Jeremiah

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah in the 13th year of king Josiah, who was the last good king of Judah before the Babylonian captivity (Jeremiah 1:1-2). Jeremiah’s ministry as a prophet to Judah and Jerusalem continued until the 11th year of the reign of Zedekiah (1:3). The ministry of Jeremiah therefore started in 627 BC and continued until all three deportations of exiles to Babylon had taken place (605, 597 and 586 BC), until about 580 BC. The composition of the book was probably completed in about 585-580 BC (cf. Dyer & Rydelnik 2014:1104).

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Authorship of Jeremiah

Jeremiah was the author of the book which bears his name. The book begins by saying these are the ‘words of Jeremiah’ (1:1) and it ends with ‘thus far are the words of Jeremiah’ (51:64). It is clear that at times Baruch, the secretary of Jeremiah, was instructed to write what was dictated to him by Jeremiah (36:4, 17-18, 32; 45:1-5). Most would agree that chapter 52 was added later as a historical appendix by someone whom the Holy Spirit must have inspired to do so. We learn much about Jeremiah and his relationship with the LORD throughout this book, as Jeremiah frequently provides autographical details (10:23-25; 11:18-12:6; 15:10-14; 20:7-18; Constable 2017:1-2).

Jeremiah was a Levite, instructed by God to never marry and have children (16:1-4) and he lived in Anathoth, about 3 miles north of Jerusalem in the tribal land of Benjamin. When the Lord called Jeremiah, he was still a young man, probably between 20 and 25 years old (1:6). The name ‘Jeremiah’ may mean ‘the LORD throws’ or ‘the Lord establishes’ (Dyer & Rydelnik 2014:1103).

Historical Background

Understanding the historical context of Jeremiah’s ministry is important. Jeremiah started his ministry in 627 BC, in the 13th year of king Josiah. Prior to Josiah becoming king at the tender age of 8, in 640 BC, the Southern kingdom (Judah) had been under the rule of the evil king Manasseh for 55 years (until 642 BC), followed by another evil king Amon for 2 years (642-640 BC). Because of the evil that Manasseh did, God decreed that Jerusalem and Judah would experience such calamity that the ears of whoever heard of it would tingle (2 Kings 21:11-15; cf. Habakkuk 1:5-6). From the time God had spoken these words, nothing could prevent the destruction of Jerusalem, but a revival could postpone it (cf. 2 Chronicles 34:21-28). Such a revival — albeit more external than internal — indeed occurred under the good king Josiah: God’s judgement over Jerusalem and Judah was postponed. Nevertheless, when Josiah died in battle 609 BC at Megiddo, the spiritual state of the Southern kingdom declined quickly and Judah again fell into idolatry, worshipping the queen of heaven, Baal and offering sacrifices to Molech (Jeremiah 2:23; 7:16-20, 31-32; 44:18; 49:1). For this reason, it becomes clear why Jeremiah repeatedly called on Judah and Jerusalem to repent, to turn back to God — or face judgement. Jeremiah therefore had the difficult task of being a prophet during the last years of the Southern kingdom (Judah), both before, during and after the Babylonian captivity. Because Jeremiah prophesied judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem, he was unpopular, rejected, imprisoned and eventually taken to Egypt against his will. Jeremiah loved Israel and his people but the weeping prophet was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (9:1). As a type, Jeremiah foreshadows the anti-type, the Lord Jesus Christ: both wept over Jerusalem (Jeremiah 9:1; Matthew 23:37), both experienced rejection by members of their families (Jeremiah 12:6; John 1:11), and yet both loved Israel and its people dearly (cf. Matthew 9:36-38).

