A: Introductory Oracles Against Judah (Jeremiah 1-12)
B: Collection of Messages About Judah’s Exile and Suffering (Jeremiah 13-20)
C: Dated Messages of Judgment (Jeremiah 21-29)
D: Messages of Future Hope (Jeremiah 30-33)
E: Dated Messages of Judgment (Jeremiah 34-35)
F: Narratives About Jeremiah’s Suffering (Jeremiah 36-45)
G: Oracles Against the Nations (Jeremiah 46-51)
Appendix: Fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52)
Timeline (627-586 BC)
2 Kings 22-25
2 Chronicles 34-36
Kings in Judah:
Josiah (31 years)
Jehoahaz (3 months)
Jehoiakim (11 years)
Jehoiachin (3 months)
Zedekiah (11 years)
Introduction to Jeremiah
Jeremiah is the longest book in the English Bible. Although Psalms and Isaiah have more chapters, in terms of its actual word count Jeremiah tops them all (33,002 words in Hebrew). One of things that makes Jeremiah such a difficult book to get a hold on (apart from its enormous length) is how the material is organized. Jeremiah’s prophecies are not arranged in a strict chronological order, and many of his oracles are undated, which makes the historical context a bit ambiguous. However, there is a general flow to the book, but it takes some time and attention to notice it. In general, the first 45 chapters are aimed at Judah, and then chapters 46 to 51 are addressed to foreign nations. The book could also be outlined into seven sections with a historical appendix at the end. We could also throw in Lamentations as a second appendix since it has traditionally been attributed to Jeremiah.
The first 12 chapters record Jeremiah’s call to ministry and is followed by some introductory oracles against God’s backsliding people. Chapters 13-20 are a collection of messages about Judah’s exile and suffering along with a command from the Lord for Jeremiah not to marry or have children because those who are living are going to die gruesome deaths (Jer. 16:1-4). In chapters 21-29 we get a series of dated messages that contain important information about Israel’s future. Seventy years of desolation are decreed in Jeremiah 25, and if Israel wants to survive, they must submit themselves to the yoke of Babylon and go submissively into exile. Not only should they submit to Babylon, but they should dwell there, build houses, have children, and seek the peace of the city (Jer. 29), if they do this, after 70 years, God promises a return from exile. At the center of the book, chapters 30-33, are messages of hope as God promises to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jer. 31:31-34). After this there are two more dated messages in chapters 34-35, and then chapters 36-45 are an extended narrative of Jeremiah’s life. This section is bookended by two scenes with Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch. In the opening scene Baruch is told to write down all of Jeremiah’s prophecies (Jer. 36), and in the closing scene, Jeremiah gives him a personal oracle to not seek great things for himself in these days of judgment (Jer. 45). The seventh and final section of Jeremiah is chapters 46-51. This is a series of oracles against foreign nations, starting with Egypt and ending with Babylon. Since most of the book has portrayed Babylon as this invincible force of judgment, it is a surprising twist at the end that Babylon will also have a dramatic fall. Knowing this glimpse into the future gives new light and perspective on everything we just read. We may not understand God’s ways, but all his ways are just. In the final verses of the book, Jehoiachin, the former king of Judah is released from prison and elevated to dine at the king’s table. This is a flicker of hope in the dark, the equivalent of seeing the words “to be continued” flash across the screen at the end of a movie. This is a scene that tells us a sequel is coming.
Historical Context of Jeremiah
In biblical cosmology, Jerusalem was the center of the world. Israel was a priestly nation that was meant to mediate God’s blessings to everyone else. Just as Adam represented all of mankind, Israel and its priesthood represented all the nations before God. This is evident especially in the sacrificial offering of 70 bulls, one for each of the 70 nations (Gen. 10), during the Feast of Tabernacles (Num. 29). Zechariah 14 describes the consequences of refusing to keep this feast: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, on them there will be no rain” (Zech. 14:16-17). This meant that when Jerusalem herself did not worship the King, the rest of the world suffered along with her, famine, drought, and all kinds of calamity came upon the earth. As the Apostle Peter says, “judgment begins at the house of God, and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17).
