More is known about the life of Jeremiah than any other Old Testament prophet. The opening verse of the book reads, “The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.” Anathoth was a Levitical city which had been given to the Kohathites by Joshua when the land of Canaan was divided by the twelve tribes (Joshua 21:18). So Jeremiah was of priestly descent, born to Hilkiah in the town of Anathoth, a few miles from Jerusalem, in the land of Benjamin.
Jeremiah began his ministry during the reign of one of Judah’s best kings, Josiah, but he continued on in that prophetic office through the very turbulent years which followed under the reign of Josiah’s evil sons and grandson. “The words of Jeremiah... to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month” (Jeremiah 1:1-3).
Jeremiah was called into the prophetic office at a young age (cf. Jeremiah 1:4-8) and continued prophesying for over forty years. While Jeremiah was from a city outside of Jerusalem, he spent most of his time in that city, and delivered the majority of his sermons in the Temple. Quite often in the book we will hear the LORD say to Jeremiah, “Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word” (Jeremiah 7:2 - cf. Jer. 19:14; 26:2,10; 36:6,8,10).
It was near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry when Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonia, destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the people of Judah, including Daniel, into captivity. Jeremiah was part of a small group of Jews who were allowed to remain, under the leadership of a Babylonian governor, Gedaliah. There he continued his work, and warned the Jews not to flee but to trust in the promise of the LORD. Nevertheless, when the Babylonian governor was murdered, many of the Jews, fearing the revenge of Nebuchadnezzar, fled to Egypt and forced Jeremiah to come with them. Jeremiah continued his work among his people there.
A Brief Chronology of the Times of Jeremiah
641 - Josiah becomes king
628 - Jeremiah called by the LORD
626 - Nabopolassar rises to power in Babylon
612 - Nineveh destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes
609 - Josiah killed by the Egyptian forces of Necho at Megiddo
- Jehoahaz made king by the people of Judah
608 - Necho takes Jehoahaz captive to Egypt and places Jehoiakim on the throne in his place
605 - Nebuchadnezzar defeats Necho at Carchemish
- Jehoiakim becomes a vassal of Nebuchadnezzar
- First deportation of captives from Judah (Daniel taken)
602 - Jehoiakim rebels against Nebuchadnezzar
598 - Babylonians capture Jerusalem / Jehoiakim dies
- More Jewish people deported to Babylon
597 - Jehoiachin is made king, and reigns only three months when he is deported to Babylon with 10,000 others
- Zedekiah placed on the throne
587 - Zedekiah rebels against Nebuchadnezzar
586 - Judah’s rebellion is crushed, Jerusalem is destroyed
- Zedekiah is deported to Babylon
- Gedaliah appointed governor over Judah - then is killed
- Many of the Jews flee to Egypt taking Jeremiah with them
Message and Content
Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judah at the lowest point in its history. Egypt, Assyria and Babylon were battling for control over the fertile crescent, and Judah was caught right in the middle. The kings were evil, the priests did not stand up for the truth, there were many false prophets, and the people once again gave into all kinds of idolatry. For this reason, Jeremiah’s message was one of judgment on the sins of the people of Judah. “And it will be when you say, ‘Why does the LORD our God do all these things to us?’ then you shall answer them, ‘Just as you have forsaken Me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve aliens in a land that is not yours’” (Jeremiah 5:19).
It was this message which caused him to be hated by the people and those in power. He was considered a traitor to the kingdom and was imprisoned several times. There were even times that people tried to kill him. Yet through it all the LORD remained at his side and delivered him from their attacks, and strengthened him so that he could go on. From the very beginning of his ministry the LORD had told him, “‘For behold, I have made you this day A fortified city and an iron pillar, And bronze walls against the whole land—Against the kings of Judah, Against its princes, Against its priests, And against the people of the land. They will fight against you, But they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you,’ says the LORD, ‘to deliver you.’” (1:18-19).
The Book of Jeremiah is not arranged in chronological order, but mostly according to contents. We must remember that the prophecies recorded in this book were proclaimed during a period of over forty years. They were delivered to many different audiences over these many years and so there is much repetition. It is different from other prophetical books because of the large amount of background information which is included. There are large amounts of biographical information, as well as information about the history of the time, and the ever changing political situation in Judah and the surrounding world.
At first Jeremiah’s activity was restricted to preaching, but then after twenty years the LORD told him to write down his words. This duty was given to Baruch, Jeremiah’s faithful scribe, who accompanied Jeremiah throughout the later part of his prophetic ministry.
God’s Grace in Jeremiah
One might think from all that has been mentioned that God’s grace is not presented in the book of Jeremiah - but that is not the case. God’s grace is presented in showing that God is merciful and patient and delays His judgment while he appeals to His people to repent before it is too late. Although Judah has broken God’s covenants, God in His grace will make a new covenant, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). This covenant would be established by Jesus, the Righteous branch of David (Jeremiah 23:5-8).
The authenticity of the book is established in both the Old and New Testaments. Jeremiah is mentioned by name in 2 Chronicles, 35:25; 36:12, 21,22; Ezra 1:1; Daniel 9:2; and Matthew 2:17, 16:14. Both Ezra and Daniel referred to Jeremiah’s prophecies of the captivity coming to an end after 70 years (cf. Ezra 1:1 and Daniel 9:2 with Jeremiah 25:11-12 and 29:10). In addition there are numerous New Testament quotes of the book of Jeremiah: (cf. Matthew 2:17-18 with Jeremiah 31:15 - Herod’s killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem after the magi came looking for Jesus; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 with Jeremiah 31:1,9,33 - speaking of the need for separation from idolaters; and Hebrews 8:8-10, 10:16-17 with Jeremiah 31:31-34 - The establishment of a new covenant through Christ).
I The Call of the Prophet Jeremiah (1)
II Warnings and Exhortations to Judah (2-35)
III Sufferings and Persecutions of Jeremiah (36-38)
IV The Fall of Jerusalem and Its Aftermath (39-45)
V Judgment Proclaimed Against the Nations (46-51)
VI Historical Appendix (52)
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.