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Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah

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General Info

The book of Jeremiah is named for its author and main character, the priest who ministered in Judah and Babylon during the last four decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in the early sixth century BC.  He was a contemporary of the prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Daniel, and Ezekiel.  We actually know much more about Jeremiah’s personal life and personality than about any other OT prophet.  One reason is that he was personally and emotionally involved in his various difficult and painful messages.

In the Protestant Canon, Jeremiah is placed in the “Major Prophets” section of the Old Testament along with Isaiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, Jeremiah, along with Isaiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets, are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.  When measured by the number of words, Jeremiah is the longest book of the Bible.

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Brief Survey

A large portion of the subject matter in the Book of Jeremiah is arranged in chronological order, but some material is inserted (probably by the scribe/editor Baruch) such that it is arranged topically or logically.

After God’s prophetic call of Jeremiah in the first chapter, the next nineteen (chs 2-20) contain a number of general oracles of judgment delivered publically by the prophet against Judah, primarily before the Babylonian invasion in 605 BC.  During these early years, when his understanding of God’s purposes was still growing, Jeremiah sometimes struggled with his role in God’s relationship with the people of Judah.

In chapters 21-25, Jeremiah delivers specific judgment prophecies against the kings and false prophets of Judah, illustrated by the vision of good and bad figs, and to be culminated by 75 years of captivity in Babylon. Chapters 26-29 record the people’s response to Jeremiah and his message from God. Jeremiah is arrested and put on trial, but is delivered by the testimony of some wise elders. Despite, this acquittal, the prophet continued to suffer prosecution from his own countrymen. Jeremiah also writes two letters to those who have already been exiled in Babylon, instructing them to prepare for a long exile (build houses, plant gardens, marry and increase in population etc).

In chapters 30-33, we find the “silver lining” in the otherwise dark cloud of the book (thanks to John Milton, Comus - A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, for the expression).  These key chapters contain special prophecies concerning the future healing, deliverance, restoration and blessings of Israel and Judah.  To illustrate the surety of the Jews returning to the land, God commanded Jeremiah to buy a field in the territory of Benjamin.  The highpoint of this section (and the entire book) is the promise of the New Covenant (ch 31) to Israel and Judah, ultimately fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah.

After this glorious interlude, chapters 34-36 continue the themes from chapters 26-29.  At this point, the Jew’s continued rejection of the Covenant had assured the coming of the pronounced judgments.  King Jehoiakim even burned Jeremiah’s scroll, but Jeremiah dictated while Baruch wrote a new scroll with added curses upon Jehoiakim.

This leads into chapters 37-39, that sketch the events during the fall of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah was arrested and imprisoned in a dungeon, transferred under guard to the Courtyard, thrown in as cistern, and rescued by an Ethiopian.  The Babylonians destroyed most of Jerusalem and exiled almost all the remaining people, but Jeremiah was freed by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

After the fall of Jerusalem (chs 40-45), Jeremiah continues to minister to the remnant remaining in Judah.  The Babylonian-appointed Governor is assassinated by Jewish rebels, who then flee to Egypt and force Jeremiah to accompany them.  Jeremiah then ministers to the Jewish remnant in Egypt.

Chapters 46-49 contain prophecies of judgment on various foreign nations such as Egypt, Moab, Edom, and others.  Chapters 50 and 51 contain various prophecies against Babylon, such s pronouncements of their eventual but certain fall and destruction, when the Sovereign God will repay them for their iniquity.  This section also promises the restoration of the Jews back into their homeland.

The final chapter (ch 52) is a historical supplement reviewing the final events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem and the fate of the Jews.  The material is very similar to 2Kg 24:18-25:30.  It also validates the prophecies delivered by Jeremiah throughout the book.

