11.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)
Jeremiah dates his ministry to the reigns of the Judahite kings from Josiah until the end of the monarchy. He received his prophetic call in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign in 626 B.C. (1:2-3) and served as prophet in Judah until approximately 580 B.C. when he was unwillingly carried to Egypt by some of his countrymen attempting to escape Babylonian exile. In summary, “Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of the last kings of Judah: Josiah (640-609 B.C.), Jehoahaz (609 B.C.), Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.), Jehoachin (598-597 B.C.), and Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.).” Wood notes that although the date parameters that Jeremiah confines himself to in the superscription (1:1-3) do not mention any ministerial activity during the exilic years, it is clear that he continued his work for a time after the third and final Babylonian invasion (586 B.C.). Chapters 40-44 record that Jeremiah continued to serve in Judah under the governor Gedaliah, and later in Egypt when fearful Jews brought him there. The date of his death is unknown, therefore many scholars suggest that 580 B.C. is a conservative and useful estimate.
11.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)
Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah all prophesied during the same time in Judah’s history. They all witnessed the demise of the Assyrian empire and saw Judah experience short periods of both independence and subjugation in relation to the neighboring nations of Egypt and Babylon. But unlike Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, Jeremiah’s ministry continued into the exilic period after 586 B.C. After the death of King Josiah, Judah’s kings alternated their allegiance between Egypt and Babylon depending on which alliance seemed to afford the best protection. When Babylon finally achieved regional dominion at the battle of Carchemish (605), Nebuchadnezzar soon after began demanding loyalty and tribute from Judah. King Jehoiakim eventually angered Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to pay tribute, which provoked the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. The forces of Babylon conquered the city and deported the king’s son Jehoiachin (Jehoiakim did not survive the siege), the royal establishment, leading citizens of Jerusalem, and skilled craftsmen of Judah. This second deportation in 597 (the first being in 605) left Judah with a shred of autonomy because Nebuchadnezzar placed Zedekiah (another son of Josiah) on the throne in Jerusalem to rule as a vassal king. But in 588 B.C. the Babylonians returned to Judah and laid siege to the capital city Jerusalem. A year and a half later in 586 B.C., the Babylonian victory was sealed when they destroyed the four hundred year old temple and the Jerusalem. Judah officially became a province of Babylon at Nebuchadnezzar’s appointment of Gedaliah as its regional governor.
In the years after 586, the people left in Judah were described as “the poor of the land” and were not great in number (II Kgs. 25:12). These defeated people were allowed to cultivate the land and were expected to not cause trouble for their Babylonian governor. But many of God’s people who remained in the land continued in their unrepentance. A Babylonian resistance movement arose led by Ishmael the Judahite, and quietly murdered the governor Gedaliah. This rebellion brought a fearful expectation of swift judgment among the Jews remaining in the land. Many fearful Jews, despite Jeremiah’s urgings to remain in the land, fled to Egypt with the prophet and his scribe Baruch in tow.
11.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)
Much is known of Jeremiah’s character and ministry. His prophetic book offers a wealth of information about his person and message. He stood as a giant among the prophets judging by the duration of his work (approximately 46 years), and much like Hosea and Ezekiel, his lifestyle and message mirrored each other. Wood’s character study of Jeremiah reveals a man of (1) deep spiritual maturity; (2) courage; (3) intense emotion; (4) heartfelt compassion; and (5) the highest integrity.
Jeremiah revealed his spiritual maturity in his willingness to preach a bitter and unpopular message to the people and kings of Judah, all the while knowing that his voice would not be heard above those of the soothing but lying prophets. Even so, Jeremiah loved God despite the difficulty of his vocational task. His words abound with warm devotion and high exaltation to Yahweh.
The unpopular message not only required spiritual maturity and faithfulness in the face of opposition, but it also demanded courage. While the false prophets preached peace and victory for the covenant people, Jeremiah’s message of covenant judgment and exile from the land for their continued wickedness and covenant unfaithfulness sounded treasonous by comparison. Although the normal human emotions of discouragement and despondency occasionally surfaced in his life (15:10; 20:14-18), the prevailing character of his person was one of courageous preaching of the Lord’s word.
Jeremiah bears his emotional heart in many passages. His nickname of the “weeping prophet” is perhaps derived from 9:1, “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” He describes his weeping in other passages such as 13:17 and 14:17. But the prophet’s lows were coupled with his intense emotional highs of joy, exaltation, and confidence in God as representatively expressed in 15:16 and 20:11.
His compassion for God’s people is revealed in 17:16 and 18:20; when he decries the sins of the people his heart is moved for those involved. On the other hand, Jeremiah often strongly rebuked sinners for their wickedness and unrepentant hearts (11:20; 15:15). Wood summarizes, “Jeremiah despised the sin being committed, but he had great love for the people and wanted them to cease the sin that their punishment might be lessened.”
Integrity comes to mind when one remembers Jeremiah’s faithfulness in preaching such unwelcome oracles. He never altered his message to align with the desires and expectations of his hearers despite persecution and ridicule. Judah’s leaders warned him that he would suffer if he did not cease urging capitulation to the Babylonians, and the threatened suffering eventually materialized in the form of stocks, prison, and the dungeon. Through it all Jeremiah remained faithful to his promise to God to keep preaching the pure and unadulterated message, and in turn he earned his stripes of integrity.
