After the Jewish remnant defiantly disobeys the Lord’s message by leaving the Promised Land and settling in Egypt, the Lord sends another message through Jeremiah to them. This message along with their response is recorded in some detail in chapter 44.
What surprises me about God’s word to the remnant is not that He expresses fierce anger or warns of impending disaster. I would expect this given the high-handed rebellion and hardened hearts of the people. Further, God had already told Jeremiah that the Jews who were not exiled to Babylon would be “poor figs” who would be destroyed by “the sword, famine and plague” (24:8-10). What surprises me (and moves me to worship) is that God continues to appeal to them to avert disaster by repenting of their sinfulness and returning to Him: “Why bring such great disaster on yourselves . . . and so leave yourselves without a remnant?” (7).
While God speaks of His “fierce anger”, He continues to evidence a fierce love towards His sinful people. He relentlessly pursues them for their good. He repeatedly provides opportunity to repent and receive mercy. In spite of the fact that they have spurned Him and grieved His heart, His heart still offers them a way back from the brink. Here is another example of the truth that “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8); it’s also a sobering reminder that His love is not indifferent to disobedience or a firewall against judgment. God’s love is His unfailing inclination to seek good for people, in spite of their spiteful treatment of Him.
Jeremiah delivers this message to the remnant in Egypt when they have assembled together from “Lower Egypt” and “Upper Egypt” (1). While we are not told the occasion for this gathering, it may have been to commemorate a Jewish feast or festival; something homesick exiles tend to do when they “long to return” to their homeland (14). At a gathering of the men (along with some of the women—15), Jeremiah speaks the word of “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel” (2).
The rest of the chapter details the interchange between Jeremiah and the remnant. Jeremiah begins by giving God’s reminder of the reason disaster has fallen on Judah and an appeal for the remnant to repent and avoid further destruction (2-14). The people respond in a sad, but predictable, way. The men assert they will continue with their idolatry, seeing it as the way to blessing (15-18); the women add that their husbands were aware of their involvement in worshiping the “Queen of Heaven” (19). Jeremiah counters that disaster came upon Judah not because the people stopped worshipping idols but precisely because they wouldn’t stop (20-23). Then Jeremiah delivers a second message from the Lord—one that promises the total destruction of the remnant in Egypt, except for a few fugitives (24-28). This message ends with a “sign” of the certainty of God’s coming punishment—the Pharaoh will be handed over to the Babylonians (29-30).
While the Jews had historically been guilty of spiritual adultery with many different gods (“You, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns—11:13), in this exchange the focus is on one false god: the “Queen of Heaven” (7:18; 44:17, 18, 19, 25). The identity of this false goddess is debated; biblical scholars see a reference to a Babylonian or Canaanite god—or an amalgamation of the two. This goddess had been worshiped in Judea for a time (perhaps under Manasseh) and then stopped (perhaps under Josiah). Both the men (15-18) and the women (18) were convinced their demise was caused by this stoppage (18) and so they had resumed “burning incense . . . making cakes like her image and pouring out drink offerings to her” (19).
Here is evidence that history is not self-interpreting. The same event (destruction of Jerusalem and Judah) can be attributed to different causes (unfaithfulness to God or unfaithfulness to the Queen of Heaven). Without God’s revelation to show us reality, we construct our own understandings of life, history, religion, and behaviour. Our interpretations make sense to us and we become convinced they are true. Even when challenged, we can hold tenacious (and tragically) to misguided understandings of reality. This is why we need God’s Word to reveal truth to us. “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18).
The remnant’s brazen rejection of God’s Word (the will not listen/obey—16, 23) combined with their resolute determination to continue in idolatry has catastrophic consequences. They forfeit the most fundamental privilege of the covenant—the privilege of calling upon God’s name. The Lord withdraws from them the right to “invoke my name or swear, ‘As surely as the Sovereign LORD lives’” (26). They place themselves in the horrible position of being cut off from God’s favour; instead of having God as their defender, He would now be “watching over them for harm, not for good” (27). As they had “determined” (“set their face”) to go to Egypt, He had “determined” (“set my face”) to bring disaster upon them (11). As they vowed to worship the Queen of Heaven, so He vowed “(I swear by my great name”) to cut them off from the benefits of the covenant (26). He would send sword, famine, and plague upon them (the same three judgments He sent upon the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem—21:7, 9). While these judgments would come from God, like all consequences, they were also self-inflicted (“You will destroy yourselves . . . .”—8).
The chapter ends with a showdown (28) and a sign (29-30). The Lord proclaims that the remnant will “know whose word will stand—mine or theirs” (29). They have asserted that worshiping the Queen of Heaven will lead to having plenty of feed and suffering “no harm”—17). The Lord counters that their unrepentant idolatry will cause him to be “watching over them for harm” (27). Now they would see whose view of reality would prove accurate, whose words would stand true. Such is always the case whenever we pit our words (and worldview) against God’s Word. A showdown is set up and God’s Word will prevail.
God gives them a sign as evidence that His word will prove faithful and true: Pharaoh Hophra, king of Egypt, will be handed over to the Babylonians just as Zedekiah had been (30). In other words, the Babylonians would bring the sword, famine, and plague to Egypt—the very things the remnant were seeking to escape by going there. There would be historical verification of God’s authoritative proclamation.