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by Donald C. Fleming
An obvious feature of the book of Jeremiah is the unusually large amount it reveals of the author’s personality. Jeremiah, like other prophets, knew that if he faithfully announced God’s message he would be unpopular, but his writings reveal the deeper tensions that developed within him. He was sad at the ungodly state of his people, and he unceasingly denounced the false religious practices, wrong social behaviour and foolish government actions that characterized the nation. The bitter persecution he received was distressing enough, but much more distressing was the feeling that God had been unfair to him.
If we are to understand the difficulties and conflicts that Jeremiah faced, we must first understand the condition of the people to whom he preached. A century earlier the former northern kingdom (Israel) had been destroyed and its people scattered among the nations of the Assyrian Empire. Now the southern kingdom (Judah) was heading for a similar judgment, and Jeremiah’s task was to warn the unrepentant people that the day of reckoning was almost upon them.
The reign of Josiah (640-609 BC) brought with it a reformation of Judah’s religion and a revival of genuine prophetic activity in the nation. The person who initiated the reforms was Josiah himself, and the most important person in the renewed prophetic activity was Jeremiah.
When Josiah came to the throne of Judah, he inherited a country that was religiously and morally corrupt. The two kings before him, Manasseh and Amon, had reigned for a total of fifty-seven years, during which they had dragged Judah down to a religious and moral condition worse than that for which God had destroyed the original Canaanites. Manasseh introduced foreign religious practices of every kind, and developed a national policy (which Amon followed) of promoting these practices in place of the true worship of Yahweh (2 Kings 21:1-9; 2 Kings 21:16,2 Kings 21:19-22). Josiah, on becoming firmly established as king, set out to reform Judah. His aim was to rid Judah of all these evils and re-establish the worship of Yahweh as taught in the law of Moses.
The generation that had grown up during the time of Manasseh and Amon knew almost nothing of the law that God had given to Israel at Mt Sinai. When workmen were repairing the temple and found some scrolls of this long-forgotten law, Josiah was able to read it for himself. He was shocked to find how far Judah had turned away from God, but this only increased his zeal for reform. He removed all idolatrous priests and destroyed all shrines and other sacred objects associated with false gods. He re-introduced the Passover, centralized the worship in Jerusalem where it could be properly supervised, and prohibited all forms of spiritism and fortune-telling (2 Kings 22:1-25).
However, Josiah’s reforms were not enough to remove the idolatrous ideas that were deeply rooted in the minds of the people. Although religious disorders were removed and proper practices introduced, few people were changed inwardly. The nation was still rebellious against God and was heading for certain judgment (2 Kings 23:26-27).
Jeremiah’s view of Judah’s religion
In 627 BC, during the reign of Josiah, Jeremiah began his prophetic work (Jeremiah 1:1-2). But he makes little reference to Josiah’s reformation. Being a prophet, he saw there had been no real change in the hearts of the people, and therefore the changes in the external forms of the religion would have no lasting effect (Jeremiah 9:25-26; Jeremiah 11:15). In fact, idolatrous practices soon returned (Jeremiah 7:16-20; Jeremiah 19:3-9).
While not discouraging the zealous king from carrying on with his good work, Jeremiah tried to strike deeper into the hearts and consciences of the people. He was not opposed to Josiah’s revival of the sacrificial system, for people still had to be obedient to the law (Jeremiah 17:21-22,Jeremiah 17:26); but he pointed out that unless people had a moral and spiritual reformation, they would certainly fall under God’s judgment (Jeremiah 14:12).
The most important period of Jeremiah’s work began after Josiah’s death. His warnings became more intense as he assured the people that, because of their persistence in wrong attitudes and wrong behaviour, they would be taken captive to Babylon (Jeremiah 10:17-18; Jeremiah 21:2-7; Jeremiah 26:1-6).
God’s messenger rejected
People did not like to hear Jeremiah’s repeated announcements that the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem, destroy the temple and take the people captive. As a result he suffered constant persecution. He was violently opposed by his own family (Jeremiah 12:6), by the people of his home town (Jeremiah 11:19-21), by the citizens of Jerusalem in general (Jeremiah 15:10,Jeremiah 15:20; Jeremiah 18:18; Jeremiah 20:7), by the religious leaders (Jeremiah 20:1-2; Jeremiah 28:10-11; Jeremiah 29:24-28), by the civil authorities (Jeremiah 37:11-15; Jeremiah 38:1-6,Jeremiah 38:24-27) and by the kings of Judah (Jeremiah 36:26; Jeremiah 37:18). He was flogged (Jeremiah 20:2; Jeremiah 37:15), on occasions imprisoned (Jeremiah 20:1-2; Jeremiah 37:15,Jeremiah 37:21; Jeremiah 38:13) and often threatened with death (Jeremiah 11:21; Jeremiah 26:7-9; Jeremiah 36:19,Jeremiah 36:26; Jeremiah 38:4,Jeremiah 38:15).
