Jeremiah 5 – Searching for a Righteous Man
A. Looking for a righteous man but finding none.
1. (1-2) Looking for someone who seeks truth.
“Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem;
See now and know;
And seek in her open places
If you can find a man,
If there is anyone who executes judgment,
Who seeks the truth,
And I will pardon her.
Though they say, ‘As the LORD lives,’
Surely they swear falsely.”
a. If you can find a man…who seeks the truth, and I will pardon her: Speaking through Jeremiah, God exposed the corruption of Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s day. It was as if there was not even one man who did right and sought after truth.
i. We think of Jeremiah as a predecessor to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who reportedly carried a lamp through Athens in the daytime, searching for an honest man. Jeremiah searched for a righteous man (who executes judgment) who sought the truth. If even one could be found, God would spare His judgment against Jerusalem.
ii. We might say that this statement was hyperbole, a literary exaggeration to make a point. After all, we would hope that Jeremiah was such a man, though he was from Anathoth, not Jerusalem (Jeremiah 1:1). Nevertheless, it’s possible that this was literally true as well as being poetically true.
iii. One may also say that God today still searches and looks for one man who executes judgment and who seeks the truth – and finds only the One Man, Jesus Christ. He is the One Man who can save any city or individual from judgment.
b. They say, “As the LORD lives,” surely they swear falsely: Jeremiah could find many religious people in Jerusalem – many who would swear by the LORD and say, “As the LORD lives.” Yet he could not find anyone who sought the LORD in sincerity.
2. (3) Jeremiah’s prayer.
O LORD, are not Your eyes on the truth?
You have stricken them,
But they have not grieved;
You have consumed them,
But they have refused to receive correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
They have refused to return.
a. O LORD, are not Your eyes on the truth? Jeremiah appealed to God who saw and cared about truth among men. He prayed with a sense of amazement at the hardness and stubbornness of heart among God’s people.
i. “The allusion is not to doctrinal truth, or truth in the abstract, but to practical truth as it should exist in the hearts and lives of men. It might be read ‘Lord, are not thine eyes upon truthfulness?’ or ‘upon faithfulness?’” (Spurgeon)
b. You have stricken them, but they have not grieved: Jeremiah mourned over the lack of repentance and brokenness over sin among the people of Jerusalem. They were stricken, yet not grieved; consumed, yet not corrected. Despite all they had and would endure, they have refused to return.
i. “There is no surer sign of a carnal Israelite, of a profligate professor, than to be senseless or incorrigible under public judgments.” (Trapp)
3. (4-5) Jeremiah’s plan to appeal to the great men of Jerusalem.
Therefore I said, “Surely these are poor.
They are foolish;
For they do not know the way of the LORD,
The judgment of their God.
I will go to the great men and speak to them,
For they have known the way of the LORD,
The judgment of their God.”
But these have altogether broken the yoke
And burst the bonds.
a. Surely these are poor, they are foolish; for they do not know the way of the LORD: As he searched for a righteous man, Jeremiah was amazed at the spiritual and moral foolishness of the people of Jerusalem. Then he considered that perhaps it was because they were poor and uneducated (foolish). This explained why they do not know the way of the LORD.
b. I will go to the great men and speak to them: Jeremiah then turned to the great men, the aristocrats of Jerusalem. With all their education and advantages, surely a righteous man could be found among them.
c. But these have altogether broken the yoke and burst the bonds: Jeremiah’s search among the great men of Jerusalem ended in disappointment. They also were rebels; perhaps educated rebels, but rebels against God nevertheless.
4. (6-9) The penalty that will come to a rebellious city.
Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them,
A wolf of the deserts shall destroy them;
A leopard will watch over their cities.
Everyone who goes out from there shall be torn in pieces,
Because their transgressions are many;
Their backslidings have increased.
“How shall I pardon you for this?
Your children have forsaken Me
And sworn by those that are not gods.
When I had fed them to the full,
Then they committed adultery
And assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses.
They were like well-fed lusty stallions;
Every one neighed after his neighbor’s wife.
Shall I not punish them for these things?” says the LORD.