Jeremiah’s Contemporaries

Prophets who at one stage or another were contemporaries of Jeremiah include Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, a young Daniel as well as Ezekiel. Constable (2017:7-8) provides historically important dates for Jeremiah:

Table 1: Important dates for Jeremiah

Years BCEventsReferences
643Probable date of Jeremiah's birth
640Josiah becomes king of Judah at age 82 Chr 34:1
628Josiah begins his reforms2 Chr 34:3
627Jeremiah begins his ministry Jer 1:2; 25:3
626Nabopolassar founds the Neo-Babylonian Empire
622The book of the Law discovered in the temple2 Chr 34:8, 14
612The fall of Nineveh, Assyria's capitol
609Josiah killed in battle by Egyptians at Megiddo. Jehoahaz reigns over Judah for 3 months. Jehoiakim made king of Judah by Pharaoh Necho2 Chr 35:20-25; 36:1-3, 4
605Nebuchadnezzar defeats the Egyptians at Carchemish. Jer 46:2
The first deportation of exiles (including Daniel) to BabylonDan 1:1-7
604Jehoiakim burns Jeremiah's first scrollJer 36
601Jehoiakim rebels against Babylon2 Ki 24:1
598Jehoiakim is deposed and dies.2 Chr 36:3
Jehioachin reigns over Judah for 3 months2 Ki 24:8
597The second deportation of exiles (including Jehoiachin [and Ezekiel]) to Babylon; Zedekiah made king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar2 Ki 24:12-17
593Zedekiah summoned to BabylonJer 51:59
588Zedekiah is besieged in Jerusalem for treacheryJer 52:3-4
586Fall of Jerusalem. Gedaliah appointed governor of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar. Gedaliah assassinated by Ishmael. Judean refugees flee to Egypt taking Jeremiah with themJer 39; 40:5-6; 41:2; 42-43
581The third deportation of exiles to BabylonJer 52:30
568Nebuchadnezzar invades EgyptJer 43:8-13; 46:13-26
561Jehoiachin released from prison in BabylonJer 52:31-34
539Fall of Babylon to Cyrus the Persian (considered by some scholars to be the same ruler as Darius the Mede)Dan 5:30-31
538Cyrus issues his decree allowing the Jews to return to IsraelEzra 1:1

Source: Constable (2017:7-8).

Audience and Theme of Jeremiah

The audience during Jeremiah’s ministry was Judah and Jerusalem, its people (2:2; 3:17; 7:2; 18:11), the kings of Judah (13:18; 21:3, 11; 22:1-24), priests (20:3-6) and its (frequently false) prophets (23:9; 28:15). Jeremiah was also called to be a prophet to the nations (1:5; 46:1-51:65). The theme of Jeremiah is the impending judgement of Judah and Jerusalem. But the Book of Jeremiah also provides the remnant of Israel with comfort and restoration, for the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (25:11; 29:10) and Israel’s ultimate restoration is also prophesied (23:3-6; 31:27-40; 33:14-15).

Structure of Jeremiah

Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel do not come with a ‘Contents’ page to help modern readers see the books’ order and arrangement. Moreover, since these prophetic books are not necessarily structured linearly or chronologically, one must pay careful attention to their literary structures, patterns, and parallels if you want to understand and interpret these books accurately (Yates 2005:281). In the case of Jeremiah, the irregular nature of the oracles may even be intentional, since the book’s structure may reflect how the tumultuous times during which Jeremiah ministered affected the writer (Rooker 2011:385). While it is notoriously difficult to outline the Book of Jeremiah, until a ‘final solution’ is found, one must continue to search for the overall literary and theological structure in the Book of Jeremiah.

The simplest solution is often the best: Jeremiah can be divided into an introductory chapter (1), followed by discourses and prophecies concerning Judah (2-45), prophecies concerning nations (46-51), before concluding with a historical postscript (52) (Dyer & Rydelnik 2014:1108-1111).

