The Prophet here shews there was no reason for him to labor any longer in trying to reform the people, for he spoke to the deaf. He had said before, according to our lecture yesterday, that God was still ready to be reconciled to the Jews, if they repented; but now, referring to himself, he says that his words were wholly lost. Hence he asks a question as respecting a thing strange or unexpected. To whom, he says, shall I speak? and to whom shall I protest? He had indeed, as we found yesterday, exhorted the people to repent: but there is nothing inconsistent in all this; for he wished, as far as he could, to secure, the safety of the people. Even God had commanded this; and it was his will, as it was yesterday stated, that a testimony should be borne, that it was not his fault, according to what had been taught, that he was not reconciled to the people.
We now then see that the whole passage harmonizes; for Jeremiah performed his office in trying to find out whether the people were healable; but when he saw that such were their obstinacy that it allowed of no remedy, he exclaims as one astonished, To whom shall I speak? and to whom shall I protest? The meaning is, that the people were so given up to impiety, that the prophets spent their labor in vain while endeavoring to reform them. And the first clause he confirms by another, To whom shall I protest? He intimates that they had despised not only what had been plainly taught them, but also protestations, which possess much greater power. He means that their wickedness could be cured by no remedies, that they had not only rejected plain truth and serious warnings, but had also perversely resisted solemn protestations.
That they may hear, he says. He intimates, that though he had faithfully performed his office, yet his labor was without any fruit, for all the Jews were deaf. Hence he adds, Behold, uncircumcised is their ear This metaphor is common in the prophets. The uncircumcised ear is that which rejects all true doctrine. An uncircumcised heart is that which is perverse and rebellious. But we ought to understand the reason of this: as circumcision was an evidence of obedience, so the Scripture calls those uncircumcised who are unteachable, who cast away every fear of God and all sense of religion, and follow their own lusts and desires. But to be thus called was greatly disliked by the Jews; for circumcision gave them no common ground of confidence, since it was the symbol and pledge of adoption, and since they knew that they were thereby separated from other nations so as to be called God’s holy people. But the Prophet divested them of this vain conceit by calling them uncircumcised in heart and ears, for they had dealt perfidiously with God when they promised to be obedient to his will.
The external sign was of itself nothing, when the end was disregarded. It was God’s will to consecrate his ancient people to himself by circumcision: but when they became satisfied with the visible sign only, there was no longer the reality, and God’s covenant was profaned. It is the same at this day with respect to baptism; they who wish to be deemed Christians, boast of it, while at the same time they shew no fear of God, and while their whole life obliterates the true character of baptism. It is hence evident, that they are sacrilegious, for they pollute what is holy. And for this reason Paul calls the letter [the outward rite] of circumcision, a sign without the reality. (Romans 2:27.) So at this day baptism may be called the letter in all the profane, who have no regard to its design: for God receives us into his Church on the condition that we are the members of Christ, and that being ruled by his Spirit we renounce the lusts of our flesh. But when we seek under the cloak of baptism to associate God with the Devil, it is a most detestable sacrilege. Such was the stupid presumption of the Jews. This was the reason why the prophets so often charged them with being uncircumcised in hearts and ears: “Ye are God’s holy people; give a proof of this: ye indeed boast that you have been circumcised; surely, the cutting off of a small pellicle does not satisfy God; shew that your hearts and ears have been circumcised: but uncircumcision remains in your hearts, and it remains in your ears; ye are then heathens.”
We now then see the meaning of the Prophet, and also the reason why Scripture speaks so much of the uncircumcision of the hearts and ears, and it was this, — to prove the Jews guilty of profaning that sign, which ought to have been a pledge of their adoption, and to have served as a profession of a new life.
It was not to lessen their guilt that Jeremiah said, They could not attend or give ear. If any one objects and asks, “Ought it to be deemed a crime that they could not attend?” The Prophet, as I have said, did not extenuate their guilt, but on the contrary shewed that they were so sunk in their vices, that they were not masters of themselves; as the case is with a drunkard, who is not in his right mind; but as he has contracted this vice of intemperance, his going astray or his ignorance is in no way excusable. So also the Prophet says, that the Jews could not attend to the word of the Lord, because they had surrendered themselves up to the Devil, so that they were become his slaves; as Paul says of those who were without the grace of God, that they were sold under sin, (Romans 7:14;) and the Scripture says elsewhere the same.
In short, Jeremiah here teaches us, that such was the habit of sinning contracted by the Jews, that they were no longer free to do what was right; for the Devil led them here and there at his pleasure, as though they were bound in his chains. And thus he sets forth their depravity as hopeless. Even Aristotle, though he is of no authority as to the power of the will, for he holds free-will, (he knew nothing of original sin and of the corruption of nature,) yet allows that those who are otherwise wholly free cannot do what is right, when they become so hardened in their vices, that intemperance, ἀκράτεια, rules in them: for intemperance is a tyrant, which so subdues all the feelings and senses of men, that all liberty is destroyed. We now then see what the Prophet had in view: he meant not that the Jews sinned, because they had not the power to resist; but because they had so plunged themselves into the abyss of wickedness, that they had sold themselves as it were to the Devil, who held them fast bound, and furiously drove them along as he pleased.
And this we learn more fully from what follows; for he says, Behold, the word of Jehovah has been to them a reproach; and it has not pleased them, or they have not delighted in it; for חפף means to take delight in a thing. The Prophet now more clearly shews, that the fault was in the Jews themselves, because they had despised God. Whence then was the impotence of which he had spoken? Even from their licentiousness, because they deemed God and his prophets as nothing. Since, then, their minds were thus hardened so as impiously to despise the truth, it followed that they could not hear and attend, inasmuch as they were deprived of all right knowledge. Whence was this? Even because they had closed their eyes and deafened their ears, and given themselves up altogether to the Devil, so that he led them into every kind of madness. In short, he shews at the end of the verse what was the beginning of all their evils, even because the word of God did not please them, that is, because they had cast aside every care for true religion, because they were not pleased when the prophets came and offered to them the favor of God. As then the truth had become unsavory to them, so that they rejected it, when it ought to have been especially delightful to them, so it happened that they became wholly stupid and void of all judgment and reason; and hence also came the uncircumcision of the ears of which mention has been made. (171) It follows —
To whom shall I speak, And protest, so that they will hear? Behold, uncircumcised is their ear, So that they cannot hearken; Behold, the word of Jehovah Has become to them a reproach, They delight not in it.
“A reproach” is to be the subject of reproach: the word of God by his prophets was despised and treated with contempt. This was the visible and palpable effect, but the cause was, that they had no delight in it or love for it.