“And shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?
a. Therefore a lion from the forest shall slay them: Most see the lion and the wolf and the leopard described here as pictures of the coming invaders. Yet it is also possible that Jeremiah pictured Jerusalem and the other cities of Judah desolate and given over to wild animals. The coming war of judgment would send Judah back to much more primitive times.
i. “The lion represents strength, the desert wolf ravenousness, and the leopard swiftness – all traits of the Babylonians.” (Feinberg) “So Nebuchadnezzar is called [a lion] for his cruelty, a wolf for his voracity, and a leopard for his slyness and swiftness.” (Trapp)
ii. “Many towns were destroyed at the beginning of the sixth century BC and never again occupied…Others were destroyed and reoccupied after a long period of abandonment.” (William Albright, cited in Ryken, regarding the archaeological evidence of the conquest of Judah).
iii. When in more faithful and obedient times Israel came into the Promised Land, God used nature to fight for them. Deuteronomy 7:20 and Joshua 24:12 speak of how God sent the hornet to chase away Israel’s enemies. Now in their rebellion, God sent nature to work against Israel instead of for them.
iv. God promised this to a disobedient Israel in Leviticus 26:22: I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, destroy your livestock, and make you few in number. Jeremiah anticipated the fulfillment of this warning.
b. Your children have forsaken Me… when I had fed them to the full: Judah’s sin was all the worse when considered as simple ingratitude. God had done so much for them, yet spiritually speaking they committed adultery.
i. Their spiritual adultery – going after pagan gods – was also connected to sexual adultery. The so-called worship of pagan gods often involved ritual prostitutes and sexual immorality. The ideas of spiritual and sexual adultery were connected and combined.
c. Then they committed adultery and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses: Jeremiah not only saw multitudes going to the so-called sacred prostitutes, but they were organized as if an army (by troops). This was a powerful and poetic description of how given over the people were to pagan worship and ritual prostitution.
i. “There was a sexual aspect to religion throughout the Fertile Crescent, although the goddesses of fertility played a much greater role among the Canaanites than among any other ancient people. Sacred prostitution was an almost invariable accompaniment of the cult of the fertility-goddesses in Phoenicia and Syria. ” (Thompson, referring to Albright’s From the Stone Age to Christianity, pages 233, 235)
ii. “They preferred to call the temple prostitute a zona (profane woman) rather than use the Canaanite term qedesa (holy woman).” (Thompson)
d. Shall I not punish them for these things? As Jeremiah searched Jerusalem, he found no righteous men or men of truth. He did find spiritual rebels and adulterers. This was a nation due for judgment.
B. Prophets of wind, prophets of fire.
1. (10-13) Destruction without a complete end.
“Go up on her walls and destroy,
But do not make a complete end.
Take away her branches,
For they are not the LORD’s.
For the house of Israel and the house of Judah
Have dealt very treacherously with Me,” says the LORD.
They have lied about the LORD,
And said, “It is not He.
Neither will evil come upon us,
Nor shall we see sword or famine.
And the prophets become wind,
For the word is not in them.
Thus shall it be done to them.”
a. Go up on her walls and destroy, but do not make a complete end: Destroyed walls usually signaled a complete end; but not with the God of Israel. Here is a promise to bring restoration and revival – a promise partially fulfilled in the rebuilding work of Ezra and Nehemiah, and fully fulfilled in the restoration of Israel to their Messiah, Jesus Christ.
i. Take away her branches: “The branches of the vine have not borne the fruits of righteousness, and so will be burned up while the stock will be saved. This figure is reflected very closely by Christ in John 15:1-6.” (Harrison)
b. They have lied about the LORD, and said, “It is not He”: When the false prophets assured the people of Judah and Jerusalem that their present problems were not warnings and corrections from the Lord, they lied about the LORD. When they promised, “Neither will evil come upon us,” they lied about the LORD.
i. Perhaps these false prophets meant well and hoped to encourage Judah and Jerusalem. Perhaps the false prophets actually believed their own message. Nevertheless, they lied about the LORD – which is a serious and grievous sin. In our own day, we say to false prophets, even those who mean well and believe their own lies: stop lying about the LORD.
c. And the prophets become wind, for the word is not in them: The false prophets were nothing more than wind – movement without substance. God’s word was not in them, and their so-called prophetic words were from them, not from the substance of God’s word.
i. Several commentators believe the phrase the prophets have become wind refers to how the people regarded the true prophets of God – regarding them only as windbags.
