Jeremiah 10 – Yahweh and the Idols of the Nations
A. The greatness of Yahweh over all the idols.
1. (1-5) The custom of the decorated tree made an idol.
Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel.
Thus says the LORD:
“Do not learn the way of the Gentiles;
Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven,
For the Gentiles are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are futile;
For one cuts a tree from the forest,
The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.
They decorate it with silver and gold;
They fasten it with nails and hammers
So that it will not topple.
They are upright, like a palm tree,
And they cannot speak;
They must be carried,
Because they cannot go by themselves.
Do not be afraid of them,
For they cannot do evil,
Nor can they do any good.”
a. Do not learn the way of the Gentiles: At the end of Jeremiah 9, God pointed out that His people were like the uncircumcised nations in their lack of knowing God and their wicked conduct. Here is a plea to separate themselves from the foolish customs of the nations that do not know God.
i. Do not learn the way of the Gentiles: “The verb learn (Hebrew tilmadu) may have overtones of ‘becoming a disciple.’ Hence one translation is, ‘Do not be disciples of the religion of the nations.’” (Thompson)
ii. “Why did so easy a target as idolatry need so many attacks in the Old Testament? Jeremiah 10:9 suggests one reason: the appeal of the visually impressive; but perhaps verse 2 goes deeper, in pointing to the temptation to fall into step with the majority.” (Kidner)
b. Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven: Through the use of astrology, ancient people often discerned signs and warnings from the sky, seeing fearful things in the signs of heaven.
i. “The signs of the heavens referred to are not the sun, moon, and stars, or signs of the zodiac, meant by God to be signs (Genesis 1:14), but unusual phenomenon like eclipses, comets, and meteors, which were supposed to portend extraordinary events.” (Feinberg)
c. For the customs of the people are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest… they decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple: Jeremiah described the pagan custom of cutting a tree, setting it in a special place, decorating it, and worshipping it. The worship of the tree is indicated by the warning, Do not be afraid of them, in the sense that one would give reverence to a pagan idol.
i. Jeremiah mocked the idolatry of Judah, especially as it imitated the idolatry of the surrounding nations. Similar passages mocking the idolatry of the heathen are found in Isaiah 40:18-20 and 44:9-20. Yet, it’s difficult to read this description and condemnation of an ancient pagan custom and not immediately think of the custom of the Christmas tree as practiced in the modern Christian world.
ii. If, based on a passage like this, a Christian would be convinced that they should not have a Christmas tree or even celebrate Christmas, then they should stand in that conviction. It is good to remember what Paul wrote: whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
iii. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that despite some similarities, the differences are even greater and do not prohibit the modern custom of the Christmas tree.
· Jeremiah spoke regarding the customs of the Gentiles, and in the modern world the appropriate celebration of Christmas is an expression of belief in God and His Son, not a custom of unbelievers.
· Jeremiah spoke of believers borrowing customs of unbelievers; in the modern world, when an unbeliever has a Christmas tree, it is a case of unbelievers borrowing the customs of believers.
· Jeremiah spoke of a tree regarded as an idol, and (properly understood) the modern Christmas tree is not an idol. If for a family it is or becomes an idol, it should be discarded with.
· Jeremiah spoke to a time in history when trees were often directly connected with idolatry, either literal trees or their representations (Jeremiah 2:27).
d. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good: Jeremiah gently mocked the idolatrous worship of inanimate objects such as decorated trees. No particular reverence should be given to them; they are powerless to do anything, either good or evil.
i. The line in Jeremiah 10:5, They are upright, like a palm tree is also translated like a scarecrow in a cucumber field (NASB, ESV). The idol is worthless; “It is like an immobile and speechless scarecrow in a patch of cucumbers.” (Thompson)
2. (6-10) The greatness of God over all idols.
Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD
(You are great, and Your name is great in might),
Who would not fear You, O King of the nations?
For this is Your rightful due.
For among all the wise men of the nations,
And in all their kingdoms,
There is none like You.
But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish;
A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine.
Silver is beaten into plates;
It is brought from Tarshish,
And gold from Uphaz,
The work of the craftsman
And of the hands of the metalsmith;
Blue and purple are their clothing;
They are all the work of skillful men.
But the LORD is the true God;
He is the living God and the everlasting King.
