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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Jeremiah

by John Dummelow


1. Life and Times of Jeremiah. Jeremiah (the name probably meaning ’appointed by God’) belonged to a priestly family living at a small town named Anathoth (now Anâta, consisting of about a dozen houses and the remains of a church) some two miles to the NE. of Jerusalem The high priest Abiathar, of the line of Ithamar, had settled there in the days of David (1 Kings 2:26). The prophet’s family had apparently been owners of land in that region ever since Abiathar’s time, and their social status is further indicated by the fact that Jeremiah had for his scribe Baruch, whose brother was chief chamberlain to ZedeMah (Jeremiah 51:59: see also on Jeremiah 45:1). We may add that Hilkiah, the father of Jeremiah, is not to be identified with the reforming high priest of Josiah’s day (2 Kings 22:8), as the latter belonged to the line not of Ithamar but of Eleazar At an early period in Jeremiah’s life (though the expression ’child’ in Jeremiah 1:6 may partly at least refer to his sense of unfitness for such a task) he was moved to realise—probably in gradually increasing measure—the working of the divine spirit within him. In the thirteenth year of Josiah, 626 b.c., he received his call to be a prophet, and his prophetic life was continued under that king’s four successors, viz. Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Eventually the danger which had long threatened the southern kingdom culminated in the overthrow of the Jewish monarchy by the Babylonian power, which had lately risen on the ruins of that of Assyria. Zedekiah and a large number of his subjects were carried captive to Babylon. The prophet, with unselfish patriotism, rejecting the conqueror’s offer of honourable treatment in exile, remained in Judæa, carrying on his prophetic office during the turbulent times which ensued, until a body of his countrymen forced him to accompany them to Egypt (Jeremiah 43:4.). There, according to a Christian tradition, he met a martyr’s death at Tahpanhes, being stoned by the Jews who resented his faithful reproofs.

Thus Jeremiah has fitly been called ’the prophet of the decline and fall of the Jewish monarchy,’ and the manner of his end seems to have been in close accord with the character of his life-work and sufferings. For, like Cassandra, it was his fate through life to gain but little credence for his warnings.

Jeremiah is one who reveals with frankness the workings of his mind. Hence his prophecies are charged with a large element of human interest. His countrymen as a whole—alike those who had, and those who had not, sympathised with Josiah’s reforms (2 Chronicles 34)—refused to see that nothing short of a thorough amendment of life and morals would satisfy God’s law and avert national disaster. The prophet’s office then was to utter and reiterate a needed warning, emphasising it by fervour of language and variety of illustration, though sensible all the time that his appeals were probably in vain. The end was approaching, and at last, when princes and people alike proved faithless, he centred his hopes upon the few in whose case adversity and exile had had their chastening uses.

Belonging to the orders both of priest and prophet, and living at the very time when each had sunk to its lowest degree of degradation, he was compelled to submit to the buffeting which they each bestowed upon one who by his every word and deed was passing sentence upon them. Hostility, abuse, powerlessness to avert the coming ill’s, a solitary life and prohibition of marriage (Jeremiah 16:2)—these were the conditions of life allotted to a man of shy and timid disposition and naturally despondent mind. No miracle was wrought for his benefit. His predictions were scorned. He failed to induce his compatriots to recognise the solidity of his claims to a hearing. At times he despaired even, as it seems, of life (Jeremiah 20:14-18). And yet he could not be silent. The divine message must find its utterance (Jeremiah 20:8-9), and in fact the promise made to him at the time of his call (Jeremiah 1:18), and renewed later (Jeremiah 15:20), did not fail.

Reign of Josiah.During the reign of this king, commencing 639 b.c., the dangers arising to Judæa from its geographical position became painfully evident. It was the natural battleground between the rival powers of Assyria and Egypt. So small a kingdom could not cope with either of these dangerous neighbours without the support of the other, and therefore the problem which pressed for solution was with which of the two it was most prudent to throw in their lot. There was still as earlier, in Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 30:1-5; Isaiah 31:1-3) a strong party in the state favouring either alternative. The extension of Josiah’s work of reformation (to which we are about to refer), beyond the borders of his own kingdom northwards (to Geba, 2 Kings 23:8), showed that the power of Assyria, which just a hundred years earlier had overthrown the kingdom of the Ten Tribes, was on the wane. On the other hand, it by no means followed that Egypt was to be depended on, even though the Chaldean (BabyIonian) power, soon to take the place of Assyria, was scarcely yet above Judæa’s political horizon.

