Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah

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Jeremiah, the prophet of the broken heart, is the writer of this book. It is one of the most remarkable books in the Bible. Every book in the Bible is remarkable, but this book is remarkable in a very unusual way. Most of the prophets hide themselves and maintain a character of anonymity. They do not project themselves on the pages of their prophecy. Jeremiah is a prophet whose prophecy is largely autobiographical. He gives to us much of his own personal history. Let me run through this list of facts about him so that you will know this man whom we will meet in this book.

  1. He was born a priest in Anathoth, just north of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 1:1).
  2. He was chosen to be a prophet before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5).
  3. He was called to the prophetic office while he was young (Jeremiah 1:6).
  4. He was commissioned of God to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:9–10).
  5. He began his ministry during the reign of King Josiah and was a mourner at his funeral (2 Chron. 35:25).
  6. He was forbidden to marry because of the terrible times in which he lived (Jeremiah 16:1–4).
  7. He never made a convert. He was rejected by his people (Jeremiah 11:18–21; 12:6; 18:18), hated, beaten, put in stocks (Jeremiah 20:1–3), imprisoned, and charged with being a traitor (Jeremiah 37:11–16).
  8. His message broke his own heart (Jeremiah 9:1).
  9. He wanted to resign, but God wouldn’t let him (Jeremiah 20:9).
  10. He saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. He was permitted to remain in the land by the captain of the Babylonian forces. When the remnant wanted to flee to Egypt, Jeremiah prophesied against it (Jeremiah 42:15–43:3); he was forced to go with the remnant to Egypt (Jeremiah 43:6–7); and he died there. Tradition says that he was stoned by the remnant.

Jeremiah was a remarkable man. I call him God’s crybaby, but not in a derogatory sense. He was a man in tears most of the time. God chose this man who had a mother’s heart, a trembling voice, and tear–filled eyes to deliver a harsh message of judgment. The message that he gave broke his own heart. Jeremiah was a great man of God. It is difficult to conceive any situation more painful than that of a great man, condemned to watch the lingering agony of an exhausted country, to tend it during the alternate fits of stupefaction and raving which precede its dissolution, and to see the symptoms of vitality disappear one by one, till nothing is left but coldness, darkness, and corruption. This was the position and the call of Jeremiah. He stood by and saw his people go into captivity. It was Jeremiah’s lot to prophesy at a time when all things in Judah were rushing down to the final and mournful catastrophe; when political excitement was at its height; when the worst passions swayed the various parties, and the most fatal counsels prevailed. Of a woman, plunge over the precipice into the wide, weltering ruin.

You and I are living at a time which is probably like the time of Jeremiah. Ours is a great nation today, and we have accomplished many things. We have gone to the moon, and we have produced atom bombs. Although we are a strong nation, within is the same corruption which will actually carry us down to dismemberment and disaster. It is coming, my friend. Revolution may be just around the corner. This is not popular today. We don’t hear anything like this through the media. Instead, we have panels of experts who discuss how we are going to improve society and how we can work out our problems.

Another author has written, “He was not a man mighty as Elijah, eloquent as Isaiah, or seraphic as Ezekiel, but one who was timid and shrinking, conscious of his helplessness, yearning for a sympathy and love he was never to know—such was the chosen organ through which the Word of the Lord came to that corrupt and degenerate age.”  At the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples, whom people say He was and they said that some He was John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:13–14). The difference between Jeremiah, and the Lord Jesus was that the Lord Jesus was bearing our sorrows and our grief, while Jeremiah was carrying his own burden. He went to the Lord one time and said, “I can’t keep on. This thing is tearing me to pieces.

God wanted the children of Israel to know that, although He was sending them into captivity and He was judging them, it was breaking His heart. As Isaiah says, judgment is God’s strange work (Isaiah 28:21).

Jeremiah began his ministry about a century after Isaiah. He began his work during the reign of King Josiah, and he continued right on through the Babylonian captivity. He is the one who predicted the seventy years’ captivity in Babylon. He also saw beyond the darkness of the captivity to the light. No other prophet spoke so glowingly of the future. We will have occasion to see that as we study his marvelous prophecy. The message of Jeremiah was the most unwelcome message ever delivered to a people, and it was rejected. He was called a traitor to his country because he said that they were to yield to Babylon. Isaiah, almost a century before him, had said to resist. In Jeremiah’s day there was only one thing left to do: surrender. In the economy of God, the nation was through. The times of the Gentiles had already begun with Babylon as the head of gold (Daniel 2).

Characterizing Jeremiah’s message is the word backsliding, which occurs thirteen times. It is a word that is used only four other times in the Old Testament, once in Proverbs and three times in Hosea—Hosea’s message is also that of the backsliding nation. The name that predominates is Babylon, which occurs 164 times in the book, more than in the rest of Scripture combined. Babylon became the enemy. The book of Jeremiah begins with “the words of Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 1:1). He recounts more of his own life than any other prophet, telling of his ministry, the reactions of his audiences, testing, and his personal feelings.

Jeremiah means;

  • Jehovah throws
  • Jehovah establishes, appoints, or send.

Seven other persons named Jeremiah appear in Scripture (2 Kings 23:31, 1 Chron. 5:24; 12:4; 12:10; 12:13; Neh. 10:2, 12:1), and Jeremiah the prophet is named at least 9 times outside of his book (compare 2 Chron. 35:25; 36:12; 36:21-22; Ezra 1:1; Daniel 9:2; Matt. 2:17; 16:14; 27:9). The Old and New Testaments quote Jeremiah at least 7 times.

