Overview of the Book of Jeremiah

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Overview of the Book of Jeremiah
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Overview of the Book of Jeremiah

Author: Jeremiah and Baruch, his student.

Purpose:

To remind the exiles of the reasons for their trials and to assure them that, upon repentance, God's people would return to the land of promise with enormous blessings.

Date: 580-539 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • The people of Judah and Jerusalem deserved their exile to Babylon because of continuing sin.
  • The Temple in Jerusalem could not protect the Judahites from God's judgment against them for their hypocrisy.
  • False prophets proclaiming peace and safety must be rejected in favor of the message of the true prophets.
  • The judgment of exile would be followed by a grand restoration under a New (re-newed) Covenant.

Author:

The superscription of the book states that it contains "the words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah" (Jer. 1:1). The composition itself is complicated, as might be expected from the length and variety of Jeremiah's ministry alone (Jer. 25:3). The material was presumably compiled and arranged by someone who wanted to convey the full breadth and force of that ministry from the perspective of the fulfillment of the prophet's repeated warnings of coming punishment (see "Introduction: Purpose and Distinctives"). Jeremiah himself could have been closely involved in the compilation process with help from Baruch, who may also have composed the third-person narratives.

A clue to the procedure by which the various prophecies and sermons may have been collected into a single book is given in Jeremiah 36, where it is said that Baruch wrote down all the words of the prophet spoken up to that point and read them publicly. When the scroll was destroyed by Jehoiakim, another, more comprehensive, one was made (see Jer. 51:60).

Jeremiah prophesied during the reigns of the last kings of Judah: Josiah (640-609 B.C.), Jehoahaz (609 B.C.), Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.), Jehoiachin (598-597 B.C.), and Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.). The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already disappeared in exile to Assyria in 722 B.C. Assyria then fell to Babylon in 612 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell when most of its people were exiled to Babylon as a result of deportations beginning as early as 605 B.C. (see note on Dan. 1:1) and two invasions (597 and 586 B.C.) by King Nebuchadnezzar (see note on Jer 21:2). Jeremiah announced these approaching judgments from God on his people and then saw them fulfilled.

Jeremiah was a priest from the priestly town of Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin (see note on Jer. 1:1). A lonely figure by reason of his unpopular message (Jer. 15:17), Jeremiah was forbidden by God to marry as a sign of the imminent cessation of normal life due to the exile (Jer. 16:2). On the basis of his God-given message, he also found himself opposed to the authorities in the land and to virtually all classes of people (Jer. 26:8). As a result, his life was in serious danger more than once (Jer. 11:18-23; 18:18; 26:8; 36:19; 38:6). The prophet was sought out especially by King Zedekiah because of his commentary on the likely outcome of the final onslaught of the encroaching Babylonian armies (Jer. 37:3, 17). Politically, it was a turbulent time as Egypt and Babylon contested the region. Jeremiah repeatedly prophesied a Babylonian victory, proclaiming that the Lord was using Nebuchadnezzar as his scourge. When Jerusalem fell, the Babylonian commander had a special commission from Nebuchadnezzar to care for the prophet, whose fame had spread to the heart of the empire (Jer. 39:11-14).

Jeremiah remained in the land, but after the governor Gedaliah was murdered many Jews feared Babylonian reprisal. So they fled to Egypt, even though Jeremiah had warned against this move (Jer. 42:1 ff.), compelling Jeremiah to accompany them (Jer. 43:1 ff.). While in Egypt, Jeremiah preached the word of God to the Jews. At that time Jeremiah was at least 70 years old, and he likely died soon afterward in Egypt.

Time and Place of Writing:

The background to this book is the long struggle in Judah between the idolatrous worship of foreign gods and the true and exclusive worship of the Lord, which Josiah attempted to restore in his reform (see 2 Kings 22-23). Josiah's reform began in 628 B.C. (see note on 2 Chron. 34:3) and was given fresh impetus by the discovery of the Book of the Law in 621 B.C. (2 Kings 22:8). Jeremiah's call came in 626 B.C. (see note on Jer. 1:2). His early ministry coincided with Josiah's reform. His prophecy testifies, however, to the reform's failure to make a lasting impact on the people's lives. Jeremiah warned that the continued waywardness of Judah would finally lead to exile, but he also held out hope of an eventual return to the land. The final editing of the book probably took place during the exile, which is the latest historical point it records.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Jeremiah's message moves through phases that do not correspond exactly to the structure of the book:

(1) He called Judah to repent in order to avoid the judgment that would otherwise come (e.g., Jer. 7:1-15).