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Key Verses

Now the word of the LORD came to me [Jeremiah] saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”...  Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (1:4,9-10)

Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.  If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city. (5:1)

For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.  Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.  But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts.  They went backward and not forward.  From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets.  But they did not listen to me or pay attention.  They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors. (7:22-26)

This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” (9:23-24)

the Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King.  When he is angry, the earth trembles; the nations cannot endure his wrath. (10:10)

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.  That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes.  They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.  “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”  The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?  “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (17:5-10)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right.  Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.  Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (22:3)

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.  This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.  So then, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’  Then they will live in their own land.” (23:5-8)

This whole country [Israel] will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. (25:11)

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (29:4-7)

“In that day,” declares the Lord Almighty, “I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them.  Instead, they will serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.” (30:8-9)

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (31:31-33)

Key Chapter: 31 & 33 - The promised restoration of Israel, the Promised Savior and Messiah, and the New Covenant.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says: ‘If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night no longer come at their appointed time, then my covenant with David my servant—and my covenant with the Levites who are priests ministering before me—can be broken and David will no longer have a descendant to reign on his throne.  I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars in the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore.’” (33:19-22)

The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after Nebuzaradan commander of the [Babylonian] imperial guard had released him at Ramah.  He had found Jeremiah bound in chains among all the captives from Jerusalem and Judah who were being carried into exile to Babylon.  When the commander of the guard found Jeremiah, he said to him, “The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place.  And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would.  All this happened because you people sinned against the Lord and did not obey him.  But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists.  Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come.  Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.” (40:1-4)

This is the word the Lord spoke through Jeremiah the prophet concerning Babylon and the land of the Babylonians: “Announce and proclaim among the nations, lift up a banner and proclaim it; keep nothing back, but say, ‘Babylon will be captured; Bel will be put to shame, Marduk filled with terror.  Her images will be put to shame and her idols filled with terror.’  A nation from the north [Persia] will attack her and lay waste her land.  No one will live in it; both people and animals will flee away.  “In those days, at that time,” declares the Lord, “the people of Israel and the people of Judah together will go in tears to seek the Lord their God.  They will ask the way to Zion and turn their faces toward it.  They will come and bind themselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will not be forgotten.” (50:1-5)

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Author and Date

The book itself testifies that the prophet Jeremiah wrote all but the last chapter.  The book opens by stating “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin” (1:1), and Chapter 51 ends with “The words of Jeremiah end here” (51:64).  We also find the phrase “The word of the Lord came to me” (or “to Jeremiah”), sprinkled throughout the book. Jewish tradition also identifies the prophet Jeremiah as the author.  At the beginning of Folio 15a of the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Bathra, we read that “Jeremiah wrote the book which bears his name, the Book of Kings, and Lamentations”.  So we have both internal and external evidence for the authorship of Jeremiah.  It is widely held that Baruch (Jeremiah’s scribe) arranged the historical epilogue that became the last chapter (52) of the book.  Baruch also recorded much of the scroll as dictated by Jeremiah (36:4, 11-17, 27-32; 45:1-5).

Jeremiah’s original audience was the Jewish people, those living in Judah prior to the fall of Jerusalem, and those who were exiled to Babylon afterwards.  The book was probably compiled into its final form within a few years of the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC), the last event recorded in the book.

The final fate of prophet Jeremiah is unknown.  The last historical mention of him within his book leaves him in Egypt after the  remaining Jewish remnant forced him to flee with them to Egypt.  According to Jerome, the early church theologian and historian, who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) in the early fifth century, wrote that Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt by his fellow Jews for his rebuking them for their iniquities.  Matthew Henry notes in his commentaries (early 1700s) that, according to the Arabic historian Hottinger of Elmakin, Jeremiah was stoned for continuing to prophesy in Egypt against the Egyptians and other nations.  Hottinger also claims that when Alexander the Great later entered Egypt, he took up the bones of Jeremiah from where they had been buried in obscurity, and re-buried them in Alexandria.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background of the OT History Books and the Historical Background of the OT Prophets for additional information.  See the Historical Background of Ezekiel, a contemporary of Jeremiah, for background information relating to the divided kingdom of Israel, and for other historical events in the region.  Here, we'll expand on the kings and events during Jeremiah's ministry.

Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of the final five kings of Judah prior to the exile.  He began his ministry in the thirteenth year (627 BC) of the godly King Josiah (640-609 BC).  Josiah began his reign at the young age of 8, during a time when Judah was overrun with idolatry due primarily to being a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire.  Shortly before Jeremiah's call, Josiah instituted religious reforms and began purging the nation of idols, and reformation reached its zenith a few years later with the finding of the scroll of the Law (Moses) by the high priest in the Temple (2Chr 34&35).  Throughout Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah enjoyed the support of the throne, but this came to an end when Josiah, who would be Judah’s last righteous king, was killed in battle with Egyptian Pharaoh Neco at Megiddo in 609BC.

