Jeremiah and his prophesy
We learn a lot about Jeremiah the man from the opening verses of the Book of Jeremiah, that contains his words and more importantly his prophesies, as well as background to the momentous events happening around him: “The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests that were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin: To whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah king of Judah, unto the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month. Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child. But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth. 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” Jeremiah 1:1-9.
We might infer from this opening that Jeremiah was ordained a prophet before he was even born and didn’t even have any choice in the matter. Doing the job of the prophet was not going to be an easy one but God would be with him and protect him. His message was a consequential one. He was young (likely he was a teenager when he was called) and seemed to have been of a timid nature. He came from a priestly family, noting priests had a quite different undertaking to that of prophet. He lived in an especially tumultuous period of Judah history, beginning under good king Josiah (born in the same year), through four evil kings, although Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin, who each only reigned three months, were barely mentioned, and ending with Zedekiah and Babylonian captivity.
He began his ministry in 626BC and ended not long after 586BC. His name means “The Lord throws”. It appears, after Jerusalem fell, despite being given protection by the Babylonian captors, he was kidnapped and taken to Egypt, where he died. He was based in Jerusalem and prophesied mainly to Judah although he did make significant prophesies regarding other nations too. His message, like Isaiah, was one of judgement but also hope, with a particular emphasis on the need to repent and specifically on an individual basis. He saw the futility of outward religion and trusting in the Temple. He was told by God he could not marry and that was part to do with him not only speaking the part but also acting it, just like when he was told to bury some worn underwear and dig it up sometime later, to smash a clay pot and to walk around with a yoke.
He was representing the aggrieved husband, God, whose spouse, Israel / Judah, had forsaken Him for other gods. Many of the sins that troubled Isaiah did so Jeremiah also and major sections was Jeremiah pouring his heart out (it often appeared he was merged with God in this respect) because of the sins of the people, with their lack of contrition as part of the slippery slope to ruin. Which is where all this would end. In this there was no doubt, it would be destruction and no one would help them. They would reach the point of no return. We look in wonder at Jeremiah’s faithfulness to God during his long ministry, having to pass on this message with doom, interspersed it is true with a future message of hope and, with few exceptions, both message and messenger were rejected. Jeremiah was a man of faith, whose faith was tested seen by his remonstrating with God while wicked people seemed to be let off. While he knew there was going to be a day of reckoning, he saw beyond that and nowhere was this more evident when he brought a field (Jeremiah 32:8) defying logic yet trusting God.
Background and context
With respect to the timelines and maps show in Chapter 2, there was significant movement in the power structure of the region during Jeremiah’s time. Israel no longer features in Jeremiah’s prophesying’s other than in a distance future when the kingdom would be restored under its Messiah. Israel had already been taken into Assyrian captivity in 722BC, 100 years before Jeremiah began. But Assyria along with the other significant power block at that time, Egypt, was on the decline. Tragically, it was at Megiddo in 608BC that King Josiah fought a battle he need not have fought, which he lost along with his life. It was to stop the Egyptians linking up with the Assyrians to fight the emerging Babylonian power. While Egypt called the shots for a time e.g. establishing Jehoiakim on the throne, the Babylonians were in the ascendancy in the control stakes. The destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC, following a long siege, was preceded by them taking effective control of the land and two earlier exiles: in 605BC that took Daniel the Prophet and 597BC that took Ezekiel the Prophet (both we will return to). Ironically, part of Judah’s plan to withstand Babylon was to make foreign alliances, one of which was Egypt, and all of which were ill fated.
There was no question that Jeremiah’s message was an unpopular one, and with very few exceptions he was opposed on every side, especially by members of the establishment, including those who claimed to be prophets. His life was threatened on several occasions. He was put in stocks, in prison and under house arrest. There were attempts on his life, including by people from his own community and when he was cast into a cistern where he would have died but for the timely rescue by Ebed-melech (a black official, whose black life it turned out, noting a present day concern, did matter). Ebed-melech was one of Jeremiah’s few friends, another being his faithful assistant and scribe, Baruch, who likely compiled the final book of Jeremiah, which seems to dart backwards and forwards in the timeline and is often repetitious. Jeremiah was a political prophet, all too aware of what was going on around him. It was he who warned the kings when they sought alliances with ungodly nations and not God, who advised them they would do better to submit to the rule of Babylon than resist. This might have been avoided if his message of repentance had been accepted but it wasn’t and there came a point of no return. Jeremiah is rightly seen as the weeping prophet, all too aware of the consequences of disobedience. It should be noted that a lot of his writing was beautiful poetry, expressing God’s heart.