2. (14-17) The word of the prophet of fire.
Therefore thus says the LORD God of hosts:
“Because you speak this word,
Behold, I will make My words in your mouth fire,
And this people wood,
And it shall devour them.
Behold, I will bring a nation against you from afar,
O house of Israel,” says the LORD.
“It is a mighty nation,
It is an ancient nation,
A nation whose language you do not know,
Nor can you understand what they say.
Their quiver is like an open tomb;
They are all mighty men.
And they shall eat up your harvest and your bread,
Which your sons and daughters should eat.
They shall eat up your flocks and your herds;
They shall eat up your vines and your fig trees;
They shall destroy your fortified cities,
In which you trust, with the sword.
a. I will make My words in your mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them: In contrast to the prophets of wind mentioned in the previous verse, God would make Jeremiah a prophet of fire – whose words would announce the devouring judgment to come. As a true prophet, Jeremiah’s words would have substance – but unpleasantly so.
b. Behold, I will bring a nation against you from afar: Jeremiah repeated the promise that God would bring a mighty army of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem, later fulfilled by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar.
i. Their quiver is like an open tomb: “They would be invincible because their quivers would be filled with death-dealing arrows, always bringing more destruction. Every arrow could be depended on to slay someone.” (Feinberg)
3. (18-19) The divine logic behind judgment.
“Nevertheless in those days,” says the LORD, “I will not make a complete end of you. And it will be when you say, ‘Why does the LORD our God do all these things to us?’ then you shall answer them, ‘Just as you have forsaken Me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve aliens in a land that is not yours.’”
a. I will not make a complete end of you: The gracious promise is again repeated. Though devastating judgment would come to Judah and Jerusalem, God would not forsake His covenant people and would bring restoration.
b. Just as you have forsaken Me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve aliens in a land that is not yours: The explanation for God’s judgment was basic and sensible. The people of Judah and Jerusalem served foreign gods; now God will send them to serve the people of the gods they worshipped.
C. A foolish people.
1. (20-25) The foolishness of failing to learn from nature.
“Declare this in the house of Jacob
And proclaim it in Judah, saying,
‘Hear this now, O foolish people,
Who have eyes and see not,
And who have ears and hear not:
Do you not fear Me?’ says the LORD.
‘Will you not tremble at My presence,
Who have placed the sand as the bound of the sea,
By a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass beyond it?
And though its waves toss to and fro,
Yet they cannot prevail;
Though they roar, yet they cannot pass over it.
But this people has a defiant and rebellious heart;
They have revolted and departed.
They do not say in their heart,
“Let us now fear the LORD our God,
Who gives rain, both the former and the latter, in its season.
He reserves for us the appointed weeks of the harvest.”
Your iniquities have turned these things away,
And your sins have withheld good from you.
a. Hear this now, O foolish people: Through Jeremiah, God spoke to Judah and Jerusalem, exposing their spiritual and moral foolishness in resisting and rejecting Him.
b. Though its waves toss to and fro, yet they cannot prevail: Jeremiah used the illustration of the ocean and the sand. The waters of the sea continually pound upon the sand, yet the sand remains, and the sea remains within its bounds. The analogy is clear: if the ocean cannot prevail against the sand, God’s people will never prevail in their rebellion against Him.
i. “God has chosen to arrest the advance of the mighty billows by a barrier of sand-grains… There are many illustrations of this in the history of the Church. The pride of the persecutor has been arrested by the prayers and tears of men, women, and children, who have had no more strength in themselves than a bank of sand-grains, but have succeeded in arresting the might of their foes.” (Meyer)
c. But this people has a defiant and rebellious heart: God’s people did not learn the lesson that nature clearly teaches – that it is foolish to fight against God.
