (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, p. 450).
This is the historical context of the events described in the first prophecy of Jeremiah 46. It appears to have been recorded here after the fact (compare verse 2) but originally spoken or written by Jeremiah at the very time the battle of Carchemish was being engaged (compare verses 3-10). Perhaps God gave the prophet a vision of what was actually occurring far away.
Until 1956, the "battle of Carchemish" rested entirely on biblical evidence, although Greek records indicated a major struggle. Then, in 1956, J.D. Wiseman discovered a Babylonian tablet that gave details of the battle, confirming the Biblical account. "In [Leonard] Woolley's excavations at Carchemish a large private house was examined and produced finds bearing on these times. Bronze figurines of Egyptian gods...[and] clay seals...bearing the name of Necho himself came to light, thus giving mute evidence of the presence of the Egyptians there" (Emil Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas, 1956, p. 312).
Verses 3-4 show the proud, well-armed force of Necho coming forward only to turn and flee in verse 5. In verse 6, God orders pursuit by the Babylonians of the fleeing force. Verses 7-10 then recap the scene. Egypt's army surges forward like a flooding river (verses 7-8). "The figure is appropriate in addressing Egyptians, as the Nile, their great river, yearly overspreads their lands with a turbid, muddy flood. So their army, swelling with arrogance, shall overspread the region south of Euphrates; but it, like the Nile, shall retreat as fast as it advanced" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 7). Verse 9 mentions foreign mercenary forces serving in the Egyptian army.
Verse 10 declares that the Egyptian defeat is God's vengeance—perhaps for the death of Josiah. The "day of the LORD" reference here is also interesting to consider. While it applied to the immediate situation of Necho's defeat, perhaps it also referred to events far in the future. We know from other prophecies that Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya of the end time will be devastated by an invading force from the north, the final successor of ancient Babylon (see Daniel 11:40-43).
In verses 11-12 of Jeremiah 46, the Egyptian army is told to go to Gilead for its famous healing balm. Perhaps this was telling the Egyptians to retreat south (where Gilead was in relation to Carchemish) and nurse their wounds, as they actually did in a way, fleeing south to Hamath, their Syrian headquarters. But there was no cure for them as God was behind their defeat. The Egyptian forces were unable to hold out at Hamath and again fled south. The reference to the balm of Gilead is similar to the one in Jeremiah 8:22, where God uses it as an illustration to His own people that there is no healing for those who rebel against Him. Certainly God is no respecter of persons, so the Egyptians would suffer the same humiliation that Judah had. And so will the enemies of God's people in the end time.