The Marvellous Book of Jeremiah
The book of Jeremiah is one of the longest books of the Old Testament. It is also one of the most thrilling.
The author of this book is Jeremiah, a prophet (cf. Dan. 9:2; Mt. 2:17) of the city of Anathoth, a priestly community (cf. Josh. 21:18) about three miles northeast of Jerusalem. His father’s name was Hilkiah. Some suggest that this was the high priest who found the copy of the law (2 Kgs. 22:4) in the ruins of the temple (Smith, 311-12). Most commentators do not make that connection.
The meaning of his name is uncertain; various suggestions have been: “Jehovah establishes,” “Jehovah exalts,” and “Jehovah casts down.” Jeremiah had no immediate family; in fact, he was the only prophet of the Old Testament whom God forbade to marry (16:1,2).
The bulk of the prophetic message is directed to the southern kingdom of Judah—though sometimes referred to as “Israel”—with its capital city, Jerusalem (chapters 2-45). Samaria and the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria almost a century earlier. Additionally, miscellaneous oracles are aimed at a few other ancient nations (cf. 1:5). Chapters 46-51 address several of Judah’s pagan contemporaries, e.g., Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Amon, Edom, Syria, Babylon, etc.
Jeremiah prophesied during the administrations of five of Judah’s kings:
1. Josiah (639-608 B.C.)—31 years
2. Jehoahaz (608 B.C.)—3 months
3. Jehoiakim (608-597 B.C.)—11 years
4. Johoiachin (597 B.C.)—3 months
5. Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.)—11 years
The prophet commenced his labour in the 13th year of Josiah (626 B.C.); he concluded his ministry in Judea when the temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. Thus, his work in the southern kingdom spanned approximately forty years. However, he prophesied periodically even after the fall of Jerusalem. The last date mentioned in the book comes thirty-seven years following the capture of Jehoiachin (597 B.C.), thus in 560 B.C. (52:31). This is twenty-six years beyond Jerusalem’s fall. If chapter 52 was added by Jeremiah—though not authored by him (Young, pg. 255), his career could have spanned some sixty-six years.
Jeremiah, one of the last of the seers before the Babylonian exile of the Jews, was outstanding among the seventh-century prophets for his obedience, strength, and courage, though at the same time he was greatly misunderstood. He was a man of deep sincerity, but some of the causes he espoused were unpopular with many of his countrymen, even considered contrary to national interest and policy.
It seems to have been about the year 626 B.C. that Jeremiah received his call to preach. His reluctance to accept the responsibility of becoming one of the Lord's representatives resembled that of Moses when he was called to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (cf. Jer. 1:6; Ex. 3:11; 4: 10); yet patriarch and prophet alike accepted the call, each proving worthy of a holy mission.
At the time of his call Jeremiah was assured that a great career lay ahead, one of constant challenge but of sure success. The Lord Himself had planned the nature of his work even before his birth: "Before thou earnest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations" (Jer. 1:5). The inward voice rebuked the prophet's fear, affirming the perpetual presence of God with him, and the validity of the divine message: "See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant" (vs.10).
In the remainder of this opening chapter Jeremiah tells of two visions that further outlined the nature of his lifework and the extreme contrasts it was to involve.
The first vision showed the branch of a blossoming almond tree, a sign of approaching spring. Interpreted by the Lord it implied, "I am watching over my word to perform it" (vs.12). The second vision was that of a cauldron of boiling water, its steam fanned by a strong north wind. This, the Lord explained, indicated that judgment would soon sweep over Judah at the hands of northern invaders. The reference has been understood to foretell an invasion by the Scythians, predicted also by Jeremiah's contemporary, Zephaniah.
In uttering such severe statements at God's command, the prophet could expect bitter opposition from kings and princes, priests and people, alike, but what of it? "They shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee" (vs.19). Thus encouraged, Jeremiah bravely entered on his memorable prophetic career, which was to carry him through some forty years and more of testing and of trial, during the reigns of the last of the Judean kings.
In accord with his task Jeremiah appeared at the gate of the temple at Jerusalem (7:1-3) proclaiming to the people the great opportunity which lay before them if only they would reform and worship God aright. But as the prophet continued, it became clear that the men of Judah were unwilling to obey God, and he reminded his hearers that their complete disregard of the commandments was not hidden from Him. In fact, Jeremiah described the temple as "a den of robbers" (vs.11), a phrase virtually echoed by Jesus centuries later (Mark 11:17)
In other prophecies Jeremiah foretold that the Babylonians would attack the land, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and the people taken into exile (25:9-11). His stern predictions brought condemnation upon him from his own people, for he was considered a traitor to his country because he counselled submission to Babylonia (Chapter 27). In reality, he was declaring God's judgment as he understood it, and he was indeed to witness the horrors of the destruction he had foretold.
