These chapters mark a distinct change in the book of Jeremiah. We move from narration of the life of Jeremiah, to his litany of prophecies against the surrounding nations. Though the oxen yokes and baskets of figs are gone, we still have a lot to learn about Jeremiah and his God.
As much as anything, these chapters are about the sovereignty of God. Though there is ultimately nothing “simple” about it, we can say that on one level, God’s sovereignty simply means He is the final ruler and judge of humanity. For the average Hebrew in Jeremiah’s day, it would have been a stretch to see their God as Lord over the Egyptians and Babylonians. The common view of gods in their day was that they were geographically and nationally located. If a nation or empire was small, so was their god; if it was large and powerful, so what their god. Part of what Jeremiah needs to communicate to his people is that their God is so big, no geography can contain him; he is God, even of the Egyptians and Philistines.
One surprising reality here is how well-versed Jeremiah is in the society and economy of Egypt and Philistia. Some scholars note that Jeremiah may refer to things in these chapters we may never fully understand. Jeremiah has a keen sense of Egyptian geography, politics, and medicine. Why would Jeremiah know so much about the enemy?
To begin with, Jeremiah’s call is anything but provincial. Jeremiah was told by God:
“I appointed you a prophet to the nations….See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (1:5, 10)
The truth God wants conveyed covers all people in every culture. As a faithful prophet to God’s truth, Jeremiah knows how it works in surrounding cultures. And in direct opposition to the conventional religious wisdom of the day, Jeremiah saw the Egyptians and Philistines as potential people of God.
“Afterward Egypt shall be inhabited as in the days of old, declares the Lord.” (47:26)
There are plenty of hints in the Old Testament that God desires that all nations, no matter how wicked or pagan, belong to him (Psalm 87:4-6 names the Egyptians and Philistines).
God’s revelation has always rejected the kinds of social and ethnic barriers erected by the rest of the world. Paul, for instance, is fond of saying that in Christ there are no distinctions between people (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11). It is why we call each other “brother” and “sister” no matter what we drove to church in.
What Jeremiah models for us is, in fact, one of the genius strokes of the faith. Our call to reach out to the rest of the world with the love and forgiveness of God is not put to us in abstract terms. The call to love our neighbor is very concrete, even specific. This is what makes the command so difficult and so right. Jeremiah did not display a generalized concern for humanity, but a specified love for his neighbors--Egyptians and Philistines. “Love humanity” can mean, “love everyone in general and no one in particular,” or, “love those easy for you to love.” “Love your neighbor,” means, “love this person next to you.”
In his book, Heretics, G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor….That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty toward one’s neighbor….[W]e have to love our neighbor because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation.