Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 51:59-61 and Related

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Jeremiah 51:59-61 and Related

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Seraiah's Mission

Jeremiah 50-51 is a long prophecy against Babylon. At the end of the prophecy is an account of the context in which it was first delivered (Jeremiah 51:59-64). Though obviously written down after the prophecy itself, this reading starts with part of this account (verses 59-61) to give us that context up front.

The time frame is the fourth year of Zedekiah, 593 B.C. The Jewish king, we are informed, traveled to Babylon at this time. As was suggested in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Jeremiah 29, Zedekiah may have made this trip to allay Nebuchadnezzar's concerns over his involvement in the international plotting addressed in chapter 27. Whatever the reason for the journey, we are told that Zedekiah is accompanied by Seraiah the son of Neriah (Jeremiah 51:59), apparently the brother of Jeremiah's scribe Baruch. Seraiah was serving as the "quartermaster" or, as the Contemporary English Version translates the term, "the officer in charge of arranging for places to stay overnight" ("quiet prince" in the King James Version is evidently a mistranslation).

Prior to the departure of the entourage, Jeremiah writes on a scroll what God has revealed to him about the future downfall of Babylon—the words recorded in Jeremiah 50:1-51:58. The prophet sends the scroll with Seraiah to read aloud when he gets to Babylon. No doubt, God intends that a representative number of Babylonians hear this message, as there are numerous statements in it addressed directly to Babylon. However, His main purpose in directing Jeremiah to send the message to Babylon is probably to console the Jewish captives there.

"Move From the Midst of Babylon"

The Neo-Babylonian Empire of the Chaldeans would be destroyed. Repeated reference is made to an assembly of nations invading Babylon from the north (Jeremiah 50:3, Jeremiah 50:9, Jeremiah 50:41; Jeremiah 51:48). In the next chapter we will see that one of the principal nations involved in this invasion is that of the Medes (Jeremiah 51:11, Jeremiah 51:28), who were located to the northeast of Babylon in ancient times. This must surely refer in part to what happened 54 years later, in 539 B.C., when Cyrus of Persia, in alliance with the Medes, defeated the Chaldeans and took over their empire.

However, while these two chapters of Jeremiah portray a violent overthrow of the city of Babylon, "the Nabonidus Chronicle, a text describing the fall of Babylon, reports that 'Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle'" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Jeremiah 51:29-32). The Expositor's Bible Commentary states: "It has troubled some scholars that chapters 50-51 predict the violent destruction of Babylon, whereas its defeat by Cyrus in 539 B.C. took place without a battle and with no damage to the city. But as with other predictive prophecies, if a fulfillment does not occur in one period, it is to be sought for in another and future one" (introductory notes on chap. 50).

Indeed, these two chapters also show that Babylon would be left desolate and perpetually uninhabited (Jeremiah 50:39-40; Jeremiah 51:43). And yet the Persians made it their winter capital. Some, therefore, look to events that followed. "Cyrus took away its supremacy. Darius Hystaspes [a later successor of Cyrus] deprived it, when it rebelled, of its fortifications" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on 50:39). His successor, Xerxes, sacked Babylon in 497 B.C. This best fits the picture of Jeremiah 50-51 in an ancient context. Still, Alexander later resurrected the city as an Asian capital. His successor in the region, Seleucus, made it his capital for a while but soon relocated. "Seleucus Nicanor removed its citizens and wealth to Seleucia, which he founded in the neighborhood; and the Parthians [later] removed all that was left to Ctesiphon. Nothing but its walls was left under the Roman emperor [H]adrian" (JFB Commentary, note on 50:39).

Yet even this does not fully fit the utter destruction and sense of desolation that is prophesied. We should compare Jeremiah's prophecy with what we saw earlier in Isaiah 13. The mention of wild animals living at the site is found in both Jeremiah 50:39 and Isaiah 13:21-22. Now note the verse that follows in Jeremiah: "'As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighbors,' says the LORD, 'So no one shall reside there, nor son of man dwell in it" (verse 40). Compare that with Isaiah 13:19-20: "And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It will never be inhabited, nor will it be settled from generation to generation..." And notice particularly the end of the verse: "...nor will the Arabian pitch tents there, nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds there." This just has not come to pass on the site of ancient Babylon. Bedouins have ranged over the area for centuries. People involved in archeological excavation have lived at the site in more recent times. Moreover, in the past several years, Saddam Hussein of Iraq began a monumental restoration project at ancient Babylon, even though Jeremiah prophesied that none of the city's stones would be used for rebuilding (Jeremiah 51:26). And certainly people have been living at the site to carry this out.