Notwithstanding this precarious position with regard to external politics, the inner life of the state did not lack certain hopeful features. The new king, unlike his idolatrous predecessors, Manasseh and Amon, was one whose ardour on the side of Jehovah, seconded as it was by wise counsellors, took the form of a vigorous campaign against the idol-worship and immorality which had polluted those two reigns. The altars erected to Baal, the worship of ’the host of heaven’ (2 Kings 17:16), the images of the horses and chariots of the sun within the very precincts of the Temple, the offering of human sacrifices in the valley of Hinnom (on the S. and W. of Jerusalem), the gross immoralities of Canaanitish worship—these were wide-spread indications of the religious corruptions which Josiah assailed. The great principle underlying his reforms was that Jehovah alone should be the object of worship, and that that worship should be centralised at Jerusalem. So far as this principle took effect, it had very important consequences on the religious life of the nation. This centralisation was a standing protest against the worship of a plurality of gods. Moreover, the limitation of sacrifice to the central sanctuary tended to throw into greater relief worship in its more spiritual aspect independent of any particular locality.

But, as Jeremiah clearly saw, the abuses were too deeply rooted for these reformers to penetrate much below the surface, and the mass of the people were supported in their adherence to the old ways by the priests of the local shrines (’high places’) throughout the land, who naturally resisted a change that deposed them from their office and cut away an important source of subsistence (2 Kings 23:9). Accordingly, the picture which the prophet draws of the condition of society is a startling one. On every side among high and low there was dishonesty, false swearing, murder, and open licentiousness. (For an account of the local Baal-worship see Intro, to Hosea.)

Many, doubtless, were the influences which culminated in what we term Jeremiah’s call. The sight of abounding immorality and idolatry, the tradition of his house, and the hostility to reforms on the part of many of the natural guardians of religion, both priests and prophets, moved him to painful selfcommuning, and urged him to lift up his voice against the sins of the nation. A strong impetus no doubt was given to his prophetic ardour when, five years after his call, the Book of the Law came to light in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8). That book contained at least a considerable portion of our book of Deuteronomy. Such graphic pictures of punishment for unfaithfulness to Jehovah, as are to be found in Deuteronomy 28, cannot but have served as an antidote to the shyness of his nature, and nerved him afresh for the task appointed him. He had to face, on the one hand, the immoral and idol worshippers, on the other, persons who maintained that, to secure the abiding favour of Jehovah, it was only necessary to offer more numerous and costly sacrifices and to increase the splendour of the Temple ritual. According to them, the Temple was in itself a charm which must render Jerusalem and its inhabitants secure (Jeremiah 7:4).

Shortly before the newly risen Chaldean power, by the capture of Nineveh, made good its claim as the successor to Assyria (607 b.c.), Josiah openly espoused its side (2 Kings 23:29), confronted Necho, king of Egypt, on his march against Chaldea, and was slain in battle at Megiddo (608 b.c.).

Reign of Jehoahaz (the Shallum of Jeremiah 22:11), 608 b.c. After a brief reign of three months this king was carried captive to Egypt by Necho, and the land made tributary (2 Kings 23:33). The prophet evidently felt that in Jehoahaz the nation had lost one who would have used his power for good (Jeremiah 22:10-12).

Reign of Jehoiakim, elder brother of Jehoahaz (2 Chronicles 36:2, 2 Chronicles 36:5). The king of Egypt placed him on the throne, and his reign lasted for eleven years (608-597 b.c.). His policy, the reverse of that of his father Josiah, was a disastrous one (2 Kings 24:1-4). Under him the hope of averting the ruin of the country soon faded away. In the worship of ’the high places’ and in the bloodstained rites, either encouraged or at least connived at by him, men sought deliverance from the troubles of servitude to a foreign oppressor. The king was cruel, frivolous, eager for his own glorification, and regardless of the national religion (Jeremiah 22:13-17). Under his rule the faithful few were refined by adversity, and it was seen, as in the time of Manasseh, that faithfulness to God might easily lead to martyrdom. The priests and false prophets, exasperated by Jeremiah’s rebukes and warnings, and encouraged by the king’s murder of Urijah, even demanded that Jeremiah too should die, but were foiled in their purpose (Jeremiah 26:16).

Real and not pretended service is the great lesson which Jeremiah at this time enforced, and in so doing he excited the animosity of his foes by the very truth of the charges that he brought against them. In opposition to those who still advocated alliance with Egypt against Babylon, he declared that the latter would assuredly prevail, and illustrated his words by the symbol of the potter’s clay and the breaking of the earthen vessel (Jeremiah 18, 19).