Jeremiah never married (Jeremiah 16:2) and for much of his life he had few friends. Society at large would have nothing to do with him (Jeremiah 15:10,Jeremiah 15:17), and after a while he was not even allowed to enter the temple (Jeremiah 36:5). His loneliness increased when he was forbidden to join in ordinary community activities such as feasts and funerals (Jeremiah 16:5,Jeremiah 16:8). Nevertheless, some people in places of influence at times gained protection for him against his persecutors (Jeremiah 26:24; Jeremiah 38:7-13; Jeremiah 40:5-6).
Readers of Jeremiah may at times find the book confusing because the prophecies and narratives are not arranged in chronological order. To help towards a clearer understanding of the book, the following summary gives the sequence of local and international events that form the background to Jeremiah’s messages.
Collapse of Assyrian power
One factor that favoured Josiah in his reform was the decline of Assyria, who had, till then, been the chief power in the region. Assyria had destroyed Judah’s sister kingdom to the north a century earlier (2 Kings 17:5-6) and had made life difficult for the Judean kings of the time (see introductory notes to Isaiah). By the time of Josiah Assyrian power had weakened sufficiently for Josiah to carry out reforms in his country without interference from hostile neighbours.
As the power of Assyria declined, Babylon and Egypt expanded their influence in the region. When Babylon conquered the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 BC, Pharaoh Necho of Egypt set out to resist any further Babylonian expansion. He apparently hoped that he could strengthen the remains of Assyria’s western territory, so that it might form a defence barrier between Egypt and Babylon.
Since Judah lay between Egypt and Assyria, the Judean king Josiah saw this alliance between the two nations as a threat to Judah’s independence. He preferred Assyria to remain weak, and attempted to stop Pharaoh’s army as it passed through Palestine on its way to Assyria. This proved to be a disastrous decision. Judah was defeated and Josiah was killed in battle (609 BC; 2 Kings 23:28-30). Assyria could withstand the superior forces of Babylon no longer, and soon collapsed. It became absorbed into the Babylonian Empire and lost for ever its separate national identity.
End of Judah’s independence
Following Josiah’s death, the people of Judah made Josiah’s second son, Jehoahaz, the nation’s new king (2 Kings 23:30). But Pharaoh Necho now considered himself the controller of Judah and he would not accept the king whom the Judeans had chosen. He removed Jehoahaz and took him captive to Egypt, then put Jehoahaz’s older brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne instead. He also placed a heavy tax on Judah (2 Kings 23:31-34).
Once Jehoiakim began to rule, it soon became clear why the people had not chosen him as king. He was a proud, cruel and oppressive ruler, who did not hesitate to murder any who opposed him or even displeased him (2 Kings 24:4; Jeremiah 26:20-23; Jeremiah 36:21-26). Despite the heavy taxes his country had to pay Egypt, he built himself luxurious royal buildings. To make matters worse, he forced the builders to work on his selfish projects without payment (Jeremiah 22:13-18).
Beginning of Babylon’s conquest
The long struggle between Egypt and Babylon came to a climax when the armies of Babylon conquered Egypt in a famous battle at Carchemish, on the Euphrates River, in 605 BC (Jeremiah 46:2). This meant that Judah now came under the control of Babylon and had to pay its taxes to Babylon instead of to Egypt.
When the victorious Babylonians returned to their homeland, they took captive with them a number of capable and well educated young men from the leading families of Jerusalem. These young men, among whom were Daniel and his three friends, were to be trained as administrators in the Babylonian government (Daniel 1:1-6).
After three years Jehoiakim rebelled against Babylon by refusing to pay further taxes. This was a dangerous decision, but Jehoiakim apparently hoped that Nebuchadnezzar would be too busy with wars elsewhere to deal with the rebellion of a small country such as Judah. Although Nebuchadnezzar did not attack Jerusalem immediately, neither did he ignore it. His anti-Judean tactic was to encourage neighbouring countries under his control to carry out guerilla attacks against Judah, and so undermine whatever economic, political or military stability might have remained (2 Kings 24:1-2).
In due course, after he had established his authority in other troublesome regions, Nebuchadnezzar sent his armies to besiege Jerusalem. It seems that by this time the people of Jerusalem could tolerate the worthless Jehoiakim no longer, and handed him over to the Babylonians in an attempt to win concessions for themselves. Although the city had not fallen, Jehoiakim found himself a captive in the enemy’s hands. He was chained ready to be sent to Babylon, but he died before the journey began. No one mourned his death, and his body was thrown on the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, as if it were the carcass of an unclean animal (2 Chronicles 36:6; Jeremiah 22:18-19; Jeremiah 36:30).