11.4 The Book (abbreviated outline and brief summary)
I. Superscription (1:1-3)
II. Jeremiah’s Call (1:4-19)
III. Opening Case Against Judah (2:1-3:5)
IV. Judah’s Sins and Judgments (3:6-6:30)
V. The Temple (7:1-10:25)
VI. The Broken Covenant (11:1-13:27)
VII. The Judgment of Drought (14:1-15:21)
VIII. Symbols of Coming Judgment (16:1-17:18)
IX. A Sermon About the Sabbath (17:19-27)
X. The Divine Potter (18:1-20:18)
XI. Judgment and Hope in Judah’s Last Days (21:1-24:10)
XII. Severity and Length of Exile (25:1-29:32)
XIII. Certainty of Restoration (30:1-33:26)
XIV. Representative Violations and Judgments (34:1-36:32)
XV. Final Encounters and Jerusalem’s Fall (37:1-39:18)
XVI. Aftermath of Jerusalem’s Fall (40:1-45:5)
XVII. Oracles Against the Nations (46:1-51:64)
XVIII. Exile and Release From Prison (52:1-34)
Robertson contends that Jeremiah’s main themes (like Isaiah) are revealed in the key phrases found in the prophet’s call to ministry. These key words, found in seven important passages in the book, are all contained in verse 10 of chapter 1: “to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant.” In chapter 1 (the prophetic call of Jeremiah), the Lord puts his words in the prophet’s mouth to declare the plan for nations and kingdoms – to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant. These words define Jeremiah’s divine commission. In chapters 11 and 12 (God’s covenant for Israel and the nations),
these key words thus frame Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry in terms of disaster and deliverance, of exile and restoration, according to the terms of God’s covenant. Israel and its neighbors will be driven from their homeland. But they also will be brought back to the land of their origins.
Chapters 18 and 19 (the prophet’s visits to the potter) describe the result of Jeremiah’s preaching to the nation of Judah. The people sealed their fate by continuing in disobedience in the face of the Lord’s call for repentance. The key words, as pictured in the parable-like account of Jeremiah’s experience with the potter, predict that the nation’s devastation will soon come to pass.
Jeremiah 24 (the vision of two baskets of figs) answers the question of identity many Israelites had regarding the spiritual status of those exiled. The key words reveal that the two baskets of figs (one good and one rotten) do not represent what they seem: the exiled people are the good figs that will be preserved for a future restoration while the people left in the land (the perceived remnant) are the bad figs who “will be banished once and for all from the land given to their fathers (24:9-10). Those remaining in the land will experience the Lord’s righteous judgment by expulsion.”
Chapter 31 (the prophecy of the new covenant) teaches in striking detail God’s plan to restore and ultimately redeem his people. Whereas the Lord once watched over Israel for ill (to root out and pull down, to destroy and to throw down), he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel to build and plant them (31:28).
Jeremiah 42 (a word to the surviving remnant) demonstrates that the Lord had not ceased reaching out to the people left in the land after the majority was deported to Babylon. In a time of fear and uncertainty following the sudden assassination of Gedaliah, the Jews inquired of Jeremiah what they should do. Jeremiah’s response came from the Lord—do not leave the land and flee to Egypt for refuge—and the message was couched in the familiar key words of Jeremiah’s original call (42:10). Robertson writes,
over forty years have passed since Jeremiah’ original commission. Yet the same wording that shaped his call as a young man defines the message he brings just before he himself is forced by these rebellious people to leave the land and share in their self-imposed exile. Throughout this entire period, the most crucial moments of his ministry have found him echoing the same key words that ushered him into the office of prophet.
Finally, in Jeremiah 45 (Baruch and the saga of the scroll), the prophet’s scribe laments the woeful spiritual state of his people. He certainty also recalled the king’s deplorable actions of burning the Jeremiah prophecy (recorded on a scroll) for his own warmth in the winter cold, and then unabashedly ordering Jeremiah’s and Baruch’s arrests (36:20-26). The word of the Lord came to Baruch in a message of comfort. God declared he was giving the people over to the hardness of their hearts. Israel’s Covenant Lord was sealing their judgment by exclaiming, “Behold, what I have built I will break down, and what I have planted I will pluck up, that is, this whole land” (45:4).
Beyond these things the book of Jeremiah has much else to say. Jeremiah is portrayed as the new (or second) Moses. Like the prototypical prophet before him, Jeremiah received the very words of God in his mouth (1:9; Deut. 18:18), he was at the outset called to a Gentile nation (1:4, 10; Ex. 3:10), and he similarly offered excuses for his lack of eloquence (1:6; Ex. 4:10). Many other parallels between Moses and Jeremiah have been explored. Lastly, Jeremiah (like the other prophetic writings) majors on the theme of hope in restoration. The familiar new covenant passage of 31:31-40 outlines what this future hope will look like. Dillard and Longman rightly show that the onus of the key words does not ultimately rest in judgment, but on the good plans of God.
Jeremiah speaks of a day when Israel’s king will be known by the name “The Lord Our Righteousness” (23:6; cf. 33:16). To know that Yahweh is “our righteousness” is to know him in grace. God’s purpose for Jeremiah was not only to “uproot, tear down, destroy, and overthrow,” but also to “build and plant” (1:10).
128. “Jeremiah,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, p. 1192.
129. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 330.
130. Ibid., pp. 335-38. See Wood’s treatment of each of these qualities for a fuller discussion.
131. Ibid., p. 337.
132. See “Jeremiah,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, pp. 1193-95 for a more in-depth outline.
133. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, p. 270. The immediately following pages (270-82) outline the biblical-theological significance of these six key words in each of the seven important passages in Jeremiah.
134. Ibid., p. 272.
135. Ibid., p. 275.
136. Ibid., p. 279.
137. See Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 299-300; Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, pp. 294-96.
138. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 300.