The final four kings would reign a total of just over two decades.  After the death of Josiah, the Jewish people anointed his son Shallum, who took the name King Jehoahaz.  His reign lasted only three months before he was captured and deported to Egypt by Pharaoh Neco where he died (Jer 22:10-12).   Neco then placed Jehoahaz’s brother Eliakim on the throne, gave him the name King Jehoiakim, and require him to pay a large annual monetary tribute to Egypt.  In 605 BC, Neco was defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the battle of Carchemish, but Jehoiakim managed to keep his throne for eleven years (609-598 BC) by switching his allegiance to Babylon.  His reign was a very perilous time for Jeremiah, who was under constant threat of arrest and persecution.

After the natural death of Jehoiakim, he was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin, whose reign lasted only three months before being deported to Babylon in the spring of 597 BC.  King Nebuchadnezzar then placed Mattaniah, another son of King Josiah, on the throne of Judah as his vassal king Zedekiah.  Zedekiah would rule for eleven years (597-586 BC) during which he was urged by his advisers to form an alliance with Egypt against Babylon, while Jeremiah consistently counseled the king to surrender to Babylon.  Eventually, Zedekiah rejected Jeremiah’s advice and rebelled against Babylon, which led to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Jeremiah’s proclamations of coming judgments against these final wicked kings of Judah can be found in chapter 22 of his book.  A biblical historical account of the years of these kings, the fall of Jerusalem, and prophecy of the future restoration of Israel can be found in the final (36th) chapter of 2Chronicles.  Jeremiah is the only prophet to provide an eyewitness account of the fall of Jerusalem (ch 39, see also his book of Lamentations).

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Timeline

See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.

629 BC Judah’s King Josiah Institutes Religious Reforms (2Chr 34)
627 BC Call of Jeremiah (13th Year of King Josiah of Judah)
622 BC Book of the Law Found in the Temple - King Josiah’s Additional Religious Reforms (2Kg 22-23)
612 BC The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
609 BC Death of King Josiah
609 BC Jeremiah Prophecies in the Temple (chapter 26; probably also chapter 7)
605 BC Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles many of the Jews
~605-535 BC Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah
597 BC Second Invasion by the Babylonians - Ezekiel Exiled
~593-570 BC Ezekiel Prophet to Exiled Judah
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned
~586 BC Jeremiah and Baruch taken to Egypt by Jewish rebels (chapter 43)
561 BC Judean King Jehoiachin Released from Babylonian Prison
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
538 BC Cyrus Issues Decree allowing Exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Primary themes in Jeremiah are consistent with those found in the book of his contemporary, the prophet Ezekiel.  We witness the holiness, sovereignty, and grace of God, along with an emphasis on the responsibility of the His chosen people to be obedient to the Covenant.  The Mosaic Covenant was meant to serve as a guide for righteous living that would be result in both physical and spiritual blessings.  Unfortunately, the people chose chose instead to adopt many of the pagan lifestyles of the surrounding nations, including the worship of their false gods.

Theologically, Jeremiah, like Ezekiel has much to say about the nature and attributes of God, particularly those related to the warnings and promises of the covenant.  God is holy and expects the same from His people.  The Lord is a loving God, but He is also righteous and just, so he must punish disobedience and rebellion.

In the past, God had called and commissioned his prophets to call the people back to their covenant relationship.  After the death of Josiah, the last godly King of Judah, judgment became inevitable (ch 7, see also 15:1) and Jeremiah became the only prophet who was forbidden by God to even pray for the people (7:16).  Yet, as with the ministry of Ezekiel, God clearly did not intend for the exile to be the final historical chapter for the Jewish people.  Despite Israel’s faithlessness, God remained faithful and would later restore the people to their homeland.  In addition, He would eventually bestow on them the blessings not only of the Abrahamic and the Davidic covenants, but the new messianic covenant promised by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34) as well.  As noted in our survey above, see chapters 30-33 for God’s promises of future restoration for Israel.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The book of Jeremiah should be interpreted in the context of all the books of the writing prophets.  See Interpretation Hints and Challenges for the Major and Minor Prophets for additional info including links to supplementary articles on the prophets, the various literary genres utilized, and applications for new covenant Christians.

