Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah - May 31
The Old Testament mentions nine different people named Jeremiah. The man God used to author this book was a priest and one of Israel's greatest prophets. Because of several biographical narratives in the book of Jeremiah, more is known about Jeremiah than any other prophet.
The Hebrew name Jeremiah apparently means "Exalted of the Eternal" or "Appointed by the Eternal." It may relate to the fact that the prophet was one of only a few people whom the Bible reveals to have been sanctified by God before birth for a special purpose—the others being John the Baptist, Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul (Luke 1:13-14; Isaiah 49:1, 5; Galatians 1:15). Jeremiah 1:5 may mean that, like John and Jesus, Jeremiah was chosen even before his conception for his commission.
Jeremiah's father Hilkiah (1:1) was apparently not the high priest Hilkiah of 2 Kings 22:8. The priests who lived at the priest-city of Anathoth (about 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem) were of the house of Ithamar (compare 1 Kings 2:26) while the high priests, since Zadok, were of the line of Eleazar.
Jeremiah's ministry began in the 13th year of Josiah (Jeremiah 1:2)—ca. 627 or 626 B.C.—when Zephaniah is also believed to have preached. The book bearing Jeremiah's name relates his words and works during the reigns of the last five kings of Judah—a span of about 40 years—and on into the first years of Judah's Babylonian captivity (verses 1-3). Josiah was a righteous ruler who was apparently close to Jeremiah—the king's great reformation coming five years after Jeremiah's preaching began. Upon Josiah's death, Jeremiah lamented for him (2 Chronicles 35:25). But the mostly superficial benefits of Josiah's reforms were soon replaced by moral and spiritual decay. Following him were four wicked rulers—Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and, finally, Zedekiah, whose reign was ended by Babylon's invasion of Judah.
"According to the traditional date, the time of [Jeremiah's] call (year 13 of Josiah's reign—Jeremiah 1:2) coincided approximately with the death of the last great Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, an event which signaled the disintegration of the Assyrian empire under whose yoke Judah had served for nearly a century. Against the waning power and influence of the Assyrians, Judah asserted its independence under Josiah" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,"Jeremiah, Book of"). This was no doubt assisted by the arrival of the Scythians, which soon followed. But following their eventual withdrawal, Judah found itself in a vulnerable position between two powers contending for dominance—Egypt and the Neo-Babylonian Empire—and the latter would emerge supreme.
Jeremiah was appointed "a prophet to the nations" (verse 5)—to "all the kingdoms of the world" (25:26). And chapters 46-51 are directed to various gentile nations. However, "nations" would seem to refer primarily to the people of Judah and Israel. His preaching was, of course, in large measure directed to the people of Judah where he lived. But Jeremiah also prophesied to the house of Israel—which God had punished and sent into captivity nearly a century before he began preaching. Obviously, then, God's message is for Israel of the end time. Jeremiah wrote of a time of national trouble that is yet ahead for the modern descendants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel. A number of passages in Jeremiah clearly refer to events that will occur just before and after Christ's return at the end of this age.
One of the greatest values of this book is its universal application in understanding the righteous nature of God and the rebellious nature of man, desperately in need of transformation. According to The Expositor's Bible Commentary, "Jeremiah preached more about repentance than any other prophet" (introductory notes on Jeremiah). For a time, Jeremiah's message was for the people of his day to repent or else be taken captive by Babylon. Yet, because the response was resentment rather than repentance, God revealed to Jeremiah that Jerusalem's fall and the people's captivity had become the inevitable punishment. Following that revelation, Jeremiah continued to exhort the people to repent, but he also preached that God's will was for them to submit to Babylon—with assurance that, if they did, they would receive mercy. However the populace, especially the authorities, viewed this message as pessimistic, heretical, unpatriotic and even treasonous. As a result, Jeremiah repeatedly suffered rejection, hostility, ridicule, persecution, and threats against his life. For a while he was actually imprisoned.
Besides this book that bears his name, Jeremiah is also credited with writing the book of Lamentations—a term that has become almost synonymous with the prophet. Indeed, much of the book of Jeremiah can be described as a lament about the people's lack of obedience to God and the tragic fate awaiting them. Based on the prophet, the English language contains the word "jeremiad," defined as "an elaborate and prolonged lamentation or a tale of woe" (American Heritage Dictionary, 1969). That should not be surprising. The Jeremiah of popular imagination is a stern and gloomy doomsayer. But that is an extreme and unfair characterization of the prophet. His messages, which were critical of the people's conduct and warned of punishment, were not his own inventions. Rather, he was conveying God's messages. Moreover, these messages included the wonderful promise of mercy and deliverance if the people would repent. And Jeremiah 1:10 clearly reveals that his commission was to include positive and negative—constructive and destructive—elements. His book also contains joyous prophecies of the coming Messiah, a new covenant and a blissful new age to come.
