We have perused the contents of Jeremiah’s letter to the captives in Babylon, who had reason, with a great deal of thanks to God and him, to acknowledge the receipt of it, and lay it up among their treasures. But we cannot wonder if the false prophets they had among them were enraged at it; for it gave them their true character. Now here we are told concerning one of them,
I. How he manifested his malice against Jeremiah. This busy fellow is called Shemaiah the Nehelamite, the dreamer (so the margin reads it), because all his prophecies he pretended to have received from God in a dream. He had got a copy of Jeremiah’s letter to the captives, or had heard it read, or information was given to him concerning it, and it nettled him exceedingly; and he will take pen in hand, and answer it, yea, that he will. But how? He does not write to Jeremiah in justification of his own mission, nor offer any rational arguments for the support of his prophecies concerning the speedy return of the captives; but he writes to the priests, those faithful patrons of the false prophets, and instigates them to persecute Jeremiah. He writes in his own name, not so much as pretending to have the people’s consent to it; but, as if he must be dictator to all mankind, he sends a circular letter (as it should seem) among the priests at Jerusalem and the rest of the people, probably by the same messengers that brought the letter from Jeremiah. But it is chiefly directed to Zephaniah, who was either the immediate son of Maaseiah, or of the 24th course of the priests, of which Maaseiah was the father and head. He was not the high priest, but sagan or suffragan to the high priest, or in some other considerable post of command in the temple, as Pashur, Jer. 20:1. Perhaps he was chairman of that committee of priests that was appointed in a particular manner to take cognizance of those that pretended to be prophets, of which there were very many at this time, and to give judgment concerning them. Now, 1. He puts him and the other priests in mind of the duty of their place (Jer. 29:26): The Lord hath made thee priest instead of Jehoiada the priest. Some think that he refers to the famous Jehoiada, that great reformer in the days of Joash; and (says Mr. Gataker) he would insinuate that this Zephaniah is for spirit and zeal such another as he, and raised up, as he was, for the glory of God and the good of the church; and therefore it was expected from him that he should proceed against Jeremiah. Thus (says he) there is no act so injurious or impious, but that wicked wretches and false prophets will not only attempt it, but colour it also with some specious pretence of piety and zeal for God’s glory, Isa. 66:6; John 16:2. Or, rather, it was some other Jehoiada, his immediate predecessor in this office, who perhaps was carried to Babylon among the priests, Jer. 29:1. Zephaniah is advanced, sooner than he expected, to this place of trust and power, and Shemaiah would have him think that Providence had preferred him that he might persecute God’s prophets, that he had come to this government for such a time as this, and that he was unjust and ungrateful if he did not thus improve his power, or, rather, abuse it. Their hearts are wretchedly hardened who can justify the doing of mischief by their having a power to do it. These priests’ business was to examine every man that is mad and makes himself a prophet. God’s faithful prophets are here represented as prophets of their own making, usurpers of the office, and lay-intruders, as men that were mad, actuated by some demon, and not divinely inspired, or as distracted men and men in a frenzy. Thus the characters of the false prophets are thrown upon the true ones; and, if this had been indeed their character, they would have deserved to be bound as madmen and punished as pretenders, and therefore he concludes that Jeremiah must be so treated. He does not bid them examine whether Jeremiah could produce any proofs of his mission and could make it to appear that he was not mad. No; that is taken for granted, and, when once he has had a bad name given him, he must be run down of course. 2. He informs them of the letter which Jeremiah had written to the captives (Jer. 29:28): He sent unto us in Babylon, with the authority of a prophet, saying, This captivity is long, and therefore resolve to make the best of it. And what harm was there in this, that it should be objected to him as a crime? The false prophets had formerly said that the captivity would never come, Jer. 14:3. Jeremiah had said that it would come, and the event had already proved him in the right, which obliged them to give credit to him who now said that it would be long, rather than to those who said that it would be short, but had once before been found liars. 3. He demands judgment against him, taking it for granted that he is mad, and makes himself a prophet. He expects that they will order him to be put in prison and in the stocks (Jer. 29:26), that they will thus punish him, and by putting him to disgrace possess the people with prejudices against him, ruin his reputation, and so prevent the giving of any credit to his prophecies at Jerusalem, hoping that, if they could gain that point, the captives in Babylon would not be influenced by him. Nay, he takes upon him to chide Zephaniah for his neglect (Jer. 29:27): Why hast thou not rebuked and restrained Jeremiah of Anathoth? See how insolent and imperious these false prophets had grown, that, though they were in captivity, they would give law to the priests who were not only at liberty, but in power. It is common for those that pretend to more knowledge than their neighbours to be thus assuming. Now here is a remarkable instance of the hardness of the hearts of sinners, and it is enough to make us all fear lest our hearts be at any time hardened. For here we find, (1.) That these sinners would not be convinced by the clearest evidence. God had confirmed his word in the mouth of Jeremiah; it had taken hold of them (Zech. 1:6); and yet, because he does not prophesy to them the smooth things they desired, they are resolved to look upon him as not duly called to the office of a prophet. None so blind as those that will not see. (2.) That they would not be reclaimed and reformed by the most severe chastisement. They were now sent into a miserable thraldom for mocking the messengers of the Lord and misusing his prophets. This was the sin for which God now contended with them; and yet in their distress they trespass yet more against the Lord, 2 Chron. 28:22. This very sin they are notoriously guilty of in their captivity, which shows that afflictions will not of themselves cure men of their sins, unless the grace of God work with them, but will rather exasperate the corruptions they are intended to mortify; so true is that of Solomon (Prov. 27:22), Though thou shouldst bray a fool in a mortar, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.
II. How Jeremiah came to the knowledge of this (Jer. 29:29): Zephaniah read this letter in the ears of Jeremiah. He did not design to do as Shemaiah would have him, but, as it should seem, had a respect for Jeremiah (for we find him employed in messages to him as a prophet, Jer. 21:1; 37:3), and therefore protected him. He that continued in his dignity and power stood more in awe of God and his judgments than he that was now a captive. Nay, he made Jeremiah acquainted with the contents of the letter, that he might see what enemies he had even among the captives. Note, It is kindness to our friends to let them know their foes.
III. What was the sentence passed upon Shemaiah for writing this letter. God sent him an answer, for to him Jeremiah committed his cause: it was ordered to be sent not to him, but to those of the captivity, who encouraged and countenanced him as if he had been a prophet of God’s raising up, Jer. 29:31, 32. Let them know, 1. That Shemaiah had made fools of them. He promised them peace in God’s name, but God did not send him; he forged a commission, and counterfeited the broad seal of Heaven to it, and made the people to trust in a lie, and by preaching false comfort to them deprived them of true comfort. Nay, he had not only made fools of them, but, which was worse, he had made traitors of them; he had taught rebellion against the Lord, as Hananiah had done, Jer. 28:16. And, if vengeance shall be taken on those that rebel, much more on those that teach rebellion by their doctrine and example. 2. That at his end he shall also be a fool (as the expression is, Jer. 17:11); his name and family shall be extinct and shall be buried in oblivion; he shall leave no issue behind him to bear up his name; his pedigree shall end in him: He shall not have a man to dwell among this people; and neither he nor any that come from him shall behold the good that I will do for my people. Note, Those are unworthy to share in God’s favours to his church that are not willing to stay his time for them. Shemaiah was angry at Jeremiah’s advice to the captives to see to the building up of their families in Babylon, that they might be increased and not diminished, and therefore justly is he written childless there. Those that slight the blessings of God’s word deserve to lose the benefit of them. See Amos 7:16, 17.