Jeremiah is considered among the major prophets. His book is longer than Isaiah and is also longer than either Ezekiel or the 12 Minor Prophets combined. Its important subject matter includes timely messages to God’s people in the closing days of Judah, and prophecies concerning the Messiah and the new covenant. The book appears between Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Old Testament Canon. Jeremiah’s text has come down in differing forms. In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), it is shorter and shows a different arrangement of the material (Jeremiah 46 to 51). Both the Hebrew and Greek texts of the book have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Author: 

Jeremiah doubtless was the chief author of the book that bears his name (see title above). The Book’s final edition was probably brought together shortly after his death by his scribe, Baruch. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, a priest in the line of Abiathar, who lived at Anathoth. Jeremiah was raised in a Levitical tribe and learned a high regard for the law of the Lord and the importance of the temple and priesthood. He served as both a priest and a prophet, was the son of a priest named Hilkiah (not the High-Priest of 2 Kings 22:8 who discovered the book of the law). He was from the small village of Anathoth (1:1), today called Anata, about 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem in Benjamin’s tribal inheritance.

As an object lesson to Judah, Jeremiah was unmarried (16:1-4). He was assisted in ministry by a scribe named Baruch, to whom Jeremiah dictated and who copied and had custody over the writings complied from the prophet’s messages (Jeremiah 36:4, 32; 45:1). Jeremiah has been known as the weeping prophet (compare 9:1, 13:17; 14:17), living a life of conflict because of his predictions of judgment by the invading Babylonians.

He was:

  • Threatened,
  • Tried for his life,
  • Put in stocks,
  • Forced to flee from Jehoiakim,
  • Publicly humiliated by a false prophet and
  • Thrown into a pit.

Jeremiah carried out a ministry directed mostly to his own people in Judah, but which expanded to other nations at times. He appealed to his countrymen to repent and avoid God’s judgment via an invader (Jeremiah 7 and 26). Once invasion was certain after Judah refused to repent, he pled with them not to resist the Babylonian conqueror in order to prevent total destruction (Jeremiah 27). He also called on delegates of other nations to heed his counsel and submit to Babylon (Jeremiah 27), and he predicted judgments from God on various nations (Jeremiah 25:12-38; Chapters 46 to 51).

The dates of his ministry, which spanned 5 decades, are from the Judean king Josiah’s 13th year, noted in 1:2 (627 B.C.), to beyond the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 B.C. (Jeremiah chapters 39, 40 and 52). After 586 B.C., Jeremiah was forced to go with a fleeing remnant of Judah to Egypt (Jeremiah chapters 43 and 44). He was possibly still ministering (in 570 B.C.).

A rabbinic note claims that when Babylon invaded Egypt in 568/567 B.C., Jeremiah was taken captive to Babylon. He could have lived even to pen the book’s closing scene ca. 561 B.C. in Babylon, when Judah’s king Jehoiachin, captive in Babylon since 597 B.C., was allowed liberties in his last days (Jeremiah 52:31-34). Jeremiah, if still alive at that time, was between 85 and 90 years old. He prophesied during the reigns of Judah’s last kings. His prophetic ministry stretched from the days of Josiah (640 – 609 B.C.), until Jerusalem’s fall in the reign of Zedekiah (598 – 586 B.C.). Following his divine call (in 627 B.C.), Jeremiah served the Lord and the people of Judah throughout the rapidly changing scenes of the final decades of the southern kingdom and even beyond.

This prophet was a deeply spiritual man. He was wholly dedicated to God so that despite a shy and retiring nature, his fervent love for God and His people never waned. Jeremiah became an object lesson of a man whose commitment to God enabled him, by God’s grace, to overcome his natural timidity and live courageously in the face of severe opposition and tragic circumstances. His personal sorrow over the messages that he had to deliver often caused him to weep for his people in a manner unparalleled until the Man of Sorrows would come.

Historical Setting: The time frame of the Book of Jeremiah stretches from the prophet’s call in 627 B.C. until his later life among the Judean refugees in Egypt some years after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. These were trying times for Judah. The nation was caught up in the rapidly changing political events in the Near East during the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C. Although revival and religious reform followed the finding of the Book of the Law during the repair of the temple in 622 B.C. (compare 2 kings 22:8 – 23:24; 2 Chronicles 34:8 – 35:19), the effects of Josiah’s religious edicts were short lived.

With the death of the godly Josiah, Judah’s apostasy quickly resurfaced. Jeremiah repeatedly warned of resulting judgment, which finally occurred through the events of the shifting Near Eastern political scene. Nabopolassar of Babylon defeated the Assyrians at Nineveh (in 612 B.C.).

When Pharaoh-nechoh (609–594 B.C.), of Egypt moved to their aid, Josiah withstood Egypt at Megiddo at the cost of his life. Later, the retreating Egyptians took his son Jehoahaz captive (2 Kings 23:31-33), and installed Josiah’s second son, Jehoiakim (609 – 598 B.C.), on the throne. He was an apostate who persecuted Jeremiah and other true believers. He was later succeeded by his brother Jehoiachin, who was captured by Nebuchadnezzar at the same time Ezekiel was taken captive. Zedekiah, Josiah’s third son, was then installed as king (2 Kings 24:17).

He too was an ungodly king who persecuted Jeremiah and rejected his prophecies. Finally in 586 B.C., Nebuchadrezzar totally destroyed Jerusalem, and Zedekiah was blinded and led away in chains to Babylon. Although Jeremiah’s message was one of inevitable judgment on Judah, he also delivered news of great consolation. God would yet deal anew with a repentant people (Jeremiah 23:1-8 – 29:10-19), in a great new covenant (eremiah 30:1–33:26), through which the promised blessings of old would be realized. Jeremiah’s prophecies thus span the era that was passing away and that which was to come. The returning exiles would constitute a pledge of that great final gathering of God’s people to Himself for the Messiah’s everlasting reign.

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