(1) The God of all the families of Israel.—The union of the ten tribes of Israel and the two of Judah is again prominent in the prophet’s mind. He cannot bear to think of that division, with its deep lines of cleavage in the religious and social life of the people, being perpetuated. Israel should be Israel. This is the crown and consummation of the promise of Jeremiah 30:24.
Even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest.—The verb that answers to the last five words includes the meaning of “settling” or “establishing,” as well as of giving rest; and the whole clause is better translated Let me go, or I will go (the verb is in the infinitive with the force of an imperative, but this is its meaning) to set him at rest, even Israel.
Therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.—Some translators render I have preserved (or respited) thee, others I have continued my loving kindness to thee, as in Psalm 36:10; Psalm 109:12; but the LXX., Vulg., and Luther agree with the English Version, and it finds sufficient support in the meaning of the Hebrew verb and in the parallel of Hosea 11:4.
Shall return thither—i.e., to the land of Israel, as the goal of the company of travellers.
Ephraim is my firstborn.—Ephraim stands here, as often elsewhere (e.g., Hosea 11:3; Hosea 11:12; Hosea 13:1; Hosea 13:12) for the whole northern kingdom of the Ten Tribes, of which it was the most conspicuous member. The term “firstborn” is used, as an echo of Exodus 4:22, as marking out Ephraim as the object of the special favour of Jehovah, the birthright of Reuben having been transferred to the sons of Joseph (1 Chronicles 5:1). The prominence of Ephraim over the other tribes is conspicuous throughout the whole history (Judges 12:1-3). The prophet apparently recognised it as taking its place once more in the restored unity of the people, when the king should be of the house of David, Jerusalem the centre of worship, Ephraim the leading tribe. (Comp. the contemporary prophecy of Ezekiel 37:19.) It is not without interest to note how the northern prophet looks to Judah as more faithful than Ephraim (Hosea 11:12), while Jeremiah turns from the sins of the princes and priests of Judah to look with hope on the remnant of Israel.
As a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke.—The comparison is the nearest approach in the Old Testament to the Greek proverb about “kicking against the pricks” (Acts 9:5; Acts 26:14). In Hosea 10:11 (“Ephraim is as an heifer that is taught “), which may well have been in Jeremiah’s thoughts, we have a like comparison under a somewhat different aspect. The cry which is heard from the lips of the penitent, “Turn thou me . . . ,” is, as it were, echoed from Jeremiah 3:7; Jeremiah 3:12; Jeremiah 3:14, and is reproduced in Lamentations 5:21.
“And then he groaned, and smote on both his thighs
With headlong hands, and so in sorrow spoke.”
The reproach of my youth—i.e., the shame which the sins of his youth had brought upon him.
Is he a pleasant child?—We have to ask whether an affirmative or negative answer is implied to these questions. On the former view, the words express the yearning of a father’s heart towards the son whom he still loves in spite of all his faults. Jehovah wonders, as it were, at his affection for one who has been so rebellious. On the latter, they give prominence to the faults as having deprived him of all claim to love, even though the father’s heart yearned towards the prodigal in pity. The former gives, beyond all doubt, the best meaning. In every word, whether of reproof or invitation, there was implied a loving remembrance.
For since I spake against him.—Better, As often as I speak to him. The preposition can hardly have the meaning of “against,” for which Jeremiah uses different words, and implies rather (as in the “communed with” of 1 Samuel 25:39; “When she shall be spoken for,” Song Song of Solomon 8:8)—speaking with a view to win. By some commentators (Ewald) the word for “speak” is rendered “smite,” but the ordinary rendering gives an adequate meaning. The original gives both for “earnestly remember” and “surely have mercy” the Hebrew idiom of reduplication—Remembering, I remember; pitying, I pity. The thought expressed is that Jehovah could not bring himself to utter the sentence of rejection. His love turned to the penitent who turned to Him. We have something like a foreshadowing of the love of the father of the prodigal in Luke 15:20.
A woman shall compass a man.—The verse is obscure, and has received very different interpretations. It will be well to begin our inquiry with the meaning which the translators attached to it. On this point the following quotation from Shakespeare is decisive :—
“If I can check my erring love, I will;
If not, to compass her I’ll use my skill.”
Two Gentlemen of Verona, ii. 4.
To “compass” is to woo and win. And this gives, it is believed, the true meaning. The Hebrew verb (which presents a striking assonance with the word for “backsliding”) means literally “to go round about,” and this (as in Psalm 26:6; Psalm 32:7; Psalm 32:10) as an act of reverential tenderness and love. In the normal order of man’s life, the bridegroom woos the bride. In the spiritual relationship which the prophet has in view, this shall be inverted, and Israel, the erring but repentant wife, shall woo her Divine husband. The history of Gomer in Hosea 2:14-20 again presents a striking parallel. A like inversion of the normal order is indicated, though with a different meaning, in Isaiah 4:1, where the seven women might be said to “compass” the one man. It may be noticed that the words used express the contrast of the two sexes in the strongest possible form. A female shall compass (i.e., woo) a male, possibly as emphasising the fact that what the prophet describes was an exception to the normal order, not of human society only, but of the whole animal society. By some interpreters (Ewald) the words are rendered “a woman shall be turned into a man;” meaning that the weak shall be made strong, as a kind of contrast to the opposite kind of transformation in Jeremiah 30:6; but this gives a far less satisfactory meaning, and the same may be said of such translations as “the woman shall protect the man,” and “a woman shall put a man to flight.” The notion that the words can in even the remotest degree be connected with the mystery of the Incarnation belongs to the region of dreams, and not of realities; and, lacking as it does the support of even any allusive reference to it in the New Testament, can only be regarded, in spite of the authority of the many Fathers and divines who have adopted it, as the outgrowth of a devout but uncritical imagination. The word used for “woman,” indeed, absolutely excludes the idea of the virgin-birth.
The promise is too commonly dealt with as standing by itself, without reference to the sequence of thought in which we find it placed. That sequence, however, is not hard to trace. The common proverb about the sour grapes had set the prophet thinking on the laws of God’s dealings with men. He felt that something more was needed to restrain men from evil than the thought that they might be transmitting evil to their children’s children—something more even than the thought of direct personal responsibility, and of a perfectly righteous retribution. And that something was to be found in the idea of a law—not written on tablets of stone, not threatening and condemning from without, and denouncing punishment on the transgressors and their descendants, but written on heart and spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). It is noticeable, as showing how like thoughts were working in the minds of the two prophets, that in Ezekiel also the promise of a “new heart and new spirit” comes in close sequence upon the protest against the adage about the “children’s teeth being set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:31). In the words for “saith the Lord” we have the more solemn word which carries with it the announcement as of an oracle from God.
Although I was an husband unto them.—The words declare the ground on which Jehovah might well have looked for the allegiance of Israel. (See Notes on Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 3:20.)
I will forgive their iniquity . . .—The second clause repeats the promise of the first, in a form which is, perhaps, from the necessity of the case, after the manner of men. Our thoughts of God as the All knowing preclude the idea of any limitation of His knowledge, such as the words “I will remember no more” imply. What is meant is that He will be to him who repents and knows Him as indeed He is, in His essential righteousness and love, as men are to men when they “forget and forgive.” He will treat the past offences, even though their inevitable consequences may continue, as though they had never been, so far as they affect the communion of the soul with God. He will, in the language of another prophet, “blot out” the sins which yet belong to the indelible and irrevocable past (Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22).