The fourth year of Jehoiakim’s reign (605 b.c.) gave noteworthy proof of Jeremiah’s prescience. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, defeated the army of Necho at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and, advancing into Palestine, drove many, including the Rechabites (c.35), to seek shelter within the walls of Jerusalem. The conqueror advanced to the capital and bore away both captives and sacred vessels to Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:6-7). The complete overthrow was deferred, only because of Nebuchadnezzar’s hasty return home on the report of his father’s illness, in order to secure his succession to the throne. From this time forth Jeremiah’s forecasts assume an air of greater definiteness. He speaks no longer, as in Jeremiah 1:14; Jeremiah 6:1, of an enemy from ’the north,’ but declares plainly that the king of Babylon, as God’s instrument of punishment, is destined to prevail, urges submission, and promises that those who abide by his counsel shall be left undisturbed in their land. The rest, though captivity for seventy years is to be their lot, shall in the end be restored. Probably it was soon after the battle of Carchemish that there occurred the scene of the king’s burning of the prophet’s roll and repudiation of his warnings (Jeremiah 36). From this time till the end of Jehoiakim’s reign Jeremiah seems to have been absent from Jerusalem. The king received no more warnings. After three years’ payment as vassal of the tribute which he yearned to spend upon self-indulgence, he rebelled, was attacked by bands of Chaldeans and others, and probably in an engagement with some of them, came to a violent end and a dishonoured burial (Jeremiah 22:18-19).

Reign of Jehoiachin (the Jeconiah of Jeremiah 24:1, and the Coniah of Jeremiah 22:24, Jeremiah 22:28) 597 b.c. He was the son of Jehoiakim, was set up by Nebuchadnezzar, and, like his uncle Jehoahaz, reigned but three months, when he and the flower of the community with him (the ’good figs’ of Jeremiah 24) were deported to Babylon. After thirty-six years’ imprisonment he was released by Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor, Evil-merodach (Jeremiah 52:31). To this period belongs Jeremiah 13, with its acted symbol of the linen girdle.

Reign of Zedekiah, 597-586 b.c. He was the youngest son of Josiah, well disposed, but utterly weak. He showed more disposition than his predecessors had done to consult with Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:17-21; Jeremiah 38:14-28), and under his advice to submit to Babylon. On the other hand, he was devoid of any real zeal for religion, and yielded, now to the suggestions of the prophet, now to those of the princes, who advocated resistance, either single-handed or in alliance with Egypt. Thus he was virtually powerless against the strong wills and more vigorous leaders opposed to him (Jeremiah 38:5, Jeremiah 38:25). To the worthiest part of the nation, who were in captivity, Jeremiah writes a letter of comfort (Jeremiah 29), advising submission, and promising restoration in due time.

At the beginning of the ninth year of ZedeMab. a Chaldean army laid siege to Jerusalem. Jeremiah had already from time to time worn a yoke upon his neck, symbolical of the coming servitude (Jeremiah 27:2), and when the false prophet, Hananiah, who promised deliverance, had broken the yoke (Jeremiah 28:10), he received the sentence of speedy death at the mouth of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 28:16) because he had ’spoken rebellion against the Lord.’ It was natural for self-reliant, irreligious men to be highly displeased with such acts and words as these, and much persecution, including imprisonment, fell to the prophet’s lot in consequence, the king being too weak to give him any permanent support (Jeremiah 37:11-21). In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, 586 b.c., the city was sacked and the Temple burnt. Zedekiah’s eyes were put out, and he was brought to Babylon, and immured in a dungeon, apparently till his death.

Jeremiah was permitted to remain under Gedaliah, Nebuchadnezzar’s new governor, who was of a family friendly to the prophet. But in two months’ time Gedaliah was murdered by the irreconcilables among the remnant in the land. In the turbulent period that followed, the prophet, viewed by the people as a traitor, foretold the want and misery that would ensue, if, through fear of the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 42:7.), they went down to Egypt. They only replied by compelling him to accompany them thither. From Tahpanhes, a town near the eastern border of Lower Egypt, we draw the last certain notice of him that we possess. He declares that the fate which had befallen Judaaa shall also be that of Egypt, and that Nebuchadnezzar’s throne shall be set up at the entrance to Pharaoh’s house (Jeremiah 43:10). He also makes a dying protest against the idolatrous worship practised by his countrymen (Jeremiah 44). We have no notice in the Bible of his death.

