When Jeremiah was called to his prophetic ministry, he was appointed “over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). In chapter 47, Jeremiah delivers a message of destruction to the Philistines.
The Philistines, historic enemies of Israel, lived in towns along the Mediterranean coast. Jeremiah warns of the coming of an army to fulfill God’s judgment on the nation. The Philistines were caught in the crossfire between the superpowers of their day—Babylon and Egypt. The coming invasion predicted by Jeremiah could refer to either of these two nations. When verse 2 refers to “waters are rising in the north” it could be speaking of Egypt moving north (compare similar language about Egypt in 46:7-8) or the Babylonians coming from the north. Since both countries attacked the Philistines, either one could be in view. I would see the most natural reading of the phrase “waters are rising in the north” (2) as referring to the Babylonians—the pot of boiling water poured out from the north (see 1:13-14).
The coming attack would bring demolition to the major cities—two of the five major Philistine cities are mentioned by name (Gaza–1, 5) and Ashkelon—5). The coming carnage would be like an “overflowing torrent” that covered the “land and everything in it” (2). The destruction would be both widespread and deep (4).
The Philistines will be helpless to stop the attack. “Fathers will not turn to help their children; their hands will hang limp” (3). Those who survive will lament and “cut” themselves (5)—cutting being a long-standing way for people to self-inflict suffering. The grieving remnant would cry out to the Lord, asking how long He would allow His judgment (“the sword of the Lord”—6) to bring death? The people understood God was behind the devastation of the population. He “commanded it” and “ordered it” (6).
The message Jeremiah delivers concerning the Philistines is devoid of any promising postscript. In the previous chapter, the message to Egypt concluded with a ray of hope: “Later, however, Egypt will be inhabited as in times past” (46:26). There is no such glimmer of grace at the end of chapter 47.
The chapter raises the issue of God’s judgment on nations by means of other nations. In our culture, there is a great deal of discussion related to Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites under Joshua. Many argue that God must be a moral monster to have instructed Israel to destroy the Canaanite populations. Some, like Peter Enns, contend this bloody conquest was never ordered by God and never really happened; Israel simply used conventional ANE language (exaggeration and war-time hyperbole) to describe their entry into Canaan and their belief that God wanted them to be victorious.
But Jeremiah 47 shows the problem for those who decry Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites is bigger than they imagine. God didn’t just instruct Israel to destroy cities and populations; He moved other nations to be the instrument of his lethal judgment. And not just godly, virtuous ones, but nations like Egypt and Babylon.
A close look at the text gives us a better sense of how to understand passages that predict or prescribe the invasion and destruction of whole cities or nations.
- The language of totality (“destroy all the Philistines and cut off all survivors who could help Tyre and Sidon”—4) is used as a way of emphasizing widespread destruction rather than complete extinction. I say this because verse 5 speaks of a “remnant” of Philistines who survive to “shave” their heads and “cut” themselves in mourning (5). So “all” Philistines (4) is not meant to be understood as “as every last one.” The use of language in a specific text must be interpreted in light of contextual clues and cultural conventions of language use. Historians have observed that ANE war texts often employ “totality” language to describe a “complete” victory or defeat. Scriptural writers utilized linguistic conventions; This is why we must interpret the Bible with a grammatical/historical hermeneutic. This can be called a “literal” hermeneutic as long as we allow for the use of figures of speech and conventions of language.
- The Lord accomplishes His purposes on earth through the choices of people, armies and nations that do not acknowledge Him or seek to do His will. Both the Babylonians and Egyptians worshipped an array of false gods. Both would be severely judged by the Lord (Egypt—Jeremiah 46; Babylon—Jeremiah 50-51). However, both are used as instruments of God’s judgment on other nations. From their perspectives, they were attacking the Philistines for their own political and economic reasons. On a deeper level, they were unknowingly obeying the Lord’s “command”: “the Lord has commanded it . . . he has ordered it” (7). Theologians call this compatibilism: the belief that human choices and God’s decrees are compatible and not contradictory.
- As the sovereign and righteous ruler of the world, God uses military invasions as one of the ways He judges people and whole populations. While we humans resist the notion that brutal military invasions, which bring death to young and old (3), could be “ordered” (Hebrew: “appointed”) by God, the Scriptures teach this to be true. While we tend to see ourselves as “innocents” (at least our children), the Bible sees all of us as sinful, guilty and deserving of death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). God has both the right and responsibility to exercise “justice and righteousness on earth” (9:24). While His mercy gives time for repentance (2 Peter 3:9), judgment ultimately comes upon all who fail to respond to Him with an “obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 1:5). Jeremiah’s messages show that even those who belong to Israel are not exempt from judgment if they continue to stubbornly rebel! God can use floods (Gen 6), droughts (Deut. 28), natural disasters (Joel 1) or invading armies to bring temporal judgment. Ultimately, hell is God’s final judgment on all who refuse to believe Him, receive His grace and surrender to His Lordship.
- God brings righteous judgment on the wicked but desires to show mercy and grace to those who deserve punishment. Ezekiel, a prophet contemporary with Jeremiah, records these words from the Lord: “‘As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?'” (Ezekiel 33:11).