Jeremiah’s (prophet) contemporaries, later in life, in Babylon, were Ezekiel and Daniel, with Ezekiel especially viewing the same events Jeremiah commented on, albeit from different places. Jeremiah’s ministry was immediately preceded by Zephaniah; Habakkuk was a contemporary. More background to Jeremiah’s life and times can be found in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. 2Kings ends as does Jeremiah with Jehoiachin who had been taken captive to Babylon in 597BC being given special favour by the King of Babylon. Chronicles, written much later, could reflect on the return from exile under Cyrus of Persia who conquered Babylon (just as Jeremiah predicted). The governor upon the return from Exile was Zerubbabel around 538BC, laying the foundation of the rebuilt temple. The significance in the two endings is that amidst the tumult there was hope and that the royal line of David had been preserved (through Jehoiachin and Zerubbabel) and the promised Messianic kingdom would be restored.
There are as we might expect many parallels between the Book of Jeremiah and Isaiah and as we will see that of other prophets also. Both are long books and while Jeremiah has 52 chapters compared with Isaiah’s 66, Jeremiah has more words than any other book in the Bible (42000). Both contain many memorable, quotable passages (some included in this account) and the only reason Isaiah is more so is that there is less doom and gloom, even though a careful reading of Jeremiah reveals messages of glorious hope and comfort. For example, “the Lord hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” Jeremiah 31:3, has encouraged many down the ages. “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not” Jeremiah 33:3 is a text that has challenged this author and “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:7-9 has served as a check and balance for this author. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah is quoted several times by New Testament writers. Matthew 2:17, 27:9 points out specific Jeremiah prophesies fulfilled in Jesus day. Jesus was himself likened to Jeremiah when the question was asked who he was (Matthew 16:14).
Just as when reading Isaiah, we need to brace ourselves over the idea of God’s disappointment when His people sin, similar lists of sins, consequences of this falling away, the unmet call to return and future hope following restoration, all themes that are repeated many times, when reading Jeremiah. With Jeremiah it becomes that more intense because of the awful judgment that transpires toward the end of his ministry and the loneliness and personal attacks he experienced throughout his ministry, yet he stuck to it, even though he would remonstrate with God because of his enemies. He was right there at the centre of where suffering took place and teaches us that faithfulness to God, even when much that took placed seemed unjust, mattered. There is an irony as God looks back when there was a beautiful relationship as of a husband and wife who are truly in love and yet realistically, 900 years on from the making of that covenant on Mount Sinai, it was a topsy turvy relationship and it was Jeremiah’s sad lot to witness the wickedness that took place around him followed by Exile.
The end for Jerusalem (all else had fallen) is graphically described in chapters 39 and 52 and this after an eighteen-month siege, also referred to in the Book of Ezekiel. It represented the tragic demise of King Zedekiah, who tried to escape when it became clear the city could no longer be held. The other king of note, Jehoiakim, who was especially wicked, was earlier taken by the Babylonians after trying to break free from Babylonian rule by aligning with Egypt. Both kings were taken captive to Babylon in chains and no one was there to mourn their departure from the scene. Both dealt appalling with Jeremiah and yet were given every opportunity to change their ways. The tragedy was their hardness of heart and what could have been. While we on the subject of kings, mention should be made of Jehoiachin, son of Jehoiakim, also an evil king, who after a three-month reign was also taken captive in Babylon, with Zedekiah taking his place. The hopeful note at the end (Jeremiah 52) was a reversal in his fortunes as captive, laying the hope that the line to the future Messiah would be restored.
The book at the very end of the Old Testament (Chronicles) ends on a hopeful note as noted earlier, with the edict of Cyrus, just as did the book of Kings with the restoration of Jehoiachin, but not without first recognising the crucial ministry of Jeremiah (and others), who did what God told them, leaving the rest to God. Like Daniel (9:2), the Chronicler recognised the significance of the 70 year exile: “And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy. Therefore he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon. And they burnt the house of God, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof. And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: To fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years. Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The Lord his God be with him, and let him go up” 2Chronicles 36:15-23.
