How to read Jeremiah


  • Content: oracles of judgment against Judah and the nations, along with oracles of future hope, interwoven with narratives of Jeremiah's role in the concluding days of Judah

  • Prophet: Jeremiah, of priestly lineage from the village of Anathoth, about three miles south of Jerusalem

  • Date of prophetic activity: from 627 to 585 s.c. (see 1:2-3)

  • Emphases: Judah's unfaithfulness to Yahweh will end in its destruction; in keeping with the promises of Deuteronomy, God has a bright future for his people-a time of restoration and a new covenant; Yahweh's own heart for his people revealed through the heart of Jeremiah.


The book of Jeremiah is a collection of his many oracles-mostly in poetry and mostly against Judah and Jerusalem-plus a large number of narratives in which he is the leading player. The collection itself perhaps "published" by Baruch (Jer 36:32; 45:1-5), comes in four major parts. Chapters 1-25 contain oracles and interpreted symbolic actions that announce the coming doom of Judah and Jerusalem. A large part of this material appears in the form of conversation / dialogue between the prophet and Yahweh. In chapters 26-36 two collections of (non chronological) narratives enclose the highly important message of hope in chapters 30-33. Chapters 3 7-45 contain a series of narratives in chronological order, having to do with events that fulfill prophecies in part 1. Chapters 46- 51 contain oracles against the nations, while chapter 52 is a historical epilogue, vindicating Jeremiah as a prophet. Thus:

A Prophecies of Judgment against Jerusalem (chs. 1-25)

B Narratives Holding Out Hope for the Future (chs. 26-36)

B* Narratives regarding the Fall of Jerusalem (chs. 37 -45)

A* Prophecies of Judgment against the Nations (chs. 46-51)

Epilogue (ch. 52)

It is important to note that the narratives in chapters 26-36 have many correspondences with the preceding oracles. For example, the content of the famous temple sermon appears in 7:1-29, while the reaction to it appears as the first narrative (ch. 26); the policy to yield to Babylon and go into exile in 21 :8-10 becomes the major focus of the narratives in chapters 27 -29; and the reasons for judgments against Judah's kings and prophets given in chapters 22-23 find narrative expression in chapters 26-29 and 34-36. This suggests that the reason for the (non chronological) first collection of narratives is topical-and intentional.


To read Jeremiah well, you need to have some inkling about the man and his times, as well as the nature of the materials that make up the book.

First, a few comments about the times in which Jeremiah lived. Although Jeremiah received his call during the thirteenth year (of thirty-one years) of the reign of Josiah, only one of his oracles is dated to that period (3:6-10). Most of them come from the tumultuous years in Jerusalem after Josiah's death, during the reigns of two sons (Jehoiakim, 609-598 8.c., and Zedekiah, 597 -586). Josiah himself had reigned during a lull on the international scene, as Assyria was in serious decline and both Egypt and Babylon were vying for supremacy in the coastal area that included Judah. Josiah had died in battle against the Egyptian pharaoh Neco (609), but Neco in turn was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 605. The rest of Judah's final years are related to the political events that followed.

Josiah's sons (and one grandson, Jehoiachin) spent their few ruling years as political footballs between Egypt and Babylon, always under Babylonian control but repeatedly turning to Egypt for help to throw off the Babylonian yoke and gain a measure of independence. These policies eventually resulted in a siege by Nebuchadnezzar in 598 that brought Jehoiachin's brief reign of three months most to an end, as he and of the leading people of Jerusalem were sent into exile to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:8-17; Jet 29:2; see Ezekiel). Nonetheless, the final king of Judah, Zedekiah, returned to these hopeless policies, which eventually led to a second siege and the total destruction of Jerusalem (586). A still further rebellion by a remnant of those who remained in Judah finally resulted in a flight to Egypt in which both Jeremiah and Baruch were taken along.

It is not possible to make sense of Jeremiah apart from this history, since he played a major role in speaking into these political affairs over the twenty-two years of Jehoiakim's and Zedekiah's reigns. The narratives reveal a great deal about political intrigue, as both hawks and doves are represented' along with pro-Egyptian and pro-Babylonian voices. And because Jeremiah's oracles, and narratives (until the events of the end, chs. 37 -.45) are not in their chronological order, you will do well these names, dates, and political policies near at hand as you read.