At His wrath the earth will tremble,
And the nations will not be able to endure His indignation.
a. Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD: Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, is different than the inanimate idols men worship. The pagan gods are altogether dull-hearted and foolish.
i. A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine: “Rendered literally as an instruction of vanities is the tree itself. The meaning is that the instruction received from idols is of no more value than the idol itself.” (Harrison)
ii. “Tarshish was the westward limit of the ancient world, perhaps Tartessus in Spain….Uphaz is unknown as a location, and may instead be a metallurgical term for ‘refined gold.’” (Harrison)
b. They are all the work of skillful men. But the LORD is the true God: The inescapable contrast between Yahweh and the idols of the nations is that they are the work of men’s hands; He is the Creator of those very hands.
i. “Men make idols. Jehovah makes men.” (Morgan)
ii. As for the idols, they spared no expense in decorating them; blue and purple are their clothing: “These were the most precious dyes; very rare, and of high price.” (Clarke)
c. At His wrath the earth will tremble, and the nations will not be able to endure His indignation: The gods of the nations were nothing; the projections of the corrupt imaginations of men. Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, is the God who exists, intervenes, and brings judgment.
3. (11-16) The glory of the Creator God.
Thus you shall say to them: “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens.”
He has made the earth by His power,
He has established the world by His wisdom,
And has stretched out the heavens at His discretion.
When He utters His voice,
There is a multitude of waters in the heavens:
“And He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth.
He makes lightning for the rain,
He brings the wind out of His treasuries.”
Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge;
Every metalsmith is put to shame by an image;
For his molded image is falsehood,
And there is no breath in them.
They are futile, a work of errors;
In the time of their punishment they shall perish.
The Portion of Jacob is not like them,
For He is the Maker of all things,
And Israel is the tribe of His inheritance;
The LORD of hosts is His name.
a. The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth: In the contrast between Yahweh and the idols, Yahweh pronounced the doom of the pagan gods.
i. Jeremiah 10:11 may have been a popular anti-idolatry proverb or saying of that time, quoted in Aramaic. It is the only verse in Jeremiah in Aramaic, a language quite similar to Hebrew. “Because this verse is in Aramaic, a number of expositors reject it as a gloss. But all the versions have it. Furthermore, it fits the context splendidly. No one has ever explained why an interpolator would introduce it here. It was a proverbial saying; so it was given in the language of the people.” (Feinberg)
b. He has made the earth by His power: In contrast to the pagan gods, Yahweh is a living, active God who made the earth and established the world, and who stretched out the heavens.
i. “The test between idols and Jehovah he declared to be the test of creation.” (Morgan)
ii. “The prophet’s final word on idols is that they are not only worthless, but also a work of mockery, worthy only of being ridiculed.” (Feinberg)
c. Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge: Jeremiah spoke to the foolish conduct of those who make and worship idols. Many of the idols recovered by archaeology are not even beautiful; surely they are futile, a work of errors.
d. The Portion of Jacob is not like them: Yahweh is different than the idols worshipped among the Gentiles. He is the Maker, He has chosen Israel as the tribe of His inheritance, and He is the God of heavenly armies (The LORD of hosts is His name).
i. The Portion of Jacob: The idea is that in some sense, Yahweh belonged to the people of Israel. “A man’s ‘portion’ referred to some possession that belonged to him.” (Thompson)
4. (17-18) A warning to hurriedly flee from the invaders.
Gather up your wares from the land,
O inhabitant of the fortress!
For thus says the LORD:
“Behold, I will throw out at this time
The inhabitants of the land,
And will distress them,
That they may find it so.”
a. Gather up your wares from the land: Jeremiah prophetically saw the invading army of the Babylonians, coming as an instrument of God’s judgment. He warned the people of the land to quickly prepare.
b. I will throw out at this time the inhabitants of the land: Despite whatever hurried preparations they might make, none would be able to stand before the judgment of God against Judah. They would be cast out of the land.
i. I will throw out is a vivid phrase; it literally means to slingshot out. God will cast Judah out of the land that fast, that hard, and that far. “I will easily and speedily sling them, and sling them into Babylon; so God will one day hurl into hell all the wicked of the earth.” (Trapp)
ii. “There is a vividness in the first verb in this verse, which is used of hurling with a sling. It is Yahweh himself who is pictured as casting out the inhabitants of Judah.” (Thompson)
iii. “As it turned out, following Nebuchadnezzar’s second invasion in 587 BC destruction was widespread. Modern archaeological investigation has shown a uniform picture. Many towns were destroyed at the beginning of the sixth century BC and never again occupied…There is no known case of a town in Judah proper which was continuously occupied through the exilic period.” (Thompson)
B. Jeremiah’s prayer.
1. (19-20) A prayer in the voice of those under the Babylonian invasion.
