Among the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah is the one who reveals more personal details than anyone else.
Like all the prophets he declared his opposition to false religious practices, wrong social behaviour and foolish government policies, but above all his writings display the unhappiness that was a feature of much of his life. This unhappiness resulted partly from his unpopularity with the community in general, but his greatest distress came from a feeling that God had been unfair to him. We can understand Jeremiah’s problems only as we see them against the background of conditions in Judah as set out in his book. Since the messages and events detailed in the book are not in chronological order, the following outline of events may help towards an understanding of the man and his work.
Forty years of preaching
Jeremiah began his prophetic work in 627 BC, the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, king of Judah (Jer 1:1-2).
Josiah had carried out sweeping reforms, firstly to remove all the idolatrous and immoral practices that had become deeply rooted in Judah over the previous generations, then to re-establish the true worship of Yahweh (2 Kings 22:1-23:25). Jeremiah saw that in spite of the king’s good work, little had changed in people’s hearts. Judah was heading for terrible judgment. (Jeremiah Chapters 1-6, and possible parts of Chapters 7-20, seem to belong to the early period of Jeremiah’s preaching.) Meanwhile to the north, Babylon was growing in power, and with its conquest of Assyria in 612 BC, it established itself as the leading nation in the region. When Egypt, the leading nation to Judah’s south, decided to challenge Babylon, Josiah tried to stop the Egyptians from passing through Palestine and was killed in battle (609 BC; 2 Kings 23:28-30). Considering itself now the master of Judah, Egypt removed Jehoahaz, the new Judean king, and made his older brother Jehoiakim king instead (2 Kings 23:31-37). Jehoiakim was a cruel and ungodly ruler. He opposed Jeremiah because of his condemnation of Judah’s sins and his forecasts of its destruction (Jer 22:13-19; 26:1-6,20-24; 36:1-32). (Much of Jeremiah Chapters 7-20, along with Chapters 22, 23, 25, 26, 35, 36 and 45, belong to the time of Jehoiakim.) When Babylon conquered Egypt at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC (Jer 46:2), it thereby gained control of Judah and took selected Jerusalemites captive to Babylon (Dan 1:1-6). When Jehoiakim later tried to become independent of Babylon, the Babylonian army, under Nebuchadnezzar, besieged Jerusalem. Jehoiakim died during the siege, and three months later his son and successor Jehoiachin surrendered.
Jehoiachin and most of the useful people were then taken captive to Babylon. The Babylonians appointed Zedekiah, another brother of Jehoiakim, as the new king (597 BC; 2 Kings 24:8- 17). Jeremiah and Zedekiah were constantly in conflict. Jeremiah assured Zedekiah that Babylon’s overlordship was God’s judgment on Judah for its sin. Judah should therefore accept its punishment and submit to Babylon. To resist would only bring invasion, siege, starvation, bloodshed and captivity (2 Kings 24:18-20; Jer 21:1-10; 24:1-10; 27:12-22; 28:12-14). The opponents of Jeremiah assured Zedekiah that with the help of Egypt he could overthrow Babylonian rule. Foolishly, Zedekiah followed their advice instead of Jeremiah’s, and brought upon Judah a long and devastating siege. In the end Babylon destroyed the city and its temple, and took the king, along with all remaining useful citizens, into foreign captivity (587 BC; 2 Kings 25:1-21; Jer 32:1- 5,28-29; 33:1-5; 37:16-17; 38:17-18; 39:1-10). (The parts of Jeremiah that deal largely with the reign of Zedekiah are Chapters 21, 24, 27-34, 37-39 and 52.) On more than one occasion during this long crisis Jeremiah was imprisoned (Jer 32:2; 37:15; 37:20- 21; 38:1-6,13,28).
Upon conquering the city, the victorious Babylonians released him and gave him full freedom to decide where he would like to live, Babylon or Judah. Jeremiah decided to stay in Judah. The Babylonians placed him under the protection of Gedaliah, the Jewish governor whom they had appointed over the Judeans left in the land (2 Kings 25:22; Jer 39:13-14; 40:4-6). Sadly, Gedaliah was murdered by some Judeans who were still opposed to Babylon (2 Kings 25:25; Jer 40:13-41:18). The remaining Judeans then fled for safety to Egypt, taking an unwilling Jeremiah with them (2 Kings 25:26; Jer 42:1-43:7). Jeremiah warned that they would not escape God’s punishment by fleeing to Egypt, but, as always, the people refused to heed the message (Jer 43:8-44:30). The Bible records nothing further of Jeremiah’s life, though one tradition says that the Judeans in Egypt later stoned him to death. (The period of Gedaliah’s governorship and the Judeans’ flight to Egypt is dealt with in Jeremiah Chapters 40-44.)