The eighteen year old Jehoiachin (also known as Jeconiah, or Coniah) became king, but after three months he saw the uselessness of resisting the Babylonians further. He therefore surrendered, in the hope that he could lessen Jerusalem’s suffering and gain reasonable treatment from the conquerors (597 BC; 2 Kings 24:10-12).
Having captured Jerusalem, the Babylonians lessened the likelihood of further revolt by carrying off most of Judah’s wealth and all its best people to their own country. They left behind only those they had no use for, and appointed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah (another son of Josiah), as king over them (2 Kings 24:12-17).
The destruction of Jerusalem
Zedekiah was a weak king, easily persuaded by influential people. With all Judah’s most capable administrators taken to Babylon, Zedekiah’s government was dominated by self-seeking officials who had poor political judgment and no religious insight. They were constantly urging Zedekiah to seek Egypt’s help and rebel against Babylon. Jeremiah opposed any policy of rebellion against Babylon, knowing that it would lead only to the horrors of siege and destruction. He advised Judah to accept its fate as God’s will and submit to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-20; Jeremiah 21:1-10; Jeremiah 27:12-22).
Foolishly, Zedekiah followed the advice of the pro-Egyptian party and rebelled against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar lost patience and, determined to put an end to Jerusalem’s rebellion, sent his armies to crush the city in one final great siege. When Egypt came to Jerusalem’s aid, the siege was temporarily lifted, but Jeremiah assured the Jerusalemites that Babylon would return to crush both Egypt and Judah. The pro-Egyptian party accused Jeremiah of being a traitor and had him beaten and thrown into prison (Jeremiah 37:1-21).
Soon the Babylonians returned and Jeremiah’s prophecy came true. (The book of Lamentations gives a vivid picture of the dreadful conditions in and around Jerusalem during the siege; see Lamentations 2:10-12,Lamentations 2:19-21; Lamentations 4:4-5,Lamentations 4:7-9.) When, after a siege lasting a year and a half, the Babylonians finally made a break in the wall, Zedekiah and some of his men tried to escape, but were captured by the enemy (2 Kings 25:1-7).
The victorious Babylonian soldiers then overran Jerusalem, seizing anything of value that could be taken back to Babylon and burning or smashing what remained. The temple was destroyed and the city left in ruins. The Babylonians executed the leaders of the rebellion and took all the most useful citizens captive. They released Jeremiah from prison and gave him full freedom to decide where he would like to live, Babylon or Judah. Jeremiah decided to stay in Judah, along with a small number of farmers and other poorer people who were of no use to Babylon (2 Kings 25:8-21; Jeremiah 39:13-14; Jeremiah 40:4-6). This was the end of Jerusalem (587 BC).
Jeremiah taken to Egypt
Gedaliah, one of the few leaders in Jerusalem who had not supported Zedekiah’s pro-Egyptian policy, was appointed by the Babylonians as governor over those who remained in Judah. With Jeremiah’s support he followed a pro-Babylon policy. He took no action against those anti-Babylonian military leaders of Judah who had managed to escape the Babylonian army. Instead he encouraged them, along with other refugees who had fled the country, to return and settle around his administrative headquarters at Mizpah, a town north-west of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:22-24; Jeremiah 40:7-12).
The anti-Babylon group, however, had still not learnt the lessons Jeremiah had been trying to teach them. Refusing to accept Babylon’s domination, they plotted against the governor Babylon had appointed, and when a suitable occasion arose they murdered him. Fearing a revenge attack by Nebuchadnezzar, the remaining Judeans of the resettlement area fled for their lives to Egypt, taking a protesting Jeremiah with them (2 Kings 25:25-26; Jeremiah 40:13-7).
Even in Egypt, the country whose help he had always rejected, Jeremiah’s continued to announce God’s message. But God’s people refused to heed it (Jeremiah 43:8-30). According to tradition they became so hostile that eventually they stoned him to death.
The use of names
During the time of the divided kingdom, the custom was to refer to the northern kingdom as Israel (or Samaria, after its capital), and the southern kingdom as Judah (or Jerusalem, after its capital). (For further details about the use of names see introductory notes to Isaiah.) By the time of Jeremiah only Judah remained, so there was no further need to distinguish between the former northern and southern kingdoms. Jeremiah sometimes uses the name Israel when referring to Judah, for he uses the word according to its ancient and more general usage, not according to its specific usage during the time of the divided kingdom.
To avoid confusion, these notes will refer to the southern kingdom only by its name Judah. The name Israel will be used only to apply to the northern part of the divided kingdom, except in those places where the context makes it clear that the reference is to ancient Israel (e.g. Israel in the time of Moses).
Jeremiah’s early ministry
The spiritual condition of Judah
Warnings to kings and false prophets
Prophecies of exile and return
Events in Judah and Egypt
Messages for foreign nations
the Fourth Week after Epiphany