By the civil message which the king sent to Jeremiah it appeared that both he and the people began to have a respect for him, which it would have been Jeremiah’s policy to make some advantage of for himself; but the reply which God obliges him to make is enough to crush the little respect they begin to have for him, and to exasperate them against him more than ever. Not only the predictions in the Jer. 21:1-7, but the prescriptions in these, were provoking; for here,
I. He advises the people to surrender and desert to the Chaldeans, as the only means left them to save their lives, Jer. 21:8-10. This counsel was very displeasing to those who were flattered by their false prophets into a desperate resolution to hold out to the last extremity, trusting to the strength of their walls and the courage of their soldiery to keep out the enemy, or to their foreign aids to raise the siege. The prophet assures them, “The city shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall not only plunder it, but burn it with fire, for God himself hath set his face against this city for evil and not for good, to lay it waste and not to protect it, for evil which shall have no good mixed with it, no mitigation or merciful allay; and therefore, if you would make the best of bad, you must beg quarter of the Chaldeans, and surrender prisoners of war.” In vain did Rabshakeh persuade the Jews to do this while they had God for them (Isa. 36:16), but it was the best course they could take now that God was against them. Both the law and the prophets had often set before them life and death in another sense—life if they obey the voice of God, death if they persist in disobedience, Deut. 30:19. But they had slighted that life which would have made them truly happy, to upbraid them with which the prophet here uses the same expression (Jer. 21:8): Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death, which denotes not, as that, a fair proposal, but a melancholy dilemma, advising them of two evils to choose the less; and that less evil, a shameful and wretched captivity, is all the life now left for them to propose to themselves. He that abides in the city, and trusts to that to secure him, shall certainly die either by the sword without the walls or famine or pestilence within. But he that can so far bring down his spirit, and quit his vain hopes, as to go out, and fall to the Chaldeans, his life shall be given him for a prey; he shall save his life, but with much difficulty and hazard, as a prey is taken from the mighty. It is an expression like that, He shall be saved, yet so as by fire. He shall escape but very narrowly, or he shall have such surprising joy and satisfaction in escaping with his life from such a universal destruction as shall equal theirs that divide the spoil. They thought to make a prey of the camp of the Chaldeans, as their ancestors did that of the Assyrians (Isa. 33:23), but they will be sadly disappointed; if by yielding at discretion they can but save their lives, that is all the prey they must promise themselves. Now one would think this advice from a prophet, in God’s name, should have gained some credit with them and been universally followed; but, for aught that appears, there were few or none that took it; so wretchedly were their hearts hardened, to their destruction.
II. He advises the king and princes to reform, and make conscience of the duty of their place. Because it was the king that sent the message to him, in the reply there shall be a particular word for the house of the king, not to compliment or court them (that was no part of the prophet’s business, no, not when they did him the honour to send to him), but to give them wholesome counsel (Jer. 21:11, 12): “Execute judgment in the morning; do it carefully and diligently. Those magistrates that would fill up their place with duty had need rise betimes. Do it quickly, and do not delay to do justice upon appeals made to you, and tire out poor petitioners as you have done. Do not lie in your beds in a morning to sleep away the debauch of the night before, nor spend the morning in pampering the body (as those princes, Eccl. 10:16), but spend it in the despatch of business. You would be delivered out of the hand of those that distress you, and expect that therein God should do you justice; see then that you do justice to those that apply to you, and deliver them out of the hand of their oppressors, lest my fury go out like fire against you in a particular manner, and you fare worst who think to escape best, because of the evil of your doings.” Now, 1. This intimates that it was their neglect to do their duty that brought all this desolation upon the people. It was the evil of their doings that kindled the fire of God’s wrath. Thus plainly does he deal even with the house of the king; for those that would have the benefit of a prophet’s prayers must thankfully take a prophet’s reproofs. 2. This directs them to take the right method for a national reformation. The princes must begin, and set a good example, and then the people will be invited to reform. They must use their power for the punishment of wrong, and then the people will be obliged to reform. He reminds them that they are the house of David, and therefore should tread in his steps, who executed judgment and justice to his people. 3. This gives them some encouragement to hope that there may yet be a lengthening of their tranquillity, Dan. 4:27. If any thing will recover their state from the brink of ruin, this will.
III. He shows them the vanity of all their hopes so long as they continued unreformed, Jer. 21:13, 14. Jerusalem is an inhabitant of the valley, guarded with mountains on all sides, which were their natural fortifications, making it difficult for an army to approach them. It is a rock of the plain, which made it difficult for an enemy to undermine them. These advantages of their situation they trusted to more than to the power and promise of God; and, thinking their city by these means to be impregnable, they set the judgments of God at defiance, saying, “Who shall come down against us? None of our neighbours dare make a descent upon us, or, if they do, who shall enter into our habitations?” They had some colour for this confidence; for it appears to have been the sense of all their neighbours that no enemy could force his way into Jerusalem, Lam. 4:12. But those are least safe that are most secure. God soon shows the vanity of that challenge, Who shall come down against us? when he says (Jer. 21:13), Behold, I am against thee. They had indeed by the wickedness driven God out of their city when he would have tarried with them as a friend; but they could not by their bulwarks keep them out of their city when he came against them as an enemy. If God be for us, who can be against us? But, if he be against us, who can be for us, to stand us in any stead? Nay, he comes against them not as an enemy that may lawfully and with some hope of success be resisted, but as a judge that cannot be resisted; for he says (Jer. 21:14), I will punish you, by due course of law, according to the fruit of your doings, that is, according to the merit of them and the direct tendency of them. That shall be brought upon you which is the natural product of sin. Nay, he will not only come with the anger of an enemy and the justice of a judge, but with the force of a consuming fire, which has no compassion, as a judge sometimes has, nor spares any thing combustible that comes in its way. Jerusalem has become a forest, in which God will kindle a fire that shall consume all before it; for our God is himself a consuming fire; and who is able to stand in his sight when once he is angry?