So the book of Jeremiah includes warnings for both Israel and Judah, but also for Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, Elam, and finally Babylon as well. When God is done using Babylon as his hammer to judge the whole world, Babylon will be shattered by Persia (see Daniel 5). This is a fulfillment of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 wherein he sees four successive empires: Babylon is the gold head, Medo-Persia is the silver arms and chest, Greece is the bronze belly and thighs, and Rome is the legs of iron mixed with Jewish clay. The rise of Babylon inaugurates this age of empires, as God forsakes and destroys His holy temple, and sets up a new world order that will culminate with the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Jeremiah prophesies on the precipice of this cosmic shift in the way God governs the world. God says to him in the opening chapter, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5).
Who Was Jeremiah?
The ministry of Jeremiah runs from around 627 BC – 586 BC (41 years) and spans the reign of five different Judean kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. You can read 2 Kings 22-25, and 2 Chronicles 34-36 to get some of the historical context for Jeremiah’s prophecies. We are told in the opening verses that Jeremiah was called to the ministry in the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign (Jer. 1:2). Josiah was just an 8-year-old boy when he became king (2 Chr. 34:1-2), but he sought the Lord as a teenager (16 years old), and then at 20 years old, in the 12th year of his reign, “he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the wooden images, the carved images, and the molded images…And so he did in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as Naphtali and all around, with axes,” (see 2 Chr. 34:3-7). Under King Josiah, both Israel and Judah were united for the first time since the days of Solomon. The northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria a hundred years prior, but with Assyria’s decline, the ten northern tribes were reconquered as idolatry was vanquished in the cities. It is right after this cleansing of the land and tribal reunion that God calls Jeremiah to be His prophet.
We don’t know for sure how old Jeremiah was when God called him, but we are told that he was a “youth” (2 Chr. 1:6), which almost certainly means he was under the age of 20. So God begins a reformation in Judah through a 20 year old King Josiah, and a teenage prophet in Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a Levite from the priestly line of Aaron, and there is a long history of the high priesthood that manifests itself in this book. For example, Jeremiah will have a showdown in the temple with a rival prophet/priest named Hananiah (see Jer. 28). But to understand the significance of this interchange, we need to go back the beginning of the Aaronic priesthood.
Aside: A History of the High Priesthood
Aaron was the first high priest in Israel, and we are told that he had four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Aaron’s first two sons, Nadab and Abihu were killed for offering strange fire before the Lord (Lev. 10). Since Eleazar was the next oldest son, the office of high priest passed to him after Aaron’s death (Num. 20:26). After Eleazar, his son Phinehas became high priest, and it appears that this pattern continued for a time where the Eleazar line possessed the high priesthood (1 Chr. 6:1-15). However, something happened during the period of the Judges (we don’t know what) such that by the time we get to 1 Samuel, Eli is high priest, but he is from the line of Ithamar. Now Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas were evil and so God pronounces judgment on the house of Eli saying, “In one day they shall die, both of them. Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever.” Fast forward a few generations and this prophecy gets fulfilled in the days of Solomon. Abiathar, who was David’s high priest and in the line of Ithamar, conspired with Joab and Adonijah against David, and for this reason he was deposed. 1 Kings 2:27 says, “So Solomon removed Abiathar from being priest to the Lord, that he might fulfill the word of the Lord which He spoke concerning the house of Eli at Shiloh.” Zadok then replaces Abiathar and the high priesthood shifts back from the Ithamar line to the Eleazar line. Now what does this have to do with Jeremiah? Well when Abiathar is deposed, instead of being put to death, Solomon says, “Go to Anathoth, to your own fields, for you are deserving of death; but I will not put you to death at this time, because you carried the ark of the Lord God before my father David, and because you were afflicted every time my father was afflicted” (1 Kings 2:26). The book of Jeremiah begins with this identification, “The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin…” (Jer. 1:1). So Jeremiah is a priest from the Ithamar side, and he is going to confront Hananiah who is a priest on the Eleazar side. This continues a pattern in the history of the high priesthood, that when the priestly line goes bad, it gets transferred to the other brother. It is noteworthy then that the book of Jeremiah ends with the death of Seraiah the high priest (Jer. 52:24-27), he will be the last to minister in Solomon’s temple. So as you read Jeremiah, remember that he is a young priest with an unpopular message. He is going to face opposition from the most powerful people in Jerusalem, as God says to him: “‘For behold, I have made you this day A fortified city and an iron pillar, And bronze walls against the whole land—Against the kings of Judah, Against its princes, Against its priests, And against the people of the land. They will fight against you, But they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you,’ says the Lord, ‘to deliver you’” (Jer. 1:18-19).