Jeremiah’s personal life
From the book of Jeremiah we learn much about the prophet’s personal life. It appears that he was only about twenty years of age when he began his prophetic preaching (1:6). Apparently he never married (16:2) and for much of his life he had few friends (20:7). His family opposed him (12:6) and the people of his home town plotted to kill him (11:19,21). The common people of Jerusalem cursed him (15:10), false prophets ridiculed him (28:10-11; 29:24-28), priests stopped him from entering the temple (36:5) and the civil authorities plotted evil against him (36:26; 38:4-6). In addition to being imprisoned, Jeremiah was at times flogged (20:2; 37:15) and often threatened with death (11:21; 26:7-9; 38:15). On occasions, however, certain people in positions of influence gained protection for him against his persecutors (26:24; 38:7-13; 40:5-6). There can be no doubt that Jeremiah loved his people and his country (8:18-22; 9:1-2; 14:19-22).
It almost broke his heart to have to announce his country’s overthrow and urge his countrymen to submit to the enemy (4:19-22; 10:17-21; 14:17-18; 17:16-17). He was deeply hurt when people accused him of being a traitor (37:13; 38:1-6), for his great longing was that the people heed his warnings and so avoid the threatened destruction (7:5-7; 13:15-17; 26:16-19; 36:1-3). Jeremiah wished for peace, but he knew there could be no peace as long as the people continued in their sin. The false prophets, on the other hand, assured the people of peace, knowing that messages that pleased the hearers brought good financial rewards (6:13; 8:11). Jeremiah knew that the people’s hopes would be disappointed, but this gave him no satisfaction, only greater distress (7:1-15; 14:13-18; 23:9).
Although it hurt Jeremiah to have to announce judgments on his own people, he did it faithfully as God’s messenger (20:8-10). When the people responded with hatred and violence (11:19; 18:18), Jeremiah complained to God bitterly. He accused God of being unfair in giving him a cruel reward for his devoted loyalty (12:1-4; 15:10-12,17-18; 20:14-18). God rebuked Jeremiah for his self-pity, though he also strengthened him to meet further troubles. As long as Judah remained faithless, Jeremiah could expect opposition (12:5-6). These experiences emphasized to Jeremiah the importance of an individual’s personal relationship with God. Those who sincerely sought God found him; those who had no personal fellowship with God did not know him, no matter how outwardly religious they might have been (23:21-22). Jeremiah looked beyond the captivity to a day when there would be a new covenant between God and his people. This would be a covenant characterized not by a community’s conformity to religious laws, but by an individual’s personal relationship with God (31:31-34).
Outline of the book
The first six chapters of the book deal with the main features of Jeremiah’s early ministry: his call to be a prophet (1:1-19); his denunciation of Judah for its unfaithfulness, idolatry and immorality (2:1-3:5); his demand for true, inward repentance (3:6-4:4); and his warning of the coming destruction of Jerusalem (4:5-6:30). Chapters 7-20 record incidents and messages which, in general, demonstrate the sinful condition of Judah and, in particular, Jerusalem. Three topics are prominent in this section.
The first concerns Judah’s widespread sin and its certain punishment (7:1-8:17; 11:1-23; 16:1-17:13). The second concerns the approaching judgment on the capital city, Jerusalem (8:18-10:25; 13:1-15:9; 18:1-20:6). The third concerns Jeremiah’s inner conflicts and his complaints to God (12:1-17; 15:10-21; 17:14-27; 20:7-18). After this come five chapters of warnings. There are warnings to rulers, such as Zedekiah (21:1-10; 24:1-10), kings in general (21:11-22:9), Jehoahaz (Shallum), Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin (Coniah) (22:10- 30). There are additional warnings to lying prophets (23:9-40), and messages concerning God’s control over the destinies of nations (23:1-8; 25:1-38). Prophecies of captivity and return (Chapters 26-36) include a warning to the Jerusalemites to submit to Babylon or be destroyed (26:1-28:17); an assurance to those already in exile that there is no hope for an immediate return to Jerusalem (29:1-32); the promise of a new age after the nation’s restoration (30:1- 33:26); and guarantees that though treachery and rebellion will be punished, fidelity will be rewarded (34:1-36:32).
A unit of eight chapters then traces events in chronological sequence from the final siege of Jerusalem to the settlement of the Jews in Egypt: Jeremiah’s imprisonment and rescue (37:1-38:28); the fall of Jerusalem (39:1-18); the appointment of Gedaliah and his brutal assassination (40:1-41:18); the migration to Egypt (42:1-43:7); and Jeremiah’s message to the Jews in Egypt (43:8-44:30). An earlier message for Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch, is also recorded (45:1-5). Finally there is a collection of messages for foreign nations: Egypt (46:1-28), Philistia (47:1-7), Moab and Ammon (48:1-49:6), Edom (49:7-22), Damascus, Kedar, Hazor and Elam (49:23-39), and Babylon (50:1-51:64). An historical appendix details matters relating to the fall of Jerusalem (52:1-34).