The Book of Jeremiah – What Does It Tell Us? (Part 1/2)

Last updated on May 6, 2024

The Book of Jeremiah can either be described in a concise way, or in a very thorough and detailed way. ‘Concise’ would be to say that Jeremiah was commissioned by God to prophesy, to the people of Judah, important warnings and promises in the Name of the LORD, and ultimately, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. His prophecies were fulfilled: Jeremiah was a true prophet, who was quoted and referenced in the New Testament over 120 times, including by Jesus. Many of the historical storylines in this book also feature in 2 Kings, believed to have been written by Jeremiah, as well.

‘Thorough and detailed’ would be to extensively study all verses in this book individually, because Jeremiah’s writings contain a wealth of information and links to other books – sometimes ‘hidden’ in a single phrase that is easily overlooked. This survey, however, settles for ‘a decent overview’.

1. What is the context?

The prophet Jeremiah was a young man when God instructed him to go out and speak on God’s behalf (Jeremiah 1:6), which he did, for nearly forty years. The Israelites living in Judah had just endured decades of evil and idolatrous rule of king Manasseh (and briefly, by his son Amon) when King Josiah accedes to the throne. Josiah is determined to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather King Hezekiah, who had done “what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). When God calls Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:2), King Josiah has been on the throne for thirteen years.

Jeremiah does not respond with eagerness, but in a slight deviation from the concept of ‘free will’, God tells Jeremiah that refusing is not an option (1:17). At this stage, it seems that God is sending Jeremiah[1] to give force to Josiah’s godly reign – two individuals who are roughly the same age[2] and destined to be part of God’s plans for His people. We read how God prepared Jeremiah for his assignment while Jeremiah was still in his mother’s womb (1:5), to speak not just to the Israelites but “to the nations,” and by extension, to readers in the 21st century.

2. What are the first 25 chapters of the Book of Jeremiah about?

The people of Judah had celebrated idolatry and wickedness for nearly sixty years, yet they still expect God to help them out when faced with adversity. God’s response is scornful: “But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you, in your time of trouble; for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah” (2:28). In Jeremiah’s time, Israel and Judah were two separate kingdoms and both had committed idolatry (3:1-6). God is not unwilling to forgive them, but they must first acknowledge their guilt and admit that they, “rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed My voice, declares the Lord” (3:13). If and when they do accept their guilt, God wants to reunite Israel and Judah.

Through Jeremiah, God issues many warnings, including against five Judean kings (Jeremiah 21-22) and a great number of other rulers that God commands Jeremiah to prophesy against (25:17-26). God also orders Jeremiah to confront the prophets of his day (Jeremiah 23) in words that many may find applicable to Christian churches today. It is all to no avail, however: the warnings are not heeded and the promises not accepted, even when some of the royal family, nobility and citizens of Jerusalem have already been taken to Babylon.[3]

3. What is Jeremiah’s response?

In chapter 4 verse 10, Jeremiah writes that he had actually anticipated a peaceful existence, but early on in his ministry, God announces that an enemy from the North will destroy all (4:23-26). There is only one way to prevent this: “Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved,” (4:14a, NIV translation). God first spoke to Jeremiah in approx. 627 B.C. though it would still be several decades before the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah (approx. 608 B.C.). Jeremiah is given the task of telling the people to repent (5:1) and – reminiscent of how Abraham bartered with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:16-33 – God promises that Judah will be spared if even one righteous individual can be found in Jerusalem (5:1).

Jeremiah’s strategy is to confront the religious leaders as he believes that ordinary people from Judah simply haven’t realized what God asks of them (5:4-5). But to his dismay, they are unwilling to hear. The people argue that God will surely have mercy on them (5:12). At the same time, they hate God’s words (6:10). God discloses to Jeremiah that He will remove them from their land (5:19 and 9:9-10) because the only logical course of action is to punish them (5:29-31) for their wickedness. Nevertheless, God repeatedly promises to be merciful if the people will repent (Jeremiah 6:8; 6:16; 7:3; 7:7).

Jeremiah’s pleas will not help (7:16) and neither will sacrifices (6:20). In chapter 14, before the Babylonian invasion has happened, Judah is punished with a great drought. Again, Jeremiah pleads with God, suggesting that the people are being misled by their false prophets who predict peace and plenty (14:15).

4. An end to God’s mercy

God goes to great lengths to explain to Jeremiah why the Israelites deserve to be punished with destruction and exile. Chapter 11 describes God’s utter disappointment at Israel and Judah’s refusal to honor His covenant with them. The level of detail in God’s conversations with Jeremiah is remarkable. But as God’s explanation progresses, it becomes clear just how much God is saddened by Israel and Judah’s betrayal and unfaithfulness. The Israelites were supposed to be His “people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen” (13:11).

In 14:20-22, the people finally admit guilt, but God responds dismissively: “I am tired of holding back” (15:6b, NIV translation). That is quite a statement; God has been patient with the Israelites since the Exodus – now it is time for His judgment. Jeremiah needn’t bother with further intercession, either. “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to Me in the time of their trouble” (11:14).

5. How does his mission affect Jeremiah personally, and what can he expect?

Jeremiah deplores the way God’s revelations are affecting his personal situation (15:15-18 and 20:7-8) and because of his general state of mind and depressing messages, Jeremiah is often referred to as the ‘weeping prophet’. Jeremiah wept over Judah (8:18; 9:10) like Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Although a great man of God, Jeremiah’s extraordinary role didn’t bring him comfort or wealth because the people didn’t appreciate being told what they could and could not do. In 20:2, Jeremiah receives a beating [4]); there are death threats (26:11) and worse is yet to come. But Jeremiah finds himself unable to stop prophesying, compelled as he is to continue to share God’s words (20:9), even though he curses the day he was born (20:14-18) because of the people’s scorn, rejection and threats of violence.

God is not indifferent to Jeremiah’s suffering. The above-mentioned beating prompts God to severely punish a man called Passhur the priest (20:4-6) and elsewhere, God arranges protection for Jeremiah (39:12). But He also specifies that Jeremiah isn’t allowed to marry or have children (16:2), possibly to ensure that Jeremiah wouldn’t be distracted from his mission, or because God knew that a spouse and children would suffer greatly in the years to follow. When the hostilities between the Babylonians and Judah commence, God, yet again, repeats His conditions for mercy (which can be summarized as: obedience) and the consequences of not complying with these conditions (22:3-5).

In chapter 23:5-6, God is on the brink of disclosing His plan for the redemption of mankind. “A righteous Branch,” will be raised up for David, “and He shall reign as King and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which He will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” This Branch is none other than Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.

Please see Part Two of the Book of Jeremiah for our study of chapters 26-52.

[1] As well as Zephaniah, Nahum and Habakkuk, prophets who were active in the same period.

[2] King Josiah was eight years old when he became king so, like Jeremiah, is still a young person.

[3] Starting from Jeremiah 20:5, the prophet will be warning the people of the impending exile to Babylon, which is described in detail in 2 Kings chapters 17-25, Ezra chapters 1-8, and Nehemiah 7 and 12.

[4] Could it have been Jeremiah whom Jesus was thinking of, in the Parable of the Tenants in the vineyard in Mark 12…?

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