Second' Jeremiah was given a most unenviable task, namely, to stand in opposition to the royal house of David and to the prophets, priests, and people by announcing the coming destruction of Jerusalem and urging them to accept exile in Babylon if they wished to live and have any future at all. At issue is Jeremiah's pro-Babylonian policy (following the first exile under Jehoiachin in 598 ), a view that had two things militating against it in the royal court: Many believed (1) that Jerusalem was secure because of the Davidic covenant and the presence of Yahweh,s temple (see 7:4-11) and (2) that the present exile of Jehoiachin would be short-lived (see 28:1-4).Jeremiah's message is clear: Yield to Babylon and you will live-even if the return is a lifetime away (!); resist and you will die. Lying behind this resistance is a conviction, stemming from Yahweh's rescue of Jerusalem from the Assyrians (see Isa 3 6-37), that Zion was inviolable-because of its temple, Yahweh resting/dwelling place.

Third a few comments about Jeremiah's book. You need to note that chapters 1-25 form the heart of Jeremiah's prophetic word and probably represent much of the scroll that was turned by Jehoiakim and rewritten with the help of Baruch (ch. 36).The beginning oracles announce the coming judgment and the reason, for it (primarily unfaithfulness to Yahweh in the form of idolatry), while at the same time they are full of appeals to Judah, urging that if her people repent, Yahweh

will relent. But the appeals go unheeded and eventually give way to the certainty of coming judgment. Included in this collection are the many intriguing moments of Jeremiah's own interactions with Yahweh (by argument, dialogue, lament, and complaint) over the coming disaster or over his own ill-treatment. You may find the going a bit easier when reading this collection if you mark carefully the changes of speakers. Also included are several interpreted symbolic actions, which serve to illustrate what Yahweh has to say to Judah.

Of the several influences on Jeremiah himself, the most obvious are Hosea and Deuteronomy. Jeremiah makes considerable use of the former's vivid imagery of Israel as a faithless bride-turned-prostitute, dearly loved by Yahweh, but whose unfaithfulness will cause him to give

her over to her "lovers." This in turn reflects several Deuteronomic influences, especially the appeal to the stipulations of the covenant, including the curses for unfaithfulness at the key point of whether they will serve Yahweh alone (Jer 11:1-13; cf. 17:5-8). Related is the imagery of the un/circumcised heart (4:4;9:25; cf. Deut 10:16; 30:6) and the promised restoration after exile with a new covenant (Jer 30-33). As in Deuteronomy, the issue is not merely idolatry, but syncretism-worshiping and serving Baal alongside Yahweh. But Yahweh is God alone and therefore a jealous God who cannot abide their idolatry, yet he is also compassionate and loving toward his people. It is this mixture of realities that finds poignant expression in Jeremiah.


Oracles of Judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 1-25)



Watch for several important clues to the rest of the book as you read this introduction. The heading (w. 1-3) places Jeremiah socially (from a priestly family in a village) and historically. The call itself (vv. 4- 10) initiates the pattern of dialogue, as Jeremiah, in proper prophetic humility, resists his calling. The first vision (vv. 11-12) assures him of the certain fulfillment of God's word through him. The second vision (vv. 13-16) indicates the source of God's coming judgment (Babylon, from the north) .The final summons (w. 17 -19) anticipates both his role and reception in these events.


Oracles against Judah's Idolatry

This first series sets up the rest of the book. Yahweh's charge against Judah/Jerusalem is given in 2:1-3:5. Watch for the following: the basic imagery of a formerly loving bride (2:2) who has turned to prostitution (2:20-25,32-33; 3:1-5), mainly in the form of idolatry (but see also 2:34); the role of the leaders (kings, officials, priests, prophets; 2:8,26; cf. chs. 21-23); and Yahweh's astonishment over such craziness (2:10-19).

In the next collection (3:6-4:4), watch for the many appeals to the faithless bride not to be like Samaria (who must also repent, 3:12-14), but to return to her husband with the threat of sure doom if she fails to take heed. Next comes the announcement of disaster from the north (4:5-31, picking up from l:14-16); note how this section alternates between direct words from Yahweh (4:5-6, 9, 11- I 2, 15- 18, 22, 27 -28) and Jeremiah's own words (w. 7-8, 10, 1 3-14, l9-2I, 23-26, 29-31).

Chapter 5 is a collection of short oracles, with two interventions by Jeremiah (vv. 3-6, 12-13) that alternately announce coming judgment (vv. 9-10, 15-17) and the reasons for it: Social injustice (vv. 26-28) again joins idolatry (w. 7-8, 19).Note the thought echoed from Isaiah that the people have become like their idols (v.21, eyes and ears that cannot see or hear).

Chapter 6 concludes this first collection by announcing the siege of Jerusalem. Note especially Jeremiah's own futile pleas with his people to take heed (w. 10-11a, 24-26).


