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God’s Word for You

Jeremiah 11:19,20 (Part 2)

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, October 10, 2014

The translation and interpretation of verse 19-20 has been a matter of great interest for many centuries. Let’s read these verses once again and focus especially on verse 19:

19 I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I had not realized that they had plotted against me, saying,
  “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
      let us cut him off from the land of the living,
      so that his name will no longer be remembered.”
20 But, LORD of Armies, you judge righteously,
     you test the heart and mind.
Let me see your vengeance on them,
  for I have presented my case to you.

The Greek (and Latin) translations of verse 19 begin the third line with the words, “Come, let us put wood on his bread,” understanding the Hebrew lechem “bread, fruit” literally as bread rather than as the natural food of a tree (“fruit”). The verb “destroy” in Hebrew (nashchita) is translated “put, throw” in Greek, perhaps because the Greek translator read nishlicha “place, throw.” Without judging why this happened, but simply noticing that it did in fact happen, we can see why the early Christian fathers attached so much meaning to the phrase.

St. Jerome (347-420 A.D.) and others focused on the tree of this passage as a prophecy about the cross, and that the fruit or bread would be Christ himself. Perhaps this was influenced by the clearer prophecy in Isaiah 53, which also says “he was cut off from the land of the living” as we have here in verse 19 (cp. Isaiah 53:8). In Jeremiah’s context, the cry of the prophet’s enemies, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit!” is a call to murder Jeremiah himself. His fruit would be either his document—the book before us—or the people who believed his message, such as his scribe, Baruch (who is mentioned in chapters 32, 36, 43 and 45). Jeremiah was commanded by God not to marry, at least not while he was still living in Judea (Jeremiah 16:2), so the fruit of the prophet cannot be a reference to his family or children.

The New Testament has many references to the cross as a tree. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on the tree” (Acts 5:30, see also Acts 10:39). “They took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:29-30). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written [Deuteronomy 21:23]: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).

Certainly Jeremiah foresaw Christ here, and perhaps the cross, too. It is clearer to us that Jeremiah can be talking prophetically about Christ with the words, “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.” This also matches a prophecy in Isaiah, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7). Certainly John the Baptist cried out: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Wherever we see Christ, we remember his cross.

In fact, the ancient church saw the crucifixion so clearly in this passage that some people wondered whether Jeremiah himself might also have been crucified. They were unable to see any other meaning in these words other than a prophecy about crucifixion. This was going too far, as Jerome said: “I fail to see how they hope to prove that Jeremiah was the one crucified, since such an event is nowhere recorded in Scripture” (Six Books on Jeremiah, 2.110.4).

As for Jeremiah’s enemies, they had no more idea about the crucifixion than did the High Priest Caiaphas, who prophesied: “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). He thought he was speaking in favor of Jesus’ murder, but he was speaking prophetically about the crucifixion as the sacrifice to pay for the sins of mankind. So here, Jeremiah’s enemies could speak about the death of a prophet, but be prophetically looking ahead to the death of the Great Prophet, Priest and King: Jesus Christ.

It is good to read some of these ancient comments. I have heard it said many times, that if it is true that commentators in ancient times saw Christ everywhere in the Bible, then it is sadly true that commentators in our time struggle to see Christ anywhere at all in the Scriptures. Surely the devil is hard at work to blot out even the Old Testament shadows of Christ. That’s why we need to keep studying the Bible ourselves. We need to be reminded of just who our God is, and of the great things he has done for us. He let himself be led like a gentle lamb to the slaughter, and had the tree of the cross thrust upon him. He did this to satisfy the penalty of suffering for our sins, and in doing so he took away our sins for all eternity. His enemies hoped that his name would no longer be remembered, but it will be proclaimed and worshiped forever.

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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