Chapter 46 begins a lengthy section of the book in which we see Jeremiah living out his original calling to be a prophet “over nations and kingdoms” (1:10). While the primary recipients of his prophetic messages were the kings, leaders, prophets and people of Judah and Jerusalem, Jeremiah was also given messages for surrounding nations. A summary list of the nations addressed in chapters 46-51 is given in chapter 25:15-36. A natural reading of Jeremiah 25:1, 36:1 and 45:1 would indicate that these messages were contained on the scroll that Jeremiah dictated to Baruch.
The first nation to be addressed is Egypt (46:1-26; also listed first in 25:19). The “message against the army of Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt” (2) comes in two parts (2-12, 13-26), both of which make the same point: Egypt will suffer a devastating defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.
The first of the two pronouncements is given after the Egyptian army “was defeated at Carchemish on the Euphrates River by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son on Josiah king of Judah” (2). The fourth year of Jehoiakim’s reign was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s (25:1). Jehoiakim had been appointed as a vassal to Pharaoh Necho in 608 BC after the Egyptians had defeated the Israelites and killed king Josiah who tried to stop their northern advancement. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, reigned for three months after his father’s untimely death, only to be exiled to Egypt and replaced by his brother Jehoiakim.
In 605 the Egyptians again marched north to aid their allies the Assyrians against the upstart Babylonians. Egypt was soundly defeated at Carchemish, a city on the northern border of Syria, along the Euphrates river (2). The Babylonians marched down to Judah and forced Jehoiakim to pay heavy taxes, exiling some of the elite young leaders (Daniel and his three friends). When Babylon seemed unable to maintain control of the region, Jehoiakim switched allegiances to Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar, angered by this change, would march against Jerusalem; Jehoiakim’s eleven-year reign would end with his death.
Jeremiah’s message is addressed to Egypt before they are defeated at Carchemish. While verse 2 indicates the outcome of the battle, the prophetic word in verses 3-12 seems to be predictive, as it speaks of Egypt’s coming defeat “in the land of the north by the River Euphrates” (10). In this case, verse 2 is a summary of the following message.
The message opens with a call to Egypt to prepare for battle with the Babylonians (3-4). Jeremiah speaks of Egypt rising “like the Nile”—a picture of the nation’s surge in strength and it’s ambition to regain its place of power among the nations (7-8). But Egypt’s plans will be shattered. Their warriors will be “terrified” and “flee in haste”(5). Their allies (mercenaries from Cush, Put and Lydia—9) will “fall down together” in death (12).
The reason for the defeat is that God is sovereignly ruling over the nations. The battle belongs to the Lord: “But that day belongs to the Lord, the LORD Almighty—a day of vengeance for vengeance on his foes” (10). The defeat of Egypt is pictured as a “sacrifice” where God offers up Egypt and her allies to death (10).
Verse 13 begins a second and subsequent message to Egypt. That this is a different (and later) message is indicated by the fact that it concerns an invasion by Babylon into Egypt (13). The first message described Egypt’s battle with Babylon up in the north (6); this battle will take place in Egypt itself. Historically, this battle would have occurred when Egypt reasserted its independence over Babylon, perhaps in 568 BC, the 37th year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (according to a clay tablet housed at the British Museum).
Egypt is pictured as a “beautiful heifer” attacked by a “gadfly . . . from the north.” (20). Here hired mercenaries are described as “fattened calves” that flee back to their homelands (21) and badmouth Pharaoh as a “loud noise” and one who “missed his opportunity” (17). The picture of a “gadfly” nipping (the Hebrew word means “to nip”) a calf would indicate this battle would be painful but not a slaughter (like Carchemish). However, the result of the fight would be that Egypt is “handed over to the people of the north” (24), with many of the people taken into exile (19).
Once again, the reason for Egypt’s defeat at the hands of the Babylonian armies is due to the fact that the Lord is once again fighting against Egypt: “Why will your warriors be laid low? They cannot stand, for the Lord will push them down” (15). He is punishing Egypt for their idolatry: “I am about to bring punishment on Amon god of Thebes, on Pharaoh, on Egypt and her gods . . .” (25). As in the Exodus, God was demonstrating His supremacy over the false gods of the nations. But while He was punishing Egypt and shaming their confidence in false gods, He still had future plans for the nation: “Later, however, Egypt will be inhabited as in times past” (26). Jeremiah’s message to Egypt echoes the earlier word from Isaiah in pointing to a brighter future for the Egyptians (Isaiah 19:25; see also Ezekiel 29:13-16).
Israel would suffer defeat for their foolish reliance on Egypt. When Egypt regained power and rebuffed the Babylonians after the Battle of Carchemish, Jehoiakim switched allegiances from Babylon to Egypt. He should have remembered Jeremiah’s message that Babylon would be supreme for seventy years (25:11). By banking on Egypt, he would suffer the fate of the nations who “rely on Pharaoh” (25). Nebuchadnezzar would return and punish the city in 597, the year of Jehoiakim’s death.
The message to Egypt ends with a word of hope for “Jacob” (27-28). The Lord still sees them as His “servant” (27, 28) in spite of their disobedience. He pledges to be with them and to bring them back to their own land on the far side of disciplining them through exile. He will not desert or destroy them. This is amazing grace; this is unfailing love.