Regarding interpretive difficulties in Jeremiah, we’ll briefly consider two topics related to the coming Messiah.  The first challenge involves the curse that God placed on Judah’s King Jehoiachin (aka Jeconiah and Coniah).  God delivered a stinging rebuke upon the king (Jer 22:24-30) that climaxed with the curse that none of Jehoiachin’s offspring would sit on the throne of David.  Yet, we find Jehoiachin’s name in the genealogical line from David to Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew.  This is resolved by noting that Matthew’s genealogy contains the descendents from David to Jesus’ legal (but not His physical or blood) father Joseph.  The royal line of Christ from David through his physical mother Mary is recorded in Luke 3 (see the Virgin Birth of Christ for more info).

The second topic involves God’s promise of a New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34).  A common teaching is that the OT Covenants such as the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and others were given to, or made with Israel, and that the New Covenant was to be given to, or made with the NT church.  The text however is clear that, the New Covenant will also be with Israel and Judah. “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt…”.

That said, Romans 11 also makes it clear that the Gentile members of the church will also be grafted in to the New Covenant.  So now, both Jews and non-Jews who are in Christ are under the New Covenant (Gal 3:26-29).  In addition, we learn from the book of Hebrews that the New Covenant is superior to the old (Heb 8, see also Heb 10:1-18; 12:24), and that Christ Himself is the mediator of the New Covenant (Heb 9:11-15).

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Outline

The Book of Jeremiah can be sub-divided into three to ten or more sections.  Our preference, and perhaps one of the most common is to divide the book into four sections.  The first section consists of chapter 1, the Introduction, or Call of Jeremiah.  The second section consists of chapters 2-45 that primarily contain Prophecies concerning Judah.  The third section consists of chapters 46-51, that contain prophecies against the surrounding nations.  Finally, the fourth section would then contain the last chapter 52, a supplemental historical review of the destruction of Jerusalem, and the resulting effect her remaining inhabitants.

1:1 – 1:28 Call and Commission of Jeremiah
2:1 - 4:4 Call for Judah to Repent
4:5 - 5:31 Prophecies of Coming Judgment upon Judah
6:1 - 6:30 Prophecies concerning the Siege and Fall of Jerusalem
7:1 - 10:25 Jeremiah’s Temple Address: False Worship
11:1 - 11:23 Judgment for Breaking the Covenant;  Jeremiah’s Life Threatened
12:1 - 12:17 Jeremiah’s Compliant and God’s Reply
13:1 - 15:21 National Corruption, Drought, Impending Exile, Object Lessons, and Prayer
16:1 - 17:27 Jeremiah’s Celibacy, Judah’s Rampant Sin, the Sabbath
18:1 - 20:6 The Potter’s House and Broken Clay
20:7 - 20:18 Jeremiah’s Complaint against his Persecutors
21:1 - 22:30 Messages to Judah’s Kings over Impending Fall to Babylon
23:1 - 23:8 Future Restoration under the Righteous Branch
23:9 - 23:40 True and False Prophets
24:1 - 25:38 Good Figs, Bad Figs, and the Cup of God’s Wrath
26:1 - 26:24 Jeremiah’s Message, Arrest, Trial and Acquittal at the Temple
27:1 - 29:32 Jeremiah’s Conflicts with False Prophets in Jerusalem and in Exile
30:1 - 33:26 Future Restoration of Judah and Israel Foretold - the New Covenant
34:1 - 34:22 Warning to Judah’s King Zedekiah
35:1 - 35:19 Loyalty of the Recabites Rewarded
36:1 - 36:32 The Scroll Written, Read, Burned, and Re-written in the Temple
37:1 - 38:28 Jeremiah Imprisoned and Rescued
39:1 - 39:18 The Fall of Jerusalem - Babylonian King Frees Jeremiah
40:1 - 42:22 Jeremiah Ministers to the Remnant in Judah
43:1 - 45:5 Jeremiah Ministers after taken to Egypt by Jewish Rebels
46:1 - 46:28 Prophecy Oracles of Judgment against Egypt
47:1 - 47:7 Prophecy Oracle of Judgment against the Philistines
48:1 - 48:47 Prophecy Oracles of Judgment against Moab
49:1 - 49:39 Prophecy Oracles of Judgment against Ammon, Edom, Damascas, Kedar, Hazor, and Elam
50:1 - 51:64 Prophecy Oracles of Judgment against Babylon, and future Restoration of Israel
52:1 - 52:34 Historical Review of the Fate of Jerusalem, the Temple, and certain Groups and Individuals

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