Historical Context Continued
Five years after Jeremiah’s call to ministry Hilkiah the high priest discovers the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22:3). After Josiah hears the contents of the book, he tears his clothes and realizes that God’s wrath lies heavy upon the nation. He then gathers all the people to the Temple and reads them the book of the covenant, and then renews that covenant before the Lord (2 Kings 23). Now in one sense, this is great and glorious, there is a recovery of God’s word, and you might think this is going to be the event that saves the nation from destruction, but as you will notice as you read Jeremiah, there is a recurring charge of backsliding. At one point God says, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah” (Jer. 3:11). Despite Josiah’s purge of idolatry on the high places, sin has not been purged from the people’s hearts. Instead of the covenant bringing blessings and liberty to the nation, their backsliding only increases the curses that will fall. The last ember of holiness looks like it will be snuffed out, and so Jeremiah is a lonely light.
After the death of Josiah, the last righteous king, Judah goes through four wicked kings who consistently rebel against the word of the Lord. It is helpful to note that anytime you come across an oracle that is dated to the time of King Josiah, the context is one of reformation. They have reestablished on paper and by covenant the law of God in the land, but they continue to break it. All the oracles that are given during the reigns of the other kings are in a post-reformation context. By this time, the disease in the body has spread to the head (the king), and so that head is going to be cut off. At the same time that Jeremiah was prophesying in Jerusalem, the prophets Zephaniah and Habakkuk were also active. Ezekiel and Daniel were born and likely trained by Jeremiah. About halfway through Jeremiah’s ministry, Daniel will be taken off into Babylon and rise to the highest command next to King Nebuchadnezzar. This helps explain why Jeremiah was singled out by Nebuchadnezzar and set free when Babylon came to destroy the city (Jer. 39). Daniel had been interceding for the righteous back in Babylon and preparing a place for them to flourish even in exile. However, Jeremiah chooses to remain in Jerusalem after its destruction to help Gedaliah govern the people who were left behind. But it is not long before Gedaliah is assassinated by Ishmael, then Ishmael is killed by Johanan, and then Johanan drags Jeremiah with them back to Egypt. After this we don’t know what happened to Jeremiah, but his life portrays a reversal of the Exodus as he is taken from the promised land, from the temple, from the center of the universe, and is hauled off into the wilderness and back to Egypt. But in so doing, Jeremiah will fulfill his ministry, as the Lord said at his ordination:
“Behold, I have put My words in your mouth.
See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms,
To root out and to pull down,
To destroy and to throw down,
To build and to plant.”
Suggestions For Reading
#1. Look For the Parallels Between Jeremiah and Other Biblical Characters
To give you one example, the Apostle Paul is very similar to Jeremiah. Both lived and ministered in the years leading up to the destruction of the temple. Both prophesied and bore witness before kings and priests and the highest powers in the land. Both bookend the age of the oikumene (the age of the four empires foretold in the book of Daniel). Jeremiah prophesied when Babylon the first empire arose, and Paul when Rome the fourth empire was struck by the stone of the fifth empire, Christ’s Kingdom. Both were unmarried (I believe Paul was a widower). Both were persecuted and left for dead, both had long and at times very lonely ministries. Both were prophets to the nations. Of course, many of these parallels apply to Jesus as well. Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew 16:18, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Even the 1st century Jews say parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah. So think about those connections as you read this book.
#2. Constantly Ask Yourself “What is the historical context here?”
This takes more work to do but read 2 Kings 22-25 and 2 Chronicles 34-36 a few times as you work through Jeremiah until you know that history inside and out. We’ve spent a good amount of time in this podcast talking about that background so go back and listen to this episode after you finish the book. Retrace your steps.