2. Jeremiah’s Attitude towards the Ceremonial Law and the Sabbath. Jeremiah’s unvarying theme is that in God’s sight the moral always takes precedence of the ceremonial Law (although laxity in sabbath observance is sharply rebuked in Jeremiah 17:19-27). This principle he applies to the people’s reverence for the ark (Jeremiah 3:16) and the tables of the Law (Jeremiah 31:31, cp. Jeremiah 32:40), to circumcision (Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 6:10; Jeremiah 9:26), to the Temple (Jeremiah 7:4, Jeremiah 7:10.; Jeremiah 11:15; Jeremiah 17:3; Jeremiah 26:6, Jeremiah 26:9, Jeremiah 26:12; Jeremiah 27:16), to sacrifices (Jeremiah 6:20; Jeremiah 7:21.; Jeremiah 11:15; Jeremiah 14:12). We may further note that in many of the passages where the ’Law’ is mentioned, the prophet is describing the ’oral’ teaching given by priests (Deuteronomy 17:11) and prophets to those who consulted them on points of ritual or practice: see Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 9:13; Jeremiah 18:18; Jeremiah 26:4, Jeremiah 26:5.

3. The Messianic Passages and the Nature of the Prophet’s Hope for the Future. A characteristic of Jeremiah’s style is to insert a bright thought among gloomy ones, so that at the most terrible period of his country’s fortunes his Messianic hopes are clearest in their expression. These hopes are gathered round (a) the Davidic house, (b) Jerusalem.

The chief Messianic passages (Jeremiah 17:25-26; Jeremiah 23:5-8; Jeremiah 30:9, Jeremiah 30:21; Jeremiah 33:14-18) are deserving of close study, as indicating the gradually increasing clearness of the hope. The worthless rulers of the prophet’s days should be succeeded by a king of David’s line, who should reign in righteousness; out of the ruins of Jerusalem should arise a new city, which should bear the name, ’The Lord is our righteousness’; and the old covenant, which had proved itself unable either to cleanse from sin or to enforce obedience, should give place to a new covenant of grace, written not on tables of stone, but on fleshy tables of the heart. Then ’they shall all know me from the least of them even unto the greatest of them ’(Jeremiah 31:34). Such was the dim forecast, as revealed to Jeremiah, of the New Order which, in the fulness of time, was to arise out of the Jewish dispensation through the coming of the Saviour of the world. ’The New Covenant has been established in the spiritual dispensation of the gospel, in a law written by the Spirit in the hearts of men, and in the new revelation the means of pardon and of purification have been provided and made known to man ’(Kirkpatrick, ’The Doctrine of the Prophets,’ p. 324). Christ, both Priest and King, and heir of David’s line, has come to dwell among men in a higher sense than it was given to Jeremiah to realise.

4. Arrangement of the Contents of the Book. The book of Jeremiah gives us interesting indications of what we may call the literary history of a prophetical collection. More than twenty years had elapsed since Jeremiah’s call when Baruch was bidden, apparently for the first time, to take down prophecies from his dictation. And when the roll which thus came into existence was burnt, that which succeeded it contained the same, and, in addition, ’many like words’ (Jeremiah 36:32). From the nature of the case there must have been a certain amount of condensation, as the ipsissima verba of the prophet’s utterances would not remain in his mind during so long a period, and much of what he said must have been from time to time substantially repeated in the course of the twenty years.. We also find that while the arrangement of the prophecies preceding Jeremiah 36 is in the main the order of delivery, that order is occasionally broken, the prophet grouping with some particular deliverance other prophecies of kindred subject-matter. Moreover, the roll, we may perceive, can only have been in general agreement with the section of the book down to Jeremiah 36, for portions of that section are clearly later than the fifth year of Jehoiakim; while the prophecies against foreign nations, some of which were contained in the roll (c. Jeremiah 36:2), are now all at the end of the book according to the Hebrew arrangement (see next Section, ’The Septuagint Yersion of Jeremiah’). We can trace signs of a distinction between the methods in which the earlier and later parts of the book (those directly dictated to Baruch, and those which Baruch himself arranged, as editor) assumed their present shape. For such a formula as ’the word of the Lord came unto me’ in the earlier part, we find later ’The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.’ In the same way the expression ’Jeremiah the prophet,’ more likely to be used by Baruch when acting as editor than as amanuensis, is characteristic of the later chapters. In this way the earlier seem to give us the voice of the prophet himself, while in the later we have the scribe collecting the utterances of his master, arranging them as he deems best, and editing the records of his life. It follows from what we have said that the order of the groups of prophecies is not always that of time. Moreover, while it is in some cases clear, it is also often uncertain when they were delivered. The convulsions through which the nation was passing during the latter part of the period were far from favourable to any formal arrangement of the contents. But the very lack of order here and there observable serves a valuable end, in showing that we may consider ourselves to possess the words of Jeremiah put together in those same troublous times at which they were spoken, and not as they might afterwards have been remodelled and fitted to the notions of men of a later generation.