How do we explain this? As was pointed out in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 13, the prophecy there was primarily referring to the fall of end-time Babylon—the coming European-centered economic, politico-military and religious world power bloc called the "Beast" and "Babylon" in the book of Revelation. So it is with these chapters of Jeremiah as well. Notice the phrase "daughter of Babylon" (Jeremiah 50:42), wording that indicates an end-time counterpart to the original (compare Isaiah 47:1, Isaiah 47:5). The expression "Behold, the days are coming," points to events that are yet future (Jeremiah 51:47; Jeremiah 51:52). We can especially see the latter-day context here in the references to the return and restoration of both Judah and Israel (Jeremiah 50:4-5, Jeremiah 50:19-20; Jeremiah 51:5)—which has never happened.

Thus, while much of Jeremiah 50-51 is applicable to ancient times—as is clear from the references to Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 50:17; Jeremiah 51:34) and the fact that Jeremiah sent Seraiah to read the prophecy to people of that time—these chapters also point to events that are yet future. "Babylon was employed as the rod in God's hand for the chastising of all the other nations, and now at length that rod shall be thrown into the fire. The destruction of Babylon by Cyrus was foretold, long before it came to its height, by Isaiah, and now again, when it has come to its height, by Jeremiah.... And as [with] Isaiah's prophecies...Jeremiah's prophecies of the same events seem designed to point at the apocalyptic triumphs...over the New-Testament Babylon, many passages in the Revelation being borrowed hence" (Matthew Henry's Commentary,introductory notes on Jeremiah 50).

With this in mind, let us notice some of the particulars in the first part of the prophecy, chapter 50. (We will go through the rest of the prophecy in the next reading.)

Verse 2 mentions the Babylonian deity names Bel (which, like Baal, means "Lord") and Merodach (the Hebraic form of Marduk, chief god of Babylon). These names referred to the same deity—often styled Bel-Marduk. It and the other false gods of Babylon are referred to using a word translated "images" (NKJV) or "idols" (NIV), but which actually denotes "dung pellets" or "animal droppings" (Expositor's, note and footnote on verse 2; Nelson, note on verses 2-3). Idols are utterly revolting to the true God and should be to everyone else as well. God actually refers to the worship of idols as "insane" (verse 38)—completely irrational.

Interestingly, the humiliation and shame foretold for Babylon's gods in verse 2 (compare Jeremiah 51:44, 47, 52) did not come with Cyrus' takeover—except in the sense that they were powerless to prevent it. For Cyrus allowed their temples and priests to continue unmolested. But the idols were "broken in pieces," as it says, by Xerxes, whose attack was directed at the Babylonian religious establishment. In a modern context, Bel-Marduk or Baal has come down to us as the false "Lord" of the Babylonian counterfeit Christianity (see Revelation 17). This religious system still worships powerless idols. But these idols will be utterly destroyed at the coming of the trueLord to rule all nations.

God issues warnings to His people to leave Babylon so as not to be corrupted by it and suffer its destruction (verse 8; Jeremiah 51:6, 45; compare Isaiah 48:20). This was not meant in a literal sense for the time Jeremiah's prophecy was given. We can be sure of that because he had already written to the captives instructing them to settle down where they were (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Furthermore, they could not leave until they were later freed. Certainly the message would still have applied in a figurative, spiritual sense—that is, though they dwelt in Babylon, they were to come out of its ways. On the other hand, the instruction to leave would have applied literally once the Jews were eventually freed. That is, they needed to leave Babylon before it was afterward sacked. Most significantly, the same warning is issued regarding end-time Babylon in Revelation 18:4: "Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues."

As mentioned, God would bring great forces against the Babylonians. They are pictured as archers (Jeremiah 50:9, Jeremiah 50:14, Jeremiah 50:29, Jeremiah 50:42; Jeremiah 51:3)—though sword, lance and ax are also mentioned. The shooting of arrows may relate to Persian forces elsewhere described with bow and quiver (Jeremiah 49:35; Isaiah 22:6). This probably meant literal bows and arrows in the ancient application of this prophecy. But what about an end-time fulfillment? Perhaps the image is simply one of dealing destruction from afar. The "arrows" or "missiles" used in today's warfare are mechanical ones. Note this statement: "Their arrows shall be like those of an expert warrior; none shall return in vain" (Jeremiah 50:9). This almost sounds like modern smart missiles.

