The third nation addressed, after Egypt (46) and Philistia (47), is Moab, a nation on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Jeremiah’s message to the people and cities of Moab is lengthy, longer than pronouncement against Egypt and exceeded only by the prophecy against Babylon (50-51). Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Moabites were descendants of Lot (and the nation from which Ruth came); consequently, their hostility against Israel less expected and more heinous than that of many other nations.
Another unusual feature of the prophetic word to Moab is the number of cities mentioned (about twenty-five). God is making it clear that the judgment will come against “every town, and not a town will escape” (8). If Jeremiah had wanted to do so, he could have easily shortened the message by omitting the names of Moabite cities (no other nation has as many of its cities singled out for impending judgment). The fact that God moved Jeremiah to list them indicates both an extensive knowledge of Moab and an extensive judgment on Moab.
The instrument of Moab’s destruction is not specifically mentioned, although in historical context, the usual suspect would be the Babylonians. Indeed, historical records from Josephus claim that Moab lost independence to Babylon in 582. After this, Moab soon ceases to be known as a nation.
As in other prophecies, Jeremiah pictures the distress, devastation and shame that will accompany God’s judgment. Jeremiah speaks of the “anguished cries” of the people (5), the frantic fleeing of its inhabitants (19), the helplessness of its defenders (“the hearts Moab’s warriors will be like the heart of a woman in labour”—41) and the mourning of the surviving remnant (shaved heads and beards, slashed hands and sackcloth—37).
Jeremiah makes it clear that Moab has not experienced this kind of widespread judgment in its past. The people of Moab had been “at rest from youth.” (11). Jeremiah compares Moab to a jar of “wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another” (11). In the coming days, God would send “men who pour from jars” to empty her (take her into exile—11) and “smash her jugs” (12).
Why the coming, catastrophic judgment on Moab? Jeremiah’s prophecy identifies several significant reasons: Moab’s pride, scorn for Israel and idolatry.
Pride (towards self): Moab’s pride had become overt and obvious to others: “We have heard of Moab’s pride—her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and arrogance and the haughtiness of her heart” (29). Having enjoyed years of peace and security (11), having become wealthy (7, 36) and built fortified cities (18), Moab had become a proud people. Twice (26, 42) we are told that Moab “defied the Lord” (Hebrew: magnified against the Lord). Since “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6), He judges Moab.
Scorn (towards others): An expression of Moab’s pride was its scorn for Israel. There should have been a natural affinity for Israel since Moab descended from Lot. Instead, Moab joined those who rejoiced in Israel’s downfall: “Was not Israel the object of your ridicule?” (27). Instead of compassion, there was only contempt (Prov. 24:17). God took this ridicule of His people personally and dealt with Moab severely.
Idolatry (towards God): The judgment on Moab is a judgment on Chemosh, Moab’s chief god (7, 13,46). The worship of this false god had been brought to Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 11:7) and officially put to an end by Josiah (2 Kings 23:13). However, since Josiah’s sons tolerated the resurgence of idolatry, there may have been Jews who still worshiped the “detestable god of Moab” (1 Kings 11:7).
The application of all this is not hard to see. God brings shattering trouble on those who sin through pride (reliance on my own resources or reputation), scorn (disgust mixed with derision) or idolatry (exchanging the true God for a counterfeit).
What strikes me with most force from this chapter is the unexpected combination of fierce judgment and deep lament that we see within God’s attitude and actions. He unapologetically brings “shattering” (39) judgment on an entire nation—including the “little ones”(4). He brings in a conquering army, calling them to execute His judgment with deadly force: “A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed” (10). Yet, at the same moment, His heart is filled with sadness and lament for the Moabites He is judging: “Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out” (31); “So my heart laments for Moab like a flute” (36). Oh, the deep love and fierce wrath of God! We humans cannot contain both emotions in our heart at the same time. We toggle between the two. Yet God simultaneously and eternally delights in “kindness, justice and righteousness” (9:24).
Many people in the West are reinterpreting or simply rejecting the “war texts” of Scripture (especially the conquest in Joshua) as barbaric and unworthy of God. Some say that the events described in Joshua never happened—they claim that God did not (and would not) command the widespread annihilation of the Canaanites. They see themselves as rescuing God’s reputation, as defending His image as a God who is love (1 John 4:7-8). What they miss is that God’s nature remains loving even as he executes righteous judgment. He laments over the devastation that He brings upon the wicked (including those we would call the innocents or “little ones”). Conversely, He shatters those who defy Him even as He weeps over their destruction.
One of the most remarkable features of this prophetic message is its ending: “’Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the days to come,’ declares the Lord” (47). Here again we see the compassionate heart of God for all peoples—even an arrogant, idolatrous nation like Moab. While some see a historical resurgence for Moab, my sense is that the promise finds its fulfillment in the promise that people from every “nation, tribe, people and language” will be included in the heavenly company of believers (Rev. 9:7)