A covenant is a formal agreement between two parties that provides a proper basis for an ongoing relationship. Covenant-breaking is an act of unfaithfulness and is punishable. Israel has broken the Sinai covenant conditions; therefore, Yahweh's decision is to punish them. This theme is expressed here through prose sermons, poetic oracles, first-person speeches known as “confessions,” symbolic actions, and biographical accounts.
God's covenant relationship with Israel has a historical basis: he is the one who saved them from their bondage in Egypt. His curse is upon those who do not acknowledge his grace at work in their lives (11:1-5). Yahweh's salvation is not a license for God's people to live in the stubbornness of their evil hearts (vv. 6-8). Neither the intercession of Yahweh's spokesman nor rituals will save those who have abandoned their identity as people called by the grace of God to produce fruit worthy of their salvation (vv. 9-17; see 2:3)
Yahweh's faithfulness to Jeremiah in the midst of a treacherous plot against his life is the theme of 11:18-23. God watches over his word as well as his spokesman (see 1:12). This crisis was perhaps the context for Jeremiah's complaint expressed in 12:1-4. The prosperity of the wicked leads him to think that God is partial to those who pay lip service to him. However, Yahweh challenges Jeremiah to use this and future crises in life to build up his character and strength (vv. 5-6).
Yahweh's judgment is upon his house, which does not regard him as Lord (12:7-13). The nations are also under his judgment (v. 14). However, God's wrath does not remain forever. He is determined to reach out to his people with love and compassion and to restore them. The day of Israel's restoration (from their foreign captivity) is the setting for the salvation of the Gentiles. Implied here is the charge to the restored Israel to become “a light for the Gentiles” (Isa 49:6). God's desire is to save all those who acknowledge his lordship. Obedience of the nations is the primary condition for the fulfillment of this eschatological promise (vv. 15-17).
The message of Jeremiah's symbolic act (13:1-7) is stated in vv. 8-11. The primary responsibility of God's people who are bound to him through a covenant relationship (my people) is to be Yahweh's renown and praise and honor (v. 11) through their obedience and loyalty to him. The reasons for Yahweh's decision to remove the people of Judah from the place of their honor in the world are their pride (v. 9), wickedness, refusal to obey God, propensity to follow the plans of their own hearts, and alliances with other gods (v. 10).
Jeremiah reiterates the theme of judgment through the use of a popular proverb (13:12-14). The people of Judah are like empty wineskins, useless to God. They do not allow themselves to be filled with the Spirit that motivates them to be useful. Therefore, Yahweh intends to fill them with his wrathful spirit, a spirit of confusion and disillusionment, which would lead them to their destruction.
Pride is another cause of Judah's judgment (13:15-17). Pride prevents them from listening to Yahweh's voice and acknowledging him as the object of their praise and glory. Jeremiah warns that sinners cannot hope for salvation (light) when Yahweh brings his judgment (darkness) upon them. Jeremiah's agony over the disastrous consequence of Judah's pride is the same as in 9:1.
The lament over the royal family in 13:18-19 (most likely pronounced before they were taken to exile in 597 b.c.) is a challenge to show humility as the way of life for God's people. Humility of the leaders is an example for those who look up to them for guidance.
Jerusalem is addressed in 13:20-27. It is the leader among the cities of Judah. The coming judgment is the consequence of their sin, which is very much an inherent characteristic of their moral nature, like the spots on a leopard. They can do nothing whatsoever to free themselves from the power of their sinful nature. But as Clarke notes, “What is impossible to man is possible to God” (p. 293). What makes it difficult or impossible to be changed is their “obstinate refusal of the grace of God” (p. 293). V. 27 strongly conveys the willingness of Yahweh to cleanse his people and to set them free from their predicament (see RSV for a preferable reading of the awkward Hebrew idiom in v. 27b).
Judah's dependence on other gods (cisterns that cannot hold water, 2:13) for their existence, and their outright rejection of Yahweh (the spring of living water, 2:13) leaves Yahweh with no other option but to punish them with drought (14:1-6; see Dt 28:23-24). When calamity strikes them, they will turn to their gods (cisterns) for help, but they will be disappointed. Yahweh alone is the hope of Judah (see vv. 8, 22). Everyone and everything in the land will suffer the consequence of the sin of God's people.
Jeremiah's prayer of confession (14:7-9) is an example for the people to follow. Yahweh alone is the hope and Savior of Judah. He extends his help only when his people, who are called by his name, confess their sin and plead with him for mercy and forgiveness (see 2Ch 7:13-15). Yahweh indicts against his people (v. 10), who are undisciplined in their commitment to him. He has no other choice but to reject those who have rejected him.
Yahweh's decision to bring judgment upon Judah is final. The injunction to Jeremiah (14:11; see also 7:16; 11:14; 15:1) implies that unrepentant sinners cannot escape from Yahweh's final judgment through the prayer of the righteous. This is not an injunction against intercessory prayer aimed to elicit penitence and salvation. At this last moment, whatever actions the people may take also have no use (v. 12). Such actions are prompted by a sudden fear of judgment and not by a sincere desire to be restored to God.
Jeremiah objects to this injunction with the claim that the people are the victims of theological seduction by those who preach a shallow theology of God's grace (14:13). Yahweh's response (vv. 14-16) is an indictment against such preachers who are not divinely appointed communicators of the truth. They promote a theology that has its origin in their own mind and is falsehood therefore. The God of peace is also the God of judgment. Yahweh's judgment is upon both the seducers and the seduced.
The prophet again expresses agony over the severe calamities that are about to come upon the land (14:17-18; see 9:1; 13:17). The nation is called a virgin—one who has the potential to become a wife and a mother. She faces the threat of destruction by famine and enemy attack. The religious leaders (false prophets and priests) do not recognize the seriousness of divine judgment, and they remain unconcerned (see RSV for a preferable reading of v. 18b).
The prophet offers to his audience a model prayer that contains a confession of the sins of the present as well as of the past generations (14:19-22). Peace (šālôm) shall come to Zion only when genuine repentance characterizes Yahweh's people. Their hope rests on Yahweh's faithfulness to his covenant and on their acknowledgment of him as their God.
God's judgment against sinners, when it is ready to be carried out, cannot be averted by the intercessory prayer of the righteous (15:1-4). At this late moment, even Moses and Samuel (Israel's intercessors par excellence) would find it impossible to persuade Yahweh to be merciful to those who are destined to death and destruction. No one will have compassion for those who are rejected by Yahweh because of their persistent backsliding (vv. 5-9).
Yahweh's faithful spokesman is under the curse of the entire population. This rejection is painful and unbearable. Moreover, rejection leads to selfpity (15:10), hatred (v. 15), and self-righteousness (vv. 16-17). Jeremiah cannot help but question the genuineness of his whole religious experience, which began with his birth. What was once a source of his joy is now the cause of his pain. His despondency drives him to regard himself as a victim of deception by his God who seems to be aloof from him.
Yahweh's response to his spokesman (15:19-21) is a reminder of the harsh reality that a true prophet is without honor among his people (see Mt 13:57). Yet he must remain true to his calling and continue to speak Yahweh's word. This is what makes him truly an honorable person. Jeremiah is called here to repent of self-centeredness, which prompted him briefly to lose sight of his task. “I am with you” is the divine assurance to the one who experiences spiritual crisis. This promise alone is the real source of the inner strength that keeps persons of God faithful to their calling.