(2) He announced that the time for repentance was past and that judgment was now determined against the people (see notes on Jer. 19:10-11). Judgment is the dominant note in the book and is understood as the invocation of the final curse of the covenant; namely, loss of the Promised Land (Lev. 26:31-33; Deut. 28:49-68).

(3) The Lord would save his people, or a remnant of them, through the exile (see notes on Jer. 24:4-7). Although the Babylonians would prevail over Judah at the Lord's command, this would be for a limited time only. Babylon would fall in its turn (Jer. 25:9, 11-12), which occured in 539 B.C. to an alliance of Persians and Medes under Cyrus, paving the way for the exiles to return (Jer. 50:3; 51:1, 27-28; 2 Chron. 36:20-23). This was Jeremiah's answer to the false prophets who had continually challenged his message of judgment (Jer. 28:2-4).

Jeremiah also had a message of salvation, but it was intended only for those on the other side of the judgment (Jer. 29:11-14). That message was crystallized in the prophecy of the new covenant (see especially Jer. 31:31-34). The new covenant prophecy was constructed around the main ingredients of the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, which spoke of God's desire to have a relationship with his chosen people and of the requirement that they reciprocate with obedience (Exod. 19:3-6; Deut. 7:6-11). The new covenant speaks of the empowerment of God's people to obey him (see notes on Jer. 31:33; 32:39-40), and the New Testament boldly declares that this promise is fulfilled only in Christ (see note on Jer. 31:33; cf. Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24).

Jeremiah revealed his personal involvement with his message more than did the other prophets (Isa. 15:7; 22:4; Mic. 1:8-9); he sensed the agony of the people at the approach of the Babylonian armies even before they experienced it themselves (Jer. 4:19-21; 10:19-22; 14:19-22). He also felt the passion of the Lord about the sin he witnessed (see notes on Jer. 8:21-9:3). His role, which was mediatorial in nature, was revealed most poignantly in the series of passages often (inappropriately) known as the prophet's "confessions" (Jer. 11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:12-18; 18:19-23; 20:7-18). In these passages he expressed his anguish at the overwhelming burden of his prophetic calling, prayed for vengeance on his personal enemies, and even accused the Lord of having forced or deceived him (Jer. 15:18; 20:7). Some of these prayers elicited answers from God combining rebuke with reassurance (Jer. 12:5-6; 15:19-21). God's encouragement to the prophet in Jeremiah 15:19-21 was later echoed in a prayer of Ephraim, which received its own answer (Jer. 31:18-20). The Lord's good intentions for Jeremiah therefore became a pledge of his intended faithfulness to the whole people, both through and beyond the coming judgment.

The book's variety of materials sometimes makes it difficult for readers to follow the progression of Jeremiah's argument. Much of the work is in the form of poetic oracles that were spoken by the prophet (e.g., Jer. 2-6). At other times the prophet developed his argument in a sermonic or prosaic style (e.g., Jer. 7:1-15). There is also third-person narrative about Jeremiah, presumably added by someone else (e.g., Jer. 37-45), and an editorial appendix (e.g., Jer. 52; see also Jer. 51:64).

The contents of the book are not in chronological order but rather are arranged thematically. Thus, Jeremiah 21-24 are framed by prophecies concerning each of Josiah's successors up to, but excluding, Zedekiah. Similarly, Jeremiah 35-36 revert backward to Jehoiakim after scenes involving Zedekiah, his successor. Many of the individual oracles are impossible to date.

Christ in Jeremiah:

Jeremiah's message anticipates Christ primarily with respect to the prophet's certainty of restoration after the exile. The prophet made it clear both that the exile was coming and that afterward the people of God would enter a new covenant period replete with blessings from God. Jesus is the Lord of the New (re-newed) Covenant (Luke 22:20; Heb. 8:8; 9:5; 12:24), the son of David and the priest who ushered in the wonders of the last days through his earthly ministry. He continues this restoration work today and will complete it when he returns in glory.

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).