Yirmiyahu lives during the tragic final years of Israel’s southern kingdom, Yehuda, just before its destruction in 586 BCE at the hands of Babylonia. He prophesies for forty years, beginning during the reign of King Yoshiyahu, a strong point in the history of the kingdom of Yehuda, and ending after the small remnant of Jews left in Yerushalayim following the Temple’s destruction flees to Egypt.
Yirmiyhau’s prophecy is intensely personal; we know much more about his personal life than we know of the life of any other prophet. Born to a priestly family in Anatot (1:1), he becomes a prophet at a very young age. He is commanded by God not to marry or raise children, to symbolize His plan to destroy the next generation (16:1–4). His prophecies contain many predictions of doom and a desperate cry to Israel to accept the upcoming upheaval and submit to Babylonian rule – a demand that earns him the title of traitor among his own people.
In truth, Yirmiyahu loves his people too much to stand by while they commit national suicide. As such, he never ceases to speak to them, and even when his prophecies are proven true, his only response to the destruction and exile is devastation. This response finds its eloquent and heartbreaking voice in Megillat Eicha, which, according to tradition, was also authored by Yirmiyahu. Sefer Yirmiyahu also includes several sections which describe the emotional price of being the lone voice of a painful truth.
Understanding the prophecies of Yirmiyahu requires some knowledge of the historical setting in which he lives, which is described in the books of Melachim II and Divrei Hayamim II. Yirmiyahu becomes a prophet during the downfall of the Assyrian empire and its replacement on the world stage by Babylonia. The last great Assyrian king dies in 627 BCE. Yoshiyahu, the last righteous king of Yehuda, uses this opportunity to cut the ties of servitude that have bound Yehuda to Assyria since the time of Chizkiyahu. He expands Yehuda’s borders until they reach the ancient boundaries of David and Shlomo, and embarks on an unprecedented program of repentance and religious revival. His reign is Yehuda’s golden age, until his untimely and unexpected death in 609 BCE at the hands of the Egyptian army. As Babylonia is expanding quickly, the Egyptian army marches northward through Israel in order to rescue their ally Assyria. When Yoshiyahu tries to prevent the Egyptian army from passing through his land, the Egyptians kill him. Yirmiyahu laments Yoshiyahu’s death, recognizing that the people’s last hope has expired.
To maintain order in Yehuda, Pharaoh puts Yoshiyahu’s son Yehoahaz in chains, and appoints Yehoyakim, another of Yoshiyahu’s sons, king in his place. The new king prefers an alliance with Egypt and Assyria over following the word of God, and is relentlessly antagonistic to Yirmiyahu, ordering the prophet’s arrest and burning his writings piece by piece (36:21-23). In spite of this, the country enjoys relative quiet until 605 BCE, when Assyria and their Egyptian allies are crushed at Carchemish on the Euphrates by Nebuchadnezzar (46:2). This victory makes Babylon the unchallenged ruler in the region for the next seventy years. After eleven years as king, the rebellious Yehoyakim is replaced by his son Yehoyachin who rules Yehuda for three months before being carried off to exile with the elite of Yehuda‘s society. Nebuchadnezzar then places Yehoyachin’s uncle Tzidkiyahu on the throne. He is a weak and indecisive ruler who sometimes assists Yirmiyhau and asks for advice, but ultimately allows Yirmiyhau’s enemies to imprison him in order to keep him quiet. Yirmiyhau remains under arrest until Babylonia captures Yerushalayim in 586 BCE (38:28). The Babylonians capture Tzidkiyahu while he attempts to flee the city, they execute his children and then blind him (39:1–7). They direct Yirmiyhau to remain with Gedalya, whom Nebuchadnezzar has made governor over Yehuda, but Gedalya is assassinated by zealots within the year (41:1–9). The Jews who remain in Yehuda fear Babylonian reprisal, and flee to Egypt, taking the elderly Yirmiyhau with them (43:4–7).
Sefer Yirmiyhau is not structured chronologically. The first 35 chapters are a collection of prophecies directed to the kingdom of Yehuda about the upcoming destruction. They describe the sins which are the cause of the impending devastation, and include the ultimately futile request for the people not to rebel against Babylonian dominion. Yirmiyhau also intersperses promises that Hashem will return His scattered people to live in Israel in peace. Of specific interest is a prophecy to the Jews who are exiled, that their exile will last for seventy years. After this, however, the prophet states that the Babylonian empire will fall, and their descendants will have the opportunity to return to Eretz Yisrael (29:5-14). Chapters 36-38 include Yirmiyhau’s personal sufferings and 39-44 describe the downfall of Yerushalayim. In the final chapters of the book, Yirmiyhau prophesies against the nations that participated in, or cheered at, Israel’s downfall, for the Lord does not forgive the insult against His people.
While Yirmiyhau is known as the prophet of doom, his prophecies also contain much promise. By the time he becomes a prophet, the destruction of Yehuda and the Beit Hamikdash is almost inevitable. Yirmiyhau tries one last time to awaken the Israelite nation to return to Hashem, but they refuse to listen and are exiled from their land. However, even in exile, far from their land, the Jewish people are not to abandon hope. As Hashem promises through Yirmiyhau, “I will delight in treating them graciously, and I will plant them in this land faithfully, with all My heart and soul” (32:41).