Part of the unfair portrayal of Jeremiah's personality is the picture of a chronically depressed person. Yet while he did suffer frequent melancholy, this was a reflection of the great stress and sacrifices of his life, not of inherent weakness. A prophet's lonely life of being the bearer of bad news was a heavy and depressing burden to bear, especially for one so deeply concerned and tenderhearted as Jeremiah. He felt anger and disgust at the apostasy and idolatry of the people, but he grieved as well, knowing the ominous fate awaiting his beloved countrymen. Added to that, he felt perplexed and humiliated when many years were passing and his prophecies were not materializing.
Jeremiah is sometimes called the "weeping prophet" (see 9:1, 10; 13:17; 48:32), but mourning for others over their wickedness and future suffering is a spiritual strength, not a weakness (Ezekiel 9:4; 21:6; Amos 6:6; Matthew 5:4). Other strengths of Jeremiah were his faith in God, devotion to prayer, faithfulness in fulfilling his calling, and unflinching courage in the face of hostility and danger. Jeremiah's life has parallels with the life of Christ, who was a "Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3; Matthew 16:14).
Eventually, Jeremiah will see his prophecies of the immediate future come to pass. Following the righteous reign of Josiah, a period of national decline will end with Judah's fall to the Babylonians. But the prophet's work does not end with that calamity, as we will see.
Of all the prophetic books, Jeremiah is the longest. It "is longer than Isaiah or Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets combined are about a third shorter. The claim has been made that it is the longest book in the Bible" (Expositor's). It is also the most complex of the prophetic books. It is not arranged chronologically or topically. That may partly be because Jeremiah was mainly a preacher rather than a writer, who later dictated events and messages after the fact. (Jeremiah dictated much of the book to his secretary Baruch.) As it is, "the organization of the oracles, prose sermons, and other material is based on content, audience, and connective links" (Nelson Study Bible, introductory notes on Jeremiah). The Bible Reading Program will not cover the chapters in the biblical order, but will rather put the sections in the apparent chronological order to follow the story flow of Jeremiah's life—placing his messages in that context.
Jeremiah's Calling and Commission (Jeremiah 1)
When God called and commissioned Jeremiah, he was modest and reluctant, citing his youth as a handicap to speaking from experience and with authority. The Bible Reader's Companion states, "He was called by God as a na'ar (1:6), a youth some 16 to 18 years old" (note on verse 6). However, youthfulness is relative and his age was not important, since his safety and success was dependent on God, not on himself (verses 7-8, 17-19). Indeed, this would have provided evidence of God's direction and inspiration—as well as serving as a point of shame for the nation's elders who had been failing in their responsibilities. The king on the throne now was young too—and he would lead the nation in wonderful reforms.
Jeremiah's young age at his calling should also serve as an inspiration for any young person reading God's Word who understands the truth and is stirred with a strong conviction to act on what he or she knows. God calls and works with young people too.
In verse 10 God gives Jeremiah a mysterious commission: "See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (New Revised Standard Version). "The words root out, pull down, destroy, throw down, build, and plant are repeated at key points in the Book of Jeremiah to reaffirm Jeremiah's call (18:7; 24:6; 31:28; 42:10; 45:4)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 10). Based on Jeremiah's life hereafter, it is easy to ascertain what God meant by plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing. This great prophet repeatedly warned the Jews to repent of their disobedience—but they scorned him. So God used him to pronounce judgment on the nation: the people and the kings of David's line would be overthrown in the Babylonian conquest and uprooted—to Babylon.
But the latter part of the prophet's commission yet remained: "to build and to plant." What did this involve? From Jeremiah 45:4 we can see that building and planting in this context originally entailed God's planting His people in the land and building a kingdom of them there—now to be pulled up and destroyed. So the commission would seem to involve planting people in another place in order to establish a kingdom elsewhere. We will examine this question further toward the end of the book.
God here gives the sign of an almond tree, "which blossoms when other trees are still dormant…. as a harbinger of spring, as though it 'watched over' the beginning of the season. In a similar fashion, God was 'watching over' His word, ready to bring judgment on Israel" (note on 1:11-12). Jeremiah also saw a boiling pot tilted southward, "indicating the direction in which the pot's contents would be spilled. The calamity suggested by this vision was an enemy attack on Judah and Jerusalem from the north. In 20:4, Jeremiah finally identifies this enemy as Babylon. Babylon was itself east of Jerusalem, but the road went around the desert and approached from the north" (note on verses 13-14). Interestingly, the enemy to the northeast when Jeremiah started prophesying was still Assyria. But that would soon change. Indeed, the book of Jeremiah refers to Babylon 164 times, more references than in all the rest of the Bible. Jeremiah foretold that Babylon, the destroyer of Judah, would herself be destroyed by the Medes and Persians, never to rise again. Some of the prophecies in this regard are dual, referring also to the rise and fall of the end-time political, economic and religious system called Babylon—located to the northwest of Judah (thus still north)—while some prophecies refer exclusively to the end time.Preaching God's message brought Jeremiah a great deal of suffering, but God emphatically charged him, "Do not be afraid of their [intimidating] faces" (1:8, 17)—as He, the Almighty Deliverer, would provide impregnable defense (1:18-19). We too can take encouragement from these words as we carry out the commission God has given His Church to preach His true gospel to the end of the age (see Matthew 28:19-20).