The good King Josiah, whose reforms on the basis of the book of Deuteronomy Jeremiah had supported early in his own career, was slain in an unwise attack on the forces of Egypt. However, his son Jehoiakim, who became his successor, was more interested in that country than he was in his native Judah, and learning of the outspoken warnings and oracles of destruction recorded by Baruch, Jeremiah's secretary and friend, Jehoiakim had them read in his presence, proceeding to burn each portion of the manuscript piece by piece. But he could not thus destroy Jeremiah's message, for Baruch rewrote it in further detail at the prophet's instruction (Chapter 36).
In spite of Jeremiah's loyalty to his God and to His people, he was accused of defecting to the Babylonians and thrown into prison (37:11-15)! He was still there when the city fell in 586 B.C. (38:28). The colourful account of his rescue from the cistern into which he was thrown at one point in his imprisonment indicates that he had at least some loyal friends (38:1-13).
Jeremiah, who remained in Jerusalem when many of his people had been exiled to Babylon, wrote to them a most significant letter of comfort, advice, and encouragement. They might long be captives in a foreign land, but they could still obey the Lord and trust Him. He had for them "thoughts of peace, and not of evil" (29:11): and the promise, "Ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart" (vs.13).
Probably bearing in mind the importance of King Josiah's "book of the covenant" (II Kings 23:2), the prophet introduced "a new covenant," described in some detail in Chapter 31 of his book. "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" (Jer. 31:31). This covenant was to be inward and spiritual, evidencing the power and the presence of God. "I will put my law in their inward parts and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people" (vs.33).
Carried with his loyal friend Baruch into Egypt by Jews who escaped from Jerusalem (Chapter 43), Jeremiah continued his vigorous denunciations of evil. In Egypt our record ends. Though the vivid elegy over the destruction of Jerusalem, called "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," has long been associated with him, the book is generally considered anonymous.
Courage and tenderness, faith and inspiration, continue to live in the poet's words, "Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore, with lovingkindness have I drawn thee" (Jer. 31:3). Though he often despaired over the results of his work, the greatness of his contribution is undeniable. His courageous assault upon the concept that Israel was racially and tribally sacrosanct matched his pioneer stand for individual worship and spiritual religion, unrestricted by place or ritual. It is not surprising that some of the people of Christ Jesus' day were inclined to identify Jesus as a second Jeremiah (Matt.16: 14).
Out of the anguish felt by Jeremiah in his unavailing appeals to his people shine some of the most treasured portions of the Bible, including predictions of the Messiah's work as Redeemer, Branch, Judge, Shepherd, Liberator, King—and the glorious promise (33:6), "Behold, I will bring . . . health and cure, . . . and will reveal unto them the abundance of peace and truth."
We should not be put off by Jeremiah’s reputation as the gloomy or “weeping” prophet. He has much encouragement to offer the faithful. To be sure, he is remarkable for the way he reveals his feelings and the torment of his soul. This is not surprising given the nature of his message and the constant opposition by most of his fellow Israelites. Yet, even his experience of this sadness and his suffering are a foreshadowing of the anguish of Jesus as he faces even more harrowing torments, again from fellow Israelites, that lead to his death on the cross. Redemption comes through pain, not through avoiding it. The gospel is foreshadowed by Jeremiah’s message and his personal involvement in it. By his words and suffering he points to the sovereign grace of God in his control over world history and his faithfulness to his covenant that will be fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The prophecies of Jeremiah offer us a unique insight into the mind and heart of one of God’s faithful servants. The book includes numerous personal statements of emotional engagement, painting Jeremiah not merely as a prophet brought on the scene to deliver God’s message but also as a red-blooded human being who felt compassion for his people, desired judgment for evildoers, and was concerned about his own safety as well.
Significantly, the book of Jeremiah also provides us the clearest glimpse of the new covenant God intended to make with His people once Christ came to earth. This new covenant would be the means of restoration for God’s people, as He would put His law within them, writing it on hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone. Rather than fostering our relationship with God through a fixed location like a temple, He promised through Jeremiah that His people would know Him directly, a knowledge that comes through the person of His Son, Jesus Christ (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 8:6).
Because Jeremiah prophesied in the final years of Judah before God’s people were exiled to Babylon, it makes sense that the book’s overarching theme is judgment. Indeed, the first forty-five chapters focus primarily on the judgment coming to Judah because of its disbelief and disobedience. However, an element of grace is also present in these events. The fall of Jerusalem comes nearly nine hundred years after the original covenant between God and the Israelites in the Sinai desert (Exodus 24:1–18). Such an extended period of time witnesses to God’s great patience and mercy, allowing His people the opportunity to turn from their sinful ways—a lifestyle they began not long after they struck the original covenant with God (32:1–35).
That His chosen people routinely ignored the covenant they made with Him for the better part of a millennia without immediate death and destruction should give us hope in our own struggles with living well for God. Though we fail Him, He is patient with us, working in us to bring about the best for our lives.
But the book of Jeremiah also reminds us that an end will certainly come, a truth that should spur us to follow after God wholeheartedly.
An Introduction to the Old Testament – Edward Young
Jeremiah and Lamentations – Anthony L. Ash