Another way to outline the Book of Jeremiah is proposed by Patterson (1989): Chapter 1 provides the historical setting and calling of Jeremiah as a prophet not only to the nations of the world, but of course also to the Southern kingdom, namely Judah. The rest of the Book of Jeremiah pivots around Jeremiah’s calling to Judah (chapters 2-25) and to Israel among the nations of the world (26-51). This is followed by a historical postscript which includes inter alia the tragic fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon’s temple (chapter 52). Patterson (1989:115) outlines the book of Jeremiah as follows:
  Call and commission of Jeremiah (chapter 1)
    Jeremiah and his people (2-24)
      Theme 2:1-3:5
      Development 3:6-23:40
      Sign 24
    Jeremiah and the nations (25-51)
      Theme 25
      Development 26:1-51:58
      Sign 51:59-64
  Historical Appendix 52

Since many smaller units within Jeremiah obviously exist, for example chapters 30-33, 36-45 (Yates 2005:267) and 46:1-51:65 (Patterson 1989:126), the ‘final word’ about the overall structure of Jeremiah may not have been spoken yet. One challenge to Patterson’s proposal is to note that Jeremiah 30-33, the Book of Consolation, may have a more prominent position in the overall structure of Jeremiah. Rosenberg (1987:192-193) has identified a chiastic structure for Jeremiah 20-40, with the Book of Consolation as its chiastic turning point. Moreover, Dorsey (1999:244) highlights the Book of Consolation as the chiastic centre of Jeremiah:

A Oracles against Judah: Coming invasion and disaster from the North 1:1-12:17
B Judah’s exile and suffering predicted 13:1-20:18
    C Dated messages of judgement about specific kings and groups 21:1-29:32
      D Messages of future hope 30:1-33:26
    C’ Dated messages of judgement about specific kings and groups 34:1-35:19
B’ Judah’s fall and exile 36:1-45:5
A’ Oracles against the nations: Coming invasion and disaster from the North 46:1-51:64
Appendix: Fall of Jerusalem 52:1-34.

Purpose and Conclusion

Jeremiah warned of God’s judgement upon Judah and Jerusalem because of their idolatry. But Jeremiah’s purpose was also to call Judah and Jerusalem to repentance and faith ‘by revealing the Lord’s faithfulness to His promises both to discipline and restore Israel’ (Dyer & Rydelnik 2014:1104). As noted earlier, the promise of restoration is not only to return after the Babylonian captivity, but eventually Israel and Judah will be restored in the Messianic kingdom under the LORD of righteousness in terms of the New Covenant (23:3-8; 31:27-40). We conclude by quoting Constable (2017:19): ‘There are at least three abiding lessons from this book: First, sin brings destruction. No policy can outmaneuver God. National rebellion is national ruin. Sin brings with it its own destruction and retribution. Second, sin wounds the heart of God. He weeps over the doom of a city and its people. He does not delight in bringing devastation and ruin, and neither should His servants. Third, the ultimate victory is with God. He will remake the vessel that He has destroyed because of its flaws: Israel. The stump of David’s line will sprout again. Though the last Davidic king died in exile, God promised that another Davidic King would emerge (23:5; 30:9). There was hope of a new covenant to come, and enabling grace, that would replace the old covenant—that no one kept except Jesus (31:31-34).’

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Sources:

Constable, T.L., 2017, Notes on Jeremiah, 2017 edition.

Dorsey, D.A., 1999, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

Dyer, C. with Rydelnik, E., 2014, ‘Jeremiah’, in M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (eds.), The Moody Bible Commentary, pp. 1103-1188, Moody Publishers, Chicago.

Patterson, R.D., 1989, ‘Of bookends, hinges, and hooks: Literary clues to the arrangement of Jeremiah’s prophecies’, Westminster Theological Journal 51(1), 109-131.

Rooker, M.F., 2011, ‘Jeremiah’, in E.H. Merrill, M.F. Rooker & M.A. Grisanti, The World and the Word, pp. 380-393, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.

Rosenberg, J., 1987, ‘Jeremiah and Ezekiel’, in R. Alter & F. Kermode (eds.), The Literary Guide to the Bible, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Yates, G.E., 2005, ‘Narrative parallelism and the “Jehoiakim frame”: A Reading strategy for Jeremiah 26-45’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48(2), 263-281.

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