The following can only claim to be a rough approximation to a chronological arrangement.

261st year of Jehoiakim
254th " "
46-49" "
35, 36" "
45" "
29(? 1st year of) Zedekiah
27" "
50,51(? 4th year of) Zedekiah
284th " "
21-249th " "
34" " "
37(9th or) 10th " "
30-3310th " "
38" " "
5211th " " or later
39-44Period of exile

5 The Septuagint Version of Jeremiah. The LXX, as a whole, adheres with tolerable fidelity to the Hebrew as we now possess it. But the book of Jeremiah in the Greek presents in various places so startling an exception to this rule, that it has been questioned whether the Greek is not in this case at least the more correct text.

The two main points of difference in the two texts are (a) that the Greek version omits, at different points, words amounting in the whole to about one-eighth of the text as it stands in the Hebrew; (b) that in the Greek the prophecies against foreign nations, instead of coming near the end of the book (Jeremiah 46-51), stand after Jeremiah 25:13, their logical place, where in the Hebrew text there is merely a reference to them. Also their order of sequence among themselves varies from that of the Hebrew.

Space does not allow further treatment of the question here; but it may be said that while there seems good reason for thinking that the form of the book on which the Greek translators’ work was based preserves purer readings in many passages, and that the Hebrew has in some passages glossed or expanded the text, ’on the whole the Massoretic text deserves the preference’ (Driver).

6. Jeremiah’s Relations to his Predecessors. The prophet to whom Jeremiah is most closely related in thought and teaching is Hosea. Just as Hosea found idolatry and licentiousness in the kingdom of Israel in the years before its fall, so Jeremiah found them in Judah in similar political circumstances. It is probable that Jeremiah was acquainted with the prophecies of his large-hearted predecessor. Both were men of the same type of mind; both were deeply religious and jealous for Jehovah’s service; and certain passages in the book of Jeremiah suggest the influence of the prophet of the North: cp. Jeremiah 2:1-6 with Hosea 2:1-5, Jeremiah 3:1-2 with Hosea 3:1, Jeremiah 3:22 with Hosea 14:4; Jeremiah 5:31 with Hosea 4:9, etc.

As already mentioned, in the early part of the prophet’s career the ’book of the Law’ (Deuteronomy) was found in the Temple. Its teaching supported him in his appeals to the people, and as the results of its discovery the reformation of worship was made by Josiah.

That Jeremiah was influenced by this book is seen, negatively, in the fact that we have no prophecies belonging to the latter part of Josiah’s reign, the teaching of Deuteronomy and the adoption of its precepts having rendered his work unnecessary for the time; and positively in the frequent references to it which occur in his prophecies: cp. Jeremiah 2:6 with Deuteronomy 32:10; Jeremiah 5:15 with Deuteronomy 28:49; Jeremiah 7:33 with Deuteronomy 28:26; Jeremiah 11:3 with Deuteronomy 27:26; Jeremiah 11:5 with Deuteronomy 7:12-13; Jeremiah 24:9 with Deuteronomy 28:25, etc.

Jeremiah is concerned with the sin of the people as exhibited in their unfaithfulness to God. It was not enough that they should have a reform of worship; the true reform was that of the human heart (Jeremiah 4:4); what they needed was a change of heart (Jeremiah 24:7; Jeremiah 31:31). The importance of the individual in the sight of God is a prominent thought with our prophet. Men were to be punished for their own sins, he taught, not for those of their forefathers (Jeremiah 31:29). Individual responsibility was to be the foundation of character and spiritual life. And consequently the new law was to be a spiritual bond between God and man, a law written in men’s hearts, and obeyed in love and loyalty (Jeremiah 31:31). This teaching of the importance of the individual was the first step towards that faith in personal (as distinguished from racial) immortality, which from this time begins to be dimly sought after by Jewish thinkers.

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