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God’s Word for You

Jeremiah 16:1-4

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, November 14, 2014

I have formatted the beginning of this chapter as poetry. See the “note” below if the reason to/not to do so is of interest.

Jeremiah Must Not Marry
16 The word of the LORD came to me:
2 “You shall not take a wife for yourself in this place,
      or have sons and daughters.
3 For this is what the LORD says
     about the sons and daughters born in this place
and about the mothers who bore them
  and the father who conceived them in this land:
4 They will die of deadly diseases.
     They will not be mourned.
They will not be buried.
  They will lie on the ground like dung.
They will be devoured by sword and famine,
  and their carcasses will be food for the birds of the air
  and the beasts of the field.”

“You shall not take a wife.” This must have hit the prophet like a ton of bricks. Not take a wife? Being married was expected of everyone. It was an extremely rare thing to find an Israelite man who did not marry. A widower might remain unmarried after the death of his wife, but for a young man never to marry? It was unheard of. This was still the norm in Israel in Jesus’ time. Like Jeremiah, Jesus did not marry, but his Apostles did. The Gospels and Paul make several references to Peter’s marriage in particular (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30; Luke 4:38; 1 Corinthians 9:5) and Paul states that “the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas (Peter)” all had believing wives (1 Corinthians 9:5). But Jeremiah was forbidden from marrying.

“You shall not take a wife” is written in the same style, with the same forceful prohibition as the Ten Commandments. This was unique to Jeremiah. He was to live out the loneliness that Israel would know after the Babylonians came. No wife; no children. The people who survived the Babylonian attacks would become exactly like Jeremiah: No spouse; no children. His grief would become their grief. His grief would be a warning.

The Lord’s warning went deeper still: The people who died would not be buried. This was as shocking to them as it would be to us. Who in our time would tolerate a corpse lying in the street, perhaps in the yard of your next-door neighbor? Wouldn’t you do something? You would call the police! You would call the paramedics! You would insist that the funeral home would come and take the person away with dignity to be buried properly. And they would have done the same. In his People’s Bible commentary on Jeremiah, Professor David Gosdeck draws our attention to a woman in the days of King David who sat with the dead bodies of her loved ones and protected them from wild animals for two weeks (2 Samuel 21:1-14).

But Jeremiah is commanded to preach: “They will not be buried. They will lie on the ground like dung.” Jeremiah once again says that the people will die by “sword and famine,” and earlier in verse 4 he says “deadly diseases.” This isn’t quite the same word as “plague” as in other places in the book. The “plague” typical of Jeremiah’s warnings is deber, the plague that the Lord inflicted on Egypt’s livestock in the fifth of the ten plagues (Exodus 9:3). Here the Lord warns of tachluim, “deadly diseases” that come from all sorts of circumstances (many of these would seemingly be from “natural” causes) but which were prophesied by God to come as part of God’s curse for unfaithfulness (Deuteronomy 29:22).

The living parable Jeremiah was commanded to live out was for the good of God’s people. It was supposed to be a constant reminder: Why is that man not married? It’s because God says we’re all going to end up without a spouse or a family. Whether or not people believed the message or turned from their sins was a matter for their own consciences and faith. But the message was always there, walking around in front of them, talking to them, preaching to them, and in their minds when they remembered his words.

Living as we do under the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, we also use reminders to keep our hearts focused on what’s important. We use the symbol of the cross as a reminder; not as an object of worship, but as a comfort because of the terrible and beautiful thing that happened there. We keep the gospel on our lips and in our ears so that we will not wonder about it. Am I saved? Am I forgiven? In Jesus, the answer is God’s gracious Yes!

How can your life become a living parable of the forgiveness we have in Christ? That’s something to think about.

Note 1: Is Jeremiah 16:1-9 a poem?

The first part of this chapter (16:1-9) may have been written as a poem, the way that much of the book is written. After this there is a prose section (16:10-18), followed once again by poetry at the end of the chapter. The NIV and other translations do not format these opening verses as poetry, for which I have no criticism at all. I could say that there is parallelism in the passage, but parallelism isn’t unknown in Hebrew prose. On the other hand, poetry usually has a balanced, regular rhythm within the lines. The rhythm of stresses in verses 2-4 is not very balanced at all: (v 2) 3/4/2 (v 3) 3/5/3/5 (v 4) 3/4/4/3/4. But there is symmetry in the thoughts, regularity within the language that suggests a poem. In addition, the overall structure seems to be poetic:

IntroductionVerse 1
The Lord’s command to JeremiahVerse 2
Do not marry
The Lord’s statementVerse 3
Lists of children and parents
The Lord’s statementVerse 4
Death and burial
The Lord’s command to JeremiahVerse 5
Do not attend funerals
The Lord’s statementVerse 6
Survivors will not mourn
The Lord’s statementVerse 7
No one will mourn, even for parents
The Lord’s command to JeremiahVerse 8
Do not attend weddings
The Lord’s statementVerse 9
No joyful sound, no weddings.

Note 2: Was Jeremiah forbidden from marrying for his whole life?

The Lord’s commands and other statements here revolve around the phrases “in this place” and “in this land.” Later in the chapter (verse 13), the Lord will say, “So I will throw you out of this land into a land neither you nor your fathers have known.” All of this points to the geographical land of Israel.

Was Jeremiah forbidden from ever marrying? One commentator from Australia in the 1950’s felt that there were hints throughout the book that Jeremiah suffered from a marriage gone bad, and perhaps a divorce, in much the same way that Hosea suffered. His speculation has not been accepted by other scholars, and generally the feeling is that Jeremiah never married, obedient to God’s command.

If Jeremiah was about 18 when he was called to be a prophet then he would have been in his late forties when he was finally exiled to Egypt (this story is told in chapters 39-44).

Could Jeremiah have taken a wife in Egypt? Remember that the Lord’s command was not to marry “in this place… in this land.” Perhaps he could have taken an Egyptian wife, or the daughter or widow of one of the exiles who also went to Egypt. If it were so, we might expect that God would have caused this to be recorded for us, but we don’t have any record of Jeremiah being told to do this, nor do we have any hint of it happening. The prophet’s happiness and comfort late in his life—in fact, even his death—are not written down for us in the Bible.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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