More Oracles against Idolatry

The first two sets of prose oracles (7:1-29; 7:30-8:3) spell out in stark detail Judah's syncretistic ways, all the while believing that the people's "devotion" to Yahweh and his presence will make them secure.

You may wish to read chapter 26 in conjunction with the temple sermon (7:1-29), which narrates the response to it. The rest is a series of poetic oracles that picks up most of the themes from the first cycle (idolatry, forsaking the law, and judgment), but now heavily loaded with interventions by Jeremiah, mostly in the form of anguish over Jerusalem's coming destruction or in praise of the God whom Judah has spurned (note also the intervention by the people, 8:14-16). Note how it ends with a prayer (10:23-25) that echoes a common prophetic theme: Even though Judah deserves what it gets, so do the other nations, thus anticipating the oracles in chapters 46-51.


The Broken Covenant

Note how the first oracle (1 1:1-17) echoes what has gone before, but now in terms of the bride's breaking covenant withYahweh. Look for Jeremiah's deep involvement in the rest of this section plot against him by his own people will result in their judgment (11:1 8-23); his renewed complaint about God's, justice (12:1-4) is a answered in terms of what Jeremiah's own people have done to him (12.5-13), yet justice will come to the nations as well (w. 14-17); a symbolic action is then interpreted in terms of Judah,s uselessness and coming destruction (13:1-14); and his o\Mn appeal to Judah (13: l5-23) is answered again in terms of the unfaithful wife (w. 24-27), thus returning to the theme of the broken covenant.


Yahweh's Rejection of His People

Note that this series continues the format of dialogue between Yahweh and Jeremiah: Yahweh announces judgment (1 4:1-6); Jeremiah prays for his people (w. 7-9), but because their judgment is now set, he is told not to pray (w. 10- 16) but to weep over them (w. 17 -18). Jeremiah responds by reminding Yahweh of his covenant (w. 19-22), to which Yahweh counters that even Moses and Samuel couldn't help them now ( 15: 1-4, 5-9; cf 1 5:12-14). Jeremiah responds with a lament (w. 10, 15- 1 8), and Yahweh with a call to repent and to stay with his calling, assuring him of deliverance (w. 11, 19-21). After a series of personal prohibitions that are tied to judgments against the people (16:1-9), Jeremiah is commissioned to proclaim both judgment and hope (vv.10-18), while another oracle of judgment (16:21-17:8) is followed by another dialogue (7:9-10) and personal lament (vv.11:18). The concluding oracle announces judgment for breaking the Sabbath (w. 19-27; cf.Exod 23:10-12; 31:12-17;35:1-3).


Symbols and Laments

Two interpreted symbolic actions (18:1-17; 19:1-15) frame another personal lament (18:18-23), the second resulting in Jeremiah's being beaten (20:1-3), which in turn serves as another announcement of judgment (w. 4-6), followed by a final personal lament (vv. 7 -18). Note that the terror from the north is finally identified: It is Babylon (v. 4).


Judgment against Kings and Prophets

Oracles against Zedekiah bookend this section, which picks up from 2:8 and 2:26. A request from Zedekiah (ch. 21) that took place at the beginning of the siege (588 B.C.) thus heads a series Judah's of oracles against kings (ch. 22, note Jehoiakim [v.18] and Jehoiachin [v.24], who will someday be replaced with a true Branch from David,s line (23: 1 -8). These are followed by oracles against false prophets and priests (23:33- 40) and a final oracle against Zedekiah and his officials (ch. 24). Note especially the messianic oracle in 23:5-6, which echoes Isaiah 11:1, 10. It is repeated in 33:15-16 and, picked up in Revelation 5:5.


Summary of Part 1 and Anticipation of Part 4

Note how the announcement of a seventy-year exile (w 1-14) is full of reasons for it that recall the preceding chapters. This is followed by an announcement of judgments against the nations (w. 15-33), which will be spelled out in full in chapters 46-51 , and a concluding word against the shepherds (vv. 34-38), bringing closure to chapters 21-24 as well. You will find the words against Babylon in 25:10 echoed in the final doom of John's "Babylon" in Revelation 18 :21-23.

God's Word Offers Hope but Is Rejected (chs. 26-36)


Reaction to Jeremiah's Temple Sermon

The brief summary in verses 1-6 introduces the narrative about Jerusalem's reaction to Jeremiah's temple sermon in 7:l-29. After the initial reaction (26:7 -9), there is a hastily convened trial (vv. 10- 19) in which Jeremiah is saved by a split between priests/prophets and officials and by a comparison with Micah. The final account compares Jeremiah with a prophet who did not fare as well (vv. 20-23) and another one who did (v.24).


