Jeremiah, in Hebrew Yirmiyahu, lives during the tragic final years of Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah, before its destruction by Babylon in 586 BCE. He prophesies for forty years, beginning during the reign of King Josiah, a strong point in the kingdom of Judah, and ending after the small remnant of Jews in Jerusalem flees to Egypt following the Temple’s destruction. Jeremiah’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 Anathoth (1:1), he becomes a prophet at a very young age. He is commanded by God not to marry or raise children, to symbolize the Lord’s 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, which earns him the title of traitor among his own people. In truth, Jeremiah 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 when prophecies are proven true his only response to the destruction and exile is devastation. This response finds its eloquent and heartbreaking voice in the book of Lamentations, which, according to tradition, was authored by Jeremiah. The Book of Jeremiah also includes a number of sections which describe the emotional price of being the lone voice of a painful truth.
Understanding the prophecies of Jeremiah requires an understanding of the historical setting in which he lives, described in the books of II Kings and II Chronicles. Jeremiah becomes a prophet during the downfall of the Assyrian empire and its replacement on the world stage by Babylon. The last great Assyrian king dies in 627 BCE. Josiah, the last righteous king of Judah, uses this opportunity to cut the ties of servitude that have bound Judah to Assyria since the time of Hezekiah. He expands Judah’s borders until they reach the ancient boundaries of David and Solomon, and embarks on an unprecedented program of repentance and religious revival. His reign is Judah’s golden age, until his untimely and unexpected death in 609 BCE at the hands of the Egyptian army. As Babylon is expanding quickly, the Egyptian army marches northward through Israel in order to rescue their ally Assyria. When Josiah tries to prevent the Egyptian army from passing through his land, the Egyptians kill him. Jeremiah laments Josiah’s death, recognizing that the people’s last hope has expired.
To maintain order in Judah, Pharaoh puts Josiah’s son Jehoahaz in chains, and appoints Jehoiakim, another of Josiah’s sons, king in his place. The new king prefers allying with Egypt and Assyria over God, and is relentlessly antagonistic to Jeremiah, ordering the prophet’s arrest and burning his writings piece by piece (36:21-23). 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 70 years. After 11 years as king, the rebellious Jehoiakim is replaced by his son Jehoiachin who rules Judah for three months before being carried off to exile with the elite of Judah’s society. Nebuchadnezzar then places Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah on the throne. He is a weak and vacillating ruler who sometimes assists Jeremiah and asks for advice, but ultimately allows Jeremiah’s enemies to imprison him in order to keep him quiet. Jeremiah remains under arrest until Babylon captures Jerusalem in 586 BCE (38:28). The Babylonians capture Zedekiah while he attempts to flee the city, they execute his children and then blind him (39:1–7). They direct Jeremiah to remain with Gedaliah, whom Nebuchadnezzar has made governor over Judah, but Gedaliah is assassinated by zealots within the year (41:1–9). The Jews who remain in Judah fear Babylonian reprisal, and flee to Egypt, taking the elderly Jeremiah with them (43:4–7).
The book of Jeremiah is not structured chronologically. The first 35 chapters are a collection of prophecies for Judah about the upcoming destruction. They describe the sins which are the cause of the impending devastation, and they include the ultimately futile request for the people not to rebel against Babylonian dominion. Jeremiah also intersperses promises that God will return his scattered people to live in Israel in peace. Of specific interest is a prophecy to the Jews who are exiled that they are to remain in exile for 70 years. Afterwards, however, the Babylonian empire will fall and their descendants will have the opportunity to return (29:5-14). Chapters 36-38 include Jeremiah’s personal sufferings and 39-44 describe the downfall of Jerusalem. In the final chapters of the book, Jeremiah prophesies against the nations that participated in, or cheered on, Israel’s downfall, for the Lord does not forgive the insult against His people.
While Jeremiah is known as the prophet of doom, his prophecies also contain much promise. By the time he becomes a prophet, the destruction of Judah and the Temple is almost inevitable. Jeremiah tries one last time to awaken the Israelite nation to return to God, 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 the Lord promises through Jeremiah, “Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land (the Land of Israel) in truth with My whole heart and with My whole soul” (32:41).