A synopsis of Jeremiah
- Call of the Prophet (ch. 1)
- Warnings and exhortations to Judah (chs. 2–11)
- Complaints, conversations and conflicts of Jeremiah (chs. 12-20)
- Bad kings, the Righteous Branch, false prophets and exile (chs. 21-29)
- Promises of future restoration (chs. 30-33)
- Words to Kings Zedekiah and Jehoiakim (chs. 34-35)
- Sufferings and persecutions of the Prophet (chs. 36–38)
- The Fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath (chs. 39–45)
- Judgment against the nations (chs. 46–51)
- Historical Appendix (ch. 52)
The message of Jeremiah
When it came to God’s complaints concerning His people, the list of specifics was at least as long as Isaiah and not too dissimilar: idolatry, sexual immorality, child sacrifice, greed, lying, injustice, seeking help from Israel’s enemies, forsaking the Covenant they had with God, worshipping God hypocritically and it goes on and on and is repeated several times, without response other than attacking the messenger. For Jeremiah, the repetition and rejection was a painful experience that he felt acutely and had to commit to God who was His avenger, but who would judge righteously. In one summation we read: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” Jeremiah 2:13. They had a choice between blessing and cursing and chose the latter.
While studying much of Jeremiah’s prophesying and experiences makes sad reading, both because of the pain Jeremiah and the Lord felt because of the sin of the people and what he had to go through, which hurt him greatly and much more than merely physically, there is much in what is stated that is to with hope for the future: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers” Jeremiah 16:14-15. He also picks up on the Righteous Branch theme, mentioned by Isaiah, relating to the future Messiah: “And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the Lord. Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord Our Righteousness” Jeremiah 23:3-6.
His message was also a practical one, revealing repeatedly a tender hearted attitude, and a concern because of false prophets who would mislead them, for example to those who had already been sent into exile: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. For thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the Lord” Jeremiah 29:4-9. Beyond then, he could encourage. Rather than merely a prophet of doom his was one of hope: “For thus saith the Lord, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” Jeremiah 29:10-13.
About the coming Messiah were his insights into the New Covenant that would be ushered in, referred to and elaborated on in Hebrews 8 and 10. ““Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more”” Jeremiah 31:33-35.
Before we leave the Book of Jeremiah, it is worth noting that chapters 46 to 51 concern nations other than Israel and Judah: Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, Elam and Babylon, where most attention is devoted including, pertinent to this book, it being later overrun by the Medes. We learn among other things, just as we would expect from a true prophet, the prophecies of Jeremiah were precisely fulfilled. God is interested in these other nations, especially when they relate to His covenant people and when they deal harshly with Israel we find repeatedly God sides with and will deliver them. God is concerned over the wickedness of these nations, especially the sin of pride. In some of the prophecies and despite coming judgment, there is room for hope.
All the prophets had it hard; none more so than Jeremiah. His was definitely not a message of peace, hope and love, more judgement, woe and need to repent, with some peace, hope and love thrown in. In our day, tolerance, diversity and inclusion are often the watchwords, so Christian preachers ought to take note. It would be easy to accuse Jeremiah of self-pity as he called out this or that pillar of the community, who seemed to prosper as they pummelled the poor prophet. But Jeremiah stuck to his guns when there seemed little respite from the flak that came his way. The consolation was he was doing God’s will and his reward would follow. Meantime, he had to accept God had everything under control.
We cannot say for sure who wrote Lamentations, but many experts believe it to be Jeremiah. While it might serve us if we were to go along with this thought, especially as there are pointers such as the themes covered, language employed and, while lamenting was something many of the prophets did, it was something especially associated with Jeremiah, who we know wrote a lament about King Josiah after he died (2Chronicles 25:35), but we must be careful not to read into the Bible what might conveniently reinforce our opinions. If the poetic language of Jeremiah was sublime, that of Lamentations (the entire book was poetry) was more so and it cleverly used acrostics based on successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet to introduce each of the sentences of the first four of the five chapters:
- Chapter 1: Jerusalem’s misery and desolation
- Chapter 2: The Lord’s anger against his people
- Chapter 3: Judah’s complaint and a basis for consolation
- Chapter 4: contrast between Zion’s past and present
- Chapter 5: Judah’s appeal for God’s forgiveness
The devastating effects of the Fall of Jerusalem are described in graphic and alarming detail. It begins and ends in sombre fashion: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies… Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us” 1:1-2, 5:21-22. The penultimate verse gives room for hope with this delightful reason for hope expressed right in the middle of the lament: “This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” 3:21-23.