Jeremiah and the False Prophets

This section is dominated by the conflict between Jeremiah and two false prophets (Hananiah and Shemaiah) over Jeremiah,s pro-Babylonian policy. In contrast to Jeremiah himself (ch. 26) and over against his message of hope through exile, both of these men die. Note especially how the message of hope through exile prepares the way for the next section.


Promised Restoration and a New Covenant

Here you will find the basic reason for Jeremiah,s pro-Babylon stance: In it lies the only hope for the future. Thus, chapters 30-31 are a collection of short oracles that prophesy the return from exile and the restoration

of Zion (see Deut 30:1-10); they are, however, interlaced with moments of judgment (Jer 30:5 -7, 12-15, 23-24) in order to remind the people of what led to the exile. Note the various players in the restoration story-the people (of both Israel and Judah), the land the city, the king, the priests, and especially the new covenant.

Jeremiah then buys a field in Anathoth (32:1-25) as down payment on this future that will come after his time! This is followed by another announcement of judgment at the time of the siege (32:26-35), followed by prose oracles of future restoration (32:36-33:26). Note how 33:15-16 picks up the promise of the Messiah from 23:5-6.


Zedekiah, Jehoiakim, and Jeremiah's Scroll

In response to chapters 30-33 these narratives illustrate covenant disloyalty (ch. 34) and then covenant loyalty (ch. 35), with the rejection of Jeremiah's words by Jehoiakim (ch. 36) concluding the section. True hope for Judah has been offered but rejected.

The Fall of Jerusalem and Its Aftermath (chs. 37-45)


Jeremiah and Court Politics

The narratives in this final cycle are in chronological order, spelling out various episodes that marked the end of Jerusalem. The first (ch. 37) reflects the placing of false hope in Egypt by Zedekiah, resulting

in Jeremiah's arrest; the second reflects Zedekiah's continuing anti-Babylonian policy (3 8:1-13), which results in Jeremiah's being thrown into a cistern; note that in the final episode (vv. 14-28), Jeremiah

repeats the advice to yield to Babylon so as to live.


Jeremiah and the Fall of Jerusalem

This group of narratives tells the story of Jerusalem's fall, plus the sordid events that follow, including the assassination of Gedaliah.


Jeremiah and the Flight to Egypt

These final narratives contain Jeremiah's last oracles to the exiles in Egypt, who still resist Yahweh, plus a final word to Baruch.

Oracles against the Nations (chs. 46-51)

In keeping with the prophetic tradition, Jeremiah had over many years spoken oracles of Yahweh's judgment of the nations. These are placed at the end of his book-so that God's message of doom for Babylon would be the final word.


The Doom of Egypt

The promised oracles against the nations (see 1:10) now conclude the book. They begin with Judah's false hope, namely, Egypt. The defeat of Egypt's army (46:2-12) will be followed by the ruin of their land (w. 13-24), with an appended note about Israel's hope (w. 27-.28).


The Doom of Judah's Neighbors

This series of oracles condemns Judah's closest neighbors, who are also historic enemies, judged primarily for pride and for their treatment of Israel. Starting in the south (Philistia), the focus moves to the east (Moab, Ammon, Edom), and then to the northeast (Damascus, Hazor, Elam). They are judged primarily for pride and for their treatment of Israel.


The Doom of Babylon

Although Jeremiah was pro-Babylon with regard to Israel's future, he also recognized that the destroyer must likewise be destroyed. Here especially you'll find the motif of Yahweh the Divine warrior engaged in holy war against his enemies. Note in this collection of oracles announcing Babylon's doom how much is related to Israel's future, beginning with 50,.2-7. Babylon's desolation will be even more complete than Jerusalem,s, brought about by her cruelty to God's people, her arrogance, and her own idolatries. Several of these oracles will serve as the basis for John,s announcement of doom on a later "Babylon"- the city of Rome (Rev 18).

An Epilogue (ch. 52)

Notice how this final historical epilogue serves to vindicate Jeremiah as a prophet. The king who rejected his words dies in ignominy (52:6- 11); the king who accepted them, though imprisoned, lives on and dies in honor (w. 3l-34).

The book of Jeremiah is a constant reminder of God's faithfulness to his word in Deuteronomy that his elect will be cursed by exile for their unfaithfulness to Yahweh but will be restored at a later time with the hope of a new covenant-which was fulfilled through Jesus Christ, David's "righteous Branch,, (Jer 23:5).