Woe is me for my hurt!
My wound is severe.
But I say, “Truly this is an infirmity,
And I must bear it.”
My tent is plundered,
And all my cords are broken;
My children have gone from me,
And they are no more.
There is no one to pitch my tent anymore,
Or set up my curtains.
a. Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is severe: Jeremiah prayed in the voice of someone enduring the Babylonian invasion to come. The prayer is filled with pain and distress.
b. My tent is plundered…my cords are broken…My children have gone from me, and they are no more: Jeremiah captures the despair, shock, and loneliness of those who would endure the severe season of judgment.
i. “Jerusalem is personified as a tent-dwelling mother, bereft of her children.” (Cundall)
2. (21-22) The trouble that comes from dull-hearted shepherds.
For the shepherds have become dull-hearted,
And have not sought the LORD;
Therefore they shall not prosper,
And all their flocks shall be scattered.
Behold, the noise of the report has come,
And a great commotion out of the north country,
To make the cities of Judah desolate, a den of jackals.
a. For the shepherds have become dull-hearted, and have not sought the LORD: In thinking of the despair of Judah under the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah also considered a significant part of the cause. The leaders of Judah – both spiritual and political – did not seek the LORD.
i. “The corrupt prophets and priests, who seduced the people from the truth, were persons that made no conscience of prayer; hence all went to wrack and ruin.” (Trapp)
b. Therefore they shall not prosper, and their flocks shall be scattered: The unfaithfulness of the shepherds meant trouble for them, and for the people they were supposed to faithfully lead. No one would benefit from their dull-hearted, detachment from the LORD’s leadership.
i. “We must avoid generalizing too widely, but on the whole, it is incontestable that a dwindling flock and waning cause point to prayerlessness perhaps on the part of the members, but almost certainly on the part of the shepherd himself.” (Meyer)
3. (23-25) A humble plea to God for recompense to the invading army.
O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself;
It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.
O LORD, correct me, but with justice;
Not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing.
Pour out Your fury on the Gentiles, who do not know You,
And on the families who do not call on Your name;
For they have eaten up Jacob,
Devoured him and consumed him,
And made his dwelling place desolate.
a. O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps: As Jeremiah considered the great judgment to come upon Judah through the Babylonian army, he also considered that God sent them. The Babylonians did not think of this apart from God; He would direct their steps.
i. Morgan also connects this with the prior discussion of idolatry. “The idols which men make are always man’s attempts to project, from their own inner consciousness, gods to whom they can yield obedience; or in other words, the making of idols is an attempt on the part of man to direct his own steps.” (Morgan)
ii. “Man seems to control his own progress, but the fact is that man, vitiated by sin, is incapable of achieving his own true destiny. He desperately needs God, as the wise man realized.” (Cundall)
iii. “This was Jeremiah’s consolation, ‘I do not know what Nebuchadnezzar may do; but I do know that “the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” I know that, in God’s eternal purposes, every step of Judah’s way is mapped out, and he will make it all work for his own glory and the good of his chosen people in the end.’” (Spurgeon)
b. O LORD, correct me, but with justice; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing: Know that the great judgment to come was directed by God, Jeremiah appealed to God for mercy. He knew that Judah must be corrected, but asked for God to show mercy and to not destroy His people.
c. Pour out Your fury on the Gentiles, who do not know You: When Jeremiah considered that God would use the Babylonians as the instrument of His correction against Judah, he asked God to also judge them.
i. “So he asks God, instead of smiting his own children, to smite his enemies, and knowing what we do about the Babylonians, we do not wonder that Jeremiah put up such a prayer as that.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “This was fulfilled in the Chaldeans. Nebuchadnezzar was punished with madness, his son was slain in his revels, and the city was taken and sacked by Cyrus; and the Babylonish empire was finally destroyed!” (Clarke)