Author and background
Jeremiah prophesied to the kingdom of Judah during the reigns of kings Josiah (640–609 bc), Jehoahaz (609), Jehoiakim (609–597), Jehoiachin (597) and Zedekiah (597–587). The opening words of the book (1:2) tell us that his ministry began in 627 bc. His work, therefore, spanned forty years, a whole career, and coincided with the last years of the kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah may thus be regarded as one of the prophets of the exile, along with Ezekiel (see also The prophets in The Song of Songs).
With Ezekiel, then, Jeremiah was a successor to the great prophets of a century or so earlier (Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah), who had preached in the days when there were still two kingdoms, Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern). The former, however, had been dismantled in 722 bc by the mighty Assyrians (‘the rod of my [God’s] anger’; Is. 10:5), after the warnings of Amos and others had gone unheeded. Jeremiah’s Judah, therefore, though it had survived the Assyrian onslaught (see 2 Ki. 18–20), was a tiny and exposed remnant of God’s people. Could it survive for long? The answer would depend on whether the people would hear the word of God through Jeremiah.
When Jeremiah first heard God’s word, Assyria was no longer the force it once had been. It was in its decline (the fate of all empires) that King Josiah was able to reassert the ancient Israelite claim to the territory of the northern kingdom, lost a hundred years earlier (2 Ki. 23:15–20). In 612 bc, Nineveh the capital of Assyria, fell to the new power in the region, Babylon, which now represented the new threat to God’s people. Jeremiah pictures it as an army that would come ‘from the land of the north’ (6:22). As a century earlier, so now, God’s plans for his people were bound up with historical and political events over which he had control. He himself would bring this foe against his unfaithful people (5:15).
Prophets often addressed their words to kings, because these had a special responsibility for maintaining the religious life of the people. In this respect Jeremiah is interesting because his ministry began at the time when King Josiah was reforming the religion of Judah. 2 Ki. 22–23 describes at length the measures he took and relates them to the discovery in the temple of the ‘Book of the Law’ (probably Deuteronomy), possibly lost during the long and corrupt reign of King Manasseh (see on 2 Ki. 22:8). This was in 621 bc, five years after Jeremiah’s call. The reform may have been going on since 628, however, as is implied by 2 Ch. 34:3–7. Surprisingly, therefore, Jeremiah’s preaching—highly critical of Judah—began during the reign of a just and faithful king. This may suggest that he thought the reform could not of itself produce the deep change in people which God desired. His call would be for a complete change of heart (4:4).
Jeremiah, nevertheless, criticized all the leaders within Judah for their failure to give true teaching and leadership according to the standards of the covenant for which they were responsible. Kings (ch. 22), prophets (23:9–40) and priests (2:7) are uncompromisingly attacked. (An exception is made for Josiah; 22:15–16.) The condemnation is the more striking because Jeremiah himself was both prophet and priest (1:1). The covenant people, in fact, were false through and through (9:3–6). That is the basis of Jeremiah’s whole message.
The message itself, however, which was delivered over a long period and against a dramatically changing background, seems to have passed through several distinct stages. First, Jeremiah called for the people to repent of their sins so that they might not suffer at the hands of Babylon (3:12). At a certain point, however, he announced that God would indeed punish Judah at that nation’s hands. The time for repentance was past; God’s chastisement was now inevitable (21:1–10). However, this second stage was closely linked with the third, which was an announcement that the chastisement was for the purposes of restoration. In God’s mercy the Babylonian exile would be a way to life for those who would accept the punishment (21:9; 24:4–7). It is within this last stage that the promises which include the hope of the new covenant (31:31–34) are to be understood. In the end, therefore, the covenant, once despised by Israel, is re-established by God’s mercy.
Jeremiah himself was deeply involved in, and affected by, his message. He suffered because of it in certain obvious, outward ways, having to forgo normal social and family life (15:17; 16:2), being the object of plots against his life (11:18–23; 18:18) and the victim of imprisonments and beatings (20:1–6; 37:15–16; 38:6). Inwardly he was affected too, for he felt keenly the agony which he knew the people must endure (4:19–21; 10:19–22). Yet he also felt the passion of God against the sin around him (8:21–9:3). He therefore experienced the judgment from both sides, which placed an almost unbearable burden on him.