Verse 17 says that Israel has been partially devoured and scattered by the king of Assyria and is being finished off, so to speak, by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. This definitely applied to Jeremiah's day. "Therefore," God says in the next verse, "...I will punish the king of Babylon and his land." This seems to still be referring to Nebuchadnezzar. And indeed, God did punish him by causing him to go crazy for seven years (see Daniel 4). However, God then restored him to sanity and glory—and Nebuchadnezzar never saw the fall of Babylon. So perhaps a successor ruler is meant. Belshazzar was killed at the time of the Medo-Persian takeover for his arrogant defiance (Daniel 5).

Yet this verse, Jeremiah 50:17, may also have an end-time application—and it does seem to, given its juxtaposition with the verses that follow concerning Israel's future return. "Nebuchadnezzar" could denote not just the ruler with that name in Jeremiah's day, but also an end-time Babylonian ruler of any name (for just as a prophecy of a future Elijah in Malachi 4 did not refer to Elijah himself, but simply to one in the same spirit, so it could be in this case). In fact, the name itself could have broader application. Consider that, according to some scholars, "the -ezzar of Nebuchadnezzar means Assyria, and appears in such words as Nabonassar, Bel-ch-azzar, Nebo-pol-assar, Tiglath-Pil-eser, Esar-haden, and so on.... Nebuchadnezzar is Nebo-chah-adun-Assar (Nebo, royal prince-of Assyria)" (E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898, "Nebuchadnezzar"). Nebo was a god whose name meant prophet or spokesman, thus equating him with the Greek Hermes or Roman Mercury, messenger of the gods. So Nebuchadnezzar ("Spokesman for the god of this world, royal prince of Assyria") could conceivably be a general descriptor for the end-time Assyro-Babylonian "Beast" dictator. Even if not, the original Nebuchadnezzar was certainly a precursor of this future ruler. Just as Nebuchadnezzar's pride brought God's punishment on him, once again we see pride and haughtiness as a major reason the wrath of God will be unleashed on the end-time Babylon (verses 29-32).

In verse 21, Merathaim, "i.e., 'double rebellion'—signifies Babylon. Southern Babylon was known as mat marrati ('Land of the Bitter River'). 'Pekod' means 'visitation' or 'punishment.' An eastern Babylonian tribe was named Puqudu" (Expositor's, note on verse 21). The JFB Commentary says Pekod was "a chief province of Assyria, in which Nineveh, now overthrown, once lay.... The visitation on Babylon was a following up of that on Assyria" (note on verse 21).

Babylon is to receive "the vengeance of the LORD our God, the vengeance of His temple," which the Babylonians destroyed (verse 28). The end-time Babylonians will also defile the temple through the setting up within it of the future "abomination of desolation" (see Matthew 24:15). Jeremiah 51 mentions the shame suffered by the Jews because "strangers have come into the sanctuaries of the LORD's house" (verse 51). As this provokes divine vengeance on Babylon's "carved images" (verse 52), perhaps such images will be set up in God's temple.

The drying up of waters in Jeremiah 50:38 refers, at least in part, to the diversion of the River Euphrates by Cyrus as a means of access into Babylon. This was explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 45:1. As was further explained there, the Euphrates will also be dried up in the end time in preparation for the final destruction of Babylon (see Revelation 16:12).

As already stated, Babylon will be left wasted and desolate. In an end-time context, this would appear to refer to the capital of the future empire, probably Rome. Notice again the description of wild animals dwelling there (Jeremiah 50:39; compare Jeremiah 51:37; Isaiah 13:21-22; Jeremiah 14:23). While probably literal on one level, The Expositor's Bible Commentary reports that at least one scholar "attempts to render the assonance of tsiim 'eth 'yim (siyyim etiyyim, 'desert creatures and hyenas') by 'goblins and ghouls'.... [Another scholar] considered them, not as animals, but probably demons of the desert" (footnote on Jeremiah 50:39). This is certainly interesting given the parallel—as mentioned in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 14:23—with Revelation 18:2, which mentions the future Babylon becoming "a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!" (the latter also apparently referring to demons). This parallels the abyss or bottomless pit where Satan and his demons are confined after they are bound at Christ's return (Revelation 20:1-3).

Jeremiah 50:44-46 is adapted from the prophecy against Edom in 49:19-21, substituting Babylon for Edom (Review the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on this other passage for alternative suggestions regarding its meaning.)