i. “God here contrasts the obedience of the strong, the mighty the untamed sea, with the rebellious character of his own people. ‘The sea,’ saith he, ‘obeys me; it never breaks its boundary; it never leapeth from its channel; it obeys me in all its movements. But man, poor puny man, the little creature whom I could crush as the moth, will not be obedient to me.’” (Spurgeon)
d. Your iniquities have turned these things away, and your sins have withheld good from you: God described the blessings of rain and harvest and then told Judah why they did not have those blessings in abundance. Their sins had withheld good from them; it wasn’t God’s fault.
i. Your iniquities, your sins: “The two words used here for Israel’s breaches of covenant are common in the OT, but may have some special point here. The first, awon, is related to a root which means ‘to wanted, err,’ and the second, hattat to a root meaning ‘to miss the mark.’ Israel had both wandered away from Yahweh and failed to reach the goal set for her.” (Thompson)
2. (26-29) The wickedness of those who do not care for their fellow man.
‘For among My people are found wicked men;
They lie in wait as one who sets snares;
They set a trap;
They catch men.
As a cage is full of birds,
So their houses are full of deceit.
Therefore they have become great and grown rich.
They have grown fat, they are sleek;
Yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked;
They do not plead the cause,
The cause of the fatherless;
Yet they prosper,
And the right of the needy they do not defend.
Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the LORD.
‘Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?’
a. They lie in wait as one who sets snares; they set a trap; they catch men: In using the picture of a bird-catcher (a fowler), it is possible that Jeremiah had in mind those who steal men unto slavery. It is more likely that he had in mind those who use their positions of power and influence to become great and grow rich, at the expense of the weak and needy.
i. “The metaphor of the bird-catcher runs through the passage. As the fowler’s basket is filled with birds, so the houses of these wicked men are filled with treachery or ‘deceit.’” (Thompson)
b. They do not plead the cause, the cause of the fatherless: Instead of taking advantage of the weak and needy, these wicked men should have used their positions of power and influence to do good for them.
c. Yet they prosper: Their prosperity was not from the blessing of God. It was the result of their own sinful ambition and enterprise – and therefore invited the judgment of God (Shall I not punish them for these things).
3. (30-31) The false prophets and the people who love them.
“An astonishing and horrible thing
Has been committed in the land:
The prophets prophesy falsely,
And the priests rule by their own power;
And My people love to have it so.
But what will you do in the end?”
a. An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land: These were strong words, introducing something that was truly horrible in the eyes of God.
b. The prophets prophesy falsely: The first astonishing and horrible thing was the false words of the pretended prophets. They claimed to speak in the name of the LORD, yet they spoke falsely.
i. “Prophets of God are the nations truest servants and friends. False prophets are the worst enemies of the nation. Their popularity is the last evidence of national decay.” (Morgan)
c. And the priests rule by their own power: The second astonishing and horrible thing was that the leaders among God’s people rule not by the love and leadership of God, but by their own power. Their authority and leadership was of man, not of God – like the leadership of the Gentiles later described by Jesus (Matthew 20:25-26).
d. And My people love to have it so: The third astonishing and horrible thing was that God’s people were perfectly happy to have false prophets and corrupt leadership. This reminds us that popularity among God’s people is never to be regarded as a guarantee that one speaks for the LORD or leads in the godly manner.
i. The people “Are perfectly satisfied with this state of things, because they are permitted to continue in their sins without reproof or restraint. The prophets and the priests united to deceive and ruin the people.” (Clarke)
ii. “Prophets, priests, and people were united in their sin, and there was no alternative other than that of judgment.” (Morgan)
e. But what will you do in the end? Though the false prophets and corrupt leaders were loved among the people of God, there was no true foundation to their work. There was no substance, and nothing stable to rest upon in the end. Disaster would come and the false prophets and corrupt pleaders would be of no help in that day.
i. “Ah, dear young friends, if I could bring some of the living and some of the dead, and set them to witness here instead of me, they would burn in on you, as my poor words never can do, the insanity of living without a satisfactory and sufficient reply to the question of my text, ‘What will ye do in the end?’” (Maclaren)