The pain that thus arose out of his prophetic calling is most poignantly expressed in the poetic passages often known as ‘the confessions’ (11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–21; 17:12–18; 18:19–23; 20:7–18). In these he complains to God, almost bitterly. Yet out of them too come reassurances that God will finally save (15:19–21).
The message and the Christian reader
It is not a straightforward matter for the Christian reader to translate Jeremiah’s message into something that is relevant for his or her life. What can God’s judgment on his ancient people have to do with the life of the individual Christian? Indeed, how does Jeremiah’s preaching of salvation to a nation, understood as restoration to a land, in the context of politics and war, relate to the Christian gospel?
A first answer is to point to the work of Christ. At the heart of Jeremiah’s message is the truth that God punishes his people with a view to their salvation. This principle of salvation through judgment foreshadows above all the cross of Christ, in which he himself bore the judgment for human sin in order to save sinful humanity.
Jeremiah points to Christ also in the new covenant prophecies (chs. 30–33). These look first to a restoration of the ancient people of Judah to their land in faithfulness, but ultimately to Christ, who himself lives out the life of faithful ‘Israel’ and gives the Holy Spirit to those who are in him so that they too might participate in that faithful life.
However, if the book of Jeremiah chiefly points forward to the great things that Christ has done for his people, is there any way in which the book can be a guide for the living of the Christian life? The answer here also is that it can. In this connection it is important to understand that the Christian gospel does not concern individuals only, but the church as a body, and to suppose that there is a basic consistency in the way in which God deals with his people. This means, first, that the messages to Judah of both judgment and salvation may apply in a sense to the church as a body. Like God’s people of old, it too needs to guard against complacency and should not think that it is above chastisement (cf. Rev. 2–3). It (or parts of it) may even undergo times of chastening, only to know God’s renewal at last.
Secondly, Jeremiah highlights the need for responsible leadership and warns of how corruption in God’s people can spread. He cautions against false trust among those who are religious, perhaps a false trust in religion itself. He shows how, when the church’s life has become debased, its corrupt character can be transmitted from generation to generation (44:9). This perception may even apply to societies other than the church, national or traditional, and thus explain the transmission of hatreds and prejudices within societies over centuries. The prophecy also exposes the psychology of sin and the strength of the inclination that human beings have towards it (3:6–10). The portrait of King Zedekiah is a great evocation of the eternal hesitation of human beings between good and evil.
Finally, the book has some marvellous expressions of joy in salvation, mainly in chs. 30–33. The poetry of these is itself an inspiration, and in their context in a prophecy which has so much to say about sin and judgment, they focus in their own unique way on the love and compassion of the God whose deepest desire is to give life and blessing to his creatures.
Form, structure and composition of the book
The book of Jeremiah is long and contains a variety of material. Some of it consists of the words of Jeremiah, spoken in the form of poetic oracles, or sayings (e.g. chs. 2–6); some of it has a more sermonic style (e.g. 7:1–15), printed as prose in most translations (including the niv); there are also passages written about Jeremiah, presumably by someone else (e.g. ch. 26). Most of the poetic oracles are in chs. 1–20. Generally, we are not given the dates or settings of individual sayings of this sort. We have more information about the time and place of individual sayings and events in the sermons and the narratives. However, the book is not a biography; it tells about Jeremiah only in order to help proclaim his message.
We know little about how the book was formed. It does not follow a consistent chronological pattern, and it can be difficult to read in a connected way. It was probably formed in stages. This is suggested by ch. 36, where we read that the first scroll of Jeremiah’s words was destroyed by King Jehoiakim and that Jeremiah then had another made, which contained more words than the first (36:32). It is also suggested by the fact that the Greek OT (the lxx) contains a shorter version of the book than that which appears in our Bibles. The prophet appears to have worked on the book’s production with Baruch, his assistant and scribe. Baruch may have had a hand, therefore, in the composition of the book as we now know it.
F. D. Kidner, The Message of Jeremiah, BST (IVP, 1971).
J. Guest, Jeremiah, Lamentations, CC (Word, 1988).
J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1980).
J. G. McConville, Judgment and Promise, An Interpretation of the Book of Jeremiah (Apollos/Eisenbrauns, 1993).
J. Bright, Jeremiah, AB (Doubleday, 1965).
niv New International Version
OT Old Testament
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
BST The Bible Speaks Today
CC The Communicator’s Commentary
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
AB Anchor Bible
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jr 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.